Salsa con Sabor: The Many Flavors of Salsa Dancing

Did you know there are at least six different styles of salsa dancing? With the Tampa Bay Salsa and Bachata Festival wrapping up its takeover of downtown Tampa this week, we thought we’d keep the good vibes going with this brief look at the most well-known styles.

On 1? On 2? On the “and”?

Salseros know the answers to these questions can tell you a lot about a salsa dancer.

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Guests enjoy dancing at Latin Nights at Maestro’s Restaurant.

Whether you step out on the first beat (on 1), the second (on 2) or the “and”/”y” before the first, depends upon your particular style of salsa dance. Miami, Cuban, L.A., New York, Columbian, Rueda — these are the main categories of salsa technique, and let us be the first to assure you that each category has its own particular stylings. Salsa, like language, has many dialects and infinite flavors — all cooked up from the Caribbean and exported throughout the world.

The term “salsa” as we know it today originated in the 1970s (not a typo) after a perfect storm of cultures cross-pollinated in Spanish Harlem (“El Barrio”) in New York. Puerto Rican influences met Cuban influences met American jazz influences, and an explosion of this musical fusion was captured on wax by Fania Records, the “Latin Motown.”

Of course, salsa music didn’t form in a vacuum. It was the result of hundreds of years of colonial imperialism enslaving Africans to work tobacco and sugarcane fields in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean. West African percussion rhythms and Spanish music blended into a uniquely Cuban sound. Likewise, a similar effect happened in Puerto Rico. Dance also benefited from colonial terrorism as European court dances intertwined with traditional African dances to create Cuban son, rumba, folkloric dances, Puerto Rican bomba and plena and others.

As we know, migrations happened, bringing these rich cultures to the United States, notably (for this blog, anyway) to New York. Around the 1950s, a few key players in this salsa story started to get internationally famous: Celia Cruz, later crowned Queen of Salsa; Tito Puente, King of Mambo and Ishmael Rivera, Father of Salsa. By the mid-60s they would become prominent, lasting forces on the American Latin music scene. Before President Kennedy closed US borders to Cuba, the back-and-forth of Cubans and Cuban-Americans carried this new Latin sound to Cuba, where it fit right in as a long-lost member of the musical family.

The clave (kla-vay), a wooden percussion instrument, announces and carries the salsa beat, and it’s this “knocking” rhythm that dictates the “basic” — or, basic step, which is usually a triplet of some sort. As salsa music developed, so did salsa dancing. Geographic regions created their own styles and flair on the basic. That’s how we get New York salseros stepping “on 2” and the flashy Los Angeles dancers stepping “on 1.”

The Puerto Rican style, which is taught at The Straz’s Latin Nights at Maestro’s Restaurant, is a smooth, sliding step. Dancers incorporate shoulder shimmies and use clean body lines in the dance.

Like this:

Cuban style uses Afro-Cuban hips movements and body isolations, starting on the “and” before the first downbeat.

Such as:

Hollywood influences L.A.’s “showy” style that incorporates tricks, flips and drops. Danced “on 1,” L.A. style has a powerful look and feel. Like all salsa styles, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

See for yourself with these competition dancers:

Rueda, also called Casino Rueda or Salsa Rueda, is a group of dancers in a circle following the instructions of a caller. Rueda means “wheel” in Spanish, so this style of salsa has dancers moving in a circle, swapping partner to partner in a series of moves determined on the fly by the caller. For this style, you’ve got to know your moves — and be quick about it.

Like these dancers:

The Miami style evolved from the Cuban style, adding more pretzel-twists with the arms and borrowing from the circular, “spinning” style of rueda.

Check it out:

Folks credit Eddie Torres with establishing New York style salsa, danced “on 2,” and also known as “mambo style.” New York style uses Afro-Cuban body movements to spice up the controlled, flowing, even pace of the dance. You’ll see complicated footwork and spins.

LOTS of spins:

Colombian style salsa, developed to the cumbia rhythm, uses more foot taps with a back-to-center or side-to-center pattern — not like the front-back mambo step.

See the difference:

Of course, despite their variations, the different styles of salsa are all exciting, sensual and full of “shines,” a term for when the dancers break apart for short grandstanding solos of impressive footwork. In other words, this moment in the dance is a time for the individuals to shine.

The Tampa Bay area happens to have great mix of salsa styles thanks to our location as a cultural crossroads for the Caribbean, Miami and folks fleeing New York’s cost of living and cold winters.

If you want to give salsa dancing a shot or are looking for a place to shine and style, our next Latin Night is Sept. 14.

Have something more to add about salsa dance? We know you do. Leave a comment below.