Rumba is considered a slow dance, but if you dance American style the music can actually be considered pretty brisk. Consider this quote from Arthur Murray's How to become a good dancer: "Rumba music is also characteristically Spanish but it reflects an entirely different side of the Latin temperament, for it is gay and lively; fast, and clackety, making your blood race quickly through your veins".Murray wrote this several decades ago. Nowadays, rumba is usually considered a slow romantic dance. No doubt this difference in characterization is due to the fact that International Style rumba is far slower than the American Style that Murray must have had in mind.
You can get an appreciation for the difference by listening to the difference in character between the same song performed both ways. Listen to Perhaps perhaps perhaps, (in the original Spanish Quizas, quizas, quizas), played by Xavier Cugat, and on the Strictly Ballroom soundtrack. The first one is a good tempo for American style, the second for International style.
No matter the tempo, rumba is a latin dance, with a rhythm with plenty of percussion. The rhythm is a continuous flow of eighth notes on the conga, alternating high and low, and open and closed hits.
Another characteristic of rumba music is the bass part, which plays a single note on the first two beats of each bar, followed by one note on the third and fourth beat, that is, a Slow Quick Quick rhythm. Most of the time, each whole bar is based on a single chord. The bass then plays the root on the first two beats, and another note such as the fifth on the remaining beats. This harmonic structure, together with the rhythm pattern, gives a strong binary structure to each bar. (Play mp3)
Talking about rumba dancing is tricky, since rumba is danced to three different rhythms:
This rhythm holds on beat one, in the sense that you do not step on that beat. However, a better way of describing it is to compare it to cha-cha. In cha-cha you step on 2 3, and do a triple-step rhythm on 4&1. Now, if you dance fast swing, you'll know that you can replace a triple-step by a single step taking two beats. The same happens - though not for reasons of speed - in going from cha-cha to rumba. The 4&1 rhythm in cha-cha becomes a single slow step in rumba. Unfortunately it straddles the bar line, and that's where the complication comes from.
The above story is actually a bit backward, since cha-cha originated from filling in the long step in mambo.
Almost the whole story of starting to dance cha-cha applies to rumba. In a strict interpretation of the syllabus, you start dancing by stepping on beat two. However, many dancers will start by a - leader's right foot - side step on 1, or some body motion, before taking the first step of the pattern on 2.
This file is part of "Feel The Beat", a musicology course for dancers, by Victor Eijkhout (victor at eijkhout dot net), who appreciates being sent additions or corrections on the material in this course. Copyright 2000/1 Victor Eijkhout.
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Last modified on: Sunday, May 6, 2001.