There are two sources of the dances: one is Spanish and the other African. Although the main growth was in Cuba, there were similar dance developments which took place in other Caribbean islands and in Latin America generally.
Like a lot of other dances, the "rumba influence" arrived in the 16th century with the black slaves who were imported from Africa. Their native Rumba folk dance is essentially a sex pantomime danced extremely fast with exaggerated hip movements and with a sensually aggressive attitude on the part of the man and a defensive attitude on the part of the woman. Music is played with a staccato beat in rythm with the expressive movements of the dancers. Other instruments include the maracas, the claves, the marimbola, and the drums.
During the second world war, a dance called the "Son" was a popular dance in Cuba. It was a modified slower and more refined version of the Rumba. Still even slower is something called "Danzon", which was the dance of the very wealthy in Cuban society. Very small steps are taken in this dance, with the woman producing a very subtle tilting of her hips by alternately bending and straightening her knees.
Our American Rumba is a modified version of the "Son". The first attempt to introduce the rumba here in the United States was by Lew Quinn and Joan Sawyer in 1913. Ten years later band leader Emil Coleman imported some rumba musicians and a pair of rumba dancers to New York. Then in 1925 Benito Collada opened the Club El Chico in Greenwich Village and found that New Yorkers did not know what the heck the Rumba was all about.
There was beginning to be a real interest in Latin music which began during the late 1920's. Xavier Cugat (former husband of Charo) formed an orchestra that specialized in Latin American music. He opened at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and appeared in early sound movies such as "In Gay Madrid". Later, Cugat played at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. By the end of the decade he was recognized as having the outstanding Latin orchestra of the day.
In 1935, the actor George Raft took a break from playing his usual gangster parts and played a role closer to who he really was in New York, the part of a suave dancer in the movie "Rumba", a musical in which the hero finally won the heiress (Carol Lombard) through the mutual love of dancing. I haven't seen it but the description makes it seem incredibly melodramatic with him dying at the end during their dance (apparently his character has a bad ticker!).
In Europe, Latin American dancing owed much to the enthusiasm and interpretive ability of a man by the name of Monsieur Pierre . During the 1930's with his partner, Doris Lavelle, he demonstrated and popularized Latin American dancing in London. They introduced the true "Cuban Rumba" which was finally established as the official recognized version in 1955.
Right now, I'm taking Bronze level classes. Which means that if I were to compete, this would be the medal level that I would be in. According to the International syllabus, here are some of things that I should be learning:
Alemana (spot turn)
Closed hip twist
Cucarachas (learned, has nothing to do with cockroaches)
Fan (just learned)
Hand to hand
Hockey stick (have no idea)
Natural opening out movement
New Yorker (learned)
Shoulder to shoulder (just learned)
Spot turns (learned)
I'm not sure if I'll ever be good enough or up to competing, but I'm certainly having more fun learning than I've had in awhile. Of course, I leave each class feeling as if I'm in immediate danger of needing a hip replacement! I've also begun to watch the competition on "Dancing with the Stars" much more closely since I know most of the dances now.
I admire the celebrities who do this show even more now. Not only is it physically demanding, but most of them are performing steps that only competitors who are in the Silver and Gold class perform. And they have to learn most of these steps in a week. I'm still trying to learn fan after two classes!
Thanks for reading,