Merengue dancing is a style of partner dancing originating in the Dominican Republic. It is performed to merengue music, the official music of the Dominican Republic. While ballroom merengue dancing is the official dance of the country, less formal club and folk versions of the dance also exist.
Merengue dancing first gained popularity in the Dominican Republic in the mid-19th century, though it was denounced by the upper classes in favor of native dance forms such as the Tumba. Merengue may have taken its name from one portion of a contemporary Cuban dance called upa.
Merengue was controversial because it was popular among the rural poor, used African rhythms, and often had racy lyrics. Throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, merengue became increasingly respectable and accepted by the upper classes of the Dominican Republic, with the help of professional ballroom musicians and innocuous lyrics.
Merengue music is closely related to the similarly named Méringue, native to Haiti. Dictator Rafael Trujillo, who came to power in the Dominican Republic in 1930, declared merengue dancing and music as the official national forms. He may have been inspired by his partially Haitian background, despite the violent anti-Haitian policy he developed later in his reign.
Merengue dancing as traditionally performed is characterized by a stylized limping step, known as paso de la empalizada, or the "pole-fence step." Legend tells that the style was developed to imitate or flatter a wounded war hero or government leader who danced with a limp. The empalizada causes the dancers' hips to sway, and ideally, partners' hips move in sync with each other throughout the dance. A couple may perform slow turns, dance sideways, circle each other, and turn independently, in addition to other ballroom choreography. Merengue dancing is taught at dance studios around the world as a Latin nightclub dance, though the empalizada of the Dominican Republic is often replaced with the more exaggerated Cuban hip motion used in other Latin ballroom styles.
Club merengue is a less formal style of merengue dancing that developed in the Latin American nightclub scene. Though it uses many of the same dance moves as ballroom merengue dancing, the tone is typically less serious and more eroticized. In addition, the basic step may be more flamboyant than the empalizada or Cuban hip motion, and dancers may perform separately as well as with partners. A more traditional style of merengue dancing, known as folk or folkloric merengue, is still performed in rural areas of the Dominican Republic.