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When the English dance teacher Pierre Margolie visited Cuba in 1952, he realized that sometimes the Rumba was danced with extra beats. When he returned to Britain, he started teaching these steps as a separate dance .
The name could have been derived from the Spanish 'Chacha' meaning 'nursemaid', or 'chachar' meaning 'to chew coca leaves', or from 'char' meaning "tea', or most likely from the fast and cheerful' Cuban dance: the Guaracha. This dance has been popular in Europe from before the turn of the century. For example it is listed on the program of the Finishing Assembly in 1898 of Dancie Neill at Coupar Angus in Scotland.

It has also been suggested that the name Cha Cha is derived onomatopoeically from the sound of the feet in the chasse which is included in many of the steps. This would account for it being called the 'Cha Cha Cha' by some people, after the rhythm:
Whereas others call it the 'Cha Cha' after the rhythm:
These differ only as to which beat of the musical bar is stressed by the dancing: beat 4 in the first case, beat 1 in the second.
In 1954, the dance was described as a "Mambo with a guiro rhythm". A guiro is a musical instrument consisting of a dried gourd rubbed by a serrated stick. It has also been suggested that the name 'Cha Cha' is derived onomatopoeically from the sound of the seeds in the guiro being shaken.

Don Herbison-Evans
Technical Report 323 
Basser Department of Computer Science
University of Sydney
(revised 4 March 2002)
References have been removed for easier reading.