Why are We not Dancing Chachachá? Here’s an Attempt to Change That
You can critique all you want the salsa community for ostracizing Cuban musicians from their playlists at their events—though they do play son music all the time. You can also critique them for being interested only in Afro-Cuban body movement classes because it’s the next “cool thing” to do, without having a care for culture, religion, context, or even other dances from Cuba. You can even critique the salsa community for being “stuck” in time, musically speaking, and point out their preference to dance to music decades old.
You can critique all of that if you want. But for all the criticism—unfounded or not—that can be levied against them, you’ve got to give the salsa community this: they will play Cuban-born genres of music we don’t even touch at Cuban dance events.
Like, for instance, chachachá.
When was the last time that you heard a chachachá song played at a Cuban dance social or congress? Personally, in my years of going out to these events, it’s been extremely rare that a chachachá song gets played. It’s almost unheard of.
And yet every time I go to a salsa dancing event, they play at least one chachachá.
What’s up with that, folks? Aren’t we supposed to be the ones that want Cuban music?
Why are we not listening to and dancing chachachá?
There are two answers that can be given to this question.
The first one is that chachachá is an outdated form of dancing in Cuba. And sure enough: it is. I don’t know the exact figure, but you could probably count with the fingers of your hands the people in Cuban who know how to dance chachachá socially nowadays—I’m talking about people that can dance with a partner an entire chachachá song. There are very few of those.
Chachachá in Cuba had its moment of glory, its “fever period,” if you will. It was the 50s. After that, it slowly died down. And with it, the social aspect of the dance, too. What remains today is the remnants of the basic steps (which most people in Cuba know how to execute) and a few other things—mostly shines and choreographed steps that cannot really be replicated on the social dance floor. In that sense, social chachachá is dead, stowed away in the vault of musical and dance history. (In the dance sense, at least. Chachachá is still played my modern Cuban bands today; for instance, “El martes” by Elio Revé y su Charangón.)
If you like this answer, which is a very valid one, you can stop reading here. There is no redemption for chachachá in your eyes. And that’s fine. You don’t have to like every single musical genre that came out of Cuba.
But if you didn’t like the answer because you believe that something “old” doesn’t necessarily mean “useless;” that things can be rescued and reused, then by all means continue reading.
Because the other way that we can answer the question, “Why don’t we dance chachachá?” is a rather succinct one, compared to the previous answer.
We simply don’t know how to dance chachachá.
And that, my dear readers, is something we can fix.
And it’s so easy to fix. It really is.
What I am about to write is my own personal journey to learning to dance chachachá. What information I give you is not based on copious amount of research about the dance of chachachá—because it’s actually pretty hard to find videos from back in the day which depict the dance being done socially (not on a stage). It isn’t based on hours of instruction given to me by a master chachachá dancer.
As such, I do not seek to tell you this is the way chachachá was danced in the 50s. Most people who danced back then are dead, and I don’t have a way to get into contact with those still alive to interview them or ask them to show me a demo.
So what I will do is lay out my argument as to why chachachá can be danced in the way that I am about to propose, whether this was the way it was danced or not (again, we don’t have visual proof), though I’m pretty sure I’m not too far off from the original way. My ideas for social chachachá dancing are based on observations I’ve made, knowledge about the music I’ve acquired, and dances other than casino that I’ve learned.
These ideas have been tried out on the social dance floor with very solid results time and again. I have been able to dance to chachachá songs successfully. I’ve actually taught aspects of chachachá to people and received very positive feedback.
So those are my qualifications. You can deem them insufficient and walk away. If you do, things will remain the as they are and chachachá will stay where it is: somewhere down Memory Lane, unused, unvisited, and ultimately discarded, a relic of the past.
Or you can give this a try, see if what I propose works.
And what I propose will work. I’m that confident.
