Latin dancing has taken Thailand by storm over the last few years, and although the trend has slowed, there is now an entrenched dancing scene in town. Before you dust off your dancing shoes and join in, however, you might like to find out about what the style of dancing is, where some of the dances come from, and what your options are when it comes to taking classes.
What is Latin dancing?
The Dance Centre’s artistic director Vararom Pachimsawat says that many Latin dances were originally created to appease the gods, while others were created for martial purposes – that is, to prepare the mind and body for action. Still others were more romantic in nature and used for courtship. "Latin dances have their own history that reflect the people of the country of origin," she says.
General manager of the Pathumwan Princess (home to the Salsa Club) Stanley Pao says that ballroom dancing has long been on the scene in Thailand, and that it’s always been popular as a form of exercise. "Now with Latin music here, it’s even more energetic. The real Latin dances like the salsa and the merengue keep you moving all the time. It’s a very good form of exercise."
Vararom adds that dance is good for both the mind and body. "It can stimulate the nervous system and can also be relaxing after a strenuous work out."
Besides Ricky Martin, Latin dancing’s popular appeal can be attributed to how simple it is to learn. El Nino’s dancing teacher Nicky ("everybody knows me by my first name") says that it’s not as strict and constraining as ballroom dancing. "You just need to know the basic steps, and then the pattern is up to you. It’s fun, but it’s also hard work."
Furthermore, the strong rhythms in Latin music are generally easy for even poor natural dancers to follow. Latin line dancing, used to teach basic steps at El Nino, has become popular among many people who otherwise may not have thought of stepping onto a dance floor.
There are several basic Latin dances, of which there are many variations, with some occasionally borrowing heavily from others. Some of the dances include the mambo, from Cuba, with the music being a fusion of swing and Cuban beats influenced by African and Caribbean styles. In parts of Cuba the dance is known as "the devil’s dance" due to its suggestive nature. Popularised in the 1950s, it led to the development of the easier cha cha. Arthur Murray, the famed American dance studio king, then popularised it in America.
Mambo also contributed to the development of salsa, both of which feature six steps taken over eight beats of music and share some similar moves. Salsa, however, features more turning, is more energetic, and most movement is from left to right, while mambo steps tend to go forwards and backwards.
The Dominican Republic can claim responsibility for the merengue, (in Haiti, it’s called the meringue), an energetic march which became popular there in the mid-nineteenth century, while Brazil is known for creating the samba.
Those who think Latin dancing is sexy have something upon which to base their opinion: the original native African rumba was supposed to represent sex. Another type of rumba developed in Spain, but as with other Latin dances, it became truly popular in Cuba. Today the dance still features a healthy amount of flirting between the dancing partners.
Where to find the beat in Bangkok
"Latin is fun, it’s lively, and these facts appeal to the Thai sense of how life should be lived," says the Dance Centre’s Vararom. Indeed there are plenty of places to learn how to do more than just tap your feet to the tune. Here are a few to get you started.