Cover photo credit - Tomasz Reindl
How to instill authenticity into your personal truth, wisdom and growth? Let's begin with a saying: “A tree stands strong, not by its fruits, but by the depth of its roots.”
My belief is that today’s International competitive style of dancing could be enriched by more conscious implementations of original values, recognized through historical development. Only that way can you move towards a new depth of understanding of the true character of each dance.
Artist Erica Wexler
Three Cuban dances, Danzon, Son and Bolero, influenced the International style competitive Rumba. Danzon contributed Cuban timing and subtleness, Son popularized Cuban motion worldwide and Bolero added the romantic spirit and beautiful melodies. Most of the basic syllabus figures in our competitive Rumba originate from Danzon and Son.
We could say that the main characteristics of International style competitive Rumba are Cuban timing, Cuban motion, hip poetics, flexible design and unique atmosphere. Let's have a look at these characteristics in more detail.
Ron Montez dancing Cuban Rumba Guaguanco
Monsieur Pierre and Doris Lavelle named it Cuban timing (contratiempo Cubano) with good reason, because it is one of the most typical Cuban musical/movement features. Back then, to European and North American dancers this kind of movement and music relationship was unknown, as they were traditionally accustomed to start the movement on the first beat in the bar. Even today, many decades after accepting contratiempo Cubano, there is a lack in precision and consistency of applying it, especially to non-typical movements (those which are not part of the basic syllabus and its variations).
Authentic percussive instruments which create Rumba rhythms (congas/tumbadoras, clave, bongo and maracas) stimulate and encourage the dancer to start the movement on the second or on the fourth beat of the bar and never on beat one, therefore the name 'contratiempo' – against the time.
In Rumba, the movement structure begins on the second beat of the bar, continues through the third and finishes on the fourth beat of the bar. There is no weight transfer on beat one in Rumba, beat one is reserved for the body movement and hip poetics expressed to the maximum.
Cuban motion is a very unique way of movement. It means exact and sudden weight transferring following clave timing, with smooth ball flat foot articulation (feet are caressing the floor) and in company with consistent hip movements. Activation of the central body area causes upper body reactions in the horizontal (due to pelvic swing), vertical (due to hip settling) and sagittal dimension (due to hip twisting).
An important aspect of Cuban motion is the ability of being grounded, which is one of the most typical characteristics of Latin dancing. Grounded-ness is a physical but also spiritual property.
Forces in nature always work in pairs. If one presses against the floor, the floor is pushing back against one’s foot. The ground reaction force equalizes your body weight and helps you to use the floor/ground in relation to physical law (compressing, settling, jumping, rising, etc.). The weight transferring and body weight settling merge with hip poetics. As Mr. Laird said: "Rumba is a 'body' dance."
Cuban motion can be light or heavy, but always flexible, consistent and soft. The flow of energy is therefore sustained, especially on beats four and one as they are concluding the movement and musical cycle. The free flow of energy occurs when the calm is interrupted with an unpredictable element, for example when the rhythm is syncopated.
Percussive instruments have a very strong influence due to their production of sound and vibration stimuli to which your body reacts by moving the pelvis, legs and feet in various orders and coordinative circles. Therefore, hip movements, to a certain degree, occur spontaneously.
The intention behind the movement shapes the character of the dance. Some African dances that slaves brought to Cuba celebrate fertility; like the danced expression of the male-female relationship in authentic Rumba Guaguanco. Hip poetics (as they call hip movements in Latin America) are an integral part of the interpretation, and hip movements, in that case, carry narrative value. Dancers talk and express with their hips.
Hip movements result as an interplay of joint mobility and muscle contractility. They can be initiated:
• by legs, hip joints (hip settling/release of body weight to the ground),
• by lower spine (pelvic swing, pelvic tilt, hip rock, hip twisting),
• by waist muscles (hip rotations).
