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The Salsa Dance History Salsa, the saucy, sensational, sexy dance that makes you spin, literally

Dame una! Dame dos con vuelta! Exhibela! Adios! Enchufa! These are just some of the words you hear when you dance the salsa, a saucy mix (not food) of several dances that had its roots in Cuba but became very popular in the United States, especially around Miami. Imagine a dance that combines steps and moves of mambo, rumba, cha cha, son, merengue and danzon, fused with influences from Hispanic, Cuban, Latin, African and American dance culture – and you have a dance that is not only lively, it’s downright infectious!

Origin of the Salsa Music and Dance

Salsa traces its roots to African and Cuban influence, but it was created in the United States. During the Cuban war in 1898, American soldiers got to experience Cuban music. As drinking alcohol was prohibited in the U.S., more Americans went to Cuba and they were infected with the Cuban Latin beat. Havana is home to the good life – fun, music, drinks, and entertainment. Radio recordings of Cuban music came out of Cuba as early as 1909.

In fact the Americans were so enamored with the Latin beat that American Radio went as far as going to Cuba in 1932 to record the 10-sister Orquesta Anacoana, the first all-female orquesta that played various instruments openly, having had plenty of time to practice since they were cooped up at home during the war. Orquesta Anacoana went on to become one of the leading orchestras in Cuba and had top billing when they performed in New York.

Musicians from the United States started incorporating the rhythms of Latin America to their own brand of music, with the advent of Latin jazz, with popular musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Jelly Roll, Stan Getz, Charlie “Bird” Parker and Louis Armstrong, following the new trend. Some bandleaders even hired Cuban musicians to create authentic Latin beat.

Other musicians like Johnny Otis, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, The Diamonds, Bo Diddley, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley experimented, with great success, in incorporating Latin rhythms to their own brand of music. By doing so, they helped popularize Latin music and beat in the United States. Cubans were also able to penetrate the American music scene, the best example of which is Gloria Estefan.

The West Africans that were brought to Cuba as slaves should be credited for the development of Cuban music. The origins of this music are deeply rooted in religion. While they were forced to adopt Christianity, they found a way to revere their own gods by substituting Christian names to them. Mama is a word that was used by these slaves as a code for Master and most of the rhythms of the drums that were included in popular Latin music that even present generations dance to, were originally intended to venerate various African gods. Secret societies or cabillolos still exist in Cuba, and they use around 200 drum rhythms for the various African gods.

Spanish troubadours brought the music of the Flamenco guitar to Cuba, from which the Son was born. Son is the Spanish word for sound and the Cuban Son combines Spanish guitar with percussion instruments from Arará and Bantu, African rhythms and the elements and structure of Spanish canción or Spanish songs. The Cuban Son became most popular in the 1930s and is the most widespread forms of all music coming from Latin America, with its fusions and derivatives, particularly the salsa, becoming known worldwide. One of the early proponents of the Son was Isaac Oviedo. It was from this music form that danzón style of music, which combines the sounds from African drums, cello, violin and flute, was developed. Danzón as a dance form, on the other hand, which is an official dance and genre in Cuba, evolved from the Habanera that is danced in Cuba.

From danzón unfolded the beginnings of mambo, created by Orestes López, combining the music form from the African rhythms popular from the streets of Cuba. Improvisations from various rehearsals gave form and substance to a new dance style. Later, Xavier Cugat became one of the more prominent names where mambo music is concerned.

After mambo, the latest dance craze was the rumba, which in the 1930s was started by Don (Justo Angel) Áspiazú. It created a furor among the Anglo Americans, with its barbaric melody and fiery tempo, although they still fell in love with the fascinating and daring dance. Fred Astair, Busby Berkeley, Desi Arnaz and his orchestra, Celia Cruz, Willy Colon and Tito Puentes all had a hand in popularizing the rhythms of Latin American music and dance, the mambo, rumba and lately the conga. “Cumbanchero” and “Babalu” are just two of the most requested songs during the 1930s and the 1940s.

However, salsa almost escaped the radar of Latin music and dance enthusiasts. The music of salsa evolved from mambo when a blind drummer from Cuba, Arsenio Rodriguez created the salsa rhythm in the early part of the 1960s. Some think that mambo and salsa are alike, but when listen to these two music forms closely, you’d hear the difference in its syncopation and rhythm.

Prior to the inception of salsa, the craze during the 1950s was Rueda de Casino or Casino Rueda. Some call the dance simply as Rueda. In Spanish, wheel is called rueda, while casino are the breaks and turns used by dancers, that are more evident when dancing the salsa. Originally rueda was danced in exclusive clubs called casinos deportivos, where the musical accompaniment to the lively dance was cha cha. It went underground when the Castro forbade most of the cultural activities in Cuba but it cannot be completely repressed and it eventually resurfaced. In the early 1990s, rueda was introduced in Miami.

In its truest form, the rueda involves a high degree of quickness and alertness from the dancers. There’s a form of communication from the leader to the dancers, as the leader commanding the change of dance pattern or the change of partner. This is an effective way of communicating, particularly in dance venues where there is a large group of people and verbal communication is next to impossible due to the noise.

