Deep rooted into the culture, dance is a very important part of the Dominican lifestyle. The sounds of merengue and bachata music pour onto the streets from neighboring homes, cars, bars, or other businesses. I would have never imagined that this Canadian girl could actually learn to dance – the Latin way.
After requesting to be coaxed by quite a few Presidentes, remarkably good Dominican beer, I would eventually let my new friend, Alvaro, show me how to dance. The atmosphere of the small bar just outside of Puerto Plata, was very casual. The pool table at the back of the bar kept some of the locals entertained. Others were more content to have a somewhat heated game of dominoes, very popular I noticed, on this part of the island of Hispaniola. Children of various ages adorned the security bars or stood in doorways of this open air building. Questionable smells occasionally wafted in, perhaps from a not so distant farm. Many motor scooters were lined up outside the bar, a popular mode of transportation for which no license is required. One thing was painfully obvious to me – everyone here knew how to dance, and dance very well. It seemed as though they were born knowing the great art of swinging their hips in such a sensual manner.
The merengue and the bachata are both dances that have been associated with the lower classes of society. The bourgeoisie named the smooth rhythmic dance with a 4/4 beat, the bachata, meaning – a rowdy lower-class party. The merengue was actually made more popular to the mainstream through former President Rafael Trujillo, a dictator who was himself, from a poor family. Typical merengue music is made with a three-piece band consisting of a melodeon (accordion-type instrument), a güira (looks like a cheese grater), and a tambora (a double headed drum). Bachata music is more guitar-based, and started out slower than the merengue, but in recent decades has become dance music because of musicians speeding up the beat.
By this time in the evening, the beer, which I never drink back home, had increased my confidence level. My new Canadian friends, Victor and his daughter Consuelo, had already been up on the dance floor cutting a rug. And our Dominican friends, Alvaro and Marilu, had been up dancing quite a few times as well. It was time for Alvaro to show me how it’s done in his country.
Though I thought that the most challenging part of learning to Latin dance would be my lack of rhythm and apparently no initial ability to swing my hips, a more interesting twist to my situation was the fact that my dance partner spoke absolutely no English. This interesting challenge forced me to practice my Spanish skills that I had been re-learning for a number of weeks prior to my trip to his beautiful country. Though we managed to communicate quite well, I felt at times that the twisted word order that I used to speak his romantic language was perhaps at a Grade One level.
Alvaro managed to explain to me in his native tongue, to not think about my fear of embarrassing myself due to me being rhythmically challenged – in front of his rhythmic fellow countrymen. He said to listen to the music and feel the beat in my heart. The beat pattern of a merengue is a 2/2 or 2/4 time, he explained. Once I got the steps and turns down pat, he had me incorporate the swiveling of my hips. I no longer felt like I was outside of my comfort zone – neither with the language barrier, nor with the dance. By the end of the night, I was asking Alvaro, “¿Quieres bailar?” Asking him if he wanted to dance was a clear indication to both of us that my fear of embarrassment and lack of rhythm were long behind me. A couple of young local men even approached Alvaro for permission to dance with me. I couldn’t have been that bad!
I was now officially ready for Tipico Azucar, a large, two-level open air disco in a little village called Monte Llano located on the highway between Puerto Plata and Sosua. Alvaro arranged for a cab for the night, and we dressed a bit more casually this time, given the atmosphere of our previous night out. Our group consisted of two more female friends of Alvaro, Christie, and Olga. Luckily, Victor, originally from Italy, was a good interpreter for times of interpretational faux pas. Another difference from Saturday night’s outing was that this time; I had no fear of embarrassment. Alvaro’s words to me that first night echoed in my head; why not hear the music in my heart – it is absolutely beautiful music, fun music, danceable music. So I danced as much as I possibly could.
Upon visiting the Dominican Republic, I felt it was somehow my responsibility to find out more about their country other than how nice the beaches are, or how warm the sun felt upon my skin. Venturing outside of the security gates of the Playa Dorada complex was well worth the experience, and represented a metaphor of venturing outside of the typical comfort zone. One of the benefits of solo travel includes the freedom to meet people that I otherwise may not have met. I know that I will never forget my experiences in the Dominican and I hope that the merengue and the bachata stay in my heart forever.