The Origins of Our Most Popular Partner Dances

Post Date:
October 25, 2020

One thing that has been on my mind for a few years now when I zoom out and look at all the popular partner dances across the world is the similarities in their creation. The curiosity of learning a little about the history of each partner dance has helped me develop this global view of appreciation and unity.

The partner dances that I've heard of and been exposed to are mostly the ones I've seen represented at dance studios, festivals, and/or congresses. I'm very curious if there are other less popular partner dances out there, but for today this is what I'm aware of, and as I learn more I'll share and update as needed.

The most popular partner dances in terms in dance studio/festival representation are (in no particular order) tango, kizomba/urban kiz, Brazilian zouk, salsa, bachata, swing (lindy hop, east coast and west coast swing, blues). There definitely are other partner dances I've heard of such as semba, lambada, merengue, cumbia, kompa, cha cha but haven't seen or heard of much presence of these at dance studios or festivals (if you know of any, please let me know!).

It is very interesting to me that all of the partner dances that I have listed above have traces of African roots and influence, however from what I currently understand, there isn't much partner dancing that happens traditionally in Africa (with the exception of Angola).

The DNA results of many Latin Americans and people in the Caribbean have shown traces of both African and European ancestry. Mulattoes was a term to refer to a person of African (black) and European (white) ancestry (I believe mulattoes is no longer used because of it's derogatory connotations), I even stumbled across the term afro-caucasian.

Below is a list of the most popular partner dances from a global perspective and their country of origin.

Angola | Kizomba / Semba / Rebita

Semba is a rhythmic form of music and dance from Angola. It was born in the 20th century at the creative intersection of traditional African dance and colonial European influence. Its characteristic rhythm is one of the main contributors to kizomba music. Semba was played by small bands in Angola, especially at large social gatherings. It is frequently confused with Brazilian samba, since their names are so similar. People say the word ‘semba’ comes from ‘massemba’ meaning “a touch of the bellies” – one of the most recognizable and entertaining movements in semba. It is possible that samba comes from the same root, from Angolan people being moved to Brazil by the Portuguese.

Semba is a dance based on walking. The dance has a range of tempos, from slow and relaxed to blisteringly fast, but it has an undeniable energy. The dance can be linear or move around the lead in varying circular intentions. The hold is similar to a ballroom hold, although leaders lean forward or bend slightly at the waist, and ladies never lean back. It is also very playful, sometimes incorporating comedic expressions or mimed grabs for an escaping partner.

The origins of kizomba can be traced to late-1970s Africa, with influences variably attributed to Angola.Kizomba is characterised by a slower, romantic, more sensuous rhythmthan the traditional Angolan semba music.Kizomba music emerged as a fusion of Semba, Angolan Merengue, Kilapanga and further Angolan music influences: It slowed down the cadence of songs and added a stronger bass line to the composition of instruments.Most kizomba songs are sung in Portuguese or a dialect from the various Portuguese speaking, African cultures.

Kizomba festivals (authentic and urban kiz) can be found worldwide today.

Argentina | Tango

The modern tango, a slick, sultry dance which today is a cornerstone of Argentine cultural identity, has a long and complex history. There is much debate over the exact origins of what we now know as the tango, however one undeniable truth remains the immense influence of Afro-Argentines in the formation of the tango. The name itself, "tango", is widely believed to be of West African origin meaning "closed space" or "reserved ground".

This origin seems to be in accordance with the 19th century use of the word, when it referred to any place where Africans assembled to dance. Only later did the word tango come to refer specifically to Afro-Argentine dance, before being ascribed to the specific form of couple dancing we know today as the tango. Both the dance and the musical style known as tango has three main antecedents; the lunfardo, the milonga and the candombe. Each of these represents a different component of the Argentine cultural mosaic.

Tango festivals can be found today worldwide.

Brazil | Brazilian Zouk / Lambada / Carimbo

Carimbo is the name of both the dance and the large drums that accompany it. Carimbo is a folk dance of the Para state in Brazil, in which African, Portuguese, and European influence can be noticed. With the influence of more modern rhythms, carimbo contributed to the development of lambada. Lambada is a predecessor to what we now know as Brazilian zouk.

African music has made a huge impact on many aspects of Brazilian music and dance, from samba, funk, lambada, capoeira, etc.