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The Rise of the Salsa

Because of the mambo and rumba dance craze, famous musicians from Cuba became hit makers in America. Perez Prado, hailed as the king of mambo created a dance music that incorporated the Cuban African influence with American jazz. Dancing halls in New York, San Francisco and Miami began to be filled with the dancing feet of the youth.

But in the last quarter of the 20th century, mambo lost its novelty and people wanted more. Dance instructors needed a dance that could cater to all kinds of people with a penchant for dancing. Salsa surfaced as a dance and every one has a different dance interpretation.

The term salsa was coined by Americans but the dance is a culmination of all the other Latino dances before it and more. Dance enthusiasts from every location took the cue. They fused all the different steps at that time and created their own edition of salsa.

Creating techniques for salsa dancing became widespread. Dancers created body movements, shimmies, turns, footwork, arm movements, middle body moves, leg works, acrobatics, lifts, and holding hands to differentiate their own brand of salsa dance moves. There is no specific structure to salsa, due to the improvisations of the different groups of dancers. While the dance has its own brand of music, it could also be danced using other music styles.

What started in Cuba spread throughout the United States, the Caribbean Islands, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the rest of the Hispanic nations. Salsa became a household word.

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Basic Salsa Moves

Before we even discuss the different styles of salsa, it is imperative that you learn the basic moves that distinguish salsa from other fast Latin American dances like the mambo, for which it is closely related. Similarity with mambo could be attributed to the pattern of six steps that is danced on music with eight counts. However, salsa has many turns. Mambo characteristically moves forward and backward, however, salsa mainly moves from side to side. Most common of the salsa steps is the three weight changes within each measure with four beats. When the beat does not call for a step, a kick or a tap is used instead. It could also be the time for a weight transfer while waiting for the next beat the signals the actual step. With its loose structure, the dancers have the option to create the steps based on the style and the music being used. One integral element in salsa is the break step, which signals a direction change. The different styles of salsa are characterized by the timing of the break step. A basic step cycle is concluded when the six weight changes within eight beats are completed.

In salsa, weight changes are done by stepping, in which time the upper body is kept level and almost unaffected by the transfer in weight, however the hips sway in the Cuban hip movement – a movement of the left or right hip upward due to the transfer of weight from one leg to the other.

The arms of the leader are used in communicating to the follower. In the closed position the leader puts the right hand on the back of the follower who in turn places the right hand on the leader’s shoulder. In the open position, the partners hold each other’s’ hands as this position usually involves making turns, or moving around each other or when putting the arms behind the back. In the original form of salsa, the forward and backward motion is done sideways or diagonally although the required three-step weight change is maintained.

The most essential instrument in salsa music is the clave, two thick dowel sticks that are struck together to create a bright clicking sound that provides the timing sequence or pattern. Other instruments used are the bongos, congas, piano, timbales and tres guitar.

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Styles of Salsa

There is no shadow of doubt that salsa is a popular dance. The many styles of salsa could attest to that. Every geographical region has its own version of the dance.

Although salsa could be performed solo or in groups, it usually entails a pair, the leader and the follower. The leader initiates the steps and the follower has to balance the beat to make the dance fluid and smooth.

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Salsa a la Colombia

Colombia dancers have different ways of dancing salsa. In Cali, for instance, the dance is showy. This style is performed as if the couples are participating in festivals and dance contests. The moves are perfect and the beat is flawless. Cali is considered as the Capital of Salsa because even in the 21st century, Salsa is still the main ingredient in their parties, festivals, and nightclubs. Cali sponsors annual events like the Encuentro de Melomanos y Coleccionistas and the World Salsa Cali Festival.

The Colombian style of salsa is danced to Cumbian music. It is quite similar to the regular salsa music although there are longer pauses in the first three as well as the last three beats in Cumbia. This is a style that is handed down from family or friends and is not taught in school. Popular in South America and parts of Latin America, the Colombian style is distinguished by the circular style of side or open breaks with a tap on the pause in the fourth as well as the eighth beat. Rather than the feet moving forward and backward like in Mambo, the dancers move their feet back to center or side to center. Colombian salsa is a sedate form, with almost no turns incorporated in the steps and the dance is on the slow side, with partners holding each other quite close with their head down to their toes touching.

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Salsa a la Cubana

This form is closest to the original form that originated from Cuba, with strong Afro-Cuban moves, characterized by isolated body and hip movements. There is an absence of fast spins; rather, the dancers’ movements are circular with the partners normally traveling around each other as they dance. The knees are pumped to move the hips exaggeratedly. Footwork is simple with the complexity centered on the arm movements, requiring the dancers to have flexible and limber arms. The dominant partner is the male or the leader, who is showy and creates the required push and pull for the follower. Taps are employed on the pauses on the fourth and eighth beats provided they start on the first beat, although that is not always the case as oftentimes, the music dictates the movements of the dancers. Cuban salsa incorporates shifting of the ribcage and up and down movements of the shoulders.

