The History of Salsa Dancing

Every lover of Latin and Caribbean cuisine knows that the right salsa (literally “sauce”) can make or break a particular entree. It’s this combination of multiple ingredients that gives each creator’s salsa its distinctive flavor and character.

It’s therefore fitting that “salsa” has become synonymous with a genre of music and a graceful and vibrant collection of dance styles and cultures popular in much of the world today. Salsa dance is a broad label for a dance that has developed from influences of many other dances and elements.

The Roots of Salsa

The identity of the first person to use the word “salsa” to describe music or dance is unclear, and conflicting claims abound. Many give Jimmy Sabater of the legendary Joe Cuba Sextet credit for coining the term to describe up-tempo Latin music. On Sabater’s 1962 song Salsa y Bembé, the singer asks his partner to add a bit of “salsa” to her dance steps. Others point to Ignacio Pinero’s 1930s composition "Échale salsita", supposedly a musical protest against bland food.

Whatever the origin of the name, though, there’s no doubt that the essential elements of modern salsa dance, music and culture can be traced to Cuba. French visitors to Cuba from neighboring Haiti in the early 1800s brought traditional country dances, which soon became intermingled with those of the Yoruba, Congolese and other peoples of West Africa for whom the island was a point of transit on the way to lives of bondage on distant plantations. African drum sounds also joined those of the clave (a pair of hardwood sticks seen in Afro-Cuban ensembles).

But it is the uniquely Cuban sound known as the Son Cubano that makes up the musical DNA of what is today called salsa. Thought by some to have originated in the melody of a mysterious (and possibly mythical) 16th century song about a freed slave and songstress named “Ma' Teodora”, son was heard for the first time in the clubs of Havana in around 1910. It represented a marriage between Spanish folk song and African rhythms. Though known on the island for centuries, African music was still regarded by many as primitive and unstructured, or even vulgar. The son's popularity thus provided a new opportunity for Afro-Cuban musicians, particularly percussionists, to earn a living from performing. Their energetic rhythmic phrases were combined with the instrumentation – particularly the guitar and a close Cuban relative known as the tres- with repeating melodies and phrases called guajeos, descended from traditional Spanish folk melodies.

By the 1920s, couples in Havana nightclubs had stirred into the dance mix generous helpings of tango, mambo, and flamenco, and the style began to spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Meanwhile, ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had ushered in the era of prohibition, and the short boat trip from Miami to Havana provided a refuge for thirsty Americans. Many returned to the mainland with a newly acquired taste for both Caribbean rum and Latin music and dance. Soon, the rhythms of the rumba and the guaracha could also be heard on American radio stations, as jazz musicians as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton explored what pianist Jelly Roll Morton recognized as jazz’s “Latin tinge”.

Salsa Music

The histories of salsa dance and salsa music are of course inseparable. However, the growth in salsa music’s popularity owes as much to the Dominican and “Neuyorican” (Puerto Rican) immigrant community in 1970s New York as to its originators in 1950s Havana. Early stars on the American scene included Johnny Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars, Willie Colon and salsa singer-turned actor Reuben Blades.

Not all Latin musicians embrace the name. Some traditional Cuban players and composers have discounted the notion that salsa is a separate and distinct style. Havana native Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo, a/k/a “Machito”, often complained that he heard nothing in salsa to distinguish it from what he and his sister Graciela had been performing since the 1940s, and the iconic Tito Puente joked that salsa was for his food – his music was “Cuban”. Whether it is a broad, multi-ethnic style and movement that has evolved away from its roots or is more of a Cuban wine with a new label, however, there is no doubt that salsa music and dance are established parts of the modern Latin cultural landscape.

A Lifestyle, Not Just a Dance Style

Salsa devotees who joke about their “salsa addiction” are often speaking at least a bit of truth in jest. Salsa dancing lessons from beginning to advanced “styling” levels are available in nearly every major city in the world, as well as in many smaller towns with significant Latino immigrant populations.

In recent years, salsa has also emerged as a popular form of social dance. Salsa clubs have proliferated, drawing large crowds of individual dancers and couples and featuring special evenings such as “Caliente Sabado” (Hot Saturday) and lessons. Many venues also have adjoining restaurants. The Internet and social media have also contributed tremendously to the popularity of salsa, with thousands of Facebook pages and “Meet Up” postings that make it easy to find groups of salsa devotees in your town.

