What’s the Beguine?

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The beguine is a slow Latin dance similar to the rumba, developed in the 1930s in Martinique, Cuba, and Guadeloupe. It emphasizes hip rotation and sensuality, with music based on the bolero. The bolero influenced the development of both rumba and beguine, and is still danced in ballroom competitions. “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter is a popular song for dancing the beguine.

The beguine is a dance perhaps most familiar to those of the islands of Martinique, Cuba and Guadeloupe, where it was developed in the 1930s. He will also be familiar to 1940s Big Band fans and Fred Astaire aficionados, since he performed a beguine with Eleanor Powell, to the music “Begin the Beguine,” in the 1940 film Broadway Melody. Today the beguine is one of the darker dances of the Latin ballroom tradition.

The steps of the beguine are quite close to those performed in the Rumba. Indeed the beguine is almost, but not quite, identical to the rumba in many respects. The music is always slow and the dance moves quite deliberately and smoothly. Like many Latin dances, the beguine emphasizes the ability to rotate the hips while walking, evoking sensuality. Most of the music adapted for the beguine is based on the Latin or Caribbean dance bolero, which should not be confused with the earlier Spanish bolero, normally set in 3/4 time.

The ballroom bolero is common or in 4/4 time. The basic dance moves of the bolero are simply slow fast/fast. Slow comes in the first beat, fast/fast in beats three and four. At first, the first step may not take place until after the second beat, or between beats one and two. The three-step style gives the sense of rumba, being combined with waltz.

Bolero music, which can include vocal accompaniment, is also classic for an addition of musical instruments or lyrics as the music progresses. If you’ve never heard one, consider listening to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero piece to get a sense of the building’s excitement. The beguine as a ballad should always capitalize on the rising excitement of the music. As more complex rhythms and more instruments are employed, the dance generally becomes more involved.

You should consider the bolero as very influential to the development of both rumba and beguine. You may still see the bolero danced in ballroom dance 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 entirely distinct from the bolero, although both dances are very similar to the rumba.

To get a sense of the look and feel of the beguine, there is probably no better source than the 1940 Broadway vision Melody. Musically speaking alone, the most important music for dancing the beguine is Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter written in the 1930s. You’ll find numerous big band recordings of this classic and popular song.

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