Tu Pum Pum: How Perreo Became the Glue That Holds Reggaeton Together

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

Reggaeton began organically as a transformation of dancehall, hip-hop, and reggae en español. As an Afro-diasporic movement, Panama, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and New York are all pivotal landscapes in the style’s musical evolution. Through Tu Pum Pum: The Story of Reggaeton, a new column by Eddie Cepeda, we’ll explore reggaeton’s history, sociopolitical struggles, and its impact as a global force in music and culture.

Perreo is integral to reggaeton. They need each other to survive. Si te pegas a la pared at the function, it can feel like leg day recovery the morning after, and that’s a good thing. For so many who enjoy un perreo sucio, the dance is a rite of passage that we’ve seen in our communities from a young age. From quinceañeras to our first experiences sneaking into the club, perreo was there to guide us through our early, clumsy experiments in grinding. And its connotations are constantly evolving. No longer can oppositional media outlets and incensed government officials claim perreo to be simply a heteronormative, patriarchal, and toxic show of masculinity. Ivy Queen made the power dynamic clear on “Yo Quiero Bailar,” and perreo can now serve as a release for people of all genders and sexual orientations to express themselves, let go, and grind all their cares away. As reggaeton spreads, perreo spreads with it. And new devotees appear every day.

But how much do we really know about the dance that survives in our memories, and keeps the banality of the work week from dragging us down just long enough to make it to the next weekend’s function? Is it just the product of a lascivious Latinx teen generation so desperate to have sex, the thought of waiting to get out of the club, and into the back seat of a Ford Fiesta proved too much to bear? That’s certainly one way the Puerto Rican government once perceived the dance, completely failing to acknowledge the deep folkloric traditions that stream through its DNA.

But how did this specific back-to-front form of dance come to be referred to as perreo? Many oral histories credit DJ Blass with popularizing “sandungeo” as a term that could be used interchangeably at a party, or as the emerging sexually charged dance. But there’s still no clear point of reference as to exactly when and who coined the term perreo. What is clear is that perreo, sandungeo, or even twerking all seem to have similar origins tracing back to the enslaved Africans who were forcefully brought to the Americas.

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
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It’s difficult to truly pinpoint the exact genesis of perreo or the dances that influenced it, but a look at research by some of the leading scholars in social dance shows that it’s likely a combination of cross-cultural information, creolization, and an affinity for a good ass party. Perreo is uniquely of the Americas.

Perreo is a product of cultural travel and exchange.

In other words, much like the genesis of reggaeton, perreo is a product of cultural travel and exchange, and colonization had a heavy hand to play in its creation. European practices and standards collided with longstanding African dance traditions to create new, often sexually suggestive forms of social dancing. As is so commonly seen in the byproducts of imperialism, an often irreverent or misconstrued interpretation of the old way begat new traditions. In the case of perreo, maybe it was a good thing.

Ethnomusicologist and social dance professor Wayne Marshall argues that traditional African dances were in a sense “corrupted” by European social dance norms. It was perceived to be in bad taste to dance intimately with a partner in public. “[In traditional African dances] you might do dances that were associated with fertility and erotic movements and sexuality in the context of traditional collected dances,” he tells Remezcla. He goes on to explain that the cross-pollination of the dance styles came with colonization, and initially wasn’t well-received. “African dance was always done collectively as a form of communal symbolic dance, not as a social dance. And then the Europeans come and they have their social dance traditions which actually were about a heterosexual partnering in public,” he adds. The movements that appeared sensual to colonizers performed in many African dances were then co-opted by colonizers as a way to get down.

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
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According to Ned Sublette in his book about the music of Cuba, one of the first recorded instances of this practice can be traced back to Panama in 1539 in the form of Zarabanda, a dance that traveled back to Spain, much to the chagrin of Spanish society. But a much clearer and direct lineage to perreo can be seen in professor Laura Putnam’s book Radical Moves, who relatively recently found evidence of social dances called “Weekly Regges” held by West Indian immigrants in Costa Rica. They eventually spread all over the Caribbean, and their influences can be seen in places like New Orleans and Harlem.

The movements that appeared sensual to colonizers performed in many African dances were then co-opted by colonizers as a way to get down.

These weekly dances celebrated and even encouraged suggestive dancing, such as the mento and the shimmy, which can be seen as precursors to perreo, or even underground. And as was the case with perreo’s early backlash, the weekly regges faced their own pushback. Even though many churches hosted and organized the events themselves, publications often took it upon themselves to express their dismay at what they saw as the floundering of upstanding society, like one Limón Searchlight editorial which urged church leaders and even band members to take steps to prevent the “spectacular copulative gyrations” that fueled these joyful gatherings.

With such a deep tradition of so-called “spectacular copulative dance” in the Americas, it would seem as though the historical context for perreo would protect it from overzealous moral outrage. But even so, the Puerto Rican government – led by Senator Velda González – went out of its way to try to put a stop to a descendant of one of many dance styles that had long been common in Caribbean culture. Through measures like her failed anti-pornography campaign, the powers that be attempted to limit the times and media through which perreo-heavy videos could be shown on television.

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As with underground in the 90s, perreo quickly became mainstream. It gained traction with middle class youth, and incited fear among the powers that be that it would eventually spread outside of Puerto Rico. As scholar Petra R. Rivera Rideau wrote in her book Remixing Reggaeton, “If in the 1990s, would-be censors sought to prevent the spread of underground in Puerto Rico, by 2002, the concern was how to deal with reggaeton’s omnipresence and potential international expansion.” The surge in reggaeton’s popularity scared the establishment in Puerto Rico, as it became a clear cultural artifact they could no longer control. Rivera goes on to explain that since the politicians knew there was nothing they could do to stop the genre’s popularity, the only logical step would be to “clean” the genre’s image by removing the perceived pornographic elements, and washing the urban blackness away in favor of a more “Latin” image. And of course, said image was much whiter than the reality of the culture. Perreo – and particularly the perceived metropolitan sexuality it espoused – became enemy no. 1.

Perreo became enemy no. 1.

For González and many others who sought to control reggaeton’s image and narrative, the dance signified a part of Latinx identity they would rather keep hidden from view. But what they failed to realize is that the celebration of perreo was the manifestation of a hybrid identity. It blended the folkloric traditions of the African diaspora and birthed a new cultural expression.

Even with the dance’s close similarities to other forms of dance, like whining, daggering or grinding, as reggaeton continues to reach new heights, perreo will undoubtedly receive more focus in the media. What this widened spotlight could bring is a new level of appreciation and respect for the Afro-diasporic dance, and with it, further cultural representation in traditionally white spaces. To see brown and black bodies perreando on mainstream platforms could give further visual representation to a sound that is already taking over. Adversely, like many POC-birthed cultural movements, it could – as we’ve begun to see with reggaeton – suffer from industry whitewashing. That’s why it’s important to seek out and tell the story of how it came to be. Newcomers experiencing it without any context can turn around and tell fetishisized and robotic anthropological stories of witnessing the “spicy” dance in “far away” and “exotic” lands like say, uptown Manhattan. Keeping perreo’s identity front and center is important for the preservation of the dance, and to save it from the blanching that so often comes with the mass-commodification of culture.

Stream an Apple Music playlist featuring the best bops para perrear, curated by Radio Menea hosts Veronica Bayetti Flores and Miriam Zoila Pérez here.