And let's not overlook the fashion side of salsa dancing. Faded jeans and a tee shirt may be okay for your first few lessons, but before you hit the local club to show off your new moves you'll need to think about the right look for the evening. For the ladies, this may mean a sleek ruffled black dress or perhaps a more conservative pantsuit ensemble. Men also have an array of choices, from simple traditional black pants to colorful competition-style outfits. And, of course, you'll need to choose just the right pair of shoes, preferably with suede soles, in which to dance the night away.

A Continuing Evolution

While many styles of dance are lumped together under the label “salsa”, several distinct variations have developed out of the Afro-Caribbean roots described above. Though they can be seen in places as diverse as London, Australia and even some of the more progressive Middle Eastern nations, each tends to be associated with and named for the region in which it originated.

Los Angeles (“L.A.”) Style

A line dance, L.A. style is said to be danced “on 1”; that is, the leader steps off on the first measure. It is often danced in a “slotted” format, with the follower generally moving in an imaginary rectangular “slot” in relation to the leader, who remains relatively stationary. Elements of the mambo, swing and tango are visible to the experienced observer. The style is perhaps best known, however, for its incorporation of dramatic and crowd-pleasing ballet-influenced lifts and aerial works.

New York Style

Popularized (some say invented) by legendary New York dancer and instructor Eddie Torres, New York-Style Salsa, like its West Coast cousin, is danced in a line. However, unlike LA style, it is danced on the second beat of the music ("on 2") - the follower, not the leader is takes the first steps forward. Because many of the Latin percussion instruments featured in salsa music, such as congas, timbales, and clave, emphasize the second beat of each measure, New York style salsa routines emphasize harmony with these instruments.

“Casino" style

“Casino” in this instance denotes not a gambling palace but a Cuban dance hall of the mid-20th century. Also known as “Cuban” salsa, this style originated as a partner dance to the Son. Casino developed in the late 1950s as musicians added upbeat and quicker arrangements to traditional Son accompaniments. Having developed in relative isolation since the imposition of the American trade embargo, many adherents consider Casino the “purest” form of salsa.

Miami-Style Casino

Developed by Cuban migrants to South Florida, this variation of Casino Salsa shares elements of both American dance and the L.A. Style. Like the L.A. Style, Miami-style Casino is danced “On1” (to the downbeat).

Colombian / Cali style

Cali style Salsa shows the influence of Colombian dance rhythms such as Cumbia and Boogaloo. Unlike the straight forward and backward steps seen in most other salsa variations, Cali’s basic step is the “atras” (diagonal). The intricate footwork features quick rapid steps and skipping motions.

Rueda de Casino

Couples in the Salsa Rueda, a type of round dance, form a circle ("rueda" is Spanish for "wheel"), whereupon moves are called out by a “lider” or “cantante”. Many of these involve rapid swapping of partners and require considerable concentration. "Rueda de Cuba" is considered the original form, originating in Havana in the 1950s. A more formal (and Americanized) version, Rueda de Miami, and consists of nearly thirty different “calls”.

Ballroom Salsa

To many, “ballroom dance” conjures up images of formally-dressed couples enjoying traditional steps such as the waltz, tango and foxtrot. However, a course of ballroom dance instruction today will likely also include the cha-cha, the merengue and the rumba. Moreover, Latin dance has become an established part of the American and international competitive ballroom dancing scene. Competing for the approval of judges from governing bodies such as World Dance Council, couples regularly perform energetic and expressive demonstrations of the Spanish paso doble (“double step”), or jive, an energetic Jitterbug-influenced African-American contribution to the official International Latin repertoire.

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Like the music of the people whose migrations brought it into being, salsa's evolution has taken it to the four corners of the world, incorporating new and innovative influences in each now location. Played and danced in clubs from New York to Sydney to London, salsa's diversity and complexity keeps its listeners enticed and its dancers continually challenged to keep up with the latest new steps and styles. ¡Viva la variedad! ¡Viva la salsa!