Ballroom dancing seems to be catching on again in some circles, and it’s always exhilarating to see elegantly clad couples doing the waltz or foxtrot, not to mention the more exotic forms like tango, samba, and rumba.
The etymologies of these dances come from a variety of sources.
Waltz, a round dance performed in three-four time, became popular in the late eighteenth century and is probably Bohemian in origin. The word was first used in English in 1781, from the German Waltzer, derived from walzen, “to roll or dance,” from Old High German walzan, “turn, roll.”
Foxtrot, is a dance in two-four or four-four time involving slow walking steps and quick running steps, similar to the twostep. It became popular with the advent of ragtime music, around 1914. The name is based on the slow pace, with short steps, seen in a fox (or a horse).
Tango, which first burst upon the dance floor in 1913, is from Argentina. It is
in two-four or four-four time and is characterized by graceful posturing, frequent pointing positions, sinuous movement, and a great variety of steps, including the cross step, turning steps, and a backward kick.
Its name derives from an African word about which authorities disagree. Some say it is akin to the Ibibio word tamgu, meaning to “dance.” Others cite a Ki-Kongo word that means “moving in time to a beat.” And still others find an early root in West African dialects that mean “closed space” or “reserved ground,” referring to the area in which dancing was done. Others say it was part of a Spanish dance known as a fandango, whose origin is unknown.
Rumba is a Cuban dance, which made its appearance in 1919. It may take a variety of forms but usually is in two-four or four-four time, and involves a basic pattern of step-close-step, marked by a delayed transfer of weight and pronounced hip movements.
Its name may derive from the Spanish rumbo, meaning “spree” or “party,” a word that perhaps originated as a description of the course of a ship determined by a compass marked by a rhombus. Another source insists it comes from a Caribbean word, rumbear, meaning “going to parties, dancing, and having a good time.”
Samba, a Brazilian dance of African origin in four-four time, but with three steps to a bar, has a basic pattern of step-close-step-close and is characterized by a dip and spring upward at each beat of the music.
The word is of Portuguese origin, from Zemba, shorted from Zambacueca, an earlier dance whose name is influence by the Portuguese zamacueco (“stupid”), and zambapalo, a grotesque dance whose name derives from zamparse (to “bump or crash”).
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has been known to bump and crash quite a lot, after sampling a few bottles that somehow fell into his hands off a passing truck.
A man who was dancing the tango
Took a break to consume a ripe mango,
But his partners all fled,
To which the man said,
“Where did that dang tango gang go?”
He decided to essay the samba,
But he moved like an African mamba,
Looking very reptilian
Instead of Brazilian,
And the bandleader cried, “Ay, caramba!”
At last it was time for a rumba,
And he thought this was surely his number,
But the band played a waltz
Filled with Viennese schmaltz,
And his partner reacted like lumber.