Salsa is a syncretic dance form with origins from Cuba as the meeting point of Spanish (European) and African cultures.
Salsa is normally a partner dance, although there are recognized solo forms such as solo dancing "suelta" and "Rueda de Casino" where multiple couples exchange partners in a circle. Salsa can be improvised or performed with a set routine.
Salsa is popular throughout Latin America as well as in North America, Europe, Australia, and some countries in Asia and the Middle East. It is fast becoming a global phenomenon.
Salsa dance movements originate from the Cuban Son dancing of the 1920s more specifically through the beat of Son Montuno with strong influences from the dance of Danzon, Mambo, Guaguanco and other Afro-Cuban folkloric dancing.
Today there are many various styles of salsa dancing because of geographical dispersion and cultural syncretism. The most well-known styles are Cali-style (from Colombia), Cuban-style ("Casino"), LA-style, New York-style, and Puerto Rican-style.
Salsa is typically a partner dance, although there are recognized solo forms, line dancing (suelta), and Rueda de Casino, where groups of couples exchange partners in a circle. Salsa can be improvised or performed with a set routine, choreography and freestyle.
There are a few basic steps of Salsa. The most common is the three weight changes (or steps) in each four-beat measure. The beat on which one does not step might contain a tap or kick, or weight transfer may simply continue with the actual step not occurring until the next beat. The option chosen depends upon individual choice and upon the specific style being danced. One of the steps is called a "break," which involves a change in direction. Different styles of Salsa are often differentiated by the timing of the break step (On Beat "Downbreak on 1" or Off Beat "Up beat on 2"). After 6 weight changes in 8 beats, the basic step cycle is complete. While dancing, the basic step can be modified significantly as part of the improvisation and stylings of the people dancing.
In many styles of Salsa dancing, as a dancer changes weight by stepping, the upper body remains level and nearly unaffected by the weight changes. Caught in the middle are the hips which end up moving quite a bit —- famously known as the "Cuban hip movement." Perhaps ironically, the Cuban Casino style of Salsa dancing actually has significant amounts of movement above the waist, with up-and-down shoulder movements and shifting of the ribcage.
The arms are used by the "lead" dancer, to communicate or signal the "follower," either in "open " or "closed" position. The open position requires the two dancers to hold one or both hands, especially for moves that involve turns, putting arms behind the back, or moving around each other, to name a few examples. In the closed position, the leader puts the right hand on the follower's back, while the follower puts the left hand on the leader's shoulder.
In the original Latin America form, the forward/backward motion of Salsa is done in diagonal or sideways with the 3-step weight change intact.
In some styles of salsa, such as LA and New York style, the dancers remain in a slot or line (switching places), while in some Latin American styles, such as Cuban style, the dancers circle around each other, sometimes in 3 points
Music suitable for dancing ranges from about 150 bpm (beats per minute) to around 250 bpm, although most dancing is done to music somewhere between 160–220 bpm. Every Salsa composition involves complex African percussion based around the Clave Rhythm (which has four types), though there can be moments when the clave is hidden for a while, often when quoting Charanga, Changüí and Bomba. The key instrument that provides the core groove of a salsa song is the clave. It is often played with two wooden sticks that are hit together. Every instrument in a Salsa band is either playing with the clave (generally: congas, timbales, piano, tres guitar, bongos, claves (instrument), strings) or playing independent of the clave rhythm (generally: bass, maracas, güiro, cowbell). Melodic components of the music and dancers can choose to be in clave or out of clave at any point. However it is taboo to play or dance to the wrong type of clave rhythm (see salsa music). While dancers can mark the clave rhythm directly, it is more common to do so indirectly (with, for example, a shoulder movement). This allows the dancing itself to look very fluent as if the rest of the body is just moving untouched with the legs.
2-3 Son clave
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For salsa, there are four types of clave rhythms, the 3-2 and 2-3 Son claves, and the 3-2 and 2-3 Rumba claves. Most salsa music is played with one of the Son claves, though a Rumba clave is occasionally used, especially during Rumba sections of some songs. As an example of how a clave fits within the 8 beats of a salsa dance, the beats of the 2-3 Son clave are played on the counts of 2, 3, 5, the "and" of 6, and 8.
