Rich, Poor, Black, White… Who cares! Everyone is equal in dance. That's what the Dominicans think. They dance always and everywhere. An artist at an easel, a porter in a hotel, and even a policeman at his post
Roar. Looks like they knocked down the door on the floor above. “Baylar contigo!” (“Dance with you!”) enrique Iglesias shouts from someone’s smartphone. Laughter, screeching, rhythmic knocking. The ceiling is trembling. Are they dancing? I sleepily stare at the display of my mobile phone: two in the morning. Actually a three-storey villa Gansevoortin the town of Sosua near Puerto Plata – an elite vacation home and solitude for wealthy introverts. Even the staff whispers…
I listen to fragmentary phrases from above. It turns out that a Dominican diplomat descended on my neighbors in the company of the concierge and the driver Daniel, who brought me here. I cover my head with a pillow. But I still can't fall asleep.
– You must have been tasting rum all night? – I'm interested in the morning at Daniel's.
— What are you doing! I'm driving. And why drink? As soon as I hear the rhythms that are close to my heart, my legs begin to dance on their own,” the driver laughs. And suddenly, releasing the steering wheel at full speed, he starts clapping his hands and jumping to the beat of a fast farcical song coming from the car radio. – It's merengue!
Rhythm of the heart
Merengue is the main dance of the Dominican Republic. Since November 30, 2016, it has been included in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List. It has a stronger effect on Dominicans than 10-year-old añejo rum. Still: merengue has an aging for five centuries.
– Merengue flows in our blood, its rhythm coincides with the beating of our hearts, – says Daniel.
According to one version, the dance was created by the ancestors of the Dominicans – African slaves of the Spanish and French colonialists. They worked in the sugar plantations and gold mines of Haiti with chains on their feet. Movements were limited: small steps left and right and tilts. The overseer urged on the slaves with rods – they jumped. This is how the rhythm appeared.
In the 1790s, the gradual abolition of slavery began. Not all French and Spaniards supported the liberation movement – some tried to strengthen their positions as slave owners and colonialists. The slaves were finally freed in 1822, and in 1844 the Spanish political community “Trinitaria” proclaimed the eastern part of Haiti an independent Dominican Republic.
Blacks, mulattos and white Europeans became citizens of the young state. And the composer Juan Bautista Alfonseca set the rhythm of plantations to major music. The result was a light life-affirming dance, which was given the name merengue. Why this is so is unknown. The Dominicans themselves associate the name of the dance with an airy meringue cake (meringue): the movement of the whisk when whipping egg whites and the dance steps are somewhat similar.
Probably, the Dominicans considered merengue the beginning of a new, sweet life. But it was too early to dance with joy: the young republic did not have enough strength and resources for self-government. Spain, France and the United States fought for the Dominican lands. Neighbors from Western Haiti periodically attacked. The country is mired in debt.
In 1861, the Dominican Republic was annexed by Spain, in 1916 – occupied by the United States. The West did not want any reminders of slavery and African culture. Activists tried to ban the provocative dance, but to no avail.
And in 1930, Rafael Trujillo came to power. The ruler returned to the Dominicans the merengue tipico (a version of Alfonseca's time), ordered to compose variations – new melodies and words – on the theme of the merengue and declared the dance a national treasure.
Trujillo was from the Dominican lower classes. In addition, he wanted to win over the people with the help of merengue, to show that “life has become more fun.” However, the dictator considered the white and “not too dark” population of the country to be the people. Trujillo hated his African roots. On his orders, the soldiers massacred thousands of blacks. When Trujillo was killed by conspirators in 1961, the merengue turned into a dance of freedom and equality. And the Dominican Republic to the dance floor…
On the street of Puerto Plata, houses of all colors of the rainbow with openwork architraves and white balconies are crowded. They were built by the Spanish colonizers. Exhausted citizens hide under the umbrellas of street cafes. An artist with an easel in the shade of a flamboyant (“fire tree”) draws a colonial house, and his legs move continuously left and right. This is because a wandering musician, sitting on the stone porch of the house, strums a merengue guitar.
