John Chasteen was 22 years old when he set out with $1,000 to discover South America. He lingered at his first stop—Cali, Colombia—after he found a boarding house for $30 a month, room, board, and laundry included.”That fit my budget,” Chasteen says. Soon, he had a job teaching English, and students in his classes were inviting him to their homes. And that, says Chasteen, now an associate professor of history, is when he started learning to dance.

Before Cali, dancing had made him uncomfortable. “I was never attracted by the kind of dancing in which you were supposed to just do your own thing,” Chasteen says. “Dancing was also threatening because it was always about court ship.”

But dancing Cali-style was different. “In Cali, you get invited to a party, and it’s not an option not to dance,” Chasteen says. “In Cali, you dance with the grandmother, the kids, the broom—everything and everybody.”

Chasteen learned to dance at parties, though mastering the more difficult dances took many years. Now, he and his wife, Carmen, who is from Colombia, often have dancing parties at home. “We warn everybody: Don’t come if you don’t want to dance,” Chasteen says.

But his days in Cali led to more than the pleasure of dancing itself. Chasteen’s long fascination with Latin American dance has inspired his research and a book he is writing.

Latin American dance, he explains, is grounded in African rhythms, which are polyrhythmic. “Polyrhythmic means that there are several different layers of rhythm going at the same time,” Chasteen says. “At its most basic, it involves some rhythmic elements that can be divided by two. And other rhythmic elements that can be divided by three. Normally, in American music, you have one or the other; you never have them both at the same time.”

Similarly, in Latin dance, the body has several axes of motion. “You can move forward and back, up and down, and the hips create possibilities for lateral movement,” Chasteen says. “The body can do what the music doescarry several different rhythms at the same time.”

The complexities of Latin dance reflect the culture’s complex history. Indigenous people lived in South America before Spanish and Portuguese colonizers arrived, bringing with them Africans as slaves.

When cultures meet, they inevitably change each other.” Chasteen says. But what especially interests him is the fact that African dance elements spread throughout entire societies, so that people who had no African ancestors danced African rhythms, and now feel them as a part of who they are.

Consider Brazil in the 1930s. The backbone of Brazil’s economy was shifting from plantations to industry. As people moved into the cities, politicians seeking a new electoral base began to reach out to the common Brazilian.

There’s an entire shift in the way that politics happens,” Chasteen says. “An important element of this in Brazil, which is a country that is about half black, is a new sense of respect and valorization of the Afro-Brazilian heritage.”

In the 1930s, when Brazil was ruled by President Getulio Vargas, the city of Rio began to subsidize parade groups who danced samba during Carnivalif they presented a patriotic theme.

One of the patriotic themes that was used over and over again, and is still used, is the idea that Brazil is a racial democracy, a place where the African heritage gets its due and is honored,” Chasteen says.”This was the official image that the government wanted to promote.”

The government not only promoted samba, but a more African samba. Around 1900, samba was mostly performed using European instrumentationflute, strings, and small hand-held percussion instruments. In the 1930s, samba troupes began to add a set of big African drums called the “battery.” Earlier in the century, whites would have considered drums to be too African and in poor taste, Chasteen says .

Chasteen also explains how, over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, people outside Afro-Brazilian communities gradually began to dance samba. One factor was Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822.

People who were at the top of colonial society were there because they were white, of Portuguese descent,” Chasteen says. “Following independence, they try to define themselves in contradistinction to Portugal. So, they symbolically embrace the cultures of non-white people who live there.” Dancing samba was one way the elite Brazilians claimed a new national identity.

Samba also got a boost when, in the mid-19th century, dancing became a part of Carnival, whose rowdy atmosphere emboldened whites to dance in ways that seemed scary and risqué.

In Argentina, the history, like the dancing, was different. Because Argentina had a ranching rather than a plantation economy, slavery was never lucrative there, and the country never had a large black population. During the 19th century, the number of black people in Argentina did not increase, while hundreds of thousands of European immi grants arrived.

Argentina’s national dance, the tango, originated partly in African culture. Tango is an African word meaning “drum.”

The body posture was tipped forward at the waist, so the head was down a little,” Chasteen says. “The dance was elastic and high-energy.” As the percentage of black people in Argentina became smaller, the tango changed.

From 1907 to 1914, there was an international tango craze, especially in Paris. “There was a tango color, which was this red-orange color,” Chasteen says. “There were tango shoes. There was a tango dress that had a slit in front.

For Argentines, who feel they are Europeans who happen not to be in Europe now, Paris is a very important place,” Chasteen says. Argentines adopted the Paris version of the tango as the definitive style. No longer tipped forward, the body was straight, stiff, and elongated. Movements were not elastic and high-energy, but were exaggerated, deliberate, and stylized. Argentines called this dance the “smooth tango.”

Today, Chasteen says, African contributions to the tango are hard to see. “It doesn’t have polyrhythm anymore, but it has some vestiges of it,” Chasteen says. “The tango will burst occasionally into these broken irregularities where the polyrhythm is still erupting out.” The tango also retains a still upper body and a division between the upper and lower body, distinct features of African dance in the Americas.

But whether one’s tastes run to Samba or Tango, Chasteen thinks too many North Americans are missing the fun. “There’s no mystery why most people in the United States feel uncomfortable dancing,” he says.”It requires learning. If they never do it, they won’t know how, so how are they going to enjoy it?

In Cali, it doesn’t matter how well you dance,” he adds. “Everybody dances, and they do it at every opportunity.”