What Are the Distinct Influences of Latin Dance?

28th Nov 2022

What Are the Distinct Influences of Latin Dance?

Latin dance has its roots in different cultures, not just within the south American continent, but also in Europe and Africa. Over the centuries there have been many Latin dances that have garnered fame and popularity across the world. Some have drawn their movements from ballroom dancing, others from indigenous religious dance, and sometimes a blend of multiple influences.

These often colorful and exotic dances reflect the life and love of the people and have become celebrated in all sorts of ways including in popular music videos, as part of carnival performances, dance competitions, and much more. Each dance has its distinct steps, the tempo of the music, and Latin dance costumes that are used to bring out the passion, emotion, and reverence of the performers.

Generally, the indigenous and African influences are considered to be the most dominant when considering the roots of Latin American dancing. Some common features of note with these dances include:

Earth connection - many Latin dances seem to create a stronger connection with the earth. The movement of the feet, legs, and hips showcase how worshipful the dancers are of Mother Earth. There is a lot of meaningful and precise foot articulation that is beautifully displayed through bare feet and following the percussion beat of the music. The hip movements are also a strong theme that is used to illustrate the narrative and reflect the sensual aspects of life.

Touch – there is a sense of powerful connection and sensuality that is created in Latin dances when you observe how the dancers' touch. This connection appears to be a conduit for the emotions and desires of the performers as they spin, sway, and balance each other out. Indigenous Latin dances tended to be group performances, however, the European influence led to gravitation towards male and female dance partners.

Polyrhythm – polyrhythm patterns give music a rich and cohesive sound that works beautifully in complementing the movements of Latin dances. These rhythms are an African influence created when musicians play several rhythmical patterns at a go, challenging each dancer to follow a different pattern while still attuned to their partner's movements.

Attire – colorful and elaborate costumes are an essential part of many Latin dances. From sweeping skirts to feathered detailed ballroom gowns, and embroidered jackets to sombreros, there are many ways in which performers can enhance their performances and convey a narrative.

Timing – Latin dances utilize a more eclectic musical structure inspired by African music. This requires that the dances be more improvisational and conversational than European dance. This is often seen in native dances like the Danson and Son Cubano from Cuba.

Playfulness – much of the sensual aspects of Latin dances tend to be playful and flirtatious. From the hip movements to sustained eye contact, the movements work to emphasize the desire and feelings of the dancers as they go back and forth in their tempting of one another.

Energy – there is often an ebb and flow to these dance performances that allow the dancers to sometimes swiftly shift from slow and articulated movements into faster and more powerful patterns. These changes can sometimes come on unpredictably, helping to create a sense of anxiety and anticipation in the audience.

Spontaneity – Latin dances have a strong sense of spontaneity as though the dancer is not particularly following a pattern, but rather responding to the emotions within and the prompting of outside stimuli. The dances feel intuitive and instinctual in that the dancers do not appear to be giving thought to the outcome, merely focused on their partner and their feelings in the moment.

Many Latin dances give nuances of courtship, while others are a source of fun and humor that makes celebrations more enjoyable. Here we will delve a little into some of the most popular Latin dances in several South American nations and what inspired them into existence and popularity.

What are the distinct influences of Latin Dance?


Mexican dances can attribute much of their design to indigenous cultures and their music. The national dance is called the jarabe. It is a folk dance originating from Jalisco state that native couples would perform in imitation of the courtship of doves. In some variations, rather than a male and female partner, the dance features the woman dancing around a sombrero, hence it also being referred to as the Mexican hat dance.

Religious festivities are also a popular time for dance performances in the country. The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important dance events where thousands of religious dancers turn up to perform in her honor. The dancers dress up in colorful and elaborate Latin dance costumes and are supported by musicians playing everything from guitar-like instruments made using armadillo shells to rattles tied to dancers' ankles. The dances are derived from several regions in the central and southern parts of Mexico, with Conchero groups often being the most prominent.

In more recent times, some European influences have become a part of the landscape, most notably the Ballet Folklóricode Mexico which incorporates both indigenous and modern dance. Their style of dance has not resulted in international dance awards but has also helped inspire similar movements in other parts of South America and the US.

The prevailing styles of music have also had a strong influence, with genres like the Banda which appeared on the scene in the 1930s considered to be distinctly Mexican.


Just as with the music, the roots of Brazilian dance can be majorly found in the African and Portuguese cultures. The African influence is particularly strong when you consider how much of the economy was built on enslaved populations in the plantations. The national dance of samba originated from slaves and freed Africans in the state of Bahia. It features a circular arrangement whereby dancers enter one at a time as musicians and the audience look on.

