An auditory guide to Latin dance with Karlies Kelley Vedula of Panadanza
Sometimes Latin music electrifies the dance floor, as couples spin, bend and step. Other times it softly accompanies the cooking in abuela’s kitchen. However and wherever you're listening, Latin music comes in as many different styles as the places it originated.
To find out what music calls for what dance, whether that’s a cha cha cha, a bomba or a salsa step, WUWM turned to Karlies Kelley Vedula, a multidisciplinary dancer and choreographer from Panama who runs Panadanza Dance Company in Bay View. She’s trained in all these Latin dance styles and more.
Here's how it works: WUWM has a track list of songs to break out of the record box, and once we play it, Karlies tells us what type of music it is and how to dance to it.
Oye Como Va — Tito Puente
Karlies' answer: Cha Cha Cha
She says it's a triple step in the middle, and then it hits forward or back or side to side. "But the important part is that you are marking that cha-cha-cha," says Karlies. She says to do that right one should "dance on two" which means breaking forward on the second beat of the music rather than the first beat of the measure.
"I met Tito Puente, Jr many years back at a salsa congress in St. Louis. And he said, ‘I love that you dance on two, because my father really guided himself by the dancers. Right if the dancer was offbeat, he would say ‘dance on two, dance on two because you're messing me up.’ And that's how crucial these dance spaces were because they fed off each other. The musician was always watching the dancers and visa versa."
Te Venero — C. Tangana and Omara Portuondo
Karlies' answer: also Cha Cha Cha
"It starts out in a Bolero-type of feel. It’s slower, and you can imagine abuelo y abuela dancing to that. And then it really kicks up. And that's when you'll get the real cha cha cha."
Amor del Bueno — Ramon Cordero
Karlies' answer: Bachata
"Oh, I love that you took us to the mountains of the Dominican Republic. There's some Bachata right there. Yeah. Beautiful, pure bachata. And the way I know that is through the guitar right away. And then there's a hit which actually reminds you a little bit of the cha cha, but it's a different kind of hit."
Karlies says the movement for the bachata, is open, close, open, tap. "If you can imagine that it can travel in any direction, it could be in place, or it could be spread out," she says.
She says what she loves about cha cha cha and bachata and these kinds of dances is that they're born out of tight spaces. "So when you're dancing at home, you’re in abuela’s kitchen or in the pantry, and we have those little glass figures that we've gotten for baptism and first confirmations and all that, so you don't want to go big and make Grandma mad by accidentally knocking these things down. So you want to keep your steps smooth, you want to keep them tight and close."
Karlies has a bachata tutorial.
Cumbia De Los Pajaritos — Grupo Fantasma
Karlies' answer: Cumbia [She didn't have the name of the song!]
"And the way I know that is by that güiro. And the bass. And cumbia has such a beautiful way about it. It's like a breath that pulls you in on the ‘and’ and then it lets you out. It’s got a little bounce and a groove to it that’s just so unique."
In a traditional cumbia, couples dance in a circle around seated musicians, with the woman shuffling steps while the man moves in a more zigzag pattern around her.
Karlies says it started in Colombia and Panama. "Panama used to be part of Colombia. So, our music, everywhere you go, is very cumbia-like," she says. "But then it went to Mexico. They took it and did a whole ‘nother spin on it. And their cumbia is very partner-driven with lots of turns. And then you take that, and they put it in Argentina and they have a whole other style of Colombia."
"It's about how graceful you can be with this pollera [a traditional one-piece skirt]. La Pollera Colorá is another very famous cumbia song and sometimes you can put a [lit] candle on top of your head and see how graceful can you be without it falling off.”
Meli Ton Ton Bé — Los Hermanos Ayala
Karlies' answer: Bomba
"It's from Loíza, which is the most African region in Puerto Rico. And it's actually the fastest style of bomba, and some people call it holandés as well." In the bomba style, the dancer leads and improvises and the drummer follows. "
The roles are definitely switched, and that also has a lot of African influence. Because the dancer tells the drummer exactly what you want to be played. And it's this instant conversation. Right? If [the drummer is] not getting, I have to do it again and have to be patient. Or maybe it doesn't work, I have to switch to something else. But it's that improvisation that is born exactly at that moment. And it's so beautiful when we talk about improvisation, because there's no better time than the present when you are improvising."
PBS has this explainer on Bomba:
Caxambu — Almir Guineto
Karlies' answer: Samba
The samba is a tight hip movement that comes from the ground up, says Karlies.
"So the speed of the Samba is really articulated by the surdo. The surdo actually translates to 'deaf drum,' which is the biggest, deepest drum in Samba," she says. "And that really dictates the speed, the tempo of the music, and everything else in the caixa, fits right in. And that's how fast your hips gotta go with that!"
Understanding music vocally can help with dancing it, Karlies says. She has a helpful a cappella version of the samba classic Mas Que Nada in this Instagram video. "And one of the things that I loved when I went to Ivory Coast to do my research, [Karlies earned her BFA and MFA in African Diaspora Dance from UW-Milwaukee and developed her thesis in the Ivory Coast] was they said, ‘oh, there's no counting here, we sing it. We sing. We sing, because that's how you're going to do it. If you can sing it, you can dance it.’"
Salsa Pa'l Bailador — Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Karlies' answer: Salsa!
Here's a description of a basic salsa pattern.
There so many instruments you can focus in on salsa, Karlies says. "You take out all the instruments and then you just live in the bass, and then you find your groove in your shoulders with the bass. [In this Spanish Harlem Orchestra piece], they broke it down to rhumba and then you come into the rhumba steps. That's what I love about salsa is that everywhere you go in the world, [it's done] so differently."
"Like in Panama, salsa is very calypso-like and you go to Colombia, and in Cali, oh those feet go crazy. They are just so fast and just always with the cowbell. And then you go to LA and there's a whole bunch of lifts and then you go to New York and of course they got those Tito Puente, Eddie Tores songs over there that really focused on the two, right and boogaloo. And then here really is just such a beautiful mixture."
Karlies' advice for figuring out what dance style it is and what to focus on:
"Ask yourself 'what is the bass drum? What's the one thing that doesn't ever change?' Because everything else, the melodies, is the side talk, 'hey, look at me, look at me, look at me,'" she laughs. "But you always want to find that drum, the main drum that never changes, that just always keeps the groove going. And most of the time, that will always be my answer."