Antonio Quinn promises that the free merengue lesson he's giving at the Hattiloo Theatre will be easy and basic. "We won't be getting too much of the sordid history behind it," he says. The class was planned as a way to introduce Memphians to Dominican culture prior to the opening of In the Heights, a critically acclaimed play about Dominican people who move into the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. But Quinn, who founded Bohemian Africana, an interdisciplinary educational center, knows the merengue's long, sometimes troubled history. It was born in the 19th century, used as a tool of propaganda, and is now generally regarded as the national dance and music of the Dominican Republic.
"Like calypso and reggae, and everything that comes out of the rubble in the Caribbean, merengue has this dark history behind it," Quinn says. "Similar to the blues or Negro spirituals, it comes out of this really tumultuous, painful history. But it's a beautiful thing."
In the Heights, which opens at Hattiloo August 13th, won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. It's a song-and-dance-laden collage of street life in a heavily Dominican Upper Manhattan neighborhood. It's part melodrama, part street party, and Quinn's dance class is just a warmup.