A policeman at a road intersection pulls out a ringing cell phone from his pocket, but is in no hurry to answer. Ringtone – merengue! And the elderly stocky law enforcement officer suddenly begins to squirm to the beat, like an iguana.
Surfers on the ocean coast and they dance.
– How are you? Okay! — swarthy surf instructors Jerry and Dauri improvise rap in Russian to the rhythm of merengue, having learned that I am from Russia. Their colleague, the German Markus Bohm, dances with them. He came from prosperous Germany to the Dominican Republic to “catch the wave” and stayed for 28 years.
— In the Dominican Republic, there is a holiday and joy all year round, — Markus explains.
He's not the only white foreigner to voluntarily give up European comforts for a never-ending dance party. Here is another downshifter – Italian Andrea Attus. He quit publishing in Milan and now works on a cable car in Puerto Plata.
– In the Dominican Republic, no one cares who you are and where you are from. Dancing gradually blurs the line between races and social classes, – says Andrea. – Even the representatives of the lower strata do not feel hurt and enjoy life.
Pride of the poorThe lower classes of Dominican society are farmers, fishermen, fruit merchants, workers in national parks. Almost the entire territory of the country is occupied by forests, fields, gardens, limestone caves. Many villages are located right in the nature reserves.
Po path of the El Choco nature reserve, in the suburbs of Cabarete, a milk truck with a beaten canister is dragged on a donkey. In the thickets of giant ferns hide shacks, hastily knocked together from unhewn palm boards. There are gaps between the boards. In one hut, the door was knocked off its hinges and tied to the post of the opening with a rope.
Inside, on four pegs, there is a sheet of iron covered with ashes, obviously from a landfill, on top – red-hot bricks and charred saucepans. An elderly woman in a faded dress sits on a shabby makeshift stool. In front of her, bean pods are laid out on limestone. Apparently, he cooks la bandera, a favorite dish of the local poor, reminiscent of the Dominican tricolor flag. Meat is red, a symbol of independence. Rice – white, salvation. Blue-violet beans – blue, freedom … Seeing me, the hostess introduces herself as Petrulencia and smiles cordially. She is missing her front teeth.
Yes, we live in poverty. But we have much to be proud of. After all, it was we, the poor, who invented the bachata, which is now danced even in secular society! – Petrulencia assures me.
The bachata dance (bachata – “party”, “drunkenness”) was born in the time of Trujillo. It was also called the music of bitterness – amargue. The peasants slowed down the merengue rhythm and composed minor melodies: this option was more suitable for their lifestyle.
Performing amarge in the highest circles was considered bad form. But in the 1970s, the popularization of this musical style began. The prejudice against bachata was finally broken in 1990, when the Dominican pop singer Juan Luis Guerra released the album “Pink Bachata”, the songs of which immediately became hits even among the upper strata of society.
Simultaneously with bachata, the image came into fashion simple woman in curlers. Going to dances, peasant women curl their hair in hairdressers. Small curls (African heritage) are considered ugly. If you look bad they won't invite you to dance.
In 2016, during the election campaign of the current president of the Dominican Republic, Danilo Medina, posters hung all over the country: Danilo, as his fellow citizens call him in a brotherly way, hugging a lady in curlers. The Dominican leader made the right bet. From the point of view of the people, a good president is the one who holds dancing in high esteem.
We don't complain. After all, no one encroaches on our freedom anymore. This thought is easy to live with. For example, for a whole week I think about how I will go to a disco on Friday night. Ahead of the weekend, dance until you drop, – tells me a resident of the village of Carlos. And in the meantime he dances. Getting ready.
Friday evening. On Columbus Square in Santo Domingo, the “merengue gang” performs – musicians in simple checkered shirts. They play on some boxes and graters. Bursting, chirping, rattling sounds are reflected from the walls of the fortress. It feels like I'm inside an old music box.
— nbsp; they have a hole. The plates are tapped with hands or sticks, a sound with resonance is obtained. “Grater” – guira. Metal roller with pimples, which are driven back and forth with a scraper.
The obligatory instrument is the African tambora drum: it is beaten with both hands on the left and on the right. More guitars. And accordion. Trujillo ordered to bring him from Germany to perform merengue in a modern way. The classical merengue ensemble has no less than 15 musicians.