Colombia | Cumbia

Cumbia is one of the most melodic representative expressions of Colombia. It brings together three cultures - African, Indigenous, and European. The African influence gives the rhythm of the drums while the Indigenous-based flute blends in the melody. The European influence provides some variations in the melodies, choreography, and costumes of the dancers.

The origin of cumbia music comes from the days of slavery in the late 17th century and is derived from the African word cumbe which means dance. Another word was derived later in the Antioquia region of Colombia called caracumbe and was coined by African slaves who worked in the mines. A third variation of the word called paracumbé emerged and then disappeared as well as the term cumbancha which in Cuba means party. However, one thing is for certain, cumbia was born of a cultural mix of black and indigenous backgrounds.

Cuba & Puerto Rico | Salsa / Danzon

The historical and cultural development from the time when enslaved African people were shipped to the Americas, including the Caribbean. From its African roots, salsa first developed in Cuba. It then became popular throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and finally made its way to mainland America and even the U.K. It is now truly global.

The danzón evolved from the Cuban contradanza, or habanera ('Havana-dance'). The contradanza, which had English and French roots in the country dance and contradanse, was probably introduced to Cuba by the Spanish, who ruled the island for almost four centuries (1511–1898), contributing many thousands of immigrants. It may also have been partially seeded during the short-lived British occupation of Havana in 1762, and Haitian refugees fleeing the island's revolution of 1791–1804 brought the French-Haitian kontradans, contributing their own Creole syncopation.In Cuba, the dances of European origin acquired new stylistic features derived from African rhythm and dance to produce a genuine fusion of European and African influences.African musical traits in the danzón include complex instrumental cross-rhythms, expressed in staggered cinquillo and tresillo patterns.

Dominican Republic | Bachata / Merengue

Bachata arose around the middle of the 20th century in the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean. Its roots are in some African rhythms, Cuban son, and bolero. In the beginning, this musical style was valued and listened to by the most popular social classes and rejected by high level society. Bachata is now listened to and danced worldwide.

Merengue is a combination of two dances, the African and the French Minuet, from the late 1700's - early 1800's. The black slaves saw the ballroom dances and when they had their own festivities started mimicking the "masters' dances".

Haiti | Kompa / Konpa

The music of Haiti combines a wide range of influences drawn from the many people who have settled on this Caribbean island. It reflects French, African rhythms, Spanish elements, and others who have inhabited the island of Hispaniola and minor native Taino influences. Haitian music is influenced mostly by European colonial ties and African migration (through slavery). In the case of European colonization, musical influence has derived primarily from the French.

One of Haiti's musical traditions is known to outsiders simply as compas. But in the former non-standardized Haitian Creole, Haitians identify it variously as compa, compa, and konpa-dirék. Regardless of its various spellings, compas refers to a complex, ever-changing music genre that fuses African rhythms, European ballroom dancing, and Haitian bourgeois aesthetics. The word may have derived from the Spanish compás, which relates to the musical rhythm of the "beat" or "pulse." One of the most distinctive features of Haitian compas music is the steady, pulsing drum beat, which makes it easy to dance to.

United States | Swing / Lindy Hop

As a result of slavery, many Africans were brought to America and brought with them their culture. Much of America’s modern music and dance has been greatly influenced by the African presence in our culture. Rock and roll would not exist had the African Americans not created Jazz music through the mixture of African and European music traditions, which then led to the emergence of blues, and eventually rock and roll. The same can be said for many types of dance in America. The Savoy Ballroom, a popular ballroom in Harlem, NYC, was one of the few early ballrooms that did not segregate the blacks and whites. Because both blacks and whites danced there, they became exposed to each other’s dance styles and in the 1920’s-30’s, a new style of dance emerged called “Swing” or the “Lindy Hop” (Dancing). This dance style was created as a result of the fusion of European ballroom and African rhythm and it became one of the first truly American dance forms and expressions of this new American culture.

In Conclusion

Through studying the similarities of the origins of the most popular partner dances in the world, we can find a common thread of African, European, and sometimes indigenous influences that gave birth to the partner dances that we enjoy today.

On one side, there is a deep feeling of sadness when I recognize that slavery and colonialism fueled the majority of the cultural interaction.


On the other side, I feel immense joy and appreciation. I zoom out and realize that these partner dances around the globe have shown us how to connect with one another from all different backgrounds, cultures, languages, and nationalities. The music and dances created continue to enrich our world on every continent.

If you have any other resources, information, or additional dances to add to this list I would love to hear from you to continue to update this list accordingly!

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