There are other aspects outside of the Clave that help define Salsa rhythm: the cowbell, the Montuno rhythm and the Tumbao rhythm.
The cowbell is played on the core beats of Salsa, 1, 3, 5 and 7. The basic Salsa rhythm is quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow, in other words, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7, which are very similar to the beats of the cowbell. Recognizing the rhythm of the cowbell helps one stay on Salsa rhythm.
The Montuno rhythm is a rhythm that is often played with a piano. The Montuno rhythm loops over the 8 counts and is useful for finding the direction of the music. By listening to the same rhythm, that loops back to the beginning after eight counts, one can recognize which count is the first beat of the music.
Tumbao is a rhythm in salsa that is played with the conga drums. It sounds like: "cu, cum.. pa... cu, cum... pa". It is played with the counts of 8 and 2, & 4 and 6. Tumbao rhythm is helpful for learning contra-tiempo, ("On2" for North American Pundits). The beats 2 and 6 are emphasized when dancing On2 and the Tumbao rhythm heavily emphasizes those beats, as well.
Salsa's roots are based on Afro-Cuban Rumba and Son dancing, and is open to improvisation and thus it is continuously evolving. New modern salsa styles are associated and named to the original geographic areas that developed them. There are often devotees of each of these styles outside of their home territory. Characteristics that may identify a style include: timing, basic steps, foot patterns, body rolls and movements, turns and figures, attitude, dance influences and the way that partners hold each other. The point in a musical bar music where a slightly larger step is taken (the break step) and the direction the step moves can often be used to identify a style.
Incorporating other dance styling techniques into salsa dancing has become very common, for both men and women: shimmies, leg work, arm work, body movement, spins, body isolations, shoulder shimmies, rolls, even hand styling, acrobatics and lifts.
Latin American styles originate from Cuba and surrounding Caribbean islands and then expanding to Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and the rest of the Latin states; also heavily influence "Miami" style which is a fusion of Cuban style and North American version. The styles include "Casino", Miami-Style, Cali-style and Venezuelan Style.
North American styles have different characteristics: Los Angeles style breaks on the first beat "On 1" while New York style breaks on the second beat "On 2". Both have different origins and evolutionary path, as the New York Salsa is heavily influenced by Jazz instruments in its early growth stage.
Colombian / Cali Style
Cali-Style Salsa, also known as Colombian Salsa, is based on geographical location of the Colombian City of Cali. Cali is also known as the "Capital de la Salsa" (World's Salsa Capital); due to salsa music being the main genre in parties, nightclubs and festivals in the 21st century.
The elements of Cali-Style Salsa were strongly influenced by dances done to Colombian rhythms such as Cumbia and Boogaloo.
The basic step of Colombian Salsa is the "Atras" or "Diagonal"; breaking backwards diagonally instead of moving forwards and backwards as seen in the New York and L.A. Style. Dancers do not shift their body weight greatly as seen in other styles. Instead, dancers keep their upper body still, poised and relaxed while the feet execute endless intricacies. The dancer breaks mostly On1 (sometimes On3), with short measures of "4" instead of full "8" counts.
A major difference of Cali Style and the other styles is the footwork which has quick rapid steps and skipping motions. They do not execute Cross-body Leads or the "Dile Que No" as seen in LA/New York-style and Cuban-style salsa, respectively. Their footwork is intricate and precise, helping several Colombian Style dancers win major world championships. Cali hosts many annual salsa events such as the World Salsa Cali Festival and Encuentro de Melomanos y Coleccionistas
Cuban "Casino" Style
Cuban-style salsa, also known as Casino, is popular in many places around the world, including in Europe, Latin America, North America, and even in some countries in the Middle East such as Israel. Dancing Casino is an expression of popular social culture; Latin Americans consider casino as part of social and cultural activities centering around their popular music. The origins of the name Casino are derived from the Spanish term for the dance halls where a lot of social Salsa dancing was done in Cuba during the mid-20th century and onward.
Historically, Casino traces its origin as a partner dance from Cuban Son dancing, and its rhythmic body motions from Afro-Cuban Rumba heritage. Son is considered an older version and ancestor to Salsa. Son is danced on delay measure upbeat (contra-tiempo) following the 2-3 clave (Son Clave) whereas Casino is usually danced on the downbeat break of 1 or 3 (a-tiempo). Musically, the beats 1, 3, 5 and 7 are considered downbeats; whereas 2, 4, 6 and 8 are considered upbeats. Casino was popularized in the late 1950s as the Cuban Son received upbeat and quicker arrangements by musicians. Casino has a very independent development, free from external influences such as Puerto Rican and North American dances partly due to the effect of the Cuban Embargo.
