The cha-cha-chá, or simply cha-cha in the U.S., is a dance of Cuban origin. It is danced to the music of the same name introduced by Cuban composer and violinist Enrique Jorrin in the early 1950s. This rhythm was developed from the danzón-mambo. The name of the dance is an onomatopoeia derived from the shuffling sound of the dancers' feet.
In the early 1950s, Enrique Jorrín worked as a violinist and composer with the charanga group Orquesta América. The group performed at dance halls in Havana where they played danzón, danzonete, and danzon-mambo for dance-orientated crowds. Jorrín noticed that many of the dancers at these gigs had difficulty with the syncopated rhythms of the danzón-mambo. To make his music more appealing to dancers, Jorrín began composing songs where the melody was marked strongly on the first downbeat and the rhythm was less syncopated. When Orquesta América performed these new compositions at the Silver Star Club in Havana, it was noticed that the dancers had improvised a triple step in their footwork producing the sound "cha-cha-cha". Thus, the new style came to be known as "cha-cha-chá" and became associated with a dance where dancers perform a triple step.
The basic footwork pattern of cha-cha-chá (two, three, cha-cha-cha) is also found in several Afro-Cuban dances from the Santería religion. For example, one of the steps used in the dance for the orisha Ogun uses an identical footwork pattern. These Afro-Cuban dances predate the development of cha-cha-chá and were known by many Cubans in the 1950s, especially those of African origin. Thus, the footwork of the cha-cha-chá was likely inspired by these Afro-Cuban dances.
In 1953, Orquesta América released two of Jorrin’s compositions, "La Engañadora" and "Silver Star", on the Cuban record label Panart. These were the first cha-cha-chá compositions ever recorded. They immediately became hits in Havana, and other Cuban charanga orchestras quickly imitated this new style. Soon, there was a cha-cha-chá craze in Havana’s dance halls, popularizing both the music and the associated dance. This craze soon spread to Mexico City, and by 1955 the music and dance of the cha cha cha had become popular in Latin America, the United States, and Western Europe, following in the footsteps of the mambo, which had been a worldwide craze a few years earlier.
Cha-cha-chá is danced to authentic Cuban music, although in ballroom competitions it is often danced to Latin Pop or Latin Rock. The music for the international ballroom cha-cha-chá is energetic and with a steady beat. The music may involve complex polyrhythms.
Styles of cha-cha-chá dance may differ in the place of the chasse in the rhythmical structure. The original Cuban and the ballroom cha-cha count is "two, three, chachacha", "four-and-one, two, three" or "one, two, three, chacha". The dance does not start on the first beat of a bar, though it can start with a transfer of weight to the lead's right.
Nevertheless, many social dancers count "one, two, cha-cha-cha" and may find it difficult to make the adjustment to the correct timing of the dance, "two, three, cha-cha, one".
The basic pattern involves the lead (usually the man) taking a checked forward step with the left foot, retaining some weight on the right foot. The knee of the right leg must stay bent and close to the back of the left knee, the left leg having straightened just prior to receiving part weight. This step is taken on the second beat of the bar. Full weight is returned to the right leg on the second step (beat three).
The fourth beat is split in two so the count of the next three steps is 4-and-1. These three steps constitute the cha-cha chasse. A step to the side is taken with the left foot, the right foot is half closed towards the left foot (typically leaving both feet under the hips or perhaps closed together), and finally there is a last step to the left with the left foot. The length of the steps in the chasse depends very much on the effect the dancer is attempting to make.
The partner takes a step back on the right foot, the knee being straightened as full weight is taken. The other leg is allowed to remain straight. It is possible it will shoot slightly but no deliberate flexing of the free leg is attempted. This is quite different from technique associated with salsa, for instance. On the next beat (beat three) weight is returned to the left leg. Then a chasse is danced RLR.
Each partner is now in a position to dance the bar their partner just danced. Hence the fundamental construction of Cha-cha extends over two bars.
The checked first step is a later development in the "international cha-cha" style. Because of the action used during the forward step (the one taking only part weight) the basic pattern turns left, whereas in earlier times Cha-cha was danced without rotation of the alignment. Hip actions are allowed to occur at the end of every step. For steps taking a single beat the first half of the beat constitutes the foot movement and the second half is taken up by the hip movement. The hip sway eliminates any increase in height as the feet are brought towards each other. In general, steps in all directions should be taken first with the ball of the foot in contact with the floor, and then with the heel lowering when the weight is fully transferred; however, some steps require that the heel remain lifted from the floor. When weight is released from a foot, the heel should release from the floor first, allowing the toe to maintain contact with the floor.
In traditional American Rhythm style, Latin hip movement is achieved through the alternate bending and straightening action of the knees, though in modern competitive dancing, the technique is virtually identical to the "international Latin" style.
In the international Latin style, the weighted leg is almost always straight. The free leg will bend, allowing the hips to naturally settle into the direction of the weighted leg. As a step is taken, a free leg will straighten the instant before it receives weight. It should then remain straight until it is completely free of weight again.