by Harold & Meredith Sears
4 beats/measure, 26-36 measures/minute
Rumba originated among the African slaves in Cuba more than four hundred years ago as a fast and erotic dance that left little to the imagination. Shirley Aymé has said that it arose "from the walk of the cock, and his pursuit of the hen bird," and that even today, it incorporates some of this earthy action. Steps are slow and close to the floor, and the hips move from side to side. "When walking in the sugar cane fields the bare-footed slaves took steps slowly and without weight at first, until they felt the ground was free of sharp pieces of cane." Steps are deliberate, "from squashing the cockroaches in dance clubs." The shoulders and head are still, again a "vestige of slavery, when heavy weights were carried on perfectly balanced heads."
The rumba came to the U.S. around 1913. In the 1920s, it was slowed down and greatly "civilized" by the big dance studios of the time, Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire. The dance was wildly popular in New York in 1931. It received a further boost from the publicity given to the carioca, a specialty dance to rumba music, featured in the very first Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, Flying Down to Rio, 1933.
Today, the rumba is a slow latin rhythm that is danced with smooth, flowing movements. Keep your feet close to the floor as though you are sliding or gliding. Don't march. Rumba is a level dance, with little rise and fall.
Each step is taken ball-flat. For instance, step with the left, press into that step without weight, straighten the left knee and smoothly roll your weight onto the left leg, and bend the right knee. This will move the left hip to the side and back. Again, step forward with a ball/flat/straighten/hip, and back ball/flat/straighten/hip to get the rhythmic and rolling Cuban or Latin hip action. Use the inside edge of the ball of your foot and big toe, and this will move the non-supporting knee in front of the supporting knee and add even more to the Cuban hip, but don't exaggerate. Don't "wiggle your hips." The hip movement is not independent but comes from the feet and knees. The whole body is flowing with the music.
The straightening of the leg helps to produce the Latin hip action, and it produces a picture of power and strength, so dance with straight legs as much as you can. You have to soften a knee to pass that foot by the supporting foot, but then straighten the leg and leave it straight as long as you can. Rumba is a picture of strength; relax only to move. Make your steps small. Keep your upper body still, shoulders straight.
In the early days in the United States, the rumba was danced "quick, quick, slow." The International Ballroom community and Round Dancing still use this beat rhythm. However, American studios gradually changed to a "slow, quick, quick" rhythm, and you will find this altered rhythm at some freestyle ballroom events. It has always seemed strange to us. We end up dancing a rumba like a foxtrot and lose the Latin flavor. Stick to qqs, and have fun. In Spanish, "rumbear" is "to party." In Bantu-Congolese, it means to "get down."