Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage: The Conga Line

From flash mobs to high school proms to weddings the Conga Line makes appearances in celebrations the world over.  Just a few days ago I was watching an episode of “The Golden Girls” that ended with the ladies in a conga line during Blanche’s birthday party.  Instantly recognizable and easy to do, the conga line dance has been a part of popular media since the late 1920s.  As such it deserves a tribute as part of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon.

One-two-three-kick!

While this is intended to highlight the entertaining conga line, which has made many appearances in movies throughout the decades it’s important to mention that the term “conga” also refers to a style of music and an Afro-Cuban instrument (the conga drum aka tumbadora) as well as to a dance.

To get a sense of what a “traditional” conga sounds like let’s kick things off with “Ahi Viene la Conga,” one of the most famous congas ever recorded.  This version is by Cuban bandleader, musician and composer Dámaso Pérez Prado.  You’ll notice in this example that not all “congas” have the pronounced one-two-three-kick beat many recognize as its signature and a requirement for the famous line dance.

The history of the conga line is a long and interesting one, which I don’t plan to recount here in its entirety.  It should be known, however, that its origins lie in the Congo region in Africa with its “modern” form credited to African slaves who were brought to Cuba.  The conga line as we know it was first performed as a street dance in Santiago de Cuba as part of the city’s famed, yearly carnivals or festivals.   Cuban pianist, composer and arranger Eliseo Grenet Sánchez is credited with taking the conga dance and beat with its famous one-two-three-kick mainstay to audiences in New York, Paris and London.  There was even a La Conga nightclub that opened in New York c. 1929.

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The seed was planted for everyone to do the catchy conga fairly easily as one doesn’t need to be a great dancer to jump in.  And that was well before Gloria Estefan’s 1986 hit, which became a cultural phenomenon in its own right.  Here’s proof of the conga line’s popularity in 1939…

Desi Arnaz with his drum leading a conga line in 1939 in a New York City night spot with Errol Flynn dancing along
Desi Arnaz with his drum leading a conga line in 1939 in a New York City night spot with Errol Flynn dancing along

So Erroll Flynn was doing the conga as the above image shows – and so was the rest of Hollywood.  As was the case with most music or dance crazes and fashions, Hollywood hopped into the conga line with vigor with its array of Latin-themed musicals in the 1940s especially.  Many give the crux of the kudos to Desi Arnaz and his conga routine in George Abbott’s Too Many Girls (1940), which also features Ann Miller and dancing cells…

Xavier Cugat who’d given Arnaz his musical break did much to popularize the conga as well.  Among the several versions of conga-themed performances by Cugat “One, Two, Three, Kick”  is a great version to learn the Conga by because…well…it counts for you and tells you when to kick.  If that proves difficult you can just emulate this pose by Rita Hayworth…

Rita Hayworth leads a conga line of sailors during WWII
Rita Hayworth leads a conga line of sailors during WWII

Following is the rest of this presentation honoring the conga line – clips from classic conga line performances.  I hope you enjoy it…and that you come back and visit this blog on October 12 when I’ll be hosting the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon for which this post is intended.  A terrific line-up of entries are in store.

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To start the presentation here’s a terrific recording by  Joséphine Baker  of “La Conga Blicoti”…

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Josephine Baker recorded “La Conga Blicoti” with the Lecuona Cuban Boys, a popular Cuban orchestra founded by Ernesto Lecuona (arguably) the most important arbiter of Cuban music the world over during the first half of the 20th century.  Following is a conga titled “Ay Si, Ay No” recorded by the Lecuona Cuban Boys.

Here’s a Pathé newsreel clip from the 1940s of a Conga line during a military dance.

In Busby Berkeley’s Strike Up the Band (1940) Judy and Mickey “Do the La Conga”

Barbara Stanwyck is a conga expert in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941)

Betty Grable adds her classic touch to the “Kindergarten Conga” in Walter Lang’s Moon Over Miami (1941)

In the following 1942 Max Fleischer Popeye Cartoon, Kickin’ the Conga Round Bluto and Olive Oyl do the Conga during the boys’ shore leave in South America.  (Entire cartoon included)

Then you have the conga line in Baseball Bugs (1946) Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Friz Freleng.

And…a relatively recent, but no less fabulous conga line led by Joan Harris during a Christmas party on Mad Men’s season 4 episode “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”

That’s it for now, but I hope the message is clear.  No one’s immune…

One, two, three, kick!

Sailors and Washington, DC residents form a conga line in Lafayette Park while waiting for President Truman to announce Japan’s surrender.
Sailors and Washington, DC residents form a conga line in Lafayette Park while waiting for President Truman to announce Japan’s surrender – WWII. (History.com)

13 thoughts

  1. One of my favorite scenes in Ball Of Fire (1941) is when the vivacious and gorgeous Barbara Stanwyck leads the stuffy professors in a conga line :-D.

    Tam

  2. What a cool gem, you have curated! Thanks for sharing some Conga history, now I’d like to know just how I always end up leading the Conga line at every wedding. I swear I don’t initiate it! 😉

  3. This such an interesting post, Aurora! I’ve seen conga lines in plenty of films, animated cartoons, and TV show episodes over the years, but I never knew its origins.

  4. What a wonderful piece, Aurora. I didn’t know the history of the conga, and it was very interesting. One thing that stands out about Desi Arnaz is that he is 99% known for I Love Lucy, when he was in his middle years, handsome of course. But unless you’ve seen this clip and others, you don’t realize how gorgeous he was! I was exhausted watching the clip, and long for my youth when I had that kind of energy!

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