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It's All in the Hips

March 18, 1993

Learning the many variations of soulsa music may seem an impossible dream, but Puerto Ricans have a saying about dance and love: "Una escoba nueva barre buena" or "A new broom sweeps well." So, if at first you don't succeed, dance, dance, again.

Beginner's luck: Once you can control your hips, Latin dance is easy, a basic three-step movement. Start by keeping your shoulders and torso erect and fairly immobile. Then move your hips in a figure 8 or pretend you're stirring a Cuban breeze with the lower part of your body.

Meanwhile, place a hand on one hip or over your stomach area and raise the other upward in a figure L. Snap your fingers in time to the music and move your feet. After you get used to that, try alternating sides. Throw in an occasional shimmy and observers will think you're a natural.

Latin American dance is based on three steps, either in 2-2 or 4-4 time. We could explain all day, but the best way to understand is to listen to the music and practice dancing.

Take comfort in the fact that even experts can learn something new. There are almost as many types of dances as there are Latin cultures. A primer on the heart of soulsa follows:

* Rumba: The first Latin American dance to attract international attention, it is enjoying a comeback in nightclubs. If rumba was born in Cuba, its cradle was a Congo slave ship. Fired by the music of the African continent, rumba has a happy beat, as well as lyrics that speak of suffering, redemption, revolution . . . oh yes, and unapologetic sex.

Rumba migrated to the United States in the 1930s. It's a quick step/quick step/slow step or a slow/slow/quick movement. Variations are the American rumba and jazz swing-inspired mambo. Mambo, in turn, gave birth to the cha-cha-cha. And let us not forget Desi Arnaz's contribution to the American melting pot, the conga line. The dance is a testament to Cuba's enduring love affair with African percussion.

* Salsa: In the words of Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, "It is not a new rhythm. It is the Cuban music with a new name." Cubans call their music a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar, between classical flamenco and primal percussion. Consider lambada, a dance rage two years ago, the speed-metal version of Afro-Cuban rumba.

* Samba: The national dance of Brazil's sensuous culture. In 1905, samba made its Parisian debut at Maxixe's and it enjoyed a surge of popularity during Hollywood's golden years in the '30s. Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda, Miss Tutti-Fruiti Hat herself, rode the wave in such films as "Copacabana." Slowed and set to jazzier rhythms, samba turns into bossa nova, literally meaning "new beat."

* Merengue: Haiti's national dance, merengue is a march with subtle syncopation. In the past, its popularity was hampered by Caribbean music's general lack of exposure. La punta is like a merengue, but you move your hips more.

* Tango: Argentina's contribution to contemporary soulsa sounds came in 1909, when an American dance team, the Castles, introduced it to the United States. Monitors of morality immediately labeled it obscene, so naturally the country went wild over the tango.

From Mexico:

* Cumbia: A rolling, whirling ballad, up-tempo or slow, danced separately or as a couple.

* Corrida: A more countrified cumbia. Ranchera is slightly more country still, like the Mexican equivalent of a cotton-eyed Joe. Danced together or separately.

* Bailando banda: Hip-hop meets Tex-Mex. Very upbeat, high kicking, fast-moving partner dance.

* Quebraditas: The latest in popular Mexican dance, it takes a cue from the country music fad of line dancing.

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