According to Holger Henke in his The West Indian Americans, Jamaican Rex Nettleford was correct when he said, “’dance was a primary instrument of survival’.” As such a vital part of cultural traditions, dance plays and integral role in the history culture. Three of the most influential styles of dance in the Caribbean are the Rumba, The Merengue, and the Salsa.
The word Rumba is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a ballroom dance of Haitian and Dominican origin in 2/4 time in which one foot is dragged on every step.” Here, however, Rumba is a collection of percussive rhythms, song and dance that originated in Cuba as a combination of the musical traditions of Africans brought to Cuba as slaves and Spanish colonizers. The term spread in the 1930s and 1940s to the faster popular music of Cuba where it was used as a catch-all term.
There are two sources of this dance and genre: one Spanish, from the colonizers, and one African, beginning in the 16th century with the importation of African slaves. The native Rumba folk dance is essentially a sex pantomime danced extremely fast with exaggerated hip movements and sensually aggressive attitude on the part of the male partner and a defensive attitude on the part of the female partner. The music is played with a staccato beat, keeping with the vigorous expressive movements of the dancers. Emerging in the mid nineteenth century from the secondary neighborhoods of Havana and Matanzas, this percussion based music and dance was not widely accepted and was, in fact, often suppressed and restricted because it was viewed as dangerous and lewd.
While Rumba was modified and adapted in other Caribbean countries, the majority of the development of Rumba took place in Cuba. The "Son” style, a modified slower and more refined version of the Rumba, was the popular dance of middle class Cuba and the American Rumba is a modified version of the "Son". What we know today as Ballroom Rumba is basically son and not based on the authentic folk rumba.
The first serious attempt to introduce the rumba to the United States was in 1913 but real interest in Latin music began about 1929. In the late 1920's, Xavier Cugat formed an orchestra that specialized in Latin American music and opened at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and later played at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. By the end of the decade he was recognized as having the outstanding Latin orchestra of the day. Monsieur Pierre was London's leading teacher of the Rumba and in 1955 he and his partner, Doris Lavelle, introduced the true "Cuban Rumba" which was finally established after much argument, as the official recognized version in 1955.
During this time, the intellectual movement known as Afrocubanismo, a sort of mass relization of the value of African culture (especially in the Caribbean), gave roots to traditional rumba. When this afrocubanismo movement came along, it helped open the doors to African rooted dancing and ways of...