Bruce Lee and Merengue Dance

What does Bruce Lee have to do with the boring merengue dance? Why has merengue caused a salsa recession in the 80’s? What kind of influence did merengue have on the evolution of bachata and salsa? And  what is this ‘merengue show dance’?

Let’s delve into the virtual rabbit hole and follow the merengue breadcrumbs, shall we?

Kung Fu Merengue Dancing

At the beginning of the 80’s, a merengue band called Los Kenton did something very unique at the time. The Kenton brothers mixed merengue dancing with Shaolin Kung Fu (martial arts) to create a new way to dance merengue on stage. Singing whilst dancing short merengue dance choreographies became a new dance rage called the ‘Kentomania’. As the Kentomania spread along the whole of Latin America, many bands felt compelled to follow their act.

There was another element which precipitated this success: the popularisation of the video recorder. Because of that, people could practice the dance steps they saw the bands display on television and practice them at home. This way they could dance together with their favourite artists when performing live. These small choreographs were consequently copied, put on sequences and then performed by teenagers in merengue show teams. And that’s how I started my Afro Latin dance career dancing in 1983/1984: With merengue show dancing on the beautiful island of Curacao!

Merengue caused the Salsa Recession!

Bands such as the pioneering Johnny Ventura, Fernandito Villalona, Wilfrido Vargaz, the New York Band and Juan Luis Guerra y su 440 were dominating the international Latin music charts. From Santo Domingo to New York city: merengue set the pace. This ‘merengue overflow’ had a bad side effect for Fania Records and other smaller salsa music labels: their sales dropped dramatically! Bachata musicians started to speed up their ‘musica del amargue’ and put merengue on their bachata albums in order for them to sell more records. At the end of the 80’s and at the beginning of the 90’s, salsa music got a new boost because from artists such as Marc Anthony, Issac Delgado and Eddie Santiago who took the main theme of the popular ‘telenovelas’ ( = televised soap opera’s) & popular ballads and remixed them into salsa versions. Thus, Salsa Romantica was born.

Example: Ilan Chester’s original version of ‘Palabras del Alma’ ( = Words from the Soul).

And now Marc Anthony’s salsa version:

So, what happened to Merengue Show dancing?

The music was first converted to Merengue Hip Hop by bands such as Proyecto Uno and Sandy y Papo. The popular reggaeton swallowed up merengue, and merengue continues to be a trans-formative force in (Dominican) bachata music. Elvis Crespo made house versions of popular merengue songs. Merengue has also been integrated in other mainstream Latin house music.

As for the dance: The merengue show dance died because of the following facts:

  1. The dance was never intended to be danced in show teams. This has mainly to do with the repetitive nature of the small choreographies.
  2. The merengue partnering has never been fully developed in the way salsa partnering has.
  3. The original salsa dance teachers were folkloric dancers. Modern merengue dancing was not a part of their folklore.
  4. Many of us – merengue show dancers – only use(d) merengue as a means to teach the budding salsero students basic partnering dance techniques and body movements.
  5. Merengue dancing has never been a part of the international (salsa) dance congresses or festivals. It’s only used sometimes as a warming up by international bachata dance artists such as Jorjet Alcocer.

Today, many merengue dance steps (or variations thereof) can be seen in Dominican bachata, in Zumba and in animation dance routines.

El Nergito Del Batey

I’m very glad I had the honour to start my dance career with merengue dancing. I also danced merengue in the first Dutch semi professional Afro Latin dance team Euro Latinos. 20 years ago (on October 30, 1997) I started teaching salsa. All of that was only possible because of merengue 🙂

On June 1st 2018, the ‘King of Merengue’ José Tamárez Mateo – better known as Joseito Mateo – passed away. I wrote this article to honour him and the music with which he gave a lot of joy to millions of ‘merengue afficionados’ just like yours truly.

Fun fact: Bruce Lee was also the 1958 Cha Cha Cha Dance Champion of Hong Kong. Maybe the Kenton brothers got their inspiration from this fact about their hero?

Que Viva El Merengue!