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Few cultural forms are more associated with the Dominican Republic than merengue music and the brisk, shuffling, hip-wagging dance that goes with it (no one’s exactly sure where the name comes from – sweet, frothy beaten egg whites or the “mareng” or “méringue” music of neighboring Haiti). Going back more than 150 years, like tango in Argentina it once scandalized the prim and proper because of its ribald lyrics and sexy moves. Well, that’s sure as heck a thing of the past – seems like every Dominican grows up swiveling his or her hips, and merengue has moved well beyond the island to become along with salsa one of the best-known genres in Latin music, and even to parts of the U.S., Canada and Europe (especially in New York City, where there’s a vibrant Dominican community).
The bands that play it use a variety of instruments – strings, accordions, percussion, and in recent years newer innovations like the electric keyboard and the sax; some of the new generation of merengueros are also bringing jazz and hip hop into the mix. The genre breaks down into roughly three types: the classic “típico,” with more traditional instruments, saltier lyrics, and a more intimate feel; the orquesta style, with a bigger-band sound; and pop merengue. Top artists include Milly Quezada (the so-called “queen of merengue”) and Olga Tañón.
If you think you’re too hopelessly gringo to learn to dance merengue, don’t worry: it’s not really hard to learn, and if you’re planning a trip down and feel moved to give the local moves a try, you should be able find a dance school not far from where you live, so as not to embarrass yourself (and even before that, you can start out by checking out the video below).
photo: John Connell