The Conga is a Latin dance of African-Cuban descent. The name conga is believed to have originated from the African region of Congo, although Latin music historian Isabelle Leymarie claims that conga may have come from a Bantu word that means both song and tumult.
Origin of the Conga
The conga is said to be a combination of slave dance forms and the dances that came from poor Europeans. Slaves are widely credited for having brought the conga to Cuba. Some believe that the dance took form when the slaves started dancing while they were chained together. Another legend says that the dance came to life when the captives from the slave ships were brought on deck to exercise. Others claim that the conga dance was never a slave dance but rather one that came from the dancing and chanting lines that followed the processions of the Virgin Mary during Easter festivities.
The conga was initially a street dance in Cuba, specifically in the city of Santiago. In Cuba, the conga is called the comparsa. Both the music and dance were originally performed in carnival processions and African slave celebrations. It played a significant role in the processional Corpus Christi and Epiphany carnival dance that was attended by the political and social elites of Cuba since the 1600s. Back then, it was done in both its forms for line and couple dancing.
The dance was also used by some politicians before the elections in order to catch the appeal of the public. During the dictatorship of Machado, residents of Havana were not allowed to dance the conga, as the opposition could manipulate them into high excitement, which would lead to street fighting. At the time of the presidency of Fulgencio Batista in the 1940s, he allowed people to dance the conga during the elections, but only with permission form the police.
Some people mistakenly believe that Lucille Ball’s husband, Desi Arnaz, is the inventor of dance. However, Arnaz merely popularized the Brazilian conga in 1939 when he moved to the U.S from Cuba and began performing the dance in clubs and television performances with his wife.
Significance of the Conga
Although the conga may look silly and fun, it was part of the Congo slaves’ religion and actually has ceremonial and ritualistic origins. The dance was a means for the slaves to celebrate victory or success, and it was also a way for them to express their grievances and frustrations without being blatant about it.
The conga has also been used to express protective unity and seriousness. On March 1965, a group of women danced the conga line all night around a gathering of civil rights demonstrators.
Music Behind the Conga
Strictly speaking, the term conga refers to a tall-single headed and narrow drum that originated in Cuba. It is widely believed that the original drums were made out of salvaged barrels, because the present-day drums are staved, like barrels. Their shape makes them distinctive from the African drum.
In its native Cuba, this drum is called tumbadora or tumba and they are usually played when Afro-Latin dances are performed. The drum only came to be called a conga drum in the 1920s when the conga dance was at the height of its popularity in the U.S and Americans began calling it the conga drum. The term “conga” in Spanish refers to a woman from Conga.
Most congas are led by a musician leader at the start of the line in charge of keeping the beat on a pair of bongos. However, traditional Cuban congas were led by a trio of drums. The smallest drum, called the quinto, was a solo instrument used to introduce new rhythms. The middle-sized conga, or also known as a tresgolpes, and the larger tumba provided the base rhythms.
Modern-day conga drums have been lessened to two, and instead of being placed on the ground, they are mounted on stands in such a way that they can be played by only one drummer. This way one musician can easily combine the rhythms of the quinto, conga, and tumba to produce sound that is fairly close to the original three-drum configuration. The drummer is also not limited to just drumming with the hands, since a polyrhythmic 6/8 pattern is sometimes included into of the conga music parts. The sound comes in the form of sticks on a hollow wooden box or a cajon, or on the side of a drum.
Dancing the Conga
The conga dance style resembles a march because of the distinctive rhythm coming from the conga drum. It is very different from other Latin dances, such as the rumba that uses more hip movements and portrays the dancer’s sensually aggressive attitude. The conga is known as a “mixer” dance, which means it mixes the crowd in parties and other functions.
The conga usually consists only of drums and shakers as the only accompanying instruments. The conga beat is a syncopated 4/4, with a step on each of the first three beats of the measure, followed by a delayed touch of the foot to either side of the direction in which the line of dancers is going.
The conga is commonly done in a long, single-file line, but it can also be performed with a partner. The dancers form a long line and dance three shuffle steps on the beat, with a kick slightly ahead of the fourth beat after. In other words, the count is a simply one-two-three-kick. When done in a line, the dancers put their hands on the waist of the person in front of them, and the line zigzags through the room. When done with a partner, the couple faces each other but moves in opposite directions. Both partners will move to their right and then reverse directions.
When dancing the conga, it is important to take small steps so the line will not break. It is also helpful to remember to always kick to the side, and not in front or backwards. It is also advisable to make movements as small as possible, which will also help in ensuring that the integrity of the conga line remains intact.
Leaders of a conga line need to have a good sense of the general layout of the room before the conga line even begins, as this will make the dance smoother and less awkward. The conga line usually doesn’t last very long, only lasting around a minute or two before dancers start breaking away from the line.
The conga is both lyrical and danceable, with music based on those of carnival troupes and comparsas. The musicians use unique instruments and play a rhythm that most foreigners have not seen nor heard before.
The Rise of the Conga
Its rise in popularity in the U.S. began when the La Conga Nightclub opened in New York City in 1929, and reached its peak in the 1930s and 1950s. Because of this beginning, many people write off the conga as simply a novelty dance or a fad.
There was a period in history when the conga could be seen literally everywhere. The conga’s swift rise in popularity can be attributed to the simplicity of the dance. In the 1930s, Americans found the dance interesting and easy to dance to, with its repetitive step-step-step-kick to the right then repeated to the left.
The conga also appealed to Americans because it was a welcoming and celebratory kind of dance, unlike other Latin dances that Americans are a lot more hesitant to try. Conga lines were generally perceived to be light-hearted celebrations that large groups of people could enjoy together by participating in mass dancing.
The conga’s popularity led to numerous references in popular culture. Plenty of cartoons made by Warner Bros. in the 1940s contained a reference to the conga. Nowadays, knowledge of the dance and its popularity has waned but one may still encounter the occasional conga line at a wedding or party.