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The History of Rumba Dancing

Roots and Realities of the Rumba Dance

By Juan Travinio


Rumba has been considered the most sensual of Latin dances. It is the second slowest of Latin dances, somewhat faster than Bolero. It features a slow rhythm and extensive hip movements. Originating in Havana, Cuba, in the 1890s among the black community, Rumba was often suppressed. Authorities viewed this sexually-charged Afro-Cuban dance as dangerous and lewd. Although the main growth of the dance came from Cuba, similar cultural developments were happening on other Caribbean islands and in Latin America.

Rumba influence came in the sixteenth century. Black slaves imported from Africa performed a native Rumba folk dance consisting of exaggerated hip motions and sensually aggressive attitudes on the part of the male dancer. The female partner displayed a defensive attitude. The music played to this dance had a staccato beat in keeping with the expressive dance movements. Maracas and drums are common accompaniment. During Prohibition in the United States, a form of Rumba called American Rumba was performed in conjunction with crude short plays that featured racial stereotypes. The American Rumba is thought to be an ancestor of the cha-cha-cha.

Cuban Rumba dance is broken down into three different types. The oldest is called Rumba Yambu. It has a slower beat and can be danced either in a couple, or alone (generally by women.) Male dancers flirt with females in this dance but do not engage in the more visceral hip thrusts often associated with Rumba dancing. The dance called Rumba Guaguanaco is faster than Yambu. It features more complex rhythms and involves more flirtatious movements between the partners. The woman tends to both entice the man and protect herself from his advances, whereas the man attempts to catch her off guard with the sexually charged motions associated with this dance (called vacunao.) Vacunao can include tagging the woman with a handkerchief, or touching her with arm, leg, or pelvis. When he attempts to tag her in this way, she attempts to deflect his motion with her skirt. The third type of Rumba is called Rumba Columbia. It is a very fast and energetic style, performed in 6/8. Solo male dancers attempt to imitate complex drum rhythms through creative and acrobatic movements. Men compete with other male dancers to display agility and strength in this dance. Though Rumba Columbia is traditionally a male-only dance, women have begun to use this style as well.

In middle class Cuba, as recently as WWII, a dance called the Son was popular. It was a modified, slower version of the Rumba. Very small steps characterize this dance. The women produce very subtle hip tilts by bending and straightening their knees. The Son was introduced into America in 1913, and became American Rumba, with some modifications. Early American Rumba used very high tempo. It was performed accompanied by a type of music with the same name, popular in the 1930s. This type of Big Band Rumba was exemplified by the popular tune “The Peanut Vendor.” The more frequently danced American Style Rumba used in ballroom dancing is almost twice as slow as its ancestor. It is characterized by a bent leg style which results in a hip sway referred to as “Latin motion.” The basic move is the box step. This structure is similar to Waltz and other dances which use the box step, but in Rumba, it is performed in 4/4 timing. The most basic form of the dance is performed with a “slow-quick-quick-slow-quick-quick” pattern. Additional steps are added to this basic rhythm to produce the style of American Rumba.

With the mainstreaming of Rumba into a socially acceptable ballroom dance, some of its movements and figures were eliminated. Because hip movements were considered a black or Latino invention in the United States, many of them were reduced or eliminated to make the dance more appealing to a while audience. In recent years, “authentic Cuban” styles of Rumba have been taught as a desirable thing, but up until then, the more tame version of Rumba was most common. Rumba music has a five-note, bi-measure pattern which it shares with other salsa music. The music tempo is ordinarily 104-108 beats per minute. Two measures of music are required to complete one full basic step in this dance.

Three steps are generally taken in one measure of music in ballroom-style Rumba. The steps are taken on beats two, three, and four of each measure. The intervening time is reserved for weight transfer and turns. Count one is reserved for hip movement and spiral turning. Counting the Rumba correctly is important to mastering this dance. All steps are taken on the inside edge of the foot, with the toe skimming the floor as the foot moves into place. Common errors when dancing the Rumba include incorrect counting, leading to dancing on the wrong beat of the music, rushing the beat, and failing to use the appropriate leverage and compression connection between the dancers. This prevents leading and following from happening appropriately. It is also important never to lead with the heel, and for the male partner to never allow a free hand to fall below the waist.

The Rumba has come a long way from its Afro-Cuban roots, becoming more stylized, more sedate, and slower. The original dance was wild, improvisational, and fast-paced, whereas the modern ball room version is slow and sensual. In both cases, the Rumba is said to be a dance of passion, emphasizing the play between partners and sexual tension. Correctly performed, even the slowest Rumba can be a dance of sizzling tension.

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