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The beguine is a dance perhaps most familiar to those on the islands of Martinique, Cuba, and Guadeloupe, where it was developed in the 1930s. It will also be familiar to fans of Big Bands of the 1940s, and Fred Astaire enthusiasts, since he performed a beguine with Eleanor Powell, to the music, “Begin the Beguine,” in the film, Broadway Melody of 1940. Today the beguine is one of the more obscure dances in the Latin ballroom dance tradition.
The steps of the beguine are quite close to those performed in the Rumba. In fact the beguine is almost but not quite identical to the Rumba in many ways. The music is always slow and the dance moves quite deliberately and smooth. Like many Latin dances, the beguine emphasizes the ability to roll the hips while stepping, evoking sensuality. Most music adapted for the beguine is based on the Caribbean or Latin ballroom dance bolero, which shouldn’t be confused with the earlier Spanish bolero, normally set in 3/4 time.
The ballroom dance bolero is in common or 4/4 time. The very basic dance steps of the bolero are simply slow quick/quick. Slow comes on beat one, quick/quick on beats three and four. In the beguine, the first step may not take place until after beat two, or between beats one and two. The three-step style gives the sense of rumba, being combined with waltz.
Bolero music, which may include voice accompaniment, is also classic for a building addition of musical instruments or lyrics as the music progresses. If you’ve never heard one, consider listening to Maurice Ravel’s piece Bolero to get a sense of the building excitement. The beguine as danced should always capitalize on the growing excitement of the music. As more complex rhythms and more instruments are employed, the dancing generally becomes more involved.
You’d have to look at the bolero as very influential to the development of both the rumba and the beguine. You may still see the bolero danced in ballroom dancing competitions, but it is now no longer popular in Cuba, where the current form likely originated. When dancers dance the beguine, they see it as quite distinct from the bolero, though both dances are greatly similar to the rumba.
To get a sense of the look and feel of the beguine, there is probably no better source than viewing Broadway Melody of 1940. From a musical standpoint only, the most important music for dancing the beguine is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine written in the 1930s. You’ll find numerous big band recordings of this classic, popular song.