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Salsa a la Miami

Evolving from the Cuban style of salsa, the Miami style is considered more difficult and technically advanced. The steps are intricate, there are pretzel-like movements and the follower is the one who executes the moves, which are similar to the Casino Rueda, including the circular formation. Miami style salsa utilize a tap and open breaks called Guapea basic, where the leader and the follower break back and push off each other. Cross body lead executed in a circular fashion is a common variation in Miami style salsa. Miami has a hybrid dance interpretation of this style aptly called Rueda de Miami. Their version is a formal routine using dance routines reflecting American way of life, notably the Coca-Cola routine.

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Salsa a la Casino Rueda

This type of salsa is commonly a group dance that originated in Havana. Couples dance in a circle and a dancer becomes a “caller.” The caller gives the calls or hand signals for the moves that should be executed by each pair of dancers. Switching or partner swapping is characteristic of Casino Rueda, which makes the dance quite tricky. However this is the charm and allure of this type of salsa, which has quite a following in Cuba and in Miami. However, the Rueda in Miami uses more complicated turns that require skill and sharp memory from the dancers, as the caller normally has 150 to 200 moves memorized. In this style, the circle should not be broken, so speed and accuracy from the dancers are essential.

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Salsa a la L.A.

The salsa style popular in L.A. is flashier, and the dancers start on the first beat. Dips, flips, tricks and drops are part of the repertoire, making spectators gape in awe when watching an L.A. style salsa performance. The mambo basic back and forth movement in a linear position is characteristic of the salsa in L.A. with the leader breaking forward on the count of one. The first count is the most accented beat, giving the dance style a powerful and fast movement. L.A. style salsa incorporates moves from other dances including ballroom, jazz and hip hop. Cross body leads are common and shines are used as a focal point, integrating jazzy moves with plenty of complicated and fast footwork.

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Salsa a la New York

New York style salsa is technically advanced and danced on the second beat, similar to mambo. This means that followers break forward on the second beat, with the left foot while the leaders break forward on the sixth beat. If the L.A. style is frenetic, the New York style is graceful, elegant and with a smooth and controlled flow. The position in the New York style is linear and the turns are executed from variations in cross body leads. Shines, Afro-Cuban movements, complicated footwork and multiple spins are incorporated in New York style salsa.

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Salsa a la Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican style of salsa may be danced on either the first or the second beat. In this case, the leader is the one that breaks on the second count instead of on the sixth. Shines are part of salsa Puerto Rican style, as it’s believed that the shine actually originated in Puerto Rico. Shoulder shimmies are also prominently used in this style of salsa and they emphasize on dancing on the 2/3 clave time. The uneven 5-beat time created by Felipe Polanco, integrates a forward and backward sliding motion in time with accents produced by the clave.

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This is a fantastic solo work by either the leader or the dancer, when the dancer shows off. It is the time when a dancer does freestyle work. Shines usually are characterized by complicated, fancy and super-fast footwork, accentuated by various arm and body movements. Shines are usually part of Puerto Rican, L.A. and New York styles of salsa. Shines show the individuality, dexterity and creativeness/inventiveness of a salsa dancer, which are sometimes used to challenge other dancers.

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Cuban Solo Dancing

As the term implies, this salsa dance does not need a partner. Also called suelta, this dance originates from live performances of orchestras. During the heydays of salsa, orchestras have dancers and singers with routine acts. This dance could be done singly or through a group. The intricate steps include lively body movements and footwork. The steps are either tuned to the music or tuned against the music.

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Cuban Style Partnership Salsa Dance

This style is billed as parejas, literally meaning partner. This Cuban salsa style, also called Casino. The term casino is the Spanish word for dance halls. This traditional style is a derivation from the traditional dance from Son Montuno. Latinos consider this salsa style as part of their heritage and this style is performed in many of their cultural and social activities. The Casino Salsa is the developed version of Son’s type of dance. It has a more upbeat tempo that is independent from any external influences.

Male dancers face their partners and present an elaborate pattern of body and arms movement. Casino puts a lot of emphasis on the complementing roles of the men and women. The men confirm his macho image and the women validate their part of being sexy and feminine.

In this distinct Salsa style, dancers get to break away from the usual steps during the percussion solo beat of the music. They perform an advanced styling form called despelote. Here, the women and the men get physically close without touching each other. They tease their partner with the gyrating and swaying of shoulders and hips.

In some forms, Casino is a circular style that entails a lot of holding both hands. This is a derivation of the rumba style combined with mambo. The essence of this dance is to keep the middle body and the footwork in sync with the music. The turn patterns are compared to a game called twister. The leader cleverly emerges and the follower smartly hangs on to his every step.

Strict discipline is needed in this style as it involves keeping the hands, the middle body, and the feet in perfect timing. Partners make frequent adjustments to keep every dance pattern precise.

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Modern Salsa

Salsa is immortalized on ballrooms, nightclubs, restaurants and in the streets. Festivals are annually held in different cities and they never fail to attract hordes of people glued to the dance. Salsa today could be danced using salsa music and other kinds of tropical music.

These festivals gather people who share a common passion for the dance. They share tips and moves and build dancing groups. Live salsa dance music, salsa dancers, contests, workshops and open dancing are lively features of these festivals. The mood in these events is infectious and people salsa the night away.

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