Salsa History

Salsa music and salsa dancing are popular all over the world. From tiny venues hidden deep in the rural jungles, to huge salsa nightclubs celebrating salsa in cities great and small. Here the music is played and salsa dancers rule the night. The dance patterns and movements vary widely from club to club and city to city, but the same sexy, rhythmic movement unifies them all, and also a love of the music we all refer to as "salsa".

The origins of this exciting and provocative partner dance-form go back all the way to the African continent; when men and women who had been torn from their homeland to serve as slaves in the New World, brought the music and style of body movement to the Caribbean and parts of Latin America such as Cuba, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. The movement was strong and sensual, often closely tied to the old religion of Santeria, or the worship of older African deities called "Orichas".

 

We now refer to these traditional dance forms as "Afro-Cuban rumba". In places like Cuba, Colombia, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, rumba was mixed with French and English country-dances, and what we know as salsa began to take shape. The music and dance continued evolving and changing, and took on many different names and titles: mambo, cha cha cha, bachata, cumbia, danzon, merengue were just a few.

 

When these forms of music and dancing came to the US early in the 20th century, they quickly gained popularity. The word "mambo", meaning "conversation with the Gods", was used as a song title by Cuban composer Orestes Lopez, and the dance associated with it became popular at New York's Park Plaza Ballroom and then later at the Palladium. Although the basic steps and patterns were not formalized until much later, the infectious melodies and sophisticated rhythms of salsa, made their mark from Brooklyn to Miami (or from Miami to Brooklyn).

The early "salsa" bands were big band ensembles, headed by legendary names like Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito. During the 70's these large groups gave way to a newer sound, spearheaded by a record label called Fania, where artists such as Hector Lavoe brought a grittier, modern sound to the table. They also brought the term "salsa" from the diverse, spicy Latin American food.

 

Since then, many dance forms have contributed to what we know as salsa; Ballroom, jazz, tap, hustle, west coast swing, and even hip hop.

Today salsa dancing can be loosely separated into three distinct and popular styles: "On 2" salsa dancing- also known as "New York Style", “On1”- sometimes called "LA Style",  and "Cuban salsa"- associated with "casino", and "casino rueda".

 

On2 Salsa

Dancing salsa "On2", started when a young Puerto Rican dancer living in New York began studying music theory and decided that the dance should follow the "tumbao", a conca rhythm punctuated by a sharp slap on the 2 and 6 beats. Dancing salsa "On2", has been around for a long time, and is very popular. Visually, “On2” often has a distinctive look and feel. The movements are small and precise, with sophisticated use of redirection and syncopation. Hearing the "2" side of the beat requires focus, and produces very musical dancers. An example of On2 dancing can be found here.

On1 Salsa

Dancing salsa “On1” is the most common kind of salsa dancing, possibly because it is a little easier than “On2.”  Latin tunes are often complex, with numerous instruments interlocking at once and finding the beat is not always easy. Since most pop melodies focus attention to downbeats, (1, 3, 5, 7), it is often easiest to "find the 1", by listening to the melodic instruments, such as vocals, horns and piano. Salsa dancing “On1” is a great way to start out.

 

The basic pattern of dancing On1 has the Lead stepping forward with his left foot on the 1st beat of the music, and back on the 5. The Follow does the opposite, stepping backward on the 1 and forward on the five. Dancers in Los Angeles such as the Vasquez brothers helped to coin the term "LA Style" often characterized by long powerful steps, and many fancy, flashy patterns and tricks. It should be noted however, that not all “On1” dancers use this extravagant "LA Style". Two examples of Salsa "LA Style" can be seen here and here.

Cuban Salsa

Dancing salsa “cuban style” is also called "casino", or "casino rueda". It is distinctly different from both On 1 and On2 in that it flows in circular patterns, rather than the "in-line" back and forth approach that both salsa On1 and salsa On2 share. The body posture of “cuban style” salsa dancing is slightly leaned forward, and there is a somewhat abrupt feeling to the steps, which bring the dancers side to side and around each other.

 

A form of salsa music called "Timba" is often associated with “cuban style”. People in Cuba often use the term "casino" to describe salsa dancing, and "casino rueda" when it is danced in a group. When danced in a circle, casino rueda uses a "caller" (a person who calls out each next move) and the Follows move around from Lead to Lead in a circle. An example to watch can be seen here.

 

There are obviously more than just these three styles of salsa dancing. Many more are constantly evolving as salsa dance competitions become popular around the globe. Competition fosters the desire to refine, define and create new structure. Fresh and innovative interpretations of salsa spring up everywhere, from Sydney to Bombay, from Cali Colombia to San Francisco.

 

Whether we’re dancing salsa On 1, On 2 or cuban, salsa is here to stay, creating tight-knit communities and connecting dancers from all cultures and demographics. Whoever we are, we all share at least one thing in common-- we are all Kings and Queens on the dance floor.

Thanks for reading,

Vassili

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