Although we primarily dance salsa, in common with many other “Salsa” clubs we may on occasion dance to other Latin dances such as Merengue and Bachata. If you are new to salsa don’t worry if everything below seems confusing, our teachers will soon have you recognising the different dances!
Salsa is danced on music with two bars of four beats. Salsa patterns typically use three steps during each four beats, one beat being skipped. However, this skipped beat is often marked by a shifting of weight from one foot to the other. Typically the music involves complicated percussion rhythms, ranging from slow at about 140 beats per minute to its fastest at around 240 beats per minute. Salsa is a slot or spot dance, i.e., unlike Foxtrot or Samba, in Salsa a couple does not need to travel over the dance floor much (although they could, if there was space and the lead decided to do so), but rather occupies a fixed area on the dance floor.
There is debate as to whether Salsa originated in Cuba or Puerto Rico. Salsa is one of the main dances in both Cuba and Puerto Rico and is known world-wide. The dance steps currently being danced to salsa music come from the Cuban , but were influenced by many other Cuban dances such as mambo, cha cha, bolero, rumba, etc. It also integrates swing dances. There are no strict rules of how salsa should be danced, although one can distinguish a number of styles, which are discussed below.
Also, the reason there are no strict rules as to how you dance salsa is because it is a made up dance, an improvised dance to music which is often misunderstood. Salsa can be whatever the interpreter wishes it to be. The choreographer may listen to some music which is defined as salsa and will improvise the steps that come to mind. Salsa has elements of Jazz, funk, reggae, hip-hop and even samba. If it didn’t exist someone would have to invent it.
There are many characteristics that may identify a style. There may be different step patterns, different timing of steps, particular movement on the dance floor (ex: slot, circular), dancer preference of turns and moves, attitude and others. The presence of one or more of particular elements does not necessarily define a particular style. For example, many styles can be danced “On One” or one style may be danced “On One” or “On Two”. The following are brief descriptions of some of the major “recognizable” styles.
Los Angeles style
Developed in recent years, this is a style of salsa much influenced by Hollywood and by the swing & mambo dances, thus being the most flashy style, which is considered “more show than dance” by some. The two essential elements of this dance are the forward/backward basic, and the cross-body lead.
The reasons why L.A. Style of salsa is so well-known around the world are widely disputed. But what has helped largely has been the competition dances which so aften use L.A. or New York styles for their flashy performances, as well as programs like Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance. It is also extremely popular in most parts of the UK.
New York style or Eddie Torres style
The “NY Style” is a combination of the “On 1” and “On 2” systems. The timing of the steps are on the 1-2-3,5-6-7 as in “On 1” but the breaks (where the body changes direction) occur on the 2 and 6 as in “On 2”. NY instructor Eddie Torres developed this step pattern around the late ’70s and the ’80s, and its definition is quite clear as he is still alive and his followers are keen to keep the style intact. This is their description of the step: There are many “socials” in NYC or nightclubs that dedicate on playing only mambo or salsa.
The style has proliferated around the world to places like Japan, Korea, India, Israel, Germany, Holland, Canada, Hawaii, Poland, Romania, UK, Curacao, and more.
Cuban-style salsa can be danced either “on one” or “a contratiempo” – the latter is often referred to as “on two”. An essential element is the “cuba step” (also known as Guapea), where the leader does a backward basic on 1-2-3 and a forward basic on 5-6-7. The follower does the same, thereby mirroring the leader’s movement. Another characteristic of this style is that in many patterns the leader and follower circle around each other.
The cross body lead is an essential step in this style too and is referred to as Dile que no. This move becomes essential in the more complex derivative of Cuban Casino leading to the many moves of Rueda, or wheel dance. Here multiple couples exchange partners and carry out moves synchronized by a caller.
In the 1950s Salsa Rueda (Rueda de Casino) was developed in Havana, Cuba. Pairs of dancers form a circle (Rueda in Spanish), with dance moves called out by one person. Many of the moves involve rapidly swapping partners.
Incorporating styling techniques into any style of salsa has become very common. For both men and women shines, leg work, arm work, body movement, spins, body isolations, shoulder shimmies and rolls, and even hand styling have become a huge trend in the salsa scene. There are lessons dedicated to the art of salsa stylin’. Hip hop, jazz, flamenco, belly dancing, ballroom, breakdancing/pop and rock, Afro Cuban styles, and bhangra have all be infused into the art of styling. You can take dance lessons to learn all these different types of dances.
Normally Salsa is a partner dance, danced in a handhold. However sometimes dancers include shines, which are basically “show-offs” and involve fancy footwork and body actions, danced in separation. They are supposed to be improvisational breaks, but there are a huge number of “standard” shines. Also, they fit best during the of the tune, but they may be danced whenever the dancers feel appropriate. They are a good recovery trick when the connection or beat is lost during a complicated move, or simply to catch the breath. One possible origin of the name shine is attributed to the period when non-Latin tap-dancers would frequent Latin clubs in New York in the 1950s. In tap, when an individual dancer would perform a solo freestyle move, it was considered their “moment to shine”. On seeing Salsa dancers perform similar moves the name was transposed and eventually stuck, leading to these moves being called ‘shines’.
