Learning the Dances of Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico, where there's music playing, there are probably people dancing.
If you love to dance, you'll love Puerto Rico. Any day of the week you'll find a bar or a club full of people moving to the beat — whether it's a live band, a DJ spinning, or a jukebox blasting. Salsa, merengue, reggaetón, bachata, and cha-cha, are styles of music and dancing most people may recognize. Locally, people also dance plena and bomba.
If you want to learn some moves, consider taking a dance class during your visit to the island. If you're good at picking up dance styles, then head straight to a party and have some friendly locals show you how it's done. Either way, you're going to have a great time!
Salsa is the style of dancing most people associate with Puerto Rico and there is no shortage of places offering salsa nights, and some have free classes. For those just coming to the island for a short visit, there are a number of places where you can learn to dance in one night.
Piso Viejo on Calle Loíza has Salsa Thursdays, and from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. they offer free classes followed by a live orchestra playing salsa hits so you can show off what you learned.
Also, there are independent tour guides you can find through Viator or Airbnb Experiences that also offer inexpensive one-day salsa classes. Tour company Get Shopped even offers a Rum, Mixology, and Salsa tour which ends with a salsa lesson after a few drinks around Old San Juan.
If you want to see some serious salsa performances, plan your trip during the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress, which gathers some of the most impressive salsa dancers from around the world. Or, if you want to spend a whole day dancing come for El Día Nacional de la Zalsa (National Zalsa Day; the Z is in reference to radio station Z-93, the event's organizer).
If you're going to be spending some time in Puerto Rico, then it's worthwhile to take some basic classes at one of the dance schools. Cambio en Clave is extremely popular and can take you from basic to show-off in a couple of months. Plus, students go out dancing after the class to try out the new moves they've learned. Arthur Murray Dance Studio also teaches Latin ballroom styles including salsa, merengue, chachachá, and bachata, as well as tango, milonga, paso doble, and other styles. DanzaActiva offers salsa classes for adults as well as flamenco, sevillana, and bomba.
Here's a selection of the top Puerto Rican salsa songs and singers so you can practice your steps:
Bomba y Plena
Bomba is an Afro-Puerto Rican style of traditional music and dance that's had a resurgence over the past few years. Several schools are now teaching bomba drumming and dancing to new generations, while venues like La Terraza de Bonanza in Santurce, Café Borikén in Río Piedras, and La Vergüenza in Old San Juan offer weekly bomba nights with live percussion, singing, and dancing. This style of dance is interactive, with the musicians taking cues from the dancers rather than the other way around.
Plena on the other hand is folk music, with both Spanish and African roots and some influence from bomba. The music is played on hand drums of different sizes, called panderetas; güiros, which is a gourd with indentations that's scraped rhythmically (somehow it works); and often other instruments like maracas, guitar, cuatro (a small Puerto Rican guitar), congas, trumpet, and accordion.
To learn either or both styles of dance you can take lessons at Escuela de Bomba y Plena Rafael Cepeda Atiles or at Escuela de Bomba y Plena Doña Caridad Brenes de Cepeda. Along with formal classes, both schools offer monthly events that include performances by the students and offer the public an opportunity to learn about the cultural significance of these dance and music styles.
Other Styles of Dancing
While you're out, you'll probably hear other styles of Latin music like merengue, cha-cha, and bachata, which are also highly danceable.
Merengue is a style of dance that originated in the Dominican Republic and consists of a basic two-step performed in a waltz-position. In Puerto Rico its typical to side step and incorporate elaborate twists and turns to make it more fun.
Cha-cha is a spinoff of mambo and is named for the scraping noise of the dancer's feet on the dance floor. It consists of three quick steps, the cha-cha-chá, followed by two slower steps.
Bachata is another style of Dominican music and dance. Here the steps are short, with two side steps followed by tapping your toes to the back, then two side steps to the other side and a tap step.