It is said that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. Under the right circumstances, even the most formal and courtly ballroom dance can become charged with erotic energy. (Just ask Fraulein Maria and Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”) But everybody knows that Latin America has perfected the dance-equals-sex trope. What other part of the world has produced a cottage industry of sexy dancing films?
Here’s just a sample of recent movies dedicated to the proposition that when the rhythm gets in your blood, you have to let your passions run free: “Dirty Dancing,” “Dance with Me,” “Strictly Ballroom,” “Shall We Dance?,” “Take the Lead,” “Lambada,” “The Forbidden Dance.” (For a great parody of the Latin-dancing-is-the-sexiest stereotype, check out Ben Stiller mangling the salsa in “Along Came Polly.” It should be subtitled “why white men must never dance”.)
Yes, it’s a cliché. Yes, it stereotypes Latin Americans into sex-crazed, big-assed bimbos and smarmy, hairy-chested Latin lovers. Yes, there’s so much more to music in Latin America than sexy dancing. Yes, yes, yes.
But then there’s all that sexy dancing. Behind the cliché there’s more than a little truth. And it’s not only the tropical rhythms you hear on the beaches of Brazil or the Caribbean. Consider the tango: a product of the smoky, dank clubs of Buenos Aires at the turn of the last century. Tango can be pretty damn sexy. Go back to the scene between Al Pacino, as a blind and very grumpy army veteran, and the luminous Gabriele Anwar, as some girl he just met in a bar in the middle of “Scent of a Woman.” Completely in sync, they step to and fro to Carlos Gardel’s gorgeous “Por Una Cabeza” — two strangers who’ve created, through dance, a few moments of passionate intimacy.
The mambo these days is derided as clunky and old-fashioned, but Johnny and Baby own it and heat it way up in “Dirty Dancing.” Just the other day, my kids were watching a Disney Channel show (please don’t ask me what it’s called) in which a suburban mom daydreams about running off to Brazil to dance the Lambada, presumably with a cocoa-skinned hunk who whispers “I must have you, señorita” into her receptive ear.
Which opens up the question: which one is the sexiest? Which dance is the most likely to summon the throes of passion? Well, it depends of course. Who’s dancing? What are the circumstances? Impossible to answer. So let’s make it a little simpler: Which dance is the dirtiest? In other words, which one is the closest to actual sex? Which one, say, would you be most mortified to see one of your parents (or one of your children) doing with a stranger?
This might be surprising to anyone who’s seen images of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval, of thousands upon thousand of sequined, feathered, barely-dressed men and women jiggling and wiggling and kicking their feet at impossible speeds while the batucada thumps all around them. Well, it’s true that nobody can deny that sex is ubiquitous in the vicinity of Carnaval, but the samba is in fact one of the few Latin dances that’s NOT expressly about sex.
A hybrid of candomblé, a spiritual practice developed in the Americas by descendants of African salves, traditional drumming rhythms, and European styles, the best-known version of samba is the one born on the streets of Rio. It’s a dance of joy, of release, meant to bring people together in collective ecstasy. Even its formalized ballroom iteration emphasizes snapping leg movements as the couple mostly dances separately. Anyone who’s tried to samba knows that after just a few minutes you’re way too exhausted to think about anything other than catching your breath. Also, most amateurs have a really tough time mastering the steps, so they look silly rather than sexy doing it.
Mortification level: Low. “Keep going! Looks like a great workout!”
9. Cha-cha-chá, 8. Mambo, 7. Rumba
These three dancing styles all originated in Cuba and became popular in the United States and Europe between the 1920s and ’50s. In their time, they were all the rage. These days one can still find the occasional example of one them being used to scandalizing effect (such as the aforementioned number in “Dirty Dancing,” which is thirty years old, remember). Yet the reality is that they are mostly popular among the older generations. So if you find a parent or child engaging in it with a stranger, it’ll more than likely be someone on the more mature side. Performing their modern versions, which still thrive in competitive ballroom dancing, accomplished dancers can still bring out the sexy.
The rumba, in particular, is usually the slowest and moodiest of the three, and allows for more languorous movement. But on the whole all three are danced with elaborate and often exaggerated leg and hip movements, punctuated by sharp turns and theatrical flourishes. Beginners are usually too busy trying to figure out the steps to think about getting frisky. And no dance called the “cha-cha-chá” can be that erotic.
Mortification level: Low. “That’s so cute! Just like grandpa used to do it!”
Cumbia developed in different parts of Latin America, but is most usually associated with Colombia. As opposed to mambo or salsa, learning how to cumbia is very straightforward. It mostly involves a repetitive side-to-side motion, usually with one foot behind the other. But it’s all for nothing if you can’t master its characteristic hip undulation, which, when done correctly, tempts one to raise cumbia to the top of this list. (Shakira’s groundbreaking hybrid of cumbia supplemented with jerky belly-dancing moves from the Middle East has propelled her to global icon status).