As the slaves were freed and migrated into the cities, the samba became more commonplace in the favelas and eventually became the mainstay of the Carnival. It inspired other Latin dances including the bossa nova, chorinho, pegode, samba reggae, and more. The African-inspired dances were used to foster different meanings including brotherhood, healing, exuberance, and celebration.

Dance was also used as a form of worship for some African-based religions in Brazil like Candomblé. This practice came from the Yoruba people in West Africa. The dances were mainly performed by women as they sang against the backdrop of drum music played by the men. These dances also featured the use of shimmery costumes to represent a sea goddess. This would go on to inspire some dance groups to adopt similar costume designs.

Capoeira is a blend of martial arts and dance that is believed to have West and west-central African roots. It is a form of self-defense disguised as a dance that is performed to choral singing and percussive music. Many folk-dance groups have incorporated it, with the acrobatic somersaults and whipping leg movements making for exciting performances.


Despite its small size, Cuba has had a strong impact on Latin dance in many parts of the continent. This is primarily due to Spanish ships having to stop at Havana when traveling back and forth between south America and Spain to have their cargo inspected and taxed. This transit also allowed for Cuba’s dances to be exported to other parts of South America, mainly Buenos Aires, San Juan, Montevideo, and more. Cuban dances like the Danzon, son, mambo, and cha-cha-cha would become widely famous thanks to this.

Created in the 1890s, the danzon is credited for introducing a more intimate form of dance where the dancers' bodies are more closely positioned and engage in soft fluid sways in a tight pattern. This form of dance is also notable for creating rest periods where dancers can stop and switch to watching other dancers, listening to the orchestra, and just talking.

By the 1920s, the Cuban son succeeded the danzon, incorporating Afro-Cuban dance elements and swing. This later inspired the cha-cha-cha, mambo, son casino, and casino rueda. By the 1960s, salsa was taking over the dance floors in Columbia, Venezuela, and various US cities. Its improvisational nature has made it a favorite for competitive dancers around the world.

Central America

Latin dances from central America draw much of their influence from the surrounding regions. They also gained inspiration from Africans and Amerindians that settled along the Atlantic Ocean coastline. The punta is a dance that is unique to the region and is performed to the beating of drums. It involves much shaking of body parts and is often performed ritualistically during such ceremonies as funerals. as part of the dance, the dancer will use his feet to draw markers in the sand in the direction of Africa as a sign for the departed to follow and lead their spirit back to the ancestors.

The Columbian group dance, the bambuco originates from the Andean region and incorporates some elements of the fandango and other afro-Latino dances such as flirting with a handkerchief. The cumbia dance is a folk dance from Columbia and Panama that was inspired by Amerindian, Spanish, and African cultures. There are also variations to be found in Paraguay, Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

Though early mention of the cumbia was in relation to religious festivities. It has grown over the years to become a performance backed by big band instruments including the maracas, tambores, and flutes. Also, it is now not just a performance for groups but can also involve an open or closed couple. It was the most popular dance in the region until the salsa.

Southern cone

In the south, the gaucho culture blended with the settler Spanish and Portuguese cultures in influencing dance. The high society Europeans brought in dances such as the polka and waltz that became commonplace at parties where guests enjoyed formal politeness characterized by modest hand and handkerchief holding. The ladies' dance steps, the zarandeo, were slow and soft, while the men rhythmically stamped their feet in zapateado steps.

Courtship dances like the cueca featured similar steps danced to the rhythm of guitars. The dancing couple would dance flirtatiously back and forth, passing and circling one another while twirling handkerchiefs.

There is also more variation in the range of dances when you consider male solo dances like the malambo from Argentina. Though it does not have a particular choreography, it does feature plenty of kicks, stomping, and brushing. The tango and milonga can also be traced back to Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It was at the brothels and boardinghouse parlors of these port cities that a mix of sailors, gauchos, porters, soldiers, and others would mingle and dance. The intimate nature of the dances made them suited to these environments and thus less of a presence in the high society.

The tango was less raunchy than the milonga, having blended it with elements of the flamenco. This resulted in the tango becoming more widely accepted in the early 1900s, especially once it reached Europe during the ragtime era. Its reentry into Buenos Aires’s more accepted social arenas like dance halls and cafes in later years came with several changes including more steps and varied leg gestures.

Within a few decades, however, salsa was to gain prominence across the world, overshadowing the tango to become the most popular Latin dance.


Given the variety of traditional and modern Latin dances and the many influences that gave rise to their design, it is not possible to comprehensively document here how each one came into being. These dances are an amalgamation of different cultures and the life experiences of the people.

This applies to even dance from other regions that are a reflection of their history and remain a beautiful means of expressing, remembering, and cherishing their past. Latin dances are however more than just a commemoration of the past. They are an opportunity to be in the moment with your dance partner, taking pleasure in celebrating this art form, be it in a formal or informal setting.