The musical descendant of the contradanza, the habanera or contradanza habanera (Havana-style contradanza), the habanera's distinguishing musical feature is its short, repeating 2/4 rhythmic figure in the bass line:

Cuban musicologist Emilio Grenet calls habanera "perhaps the most universal of our genres" because of its far-reaching influence on the development of many Latin American song forms such as the Argentine tango and its frequently Europeanized treatment in classical music, such as in Georges Bizet's 1875 opera, Carmen, in which the title character sings the now-famous habanera aria.

In 1884 Sebastian Yradier's "La Paloma" became the first exported habanera to gain popularity in Mexico. Already decade before, any music in Mexico with the habanera rhythm was called danza. In 1890, Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes' habanera "Tu" became so popular, both within and outside of Cuba, that it epitomized the form. Its absorption in Buenos Aires was such that early 20th-century French publishers mistook its origin and printed the sheet music as an example of "tango habanera."

According to preeminent Cuban music historian Alejo Carpentier, the habanera was never called such by the people of Havana (for them it was just the local style of contradanza). It only adopted its present name when it became popular outside of Cuba.