Still, a couple of factors keep the cumbia on the bottom half of the list. First, even more than other Latin dances, it requires different “roles” for men and women. Cumbia is the offspring of traditional African courtship dances, in which females showed off their, ahem, attributes, while men begged for their attention. As a result, women’s hips end up doing most of the work. There’s nothing inherently wrong in this, as far is it goes, but it’s not particularly equitable. Second, cumbia stepping is static and repetitive. Some scholars believe that (like in the Brazilian capoeira) Cumbia movements are deliberately limited because they’re meant to imitate the slavers’ chains, which I don’t have to tell you is not particularly sexy.
Mortification level: Moderate. “I didn’t know you could move like THAT!”
Salsa had many birthplaces in the 1970s: New York, Cali, Panama City. It’s a dynamic dance that takes a while to master, due to it’s relatively elaborate stepping. While cumbia is for courtship, salsa is for seduction. One half of the couple (usually a male) prods and twirls the other around, periodically pulling the two bodies close together. There’s no telling where legs and arms may end up, nor when someone’s upper body may be thrown back to denote passionate submission. While some types of salsa dancing involve lots of shoulder movements, the most popular style keeps the upper body straight while the hips, legs, and arms do the heavy lifting. An expert salsa dancer can improvise some of the most elaborate choreographies seen in any popular style. Check out Puerto Rican heartthrob Chayanne tearing it up in “Dance with Me”:
Mortification level: Moderate. “You have to feeeeeel the music!”
On a technical level, tango is the most difficult of all the Latin American dances. Some teachers will try to convince you that its basic steps are not that complicated, but at its most elaborate, it takes years to master. Because it involves deliberate stepping and a very formal manner, tango lacks the frank sexuality of salsa or merengue. It’s important to remember, though, that there’s more than one way for things to get steamy.
Tango relies on a theatrical, melodramatic style. It’s certainly not for amateurs, but when two partners who now what they’re doing get it right, there’s nothing quite like it. Keep in mind that the typical tango choreography recalls the search for sex in the bars and brothels of Old Buenos Aires. Dancers are supposed to remain expressionless, but when done right this stoicism suggests the hidden potential for violence inherent in most sexual encounters. It’s meant to be a little scary, and under the right conditions that can be pretty hot.
Mortification level: Moderate. “Please take that rose out of your mouth.”
Cuban son is salsa’s more carefree great-uncle. The stepping is less cumbersome, so it’s easier for beginners to get the hang of it, and is even more welcoming of improvisation. Brazilians, Colombians, and Dominicans are all legitimate contenders for the title of best dancers in Latin America, but for my money there’s nothing quite like the easy and unpretentious style predominant in Cuba. Since this is also the country that invented the mojito, I would keep a close eye on my relatives whenever son begins to play, if I were you.
Mortification level: Moderate to high. “Ok, that’s about enough of that, thank you very much”.
Hailing from the Dominican Republic, merengue dancing is all about staying together. Sure, there’s twirling and complicated maneuvers rarely seen outside a Twister mat, but a couple doing the merengue will mainly stay close as their hips swing from side to side in unison. Merengue is simple, fast, and makes no qualm about its intent: to imitate the act of copulation. No courtship or seduction here. One-two, one-two, it goes, the couple turning around and around the dance floor, legs entwined, hips swinging, eyes only for each other. At least that’s how it should be done. Like the tango and the son, merengue was at first looked down upon by the upper and middle classes in its native country. Too black, they said, too raunchy. Over time, though, this most upbeat and lighthearted of Latin styles ended up winning everyone over. Today, Dominicans proudly claim it as their national dance, which is a little funny, considering that it’s basically two people pretending to have sex.
Mortification level: High. “Did you really have to put your leg there?”
It’s called “the forbidden dance” for a reason. Lambada makes its competitors look like “Ring around the Rosie.” It combines the brazen placement of hips and thighs of merengue with the gyrations of cumbia to create an unholy hybrid that for a while terrorized social conservatives the world over. Earlier versions of lambada were danced in Brazil for decades, but it was unknown even in the rest of Latin America until its official coming-out party: the release of the single “Lambada” by the French group Kaoma in 1988. (The Portuguese title of the song is actually “Chorando se Foi”, or “He Left Crying.” It turned out to have been plagiarized form an earlier Peruvian song, so it’s a little unfair that the dance is exclusively associated with Brazil.) In quick succession, a follow-up single called “Dançando Lambada” came out, and then the infamous films “Lambada” and “The Forbidden Dance,” which turned lambada into a global craze.
In truth, it hasn’t had the staying power of the rest of the members of this list. At most Latin clubs outside Brazil, you’ll hear only the two Kaoma hits if you hear any lambada at all. Still, the lure of the forbidden dance remains in popular culture, and for good reason.
Mortification level: Extremely high. “What are you… My eyes! Make it stop! I’m not looking! LALALALALA!!!”