Salsa Dance History

Dancing couple

The history of salsa dance stretches back almost a century to the island of Cuba. Today it is a worldwide phenomenon thrilling both club dancers and professional competitors twisting with "Cuban motion" for millions of fans.

Salsa's Origins

The music and dance styles of salsa developed simultaneously in the 1920s as various musical styles such as Mambo, African, and "Son Montuno" came together on the island of Cuba. The island was already a melting pot for various other types of Latin dance such as tango, mambo, and flamenco. Sensing a potential dance and music sensation, a local studio called Fania named the new sound "Salsa" and began spreading it through the island clubs and over the radio. It went north to Miami as well as South America, and renowned musicians such as Tito Puente and Dizzie Gillespie began to incorporate the rhythms into their sets. The dancers followed along, adding more complicated moves depending on their experience. Some salsa styles are fast, almost frenetic, with whirling partner moves, while others seem more relaxed and sensual with elements of Argentine tango or slow rhumba in them.

The Roots of Salsa

Regardless of style, there are a few elements that have always been a part of the basic salsa steps:

  1. Salsa is usually a partnered dance with a lead and follow, dancing using improvisation of various movement combinations.
  2. The beat of Salsa music is 4/4, but there are three weight changes in each measure. What happens during that extra beat is part of what differentiates the styles of the dance.
  3. While the body changes weight, the upper torso remains almost immobile. This means that most of the motion ends up in the hips, which is how the phrase "Cuban Motion" got applied to this Latin dance form.

While the music of salsa is distinctive, the moves are often derivative of other partner dances such as the tango, the mambo, the rhumba, or even swing dance techniques.

Salsa History Around the World

As salsa dance became more popular beyond the shores of Cuba, the different styles became identified by the various geographic areas where they developed.

Cuban-Style "Casino"

The "original" salsa developed in Cuba during the mid-20th century. Much of its originality can be attributed to the Cuban embargo, so that the motions have a stronger Afro-Cuban rhumba influence (as opposed to Puerto Rican or North American). This "casino" (named for the Spanish dance clubs where people gathered) is still considered an integral part of Latin-American heritage, and the style has spread to Europe, South America, and even as far as Israel. One identifying characteristic of this style is that the dance begins on the downbeat of one or three, as opposed to two (the original Son style).

Cali-Style Salsa

Of all the South American countries that enjoyed moving to salsa, Columbia seemed to adopt it almost as their national pastime. Cali, Columbia is known as the "Capital de la Salsa." While they enjoyed the music and steps, the Cali dancers added in their own native rhythms such as Cumbia. The style itself tends towards a relaxed and almost motionless upper body with intricate footwork. Unlike Cuban and North American styles, they do not do cross-body leads, and their "break" (on the one, usually, like Cuban style) is in a diagonal path, rather than a straight "slot." The popularity of the dance in Columbia has led to events such as World Salsa Cali Festival.

North American Styles

Dancers in the states enjoy several different styles of salsa, but the top three are New York style (heavily influenced by jazz music and swing dance), Miami style (naturally more similar to the Cuban style due to geography) and the newest, LA Style salsa. All of these styles tend to be more flashy than the South American forms, with many twists, turns, and even acrobatic aerial moves similar to the Lindy Hop. Most of the salsa dances performed in professional ballroom and on TV shows such as Dancing With the Stars comes from the LA Style.

Additional Styles

There are other styles as well, such as the Rueda de Casino (a melding of the salsa dance with folk dancing to form a circular salsa dance line with partner swapping. The Cuban solo form has also developed to allow individuals to dance the salsa without a partner, just enjoying their bodies moving to the rhythm.

Sensual, Fun Dance

With the explosion of dance videos through sites such as YouTube, more and more people are learning and enjoying salsa. They are also continuing to integrate their own styles into the form, such as hip hop and middle-eastern dance. While it is a relatively young movement form, salsa is a vibrant and growing part of the world's dance culture.

Salsa Dance History