Merengue is a type of lively, joyful music and dance that comes from the Dominican Republic. Origins are traced to the second half of 18th century, but are still disputed.
With monotonous thumping 1-2-3-4 bass drum beat, all steps are on one beat and have a characteristic limping appearance. Sometimes this step is called “paso de la empalizada” (pole-fence step). There are also legends about a limping war hero (or El Presidente of a bana republic himself, in some versions) who had to step in this way while dancing because of wounds, and polite (or clueless) public imitated him.
Partners hold each other in closed position and do walks sideways or circle each other, in small steps. They can further switch to a double handhold position and do separate turns never letting go each other’s hands. During these turns they may twist and tie their handhold into intricate pretzels. Other choreography is possible.
Although the tempo of the music may be frantic, the upper body is kept majestic and turns are slow, typically four beats/steps per complete turn.
In social dancing the “empalizada” style is replaced by exaggerated Cuban motion, taught in chain ballroom studios for dances of Latin American origin (mambo, cha cha, rumba, salsa).
Club merengue evolved significantly from ballroom style. The main differences are much more erotic, suggestive way of dancing and much less serious attitude. All “ballroom” figures are danced, in addition dancers may dance in separation, similarly to shines known in salsa. Merengue shines are much more suggestive or silly.
Street Cha Cha
Cha cha cha is danced over two measures of 4/4. Dancers usually use a pattern of 8 counts across two bars to describe the basic step. Count 1 is a step in place, leader’s left foot, follower’s right. Count 2 the leader makes a break step backward on the right foot, follower steps forward on the left. Count 3 the leader steps in-place on the left, follower on the right. On “4-and-5” the leader makes two quick steps and steps in place: right-left-right. On 6 the leader breaks forward on the left, on 7 steps in place on the right, and on 8-and-1 the small “cha cha” steps return to the start of the cycle. As a matter of etiquette, many leaders start on 6 to avoid the first step stepping away from the partner, symbolising rejection.
The Cha-Cha-Cha falls on 4-and-5 and on 8-and-1. Because this does not gel with the conventional ways of subdividing rhythms, i.e. it spans the end of one bar and the beginning of the next, enabling the teacher to call out “2 3 cha-cha-cha 6 7 cha-cha-cha”
The Cha-Cha part of the rhythm is a compact chasse. When dancing the cha-cha very small steps are needed because of its rhythm. The cha-cha part of the rhythm is a series of small gliding steps that barely touch the floor. A huge variety of fancy footwork can be added to the dance. Weight has to be moved carefully to make motions look gliding. The cha-cha includes a lot of hip motion. Even though the cha-cha uses smaller steps, dancers in competitions usually make their movement slightly longer to travel across the floor. The Cha-cha became hugely popular in the United States as did the mambo in the 1950s. Dancers began inventing new steps and turns to win competitions.
Bachata is a form of music and dance that originated in the countryside and rural marginal neighborhoods of Dominican Republic. Its subjects are often romantic; especially prevalent are tales of heartbreak and sadness. In fact, the original term used to name the genre was “amargue” (“bitterness,” or “bitter music”), until the rather ambiguous (and mood-neutral) term bachata became popular. The origins of the term bachata are still unknown. However, in some rural areas of the Dominican Republic, bachata means trash, but most citizens agree that it means a party. Others say that bachata is derived from the Italian Ballata, which was a popular form of music in Italy centuries ago.
Bachata grew out of – and is still closely related to – the pan Latin-American romantic style called bolero. Over time, it has been influenced by merengue – a fast paced danceable music also native to the Dominican Republic – and by a variety of Latin American guitar styles.
The music itself is played in 4/4. The most recognizable aspect of bachata instrumentation is the use of an amplified guitar (either electric or acoustic) whose sound has been doctored with a flanger, reverb, echo, or a combination of the three. The use of arpeggiated chords as the basis for the melody is almost standard. An additional guitar, called the ‘segunda’ or rhythm guitar is usually mixed at a lower volume, and provides syncopation. An electric bass guitar and güira help anchor the rhythm – with the güira sounding a bit like a high-hat (in pre 1990s bachata, maracas were played instead of güira). The use of the bongo drum further solidifies the basic beat, and provides and percussive accents in transition points – for instance right before a chorus.
The bachata played today uses electric guitar and has phrasing which is more rhythmic and groove-like than in earlier styles. The evolution to electric has perhaps helped make bachata more accessible.
The basic footwork is a series of simple steps that produce a back and forth or sideways motion. A schematic footwork would be as follows: starting with the right foot make a chasse to the right on counts 1,2,3. On 4, touch the left toe beside your right foot (alternatively, tapping the left toe in place, i.e., apart from the right foot, make an upwards jerk with the left hip). Then do the same from your left foot. The character of the dance is achieved through sensual hip and body movements.