The name Cha Cha Cha is onomatopoeic, which means that the word Cha Cha Cha imitates the source of the sound. When the Cuban dancer’s shoes were caressing the floor in a light manner, it sounded like "sh, sh, shhh” and so this sound gave the name Cha Cha Cha.
Cha Cha Cha is the youngest of five International style Latin American competitive dances and joined the other four in the mid 1950s. It evolved in Cuba from Danzonette – small Danzon in the late 1940s. Cuban composer and violinist Enrique Jorrin (1926 – 1987) wrote the first Cha Cha Cha, named “La Engañadora” in 1949, but it did not become popular until 1951 when the Panart record catapulted it to fame.
How do you hear this at first glance simple rhythm, how do you choose to dance to it and mostly, how much of its original spirit do you manage to incorporate in your performance? Cha Cha Cha is a punctual, yet smooth and very playful dance that carries wit and humour throughout different rhythmical patterns and unpredictable usage of 'guapacha timing'.
Like Rumba, Cha Cha Cha is danced against the time. Contratiempo Cubano (against the time) means that the movement structure starts on the 2nd beat of the bar and finishes on the 1st beat of the next bar. In Western world we are used to starting the movement structure on the first beat of the bar, regardless of how many beats there are in the bar. Except for Cha Cha Cha and Rumba Bolero all other dances in International style ballroom dancing follow this concept.
In order to facilitate Cha Cha Cha for Western population who had a difficulty reacting to “contratiempo” Cubano, Enrique Jorrin kept a strong metric accent in Cha Cha Cha on the first and third beat of the bar, played by the cowbell. But the dynamic accent on the 4th beat of the bar stayed, clearly perceived by the congas' pattern (like in Danzon, Danzonette, Son and Bolero). That's why the movement idea in Cha Cha Cha starts on the second beat and finishes on the first beat of the next bar. Rightly so, as basic syllabus figures are described following this rhythm/movement cycle.
Meet the percussive instruments of Cha Cha Cha
La charanga, the traditional ensemble that plays Cuban Cha Cha Cha music, consists of the following percussive instruments - two tumbadoras (congas), guayo (güiro) and cencerro/campana (cowbell).
Conga that you see in the video on the left is called “tumba” or “tumbador”; it is the lowest pitched drum. The one that you see on the right is called “tres golpes” and it is middle pitched. How the percussionist’s hands strike the conga, with what force and with which part of the hand, defines the pitch, loudness and quietness, colour and duration of the sound. Can you hear the difference? Two open tones on beat 4 create a predominant percussive accent, on which dancers react with two weight transfers. You count that 4+ or Cha Cha. Two open tones can also be played on tumba between beats 2 and 3, which can stimulate dancers to apply Guapacha timing. You count that +3 or a3.
Congas' rhythmical pattern divides each beat in the bar into 2 halves, therefore we hear 8 strokes in one bar - 2+3+4+1+. This beautiful continuum inspires dancers to carry the sense of consistent motion flow. The congas’ sound stimulates the feeling of being grounded and reactive through hip movements.
Guiro stroke on beats 1 and 3 has a nice attack, followed by continuous rubbing of the stick over the whole beat. That kind of continuation of the sound can stimulate the natural pelvic swing actions in the direction of the movement. Short double strokes are played on beats 2 and 4. Short strokes with half beat duration stimulate the weight transfer also in the middle of the beat. Guiro tells you that Cha Cha Cha is a movement expression with the timing quick-quick-slow, hence the two fast movements followed by a slower one.
By splitting beats 2, 3 and 4 in half, conga and guiro patterns indicate the possibility of two weight transfers in one beat. The only beat that normally stays undivided is beat 1. And rightly so, as beat 1 is the conclusive beat of a movement cycle which started on beat 2 of the previous bar.
Cowbell can be played as a hand instrument or, like in the video, in combination with timbales, a set of metal casing drums. You hear cowbell strokes on all 4 beats in one bar of music and that gives you basic orientation in timing and tempo of the movement. The pitch of the cowbell sound is high, dynamic is loud and the tone colour is bright, therefore you would react to this instrument with light and punctual weight transferring.
It is due to this instrument that many would categorise Cha Cha Cha rhythm as "staccato". Of course by now you know that is much more than only "staccato", you can also perceive a kind of "legato", listening attentively to congas' continuum and guiro sound on the 1st and the 3rd beat.
Typical for Cuban Cha Cha Cha is that dancers would portray the Cha Cha Cha movement on 4+1 in every bar of the music. Unfortunately, in International competitive style, this value is nowadays often neglected, therefore this dance loses the sense of a consistent motion flow.
Dancers who stop the movement in order to impress the audience would achieve greater effect if they would master the skill of holding the energy and free it out unpredictably. Your skill of syncopating the movement will add the sparkle.
Guapacha timing is one the most popular rhythmical expressions in Cha Cha Cha and a great example of syncopation in movement. In technical terms of Latin-American competitive dancing, guapacha timing means that the step (motion) which is normally taken on the second beat of the bar is delayed and taken a half or even three quarters of a beat later, ideally at the last possible moment.
In dynamic terms, guapacha timing means that the energy has to be held longer than usual, right to the point from which it becomes inevitable to free it out. Guapacha timing is your skill to intuitively organize flow of the motion in time with such precision that the next syncopated movement creates a surprise effect.
Speed and energy control
Cha Cha Cha is a fast dance therefore it is important that you control the energy flow. If you just dance it through, you will feel very tired and your body will get more and more tense. You need to prepare your energy for each movement idea. Ideas/figures normally start on beat 2 in the bar and last for at least one bar, more often two bars or even more.
Two bars in the music like to connect in a small unit and four bars create a phrase. You can notice that by attentively listening to melodies and the voice of the singer. Through phrasing you perceive the flow and organization of the music and you can apply this method to your movement phrasing as well. I'm not saying that you must phrase your movement to fit the musical phrase. Your job is to phrase your movement ideas according to the message you want to express. This way your movement will be energetically organised and easier to perceive, for yourself and the audience.
Don't waste your energy by being over-toned, especially in the knee joint as this is blocking your mobility. Your feet are supposed to caress the floor and not beat it. The feeling of lightness and being grounded at the same time might help you create an optimal physical toning.
Humour and wit
If you ever listened to lyrics of first-written Cha Cha Cha's (La Engañadora, El Bodeguero, Que Rico Vacilon), you have likely noticed that they are naughty, sometimes even silly or naive. Don't forget that the timing is everything; like in good joke telling, it surprises out of the blue. Search for an element of surprise or shock, something unexpected, a twist or a punch... Wit has a lot to do with speed. You can identify places where doing the step quicker or holding something for longer creates a funny moment.
That humour can be found in basic figures, as Peter Maxwell and Lorraine Rohdin showed more than thirty years ago.
Many great experts on the "American Rhythm" style - Bob Medeiros, Sam Sodano, Ron Montez, Linda Dean, Tony Meredith - contributed a lot to preserve the original Cha Cha Cha spirit by inspiring dancers all over the world for decades.
Humour is subjective, you need to create your funny, be it through your rhythmical interpretation, partnering skills, posture or gesture. Your witty approach to Cha Cha Cha will tell others how to take life from the bright and light side. As humour is a form of communication, it contributes to the emotional health of all that are involved.If ever, we need it now.
This course provides a unique insight into the rhythmical structure of Cha Cha Cha, Rumba Bolero and Samba. Its aim is to help you understand why your steps and figures have specific rhythms and where exactly they come from, while encouraging you to discover and create your own rhythmical interpretations.