The manner and the degree of the hip movement used depend on the physical structure of the dancer and on the action, rhythm, timing and dynamics chosen. In competitive Latin American dancing, studying and applying hip movements contributes to the style of the dance. Correct usage of hip movements can also encourage and facilitate weight transferring, and in this case, we speak about the functional value of hip movements.
Authentic Rumba Guaguanco, Danzon and Son movement patterns are flexible, rounded and circular. Roundness in the form protects the dancer from carrying over-tension in the body. Flexible designs of choreography (figures which circulate and curve in the space) stimulate curiosity, they are mysterious and difficult to guess or predict.
In authentic dance forms, angles and distances between dance partners don’t guarantee the set answer, but they carry clear non-verbal messages of courtship, seduction, desire, willingness to surrender, rejection, anticipation... Proximity and body shapes communicate the dancer's intentions.
The atmosphere in Rumba is created between two dancers who, by being aware of each other, respond to each other, are totally present and absorbed into the dialogue. There is a continuous sense of belonging and surrendering. The physical connection between partners is elegant, graceful, sensual and intimate.
Through Cuban heritage, I’ve learned that passion is in the foreground whereas spell and magic are waiting in the background to appear. When you understand how to maintain the flow of the motion and you trust the indulging of your body weight to the ground, your movement will get a dreamy and mysterious atmosphere. With your skill to compress the time between beats two and four or syncopate, you will spice up the atmosphere with a sense of urge and passion.
How to preserve the character of Rumba?
In order to preserve the original character of Rumba you need to question your own beliefs about the characteristics of this dance. Borrowed beliefs are not necessarily yours.
My intention is not to criticize today’s dancing, but to make you aware how important your own choices are. As a teacher or competitor, you are shaping the character of Rumba by deciding the choreography and its interpretation. I would suggest double checking the following aspects.
How often do you use Cuban timing in its original sense, from beat two to beat four, with three weight transfers in one bar of the music? Nowadays male dancers are more inclined towards substituting weight transferring with a lunge and other positions/pictures. Cuban timing provides Cuban motion, which is a flow that can get lost by over-using static positions. Can a lunge always compensate for Rumba walk?
Rumba is not only about beautiful legs and a 'cosmetic look'. When there is an over-tension in your knee joint, the two nearest joints, ankle and hip joint will be partly blocked as well, which will affect the freedom of your mobility.
If you want to feed the musical beat with hip movements, you need to arrive on the standing leg early enough in order to execute hip settling. Your feet are supposed to caress the floor and not beat it. Feet are supposed to be placed and used with awareness of articulation, so the 'step' disappears into the feeling of motion.
Connection with your partner
There is a difference between holding another person and connecting with a sense of sharing the feeling of body weight.
As a start, simply embrace your partner, be it through hands, arms or entire frame. Let your touch carry the awareness of the skin rather than muscles, joints and bones. Both the touch giver and the touch receiver are talking to each other. Your connections are supposed to be vital and not fixed and over-toned.
Spatial setting of the choreography
Many of the choreographies nowadays are linear, travelling alongside and too near to the audience. You can get your attention not by begging for it, but by magnetizing others into your world with the way you dance.
Mood and atmosphere
Is your expression coming from the movement or is it added or even acted out? By giving your attention to the action itself, the fruit will come of its own accord.
International style competitive dancing has become far removed from its original sources and motivations. It became a style in itself; a style with a lot of improvements, new ideas and upgraded abilities of today’s generation.
Rumba represents a genuine dance relationship between the female and male principle. It will continue to evolve in various cultural contexts, providing new opportunities for creative interplay, allowing new aesthetic elements to appear. And you are a part of this evolution.
A more detailed history of authentic Cuban Rumba, Danzon, Son and Bolero and their impact on International style competitive Rumba can be found in the book 'Back to the roots' (online purchase DSI London or https://www.ballroombooks.com/product/back-to-the-roots/).
If you would like to know more about authentic percussive instruments and their unique rhythms download the SnappDance app - 'Authentic Latin Percussion'.