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5, 6, 7, 8: Sensuality and the Dance Floor

Illustration of women dancing
Illustration of women dancing

Maybe dance isn’t a turn-on for everyone. Awkward movements and strange beats can make for an embarrassing night at the club, and those awkward wedding group numbers – like the infamous Electric Slide and Chicken Dance – will do nothing for a person’s sex life. And yet, almost anyone can admit there’s something about dances like the tango, rumba, paso doble, salsa, bachata, and kizomba that bring heat. The constant contact between partners, quick movements and intense looks are powerful, and super sensual. These dances are art and beauty mixed with something you can’t stop watching, something downright sexy.

The dances listed are only a few of the many Latin dances out there. And while not every Dancing With the Stars fan can tell the difference between a rumba and a bachata right away, each has its own flair, and they’re all memorable. When one of these styles is featured (and done right) on shows like So You Think You Can Dance, everyone – judges and viewers alike – is taken by the performers’ passion and intoxicating energy. And, oh yes, their footwork.


But what makes them so hot-hot-hot? And where did these moves come from? Turns out Latin dance has a rich history that goes back long before television dance shows. Long before television, even. Many of these dance forms have distinct influences from native Latin cultures, Europe, as well as parts of Africa. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Spanish and Portuguese travelers began to colonize parts of South America, with upper-class European immigrants following soon after, bringing their dance traditions. And, with European settlers came African slaves, whose styles and rhythms combined with the traditional European moves also contributed to the new techniques that were developing in South America.

Ballroom dance
Ballroom dance

Coming from a mix of cultures and ideas, these new dances were fun and sensual, and featured upbeat music. By 1850, Latin dance developed into a full-fledged genre. Energetic and sexy moves accompanied by quick, lively music, made these styles irresistible.

Of the Latin favorites, the tango is perhaps the most popular, seeing as there are so many films featuring it. Who could forget the passionate dance in Last Tango in Paris (1972) between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider? Never Say Never Again (1983) featured a steamy number between Sean Connery and Kim Basinger. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Addams Family Values (1993), and True Lies (1994) feature even more memorable tangos. It seems whenever a movie needs to showcase a couple’s passion, it does so with this dance. And, why not? All of those sharp movements, quick turns, and signature deep stares never fail to display the characters’ lust. It’s the dance equivalent of a quick cut to some rustling curtains on a bedroom window or a long shot of fireworks. The general consensus is the tango is hot.

But it didn’t start as a dance for couples. In the 19th century, the tango was a solo dance performed in the slums of Buenos Aires, only later involving men and women. With the co-mingling of the sexes, this passionate new dance (complete with soul-igniting music) was soon declared immoral, and, became quite scandalous. But that didn’t stop its popularity. By the 1900s, it spread throughout Europe and in the 1920’s reached New York City, when silent film star Rudolph Valentino ( 1895 – 1926) performed the tango in Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) elevating its popularity across the United States. As time passed, the dance became more accepted and was considered less controversial, and, thankfully, never lost its passion.

Similar to the tango is the sensual paso doble, which means “double step.” Both are traveling dances, meaning the dancers don’t stay in one place. The styles are also similar in that they use very little hip movement, which is unusual in Latin dance. And both are also very theatrical. But, no dance compares to the storytelling magic of the latter. The paso doble, originated in France, but tells the story of the classic Spanish bullfights. The man plays the roll of a bullfighter while the woman is the matador’s cape or the bull, or even an adoring fan. The couple moves around the room with big steps in a marching rhythm featuring lots of stomping, fast looks, and aggressive movements. It is the inspiration for many beautiful pieces of art, sometimes including a bull, like in “Muleta” by David Riley, which shows how big a part storytelling plays in this dance.

While the rumba is just as sensual as the tango or paso doble, it’s slower and more intense. A sexual pantomime, the rumba – from the word rumbear, meaning, “to have a good time” – is danced with lots of body contact and exaggerated hip movements. The dance has Spanish and African roots and was primarily developed in Cuba, though it has ties to the Caribbean, too. There were some attempts to bring the rumba to the United States early in the 20th century, but real American interest began in 1929, when Xavier Cugat (1900 – 1990) – a Spanish-American musician – formed an orchestra that played Latin music.

By the 1930s, the dance was so popular that George Raft and Carol Lombard stared in a movie called Rumba (1935) featuring many sultry numbers. Meanwhile, the dance spread throughout Europe with the help of Monsieur Pierre, London’s leading Latin dance teacher. Still popular today, the dance inspired yet another film titled Rumba (2008) and is considered one of the most popular and most sensual of ballroom dances.

But salsa is also unforgettable. The name “salsa” actually started out as a nickname in New York for several dances, including the mambo and the cha cha. Now, however, it’s seen as its own distinct dance, though it’s similar to the mambo in that both have a pattern of six steps over eight counts of music, and many of the same moves. Turns have become an important part of the dance form, as well as a focus on the swaying of hips – making the dance spicy, energetic, and distinctly its own. This sexy dance also inspired countless works of art, like the many paintings by Will Caldwell, where the dancer’s passion and movement seem to jump from the canvas, and movies such as Salsa (1988) and the French film Salsa & Amor (2000).

The bachata is also known for a lot of hip movement, but it doesn’t feature as many turns as the salsa. It is a spot dance, so couples tend to stay in one space on the dance floor. It’s slow, sensual, and beautiful, but the dance itself has a controversial history. Originating in the Dominican Republic in the mid-20th century, the bachata was censored by the government and media. It got very little TV and radio play, and was hardly mentioned in newspapers and magazines. The first bachata song was not even recorded until Dominican president Rafael Trujillo, known for his censorship, was assassinated. By the 1980s, the dance finally started getting the recognition and popularity it deserved. Then in the early 2000s, it flourished, thanks to a greater acceptance of its sensual moves and the growing popularity of the signature bachata music.

Like bachata, kizomba is slow and sensual, but also very romantic. It relies on frequent hip rotations, constant body contact, and slow, sexy moves. But kizomba is different from every other dance on this list as it’s the only one that isn’t a part of the competitive ballroom program, and because it’s actually not a Latin dance — it’s African. Kizomba (which means “party”) was created in the mid 20th century when people performed the semba, another Angolan dance, set to kizomba music. With the colonization of the Portuguese in Angola, other dances came from Europe, such as the tango, and influenced kizomba. Now, the dance has been described as the “African Tango” and is gaining popularity in the United States.

There are many other styles, but the tango, rumba, paso doble, salsa, bachata, and kizomba are especially sexy and memorable. Many couldn’t dream of displaying the talent that professional Latin ballroom dancers have, but maybe with a little inspiration from their moves, people can at least improve their dance game at the next wedding.

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