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Cuban Music Lesson: Cha Cha Cha

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

I don’t like those dancing shows that are so popular on TV these days. Sure, watching Kate Gosselin or whoever fall on their talentless butts is funny, but not enough to deserve a primetime slot. The other major problem with them has to do with the nature of competitive ballroom dance. Some tool somewhere took something you are supposed to do for fun and to try and get laid and turned it into a “sport”. People watch these competitions and think this is what a rumba, a mambo, or a cha cha cha are supposed to be like. I’m here to tell you: what you saw them do is not the real cha cha cha.

Whereas most Cuban musical forms were created over a period of time by different artists, the cha cha cha was created by one man: Enrique Jorrin. Enrique was a violinist, which isn’t exactly the instrument you’d expect for a guy who started a dance craze. Enrique was in several bands in the 30’s and 40’s in Havana, but in the the 50’s he founded the Orquesta America. It was there that he developed the signature syncopated rhythm of the cha cha cha. Basically it goes 1-2-cha-cha-cha, and the dance steps follow this rhythm. I can’t dance to save my life, which is an eternal shame upon my Cuban ancestors. Here is a pretty good tutorial video of how the cha cha cha is really danced.

Other artists started writing cha cha cha’s, and by the middle of the fifties the dance had spread throughout Latin America and the US. This was back when Americans would go to Havana the way we go to Vegas. These happy gringos brought the dance back to the States along with cigars and the clap. Enrique Jorrin continued playing until his death in 1987. His songs “Osiris”, “Tunel”, “La Engañadora”, and many others are classic Cuban standards. My mom and I danced our son/mother dance at my wedding to “La Engañadora” because it was my grandmother’s favorite song. And yes, I stepped on her toes…cha cha cha!

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