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Revealing Items

Part One:
One Man's Word
Part Two:
Turning Westward
Part Three:
An African Movement
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Puerto Rico
Part Seven:
Borinquen NYC
Part Eight:
Who Owns Salsa?
Part Nine:
Salsa in the UK

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A History of Salsa
Part 2: Turning Westward

A political song and dance
Our story begins in pre-revolutionary France during the reign of King Louis XIV, where he had established dance as a mechanism of political control. To be high enough in social standing to gain favour, the nobility had to know the latest steps as created by his dance master. Dances at court were group activities, possibly to demonstrate agreement with the will of the king. New steps were produced very often, leaving the aristocracy with little choice but to leave members of their families at Versailles to learn them. Effectively hostages, these family members provided Louis XIV with the leverage to control the aristocracy.

The king was himself a keen dancer and the jewels of his dance crown were the minuet and the contredanse. Opinion is divided over how the contredanse got its name: some say it was a corruption of the English “country dance” from which it was descended (circa 1710); others think it was because of the way it was danced, with a line of men facing a line of women in “contra” dance.

Some of the dance patterns saw the man standing on the left, the lady to his right, leading with his right arm around her back, while holding the lady's right hand his left. This is likely to be the origin of the close hold found in all contredanse derivatives, where the lead's left and follower's right arm are held upwards and outwards of the partnership; and the lead's right arm around the follower's waist.

From Versailles the contredanse went to the Spanish court where it was called contradanza. Both the contredanse and the contradanza made their way to the Caribbean during the colonisation of the Americas, to the islands of Hispañola and Cuba.

Here it is important to point out that each island is divided into two distinct parts. Hispañola was divided politically between French Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti) in the west, and Spanish Santo Domingo (modern day Dominican Republic) in the East. Cuba, which lies to the west of Hispañola, is divided geographically. The Spanish colonial administration was seated in Havana in the west. Eastern Cuba known simply as “Oriente” was more difficult to govern due to the swamp-lands that separated them both.

The contredanse arrived in Saint Dominique and the contradanza to Havana. There they awaited the next phase of Salsa's evolution, the African movement.

A religious song and dance
The Spanish monarchy's mandate for rule at home and expansion abroad was religion. Vatican consent to colonisation was granted based on the 'humanisation' of native American Indians through conversion to the Catholic faith. Spain also needed the wealth of the New World to sustain its economy as it waged war against the Protestant Dutch. It was a position the monarchs were compelled to maintain to preserve their right to rule.

But income from the colonies declined. The indigenous Indians, many killed by Old World diseases, were dying through exhaustion. The Spanish thought them lazy but the Indians, having always bartered for what they wanted, could not understand nor adapt to a labour-based economy. Slaves were imported to replenish the workforce, and eventually no more Indians remained. There is little evidence or study of the Indian legacy to salsa, save perhaps the words 'areito', 'Quisqueya' (as a reference to Hispañola), and 'Borinquen' (as a reference to Puerto Rico).

The European colonial nations operated slave-hunting stations down the western coast of Africa and up part of the east. But it is not true that all who traded in humans were white; the fall of Yoruba kingdoms saw its subjects sold into slavery by rival tribes. That was how the Yoruba and Bantu came to Hispañola and Cuba. Both brought their religions and sacred drumming patterns with them.

For political reasons, the Spanish had to demonstrate firm Catholic faith even amongst their slaves. Yorubas had their religious beliefs heavily suppressed but managed to keep them alive by 'twinning' their deities, Orishas, with Catholic Saints. An example is the pairing of Chango - the god of fire, lust and war, with Santa Barbara, allowing slaves to say to their owners, “Chango is the Yoruba name for Santa Barbara”. This practice, called syncretism, resulted in the Yoruba derived religion Santeria that is practiced today. Syncretic references still abound in salsa, for example in the lyrics of “Que Viva Chango”.

Spanish economic commitments required a highly productive workforce, meaning a long time in the fields for the slaves. A Spanish slave had very little religious and social freedom compared with a French slave. One consequence was increased tension on Hispañola where the disparity of liberty between the blacks of Saint Domingue and Santo Domingo stimulated great unrest. The Spanish came to regard the French as threats to their political and economic power-base. The two colonies engaged in numerous invasions and brutal conflicts, generating an enmity that lasts to this very day.

The violence caused the emigration of French colonists westward to Cuba, introducing and catalysing the formation of new rhythms in Cuba. Immigrants settled in the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range in Oriente surrounding Santiago de Cuba. The city of Santiago has a reputation for being a birthplace of political, social and musical revolution. The first wave arrived in the late 1700s following a series of slave revolts on Hispañola. They introduced the contradanza criolla, a Creole version of the contredanse containing African elements in its instrumentation and interpretation. One of its most prominent features was the inclusion of a syncopated rhythmic pattern of five beats called the “cinquillo”. The cinquillo would play a major role in Latin music to come. The second wave of fresh immigrants arrived in the 1850s from the now Republic of Haiti, contributing to the birth of the Cuban Son.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society