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Salsa Dance: Origin, History & Steps

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

Tonight we're going salsa dancing! In this lesson let's explore one of the most famous Caribbean rhythms: Salsa! We are going to discover the origins of this dance, the most common steps, and some variations of this spicy and fast-paced music.

Salsa Dance

Salsa is a dance and a musical style with deep Caribbean and African roots. It is very popular in almost all Latin America, and among Latino communities in the United States. In recent years, this dance has also been gaining popularity in Europe and in Asia. Have you tried it yet?

The salsa rhythm is widely recognized for being catchy, sensual, and easy to learn, yet very difficult to master. There are several academies throughout the world dedicated to teaching this dance at different levels of difficulty. There are even worldwide competitions dedicated to salsa, such as the World Salsa Championship and the World Salsa Open.

Salsa performers
Salsa performers

The Origins and History of Salsa

The origins of salsa date back to the 1900s in Eastern Cuba, where musical elements and rhythms from various styles were combined. Cuban Son and Afro-Cuban rumba, the two main styles, used diverse musical instruments to create the basis of a rhythm that would later become known as salsa.

Almost 50 years went by before this new rhythm reached Havana. There, salsa absorbed influences from other local Cuban music and from American jazz, and continued to evolve. Due to the Revolution in Cuba, many musicians relocated to the United States, especially to New York City. Among the Hispanic community, these musicians found an ideal environment to develop their rhythm into what we know as salsa today; this was especially true in ''El Barrio'', also known as Spanish Harlem.

The definite rise and jump to fame of salsa happened thanks to Fania Records, a record label established in 1964 by musician Johnny Pacheco and Italian-American lawyer Jerry Masucci. This label became extremely famous, producing one huge hit after another. Many of the artists who signed with this label are now regarded as legends of salsa, particularly the team of ''Fania All-Stars''. This group included celebrities such as Celia Cruz, Héctor Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, and Rubén Blades, among others.

Fania Records edited the rhythms which originated in Cuba, and gave them a sound that was catchier and more easily accepted by the New York Latin market. To better merchandise their music, Fania called this new sound salsa.

Salsa music is a mix of different Caribbean rhythms and instruments; that diversity provides its unique sound. Salsa dance has similarly evolved and adapted over the years to better suit the tastes of different localities, leading to the creation of different regional styles of salsa. Some of the most popular regional styles are:

  • Salsa Casino (Cuban style)
  • Salsa Casino (Miami style)
  • Afro-Latino style
  • Cali style (Colombian Salsa)
  • Rueda de Casino
  • New York style

Considering such a variety of cultures in Latin America contribute to the vast diversity of styles in salsa, it is only natural that the musical instruments used also change a bit from style to style. A mix of instruments is used in each regional style. The most common percussion instruments are bongos, congas, timbales, maracas, and cowbells. Among the string instruments, we see the bass guitar, guitar, piano, violin, and electric guitar. The trumpet, trombone, flute, and saxophone are brass instruments commonly used.

The influence of salsa grew rapidly to become popular all over Latin America and within Hispanic communities worldwide.

Main Steps of the Salsa Dance

Salsa is danced shifting the weight of the body from foot to foot by stepping in harmony with the music. This continuous shifting causes the hips to move in a specific pattern. Most of the movement in salsa occurs below the waist. However, many styles and fast-paced songs also tend to include steps in which the arms, torso, and even the head are moved in rapid succession. This is especially evident while doing spins in coordination with a dance partner. As a general rule, steps are divided into eight movements going along with the music. Movement number 4 is usually a shift in direction, and movement 8 is the finishing movement of the step.

There are many steps and dance moves used in salsa; four basic steps of the salsa dance are considered to be:

The Front-Back

For this step, both feet are placed side by side, then one foot moves forward, usually, the right one, succeeded by the other foot. This leads to a movement similar to walking but instead of going forward all the time, the dancer goes back and forth.

Salsa dancers doing the front-back step
Salsa dancers doing the front-back step

The Side Step

This step is used mostly when doing solo moves. The side step is similar to the front-back but instead, the feet move to the left and then to right in rapid succession; this is usually accompanied with movement of the arms.

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