Rumba: Beating with the African heart of Cuba
The Cuban Rumba, originally an erotic courting dance, is of all the Latin American dances the one most deeply rooted in its African origin. It’s danced rhythm in its purest sense. Here you can learn more about its history and about the man who learned this dance in Cuba and adapted and cultivated it for Europe.
A Detailed History of the Rumba
In no other Latin American dance the African soul has a stronger presence than in the Rumba. It originated in its present form in the poor districts of Havana and Matanaza shortly before slavery was abolished in Cuba around 1880. Its beginnings, however, go much further back, to the 16th Century, so to the arrival of the first slaves from Africa.
The original rumba rhythm is the Yambú, which can be traced directly back to ancient West African dances. Only percussion, like Kongas and Bongos but also wooden boxes of all kinds, still serve as instruments. Three drums, the Slidor, the Tres Golpes and the Quinto dominate the rhythm. The deepest drums keep the rhythm while the middle and high drums improvise together. Important are also the Claves, two small wooden sticks, which supply the key for the rhythms.
The rumba is originally an erotic courting dance and when it comes down to it, like many Latin American dances, more of a generic term for different rhythms like Yambú, Columbia, Son, Bolero, Guaracha, Guagira, Naningo, Mambo, Beguine and Guaguanco. The Guaguanco is the most famous among the rumba rhythms today and also used in Salsa. Its melody is more fluent and its rhythms more catchy than the Yambú.
“Rumba“ means “party“ or ”dance“. The rumba texts have a similar function as the Tango in Argentina or the Rap in New York; they also express the social conditions of the people. Rumba was commercialized and adapted to the European and North American listening habits only much later.
A young Frenchman, known under his artist name Pierre, played a decisive role in that. He started developing the rumba further after the Second World War. Pierre was an engineering student in Zürich. But after an accident, where he lost one eye, he moved to Paris in the 1920s. There he spent most of his time in the local dance halls, where he met Cubans, Argentineans, Brazilians and Spaniards who were dancing to their national bands. In the mid-20s, Pierre founded a dance studio in Picadilly in London
In the meantime, Alcedes Castellanos, a Cuban bandleader, came to Paris. In the late 20s, he brought the rumba to Europe for the first time, where it really boomed. Pierre heard about this and returned to Paris immediately; he was really eager to learn this new dance in order to expand further his repertoire in Latin American dances. To him, however, the basic step of the dance seemed too limited, offering no possibilities for expansion. He therefore started to develop the rumba further.
As Pierre traveled to Havana with his partner in 1947, the Son (later made famous through the Buena Vista Social Club) was popular among the middle classes and the Danzon in the upper classes. Pierre worked together with Pepe and Suzy Riviera there, the dance champions in Cuba at the time. He wrote down almost all the present rumba figures, put them into a system and named them. This alone was a great favor to the rumba.
Pierre then named the Rumba “Cuban Bolero”, Son or “Baile de Salon”. The original basic step he described as “Authentic Cuban System of Rumba” or “Cuban System of Ballroom Rumba”. He still describes the first tact with the instruction “Hesitate”. The basic step is divided into a forward movement and a backward movement.
Back in England, Pierre started to teach his newly developed Rumba style in 1948. But his success was mixed. His timing wasn’t well received everywhere. Pierre’s comment was: “it’s going to take five years before they’ll accept it.” However, it took eight years. Pierre didn’t let himself be discouraged by this. In the following years he repeatedly returned to Cuba with his partner Doris Lavelle and James Arnell, to improve his technique.
Together with Pepe Llorenz and his wife Aida (who has a famous character named after her), Pierre continuously polished “his” Rumba. Finally, Pierre and Lavelle introduced the “Cuban Rumba“ in1955. The Rumba is, despite its African origin, the slowest dance among the Latin American dances. You can dance it in two ways: either as square – or Carré-Rumba or in Pierre’s Cuban style. The last one has established itself as the standard for competitions. Characteristic for this open couple dance with partly very complicated dance figures are the hip- and pelvis movements originating in African traditions.
The Rumba is played in 4/4-Beat with the emphasis on one and three.
In contests, the rumba is played with 28 beats per minute.