Also, as a bit of a side note before I keep going: you’ve by now noticed that I don’t refer to chachachá as “Cha-Cha.” Some might use this name, but I do not because that name is actually a ballroom marketing strategy. Kathryn Murray, in her biography of Arthur Murray, My Husband, Arthur Murray, writes the following:
Another dance that gave him pause was the cha-cha-cha. At first we taught it by counting out “one-two-cha-cha-cha.” This worked in practice but was impossible to diagram; it looked like five beats to a measure. Arthur retired himself into his office with the problem and after two hours emerged with a solution. He changed the name of the dance to cha-cha and the count to one-two-three-cha-cha. The two “cha-chas” are said very quickly, making one beat, or a total of four beats per measure. (p. 9)
So I stick with the Cuban original. Chachachá.
So let me tell you about my journey with chachachá and how I came to dance it.
My journey started in the one place where people actually play and dance to chachachá. I’ve already given them the credit they deserve: the salsa scene.
Every time I went to their socials and they played chachachá—they usually played a song or two the entire night—I would watch in awe as these dancers from a community that so readily discarded Cuba, all of sudden was able to dance to music that I, a Cuban who liked Cuban dances and music, couldn’t because I didn’t know how. I had never been exposed to chachachá dancing in my life.
It didn’t take me long to recognize what they were doing: they were doing the same things they did when they danced salsa, but in chachachá—or “Cha Cha”, as they call it—steps. That was it. There was nothing different in the turn patterns or the way the dance looked.
So I figured I could do the same thing.
I learned how to do the chachachá step—you know: step, step, chachachá—and I practiced that until I had a pretty good grasp of it.
Then, with my partner at the time, who already knew how to dance chachachá, salsa-style, I practiced. But I didn’t practice the chachachá I had seen salsa dancers do because that wasn’t Cuban chachachá to begin with, and that’s what I wanted to dance. What I did, instead, was play chachachá songs and apply chachachá steps to my casino.
It was a disaster.
I cannot even begin to describe how awkward that felt. It was just…wrong. I cannot find better words to describe it. The turn patterns of casino did not go well with the steps. I felt like I was forcing things the entire time. Simple turns like “Enchufa” and “Vacila” were a chore, especially after a “Dile que no.” Maybe, if you try it, these things work for you. For me they didn’t.
I became quite discouraged and left it at that. No more chachachá for me.
The next step of my learning experience came a couple of years later, when I decided to take up son dancing. I’ve already made the case here as to why you should, as a casino dancer, learn to dance son, too. There are so many ways in which your casino gets improved by you learning son.
Well, guess what? To be able to dance chachachá, you have to know how to dance son. That is non-negotiable.
Now, I’m not about to teach you how to dance son in this post. That’s impossible. I’m going to simply point the way and tell you that you need to do it. How you do it, it is up to you. Personally, I took a few lessons (some private, some at Cuban dance events), but mostly watched a bunch of videos on YouTube which cemented what I had learned in these lessons, but also gave me new ideas on what others things I could do. Son is not a hard dance to grasp. It doesn’t have that many turn patterns, there is a lot of walking around, and a lot more leading with the frame. Sure, it can look complicated and unreachable to you if you watch videos of people like Eric Turro and Victor Zapata, especially with the tornillos. But those are professional dancers. You just want to get to the point where you can dance it socially. And to do that, you don’t need to be neither Turro nor Zapata.
Whatever way you decide to learn son, that is up to you. But learn son, you must.
The next step of the journey came conjointly with my learning of son. As I developed a liking for the dance, so did I develop a taste for the music to which it was traditionally danced. I began listening to older Cuban music, and I really got into Arsenio Rodríguez. At that time, I was also delving into music theory, learning about how music was made and the basics of some instruments. Then, as I read up on Arsenio, I learned about his son montuno and started listening to it.
That’s when the last piece of the puzzle “clicked.” Months before, I had attended a son workshop at the San Francisco rueda congress conducted by Roberto Borrell (picture above). In it, he had showed us how to do the basic son step, but also how to combine it with the chachachá step. That had been the entire class. At that moment, I was pretty new to son, and most of the information flew past me. I didn’t get why we were switching steps.
