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Salsa: The Music
Salsa: The Dance
A History Of Salsa
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Salsa: The Dance
(from “Teaching & Salsa” by Loo Yeo)

Salsa in its elemental form is danced to four beats using three steps, each one beat long. The remaining beat can either be tagged onto the end of the preceding step (resulting in a quick-quick-slow count), or can contain an adorning movement, called a highlight. Steps can be travelling or on the spot; a bit like groovy walking three paces at a time with a pause thrown in. Walk like that to time and you’re dancing salsa.

Its very simplicity underlies its extreme flexibility; the sheer amount of personal choice. Just as you can walk in any direction you choose, so you can dance salsa on the spot, in straight lines, or in turning paces. The remaining beat can be highlighted with a tap, kick or pause. Note: A step is when you put your foot down and move your weight onto it (foot placement with weight transfer), a tap is when you put your foot down but don’t move your weight onto it (foot placement without weight). In many Latin countries, couples even choose which beat they would like to dance on, and it need not necessarily be the first beat.

All this might sound like rhythmic anarchy and it would be, were it not for one vital constraint. Salsa music and its progenitors has always been music for dancing. Its cooperative heritage has engendered a belief, in Latin America at least, that everyone else has an equal right to enjoyment on the dance floor. This alone prevents outbreaks of destructive mayhem. Instead this attitude (especially towards one’s partner) welds the forces of spontaneity, individuality and musicality together to form the atmosphere that Latin music is renowned for.

Just as the music has maintained its vitality by absorbing other influences, so has the dance. Apart from other Latin dances like the merengue and cumbia (which the term salsa sometimes encompasses), salsa bears some marked similarities with lindy-hop, swing and hustle. It has even proved capable of absorbing elements of ballroom Latin dance and Argentine tango. Quite astounding.


Flavours of Salsa

The way salsa is danced varies significantly depending where you’re from and how you’ve learnt it. In the main, salseros from different backgrounds can still dance with each other, at least at a basic level. British salsa is primarily anchored around the back basic, turns are executed on the second beat after a “wind-up” movement on beat one and are biased anticlockwise. North American salsa is built around the latin basic and many early combinations contain turns to the right. Salsa from the Caribbean and Latin America is presented more commonly as a walk, resulting in a much more circular in movement and the turns being slower. Within this are the main stereotypes of the Cuban and Colombian style, that is having an action that digs deeper into the floor or one that travels lighter above it respectively.

Before we lose our sense of perspective, these generalisations are mean to demonstrate the richness of the dance, not to typecast. Bear in mind that individual styles also vary within regions, so adopting a “definitive” style of salsa and trying to squeeze your students into it would be an amusingly futile gesture.


The problem with learning

People born and raised in a Latin American culture acquire salsa in a passive learning process; through constant immersion. It is my opinion that they come to understand the dance differently: as a series of walks instead of individual moves.

For those who are not fortunate enough to have this opportunity (like myself), we have to learn it instead. As mentioned before, early learning tends to occur best in a structure. To this end you will often find salsa being taught as a series of steps and moves because it is more meaningful to the student. But at some point, a different teaching angle should be used to offer the student an opportunity to look at the dance through a native dancer’s eyes, thereby offering the student the best of both worlds. Often the final process is not carried out, either because its importance is overlooked, or because it is easier for the teacher to carry on in the old manner regardless.


A little comment about leading and following

Social dancing in couples is mainly a phenomenon of Western European culture. By social dance I mean one that has structure but is not executed in the form of routines i.e. basic rules which once understood allows two individuals to dance together and flexibly determine their choreography, even if they had never met before. This demands that each move element of the dance possess a unique identifying start signal. Initiation of the signal and compliance with it results in the co-ordinated execution of the move element by both partners.

When a couple takes to the dance floor, both partners cannot initiate at the same time, neither can they both comply. Therefore one partner initiates and the other complies. This is known as leading and following respectively. Traditionally the lead role has been assumed by men and the following by women, although this has begun to change: where women are forced to lead due to a dearth of men, and because the social roles of both genders are being redefined.

The lead (known as la marca meaning “the mark” in Argentine Tango) for a move can take a variety of forms, usually presenting itself as a change in pressure (increase/decrease) at the points of partner contact, or in the body position of the leader relative to the follower. The most elegant leads are clear and considerate to the follower without being obvious to the casual on-looker. The challenge to the follower, in choosing to comply with the signal, is in finding ways of self-expression whilst dancing within its constraints.

Consequently salsa demands the abilities of lead and follow of its dancers in order for it to be executed on our latterday club floors in a social context.



I'm a middle school bilingual teacher who lived in Costa Rica for four years and picked up a little salsa while there. I'm about as white as they come but have been asked if I'm latino due to my "moves," so I guess I'm not too bad. I've been asked to give a short lesson at the... conference in October. Can I use some of your material in the lesson? I've never done this and need a little help. I learned "in the streets."




©1999 Salsa & Merengue Society