African dance is polyrhythmic, polycentric and grounded. There are multiple rhythms being played by different instruments at the same time. The dancer’s movements are polycentric in that different parts of the body move to different rhythms in the music. These movements can be initiated from any part of the body and are oriented towards the earth, which is why people say that African dance is “grounded”. The relationship of these movements to the rhythms is key to African dance. The dances are performed in lines or circles of dancers.
African dance has influenced the development of social Latin dance in Latin America and the Caribbean. The polyrhythmic music, polycentric movements, downward (grounded) focus, stepping with the whole foot, body isolations and improvisations are elements of Latin dance that can be traced back to African dance. These elements were influenced by the African slaves brought to various countries in Latin America and the Caribbean by European settlers.
The attitude of the American slave owner was different than that of the Spanish slave owner when it came to African culture. The American slave owner tried to erase the African culture of their slaves. One exception was that slave owners in New Orleans, Louisiana allowed their slaves to have Sundays off and have dances and celebrations outside of city limits in a place called Place de Negres (later called Congo Square). This is where jazz was born.
In contrast, the Spanish slave owner felt that it would be beneficial to them to allow African slaves to maintain their culture so Africans were able to organize social groups (“Cabildos”) based on their nation of origin. For example, in Cuba, one of these Cabildos would be the origin of the African rhythms used in salsa. The salsa we know today is a combination of the club dances popular in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba with the American jazz dances.
Africa is thought to be the birthplace of modern civilization. The roots of many genres of music and dance that we enjoy today were influenced by African culture. Latin dance can’t be separated from its Black roots.