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Simply Salsa!

by Karen & Dick Fisher

There is controversy about the origin of "salsa" as a term describing a kind of danceable Latin music, but it appears that Cuban Ignacio Piňerio in his song Echale Salsita first used the word in 1933. Echale pique, calientalo, and menealo que se empelota were terms used to describe the thrilling Afro-Cuban dance rhythms being played at that time in the Spanish Harlem area of New York. Salsa is the term that captured most people's imagination, and band leaders, to get the dancers to add a little spice to their dancing, were soon yelling "Ponie salsa" as their bands were playing.

Traditional salsa music is a fusion of Afro-Cuban son, the music from which rumba, cha cha, and mambo are also derived, and North American jazz. A major feature of traditional salsa music are the multiple percussion instruments, each of which adds a particular "beat" to the music. This makes the rhythm pattern complex. Many purists feel that without these many different patterns, music is not really salsa (sin clave no y son [without clave there is no son; therefore, no salsa]). However, as salsa has become popular around the world, the music to which the salsa dance is performed has become quite varied. Today, salsa is danced to nearly any up-tempo music (44-60 measures per minute) in 4/4 time.

Salsa does not have an "official" syllabus, and there are many, many figures and variations danced around the world. Frequently, the same figure has different names and multiple variations. In general, the dance is composed of three steps per measure of music taken quick, quick, slow. There are several different styles of salsa. The major difference between styles is the timing of the "break" or the first step of a figure. Some styles break on beat 1, while others break on beat 2 or beat 3. There is even a "classical 2" and a "modern 2" style, but we are sure that round dancing will stick to the style that breaks on beat 1.

Salsa styles also differ in that some figures are performed in a linear fashion while others are performed in a circular one. Some styles use a stop action very similar to mambo, while others (LA style) use all passing steps and are more fluid. Styles also differ in the degree to which figures from other rhythms are incorporated. For example, New York style adds in many hustle figures.

We know of three different kinds of salsa that have been introduced to round dancing. There is the "ballroom style" that is taught in many dance studios. It includes the Single Tap, Double Tap, Cumbia, and the Cross Body. It was introduced to round dancing in Salsa Café (Shibata, 1999). There is a salsa style that borrows heavily from mambo, merengue, and rumba. This style can be found in Salsa Cacheti (Young, 2002) and She Knows That She Wants To (Goss, 2004). There is Casino Rueda that is normally danced in a circle by several couples with a leader who either yells out the figures or uses hand signals to tell the dancers what figure to do next. In rueda, partners are generally exchanged, but there are also some group figures. This form can be converted into a couple dance by adding a Cross Body instead of the exchanging figure, so that couples stay together. In its couple form, rueda was introduced to round dancing in Salsa Cubana (Fisher, 2002).

Here are some salsa figures and their round-dance counterparts from more familiar rhythms.

Salsa Figure --

Is Similar to --

Check Turn w/ Neck Wrap

Flirt action or Stop & Go

Left Spot Turn

Back Basic to Reverse Top action

Right Spot Turn

Back Basic to Natural Top action

Cross Body w/ Inside Turn

Whip & Twirl

Cross Body w/ Free Inside Turn

Passing American Spin (Single Swing)

Checked Inside Turn

Stop & Go

Sideways Basic

Cucaracha action

Change Places w/ Inside Turn

Change L to R (Single Swing)

Change Places w/ Outside Turn

Change R to L (Single Swing)

Change Places w/ Dbl Inside Turn

He Go She Go (Single Swing)


Modified Front Vine w/ Kick

Double Steps

Side Close Side Tap twice (Two Step)

Right Spot Turn w/ Alternating Underarm Turns

Continuous Natural Top but M turns for 2nd turn


Turn to Tamara Wrap

As many of us know, some bottled salsas are spicier than others. In salsa dancing, one or the other partner often adds an embellishment to the figure to "spice it up." These embellishments are called "shines," e.g., a kick or tap, and you can purchase videos of the most common shines if you wish to spice up your salsa.

From clinic notes prepared for the URDC Convention, 2005, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2013.


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