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Revealing Items

Part One:
A Dance around the Caribbean
Part Two:
It's Black and White
Part Three:
Defensive Dancing
Part Four:
Rafael Trujillo
Part Five:
Coming of Age
Part Six:
Merengue Moves Abroad
Part Seven:
Merengue in the U.K.

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A History of Merengue
Part 3: Defensive Dancing

U.S. interventions
Financial mismanagement left the Dominican Republic in a precarious state at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in foreign battleships being sent to collect debts. America, sensing a threat to the security of the Panama Canal, negotiated with the Republic in 1905 to take control of her customs houses and regulate payments to her creditors. The scheme succeeded in restoring economic stability, but Dominicans chafed at their loss of sovereignty.

Tensions between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic increased as powerful Dominicans continued to maintain contact with Germany, and the outbreak of the First World War proved too much for America to tolerate. In 1916, U.S. Marines landed in the Republic (in accordance with the Roosevelt Corollary) to begin a military occupation that would last eight years.

Unable to match America's military strength, Dominicans embarked on a three-pronged plan of resistance: guerrilla warfare was waged in the East by local caudillos [warlords]; the upper classes of El Cibao began a campaign to sway international opinion against the occupation; and the nation as a whole established a culturally hostile environment for U.S. forces to operate in. Merengue cibaeño was adopted as a symbol of cultural resistance, celebrating Dominican-ness in the face of U.S. troops in what Umberto Eco aptly describes as “semiotic guerrilla warfare”.

Two dance versions of merengue cibaeño were popular then, and are still currently practiced. The first is sectional merengue cibaeño, which begins with a short paseo [walk] as a signal for couples to take to the floor, followed by a longer European melody-driven merengue section, and ending with a jaleo featuring African rhythmic qualities and simpler chordal harmonies. The second variant existed before the occupation, but received its name during it. U.S. servicemen were famously incompetent in dance and tended to favour a kind of merengue with a simple syncopated rhythm. This became known as merengue estilo yanqui [Yankee merengue] and later, the pambiche - whose name is derived from the Palm-Beach fabric which is mentioned in the lyrics of a popular song of that style.

The upper classes also adopted the merengue in cultural nationalism, although not without changes in instrumentation and arrangement to make it compatible to the waltzes, polkas and danzas of their high society balls. Merengue was part of a movement that heightened nationalism, which in turn deprived the U.S. of Dominican collaborators, ensuring that the occupation was short compared with that of other Latin American countries.

By the time the Americans left in 1924, they had inadvertently succeeded in uniting Dominicans from all social classes under the merengue. But only later would it become a truly national symbol, through the actions of one man: Rafael Trujillo.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society