Developed by Cuban migrants to Florida and centered around Miami, this form of Cuban Salsa fused with American culture and LA Style. Major differences of Miami-style Casino is that it is exclusive dance to downbeat (On1) and has elements of shines and showstyle added to it following repertoires of North American Styles.
Miami-style has many adherents, particularly Cuban-Americans and other Latinos based in South Florida.
Rueda de Casino
In the 1950s Salsa Rueda or more accurately Rueda de Casino was developed in Havana, Cuba. Pairs of dancers form a circle ("Rueda" in Spanish means "Wheel"), with dance moves called out by one person. Many of the moves involve rapidly swapping partners.
"Rueda de Cuba" is original type of Rueda, originating from Cuba. It is not as formal as Rueda de Miami and consists of about 30 calls. It was codified in the 1970s.
"Rueda de Miami" originated in the 1980s from Miami, is a formal style with many rules based on a mix, and is a hybridization of Rueda de Cuba & Los Angeles-style Salsa and dance routines that reflect American culture (e.g. Coca-cola, Dedo, Adios) which is not found in the traditional Cuban-style Rueda.
Los Angeles style
L.A. style is danced on 1, in a slot, with a measure of easiness and adaptability to it. It is strongly influenced by the Mambo, Swing, Argentine Tango and Latin Ballroom dancing styles. L.A. style places strong emphasis on sensuousness, theatricality, aerobics and musicality. The lifts, stunts and aerial works of today's salsa shows are derived mostly from L.A. Style forms with origins in Latin Ballroom and Ballet lifts.
The two essential elements of this dance are the forward–backward basic as described above and the cross-body lead. In this pattern, the leader steps forward on 1, steps to the right on 2-3 while turning 90 degrees counter-clockwise (facing to the left), leaving the slot open. The follower then steps straight forward on 5-6 and turns on 7-8, while the leader makes another 90 degrees counter-clockwise and slightly forward, coming back into the slot. After these 8 counts, the leader and follower have exchanged their positions.
The L.A. style as it is known today was pioneered by Albert Torres, Laura Canellias and Joe Cassini rightfully deserve much of the credit for the early development and growth of L.A. Style Salsa. Later, such dancers as Alex Da Silva, Edie Lewis, Joby Martinez, Josie Neglia, Liz Rojas, Francisco Vazquez and Janette Valenzuela are often credited with developing the L.A. style of Salsa Dancing as we know it today.
New York style
Like LA-style salsa, New York style is danced in a line. However, unlike LA style, it is danced on the second beat of the music, and the follower steps forward on the first beat, not the leader.
Though he did not create New York style salsa, Eddie Torres is credited with popularizing it, and for having the follower step forward on the first beat.
New York style salsa emphasizes harmony with the percussive instruments in salsa music, such as the congas, timbales, and cowbell, since many or all of those instruments often mark the second beat in the music.
Puerto Rican style
Puerto Rican-style salsa, like New York-style, is also danced on the second beat of the music ("on 2").
- Hutchinson, Sydney (2004) "Mambo on 2: The birth of a new form of dance in New York City.” CENTRO Journal 16(2):109-137.
- Pietrobruno, Sheenagh (2006) Salsa and Its Transnational Moves. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc.
- Mikko Kemppe (2010) Mastering the Four Most Important Rhythms in the Music
- Video of Cali-style social dancing in Cali, Colombia
- Video of Cuban-style social dancing in Miami
- Video of LA-style social dancing in LA
- Video of NY-style social dancing at the Japan Salsa Congress 2010
- Mambo On 2: The Birth of a New Form of Dance in New York City - an article on the development of North American style salsa, particularly New York style.
- Salsa Dance: Latino/a history in motion - an academic article on salsa dancing.
- A History of Salsa, a detailed history of salsa music and dance.
- The Black Roots of Salsa (Trailer) - a trailer of a documentary about the African roots of salsa music and dance, especially Afro-Cuban rumba.