Months later, a little more “versed” in different genres of Cuban music other than “timba,” I listened to Arsenio Rodríguez, and did I see and feel why he had taught us to do that. In what I have already explained in my piece about son montuno, what I noticed was that the way the instruments played throughout the song was not always the same. Sometimes, it felt slow, conducing me to want to use the son step. And then the montuno would kick in and the son step would suddenly feel very slow, forcing me to switch to chachachá stepping.
Arsenio’s son montuno, then, was forcing me—if I paid attention to the music—to switch my steps in order account for the changes in the music.
But changing steps from son stepping to chachachá stepping, and vice-versa, didn’t really make it a different dance. It just allowed to me to adjust better to the music. It gave the dancing a different feel.
And then I remembered what the salsa dancers did when they danced chachachá: they did exactly the same thing they did when dancing salsa, but using chachachá steps.
I had tried that with casino and failed. But could I do that with son?
It made sense. I mean, Arsenio’s music was practically forcing me to do it.
So I tried it out. I danced chachachá as if I were dancing son, but with chachachá steps.
And that…worked. Beautifully.
Up until then I had only done the basic chachachá step and practiced switching from that basic to son basic, and vice-versa. That’s what Borrell had taught me. I hadn’t really tried doing all I knew how to do in son using the stepping of chachachá because the lesson had only gotten as far as the basic step and the switch.
But now I was dancing chachachá to Arsenio’s music and implementing everything I knew about son into my chachachá steps—of course, when the song called for chachachá stepping—and switching seamlessly back into son when there was a solo or the song entered the coda, signaling its end, as I’ve explained in this piece.
It was pure dance heaven. Not only had I learned how to dance son, I had also, in the process, figured out a way to socially dance chachachá.
The last thing I did was confirm my “discovery.” And to do that I went to Borrell again. He was there during the chachachá craze, and he has a DVD called Un trio inseparable which goes over the the basics of danzón, son, and chachachá, the three Cuban dances which he believes are inseparable—now for obvious reasons to me.
I watched the DVD and confirmed it all. With a few things that were specific to chachachá (I’m not going to tell you which because I want you to buy the DVD and support Borrell), the dances of son and chachachá were practically the same, even if their footwork was different.
And it made so much sense. Chachachá might have been a craze in the 50s, but the chachachá feel was already present in Arsenio’s son montuno, a phenomenon of the 40s. That means that in the 40s people were already doing the chachachá step. In fact, Enrique Jorrín, creator of chachachá, said in an interview that he came up with the name for this music by watching what the dancers’ feet were doing as he played it, those three steps done in quick succession that sounded in his mind like “chachachá.” That’s why son and chachachá are so intertwined—“inseparable,” to quote Borrell.
That’s not to say that nothing happened in the 50s with chachachá dancing. Shines are not characteristic of son; therefore those were part of the 50s craze. And so were the open-position movements and turns, which do not really exist in son. The shines are really hard to lead, and mostly choreographed, but can be learned. The open-position movements, in turn, can be learned through the DVD. But those were developments of the 50s, which I see as “optional.” People were already dancing some form of chachachá in the 40s.
In conclusion, if you want to learn chachachá, you must learn how to dance son.
If you already know how to, great! All you really need to do is learn how switch from son to chachachá, and vice-versa—and I do have videos for that here—and then you’re set! You’ll be dancing chachachá in no time once you begin applying your chachachá steps to the same things you already do when dancing son.
If you don’t know how to dance son, take every son class you can, look at YouTube videos, get some for private lessons if you can. It won’t happen in a day, or a week, or a month. But once you’ve learned enough, follow the recommendation I just gave in the previous paragraph.
Let’s make chachachá part of the Cuban dance community, too.
I’ll leave you with the one video of social chachachá dancing that I’ve been able to find. Again, is this how it was danced in the 50s? Maybe. Maybe not.
But it sure beats not dancing it.