The crowd moves to the concert with the power of an ocean wave. People, like lizards, clung to the entire hill to the very foot of the fort. There is nowhere to dance, but that doesn't stop anyone.
A guy with a glass in his hand, spinning his partner, accidentally splashes rum on the head of a lady who has sat down to rest. She turns around angrily. “Sorry, I got carried away with dancing!” – the guy justifies himself. And the woman immediately breaks into a smile. A hunched old man is spinning with a young mulatto beauty. The obese pregnant madam bounces to the beat. Their movements are clear and harmonious.
– Nothing complicated. When you dance merengue, you need to follow your partner carefully. And bachata is completely danced close to each other, this is a sensual dance. You definitely won’t get off the rhythm, — Prudencio instructs.
Merengue and bachata sound, perhaps, from every courtyard, window, door of Santo Domingo. Dance clubs everywhere. There are elite: spacious multi-tiered halls with expensive bars, a stage, laser installations. There are “folk” ones: gloomy little rooms on the first floors of peeling houses from the time of Columbus. A gray-haired old man, dark as the night sky, runs out of one such room, grabs my arm and pulls me inside, into a cloud of cigar smoke.
“Don't be afraid!” Prudencio laughs. “He wants to dance with you.” It's Friday. All the people are having fun!
Alas, I can’t dance either merengue or bachata.
— Step with the right foot . Left step. Farther. Closer. Turn. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro! – an animator teaches me at the Paradisus hotel in Punta Cana.
Punta Cana is a resort for foreigners. Almost all local residents work in the tourism sector. Dancing mostly in hotels. In Bahia Principe, for example, almost the entire staff, headed by the director, starts dancing when tourists stop by. They sing a song of their own composition in merengue rhythm: “This is Bahia Principe – a hotel!” Almost every hotel in Punta Cana hosts dance master classes in the evenings. Dominican businessmen believe that a hotel without merengue and bachata will lose to competitors.
I try to repeat the steps after my teacher. But I lack lightness, looseness, a sense of rhythm.
— So drink mamajuana! —advises the dancer.
Mamajuana is a Dominican alcoholic drink. It is prepared from rum, red wine, tree bark, various herbs, roots and spices. According to the most common version, pot-bellied wicker bottles with a narrow neck were previously called mamahuana. They kept tincture. The locals are sure: mamahuana excites and invigorates. In addition, the national drink, like the merengue, is associated with freedom and equality: the mass production of mamajuana was established only after the death of Trujillo. And it seems that the rhythm of the merengue already coincides with my pulse.
A precocious porter in a black uniform jumps out onto the dance floor, with which he almost blends in. He snatches a tourist from a group of spectators – a grand lady in diamonds. She leaves her bored husband with a glass of mamajuana and goes dancing with a smile.
– Dancing makes people happy, – say the Dominicans. – And all people are happy the same way. Regardless of origin, skin color and social status.
Area 48,670 km² (128th in the world)
Population 10,535,000 people (86th)
Population density 216 inhabitants/km²
Capital city Santo Domingo
ATTRACTIONS >national park with three lakes Los Tres Ojos, the 16th-century Cathedral of Saint Mary with its coral limestone façade, and the Amber Museum of Santo Domingo.
TRADITIONAL DISHES yucca root casabe, tostones banana chips, puerco en puya baked pork.
TRADITIONAL DRINKS Dominican coffee, rum, mamajuana.
SOUVENIRSLime faceless doll is a symbol of the equality of nations and races, jewelery made of larimar —a semi-precious blue stone (“Dominican turquoise”).
DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Punta Cana ~ 9250 km (from 12 hours in flight)
TIMElags Moscow by 7 hours
VISARussians do not need
CURRENCY Dominican Peso (50 DOP ~ 0.9 USD)
Photo: GETTY IMAGES, HEMIS ( X4), CUBO IMAGES (X2)/LEGION-MEDIA, LAIF/VOSTOCK PHOTO, CUBO IMAGES/LEGION-MEDIA, GETTY IMAGES, LEGION-MEDIA Around the World” No. 7, July 2018, partially updated in May 2022
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