What Is Salsa Dance?

Written by dennis hartman
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What Is Salsa Dance?
(Hilcias Salazar, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Salsa_en_Cali.jpg)

Salsa dance is a form of dancing set to salsa music. It is most often performed by a pair, but it can also be danced alone or with a larger group. Salsa is a fusion form of dance, drawing its style from various Afro-Caribbean forms, most notably the mambo.


Salsa dance was originated by Caribbean immigrants in the United States. It was first danced in New York City in the 1960s. Salsa combines traditional African forms of dance with more formalised European steps. Both salsa dance and salsa music have roots in Cuba but exist in their modern form only through the interpretation of American practitioners. Cuban "son" music contains the same African rhythms that form the basis of salsa. Specific salsa dance steps have been attributed to several earlier forms of dance, including the mambo, Palo Monte, Abakua, rumba, and cha-cha.

The Term: Salsa

The word "salsa" was commonly applied to what is today known as salsa dance in the mid-1970s. There is considerable debate as to the precise definition of salsa music and salsa dance, as it is inclusive of other dance styles and is often improvised, leaving no objective record of its evolution. The word "salsa" is Spanish for "sauce," hence its use in the name of the condiment. Salsa dance shares both its "spiciness" and its status as a mixture of ingredients with the condiment. Different salsa dancers and musicians have attempted to offer definitions of salsa, but there is no unified way of determining what, in fact, constitutes salsa, other than general agreement.

The Steps

Salsa dance is based on a series of six steps that occur relative to eight beats of music, with each four-beat measure containing three steps. The extra beat in each measure on which no step is performed is known as the break step. In different forms of salsa dancing, the break step is treated differently. It can be a pause between steps, an elongated step or an additional gesture such as a kick or spin to fill the void until the next beat. Salsa dance, when not improvised, consists of distinct sets of steps, known as "shines," for men and women.


Salsa dance is usually performed to salsa music, which ranges in tempo from 80 to 150 beats per minute. This means salsa dancing can be quite fast, especially when experienced dancers are performing. The musical accompaniment drives the style and speed of the dancing. Salsa music is itself based on the series of African clave rhythms. However, salsa dancers generally dance to another dominant rhythm in the music, using the clave to time their arm or shoulder movements. Skilled salsa dancers make use of their entire body in performing the dance.


Since its origin in the 1960s and '70s, salsa dance has been divided into several categories. Generally these styles are named after the area where they originated and may differ from one another in terms of the steps used, common body movements or the influences and philosophy of the dancers themselves. In the United States, three major forms of salsa dance dominate. The East Coast is known for its New York salsa, inspired by Puerto Rican Americans. California and the rest of the West generally dance the Los Angeles salsa, which is Cuban-inspired and known for producing many of the world's most famous salsa dancers. Finally, Cuban salsa, a more traditional form, is common within the Cuban American community in Miami.

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