The conga line is a novelty dance that was derived from the Cuban carnival dance of the same name and became popular in the US in the 1930s and 1950s. The dancers form a long, processing line, which would usually turn into a circle. It has three shuffle steps on the beat, followed by a kick that is slightly ahead of the fourth beat. The conga, a term sometimes mistakenly believed to be derived from the African region of Congo, is both a lyrical and danceable genre, rooted in the music of carnival troupes or comparsas.
The conga dance was originally a street dance in Cuba. The style was appropriated by politicians during the early years of republic in an attempt to appeal to the masses before election. During the Machado dictatorship in Cuba, Havana citizens were forbidden to dance the conga, because rival groups would work themselves to high excitement and explode into street fighting. When Fulgencio Batista became president in the 1940s, he permitted people to dance congas during elections, but a police permit was required.
Some say the conga dance was created by African slaves in Cuba taken from the Congo who originated the dance while they were chained together, the dance having important associations with Afro-Caribbean Santería religion. Others say the conga dance was not a slave-chain dance, but arose from dancing and chanting during Easter following the procession of the Virgin Mary. The music and dance was also performed originally in carnival processions and African slave celebrations.
The conga dance style is more of a march, which is characterized by its distinctive conga drum rhythm. It differs from the rumba, which uses more hip movements and shows the sensually aggressive attitude of each dancer. Conga music is played with a staccato beat as its base, which gives rhythm to the movements of the dancers. Conga dancers lift their legs in time with the rhythm of the music, marking each beat with the strong motion of their body.
The basic steps start from left leg 1-2-3 kick then repeat, opposite. Originally, a band member wearing a drum would venture onto the dance floor and begin zigzagging around while drumming out the rhythm. Dancers would start joining up behind him, forming a line that moved like a slithering snake or an open circle. The line (or the circular chain) would grow longer and the drumming more intense until it finally stopped. The dance has two styles, which is a single line form and partners. The single line is more popular in Cuba. However, the conga line was done much earlier and was introduced at a wedding reception (Frieda's) as early as 1905 by the "Gloriosky Old Maids", specifically Prudence Adams.
Beginning in the late 1930s and booming in the 1940s, it became wildly popular in the US, due in no small measure to Hollywood's "Latin" musicals. RKO Pictures' offerings were particularly influential, notably Too Many Girls (1940), in which Desi Arnaz appeared as a conga-playing Argentine student. Spanish-Catalan bandleader Xavier Cugat, who gave Arnaz his musical start, helped to popularize the dance, but the biggest impact belonged to Arnaz himself. It is prominently featured in the 1941 Deanna Durbin film, It Started With Eve, in which Durbin and Charles Laughton dance it together in a nightclub.
With its simple march step, the interlinking of dancers circling about in single file, and one-two-three-bump rhythm with the fourth beat strongly marked, the dance was not only attractive but also readily accessible to US and other foreign audiences. The dance started to gain a foothold in the US around 1929, when the original La Conga nightclub opened its doors in Manhattan. It is believed that the La Conga was at Broadway and 51st Street. By 1937, the conga was well-known in New York.
The widespread popularity of the dance resulted in many cultural references in contemporary media. For example, the conga line was a recurring theme in Warner Bros. animated cartoons of the 1940s.
This music and dance form has become totally assimilated into Cuba's musical heritage and has been used in many film soundtracks in the US and Mexico. One of the earliest and most successful of 20th-century Cuban musical exports, the conga lacked the polyrhythmic sophistication of the son, mambo, or salsa but served to nurture the future receptivity of an international public to the wider gamut of Cuban musical styles.
In popular culture
The video game Team Fortress 2 has adopted the conga as an in game "taunt", and has become a notable feature in the game, often being parodied in fan-made content such as animations or add-ons to the game.
- Davis, Pablo Julian. "Conga", People, History, Culture of Cuba. Luis Martinel-Fernandez, D.H. Figneredo, Louis A. Perez, Jr. and Luis Gonzales. London, Westpoint Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003. 396-397.
- Orovio, Helio. Cuban music from A to Z. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 57.
- Watson, Sonny. "Conga", Street Swing. 1999. August 6, 2006
- Dale A. Olsen, Daniel E. Sheehy. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Garland Publishing: New York and London, 1998. 825.
- Roberts, John Storm. The Latin Tinge. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.