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What is Salsa Dancing?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Salsa dancing is a dance style associated with the salsa style of music now popular worldwide. Salsa music has its origins sometime in the 1950s to 1970s, with the truly distinct salsa style coming out of New York in the 1970s. The music fuses a number of Cuban styles, particularly the son, but also draws from a number of other Latin American musical styles.

Salsa dancing is done on eight-beat music, with dancers moving on three beats, pausing for one beat, dancing for three beats, and pausing for one beat. The movement style is left-right-left-pause, then right-left-right-pause. During the pause in most dances some sort of flourish is utilized, be it a stomp of the foot, casting out the hand or kicking the lower leg. This style of dancing is mostly a stationary dance, with little movement around the dance floor. Instead, dancers rely on the subtle movement of their legs and upper bodies to convey the energy of the dance.

In addition to the partnered movements of salsa dancing, dancers may integrate solo breaks known as shines into their routines. These are a way for salsa dancers to take a breather from an exhausting routine, or to gather themselves if their rhythm is broken. Shines involve lots of ornate movements and demonstrations of the body, and are intended as a way for a dancer to show off their full talent. While shines are in theory improvisational, there are many standard shines which dancers learn and can fall back on.

If a dancer begins salsa dancing on the first beat of the phrase (left-right-left-pause), the style is known as on one. If the dancers begin their movement on the second beat of the phrase (pause-left-right-left), the style is known as on two. While proponents of a certain style have reasons for believing one is better than the other, ultimately it comes down to a matter of personal preference.

In addition to the basic stylistic variations of on one and on two, there are a number of major schools of salsa dancing style. The main on one styles are LA style, Colombian style and Cuban style. The main on two styles are ballroom mamba, en clave and palladium two. Eddie Torres style combines the on one and on two styles by using the starting and pausing points of on one style, but having the body switch position where it would normally switch in the on two style.

Salsa dancing is incredibly popular throughout Latin America and the United States, and is gaining popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Many clubs specialize in salsa music and most towns offer classes in salsa dancing. While not the easiest dance form, because of its high tempo, is it not particularly difficult, and dancers of all skill levels should be able to gain proficiency within a matter of months.

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Discussion Comments

By David Aguilar — On Sep 19, 2011

I'm a 4-plus years salsa dancing vet and I let me tell you something: While you can sort of get better slowly by practicing at home watching videos, the crude reality is that the best and fastest way to improve is to just swallow your fears and go to the clubs like if it was a religion!

These are a few things to keep in mind.

Not everyone is a pro, so you are bound to make friends who are your level who would be happy to dance with you.

The most expert dancers are human, and even if you had a horrible dance with one, and stepped on him/her. They will forgive and forget, which means you can ask them again and will likely say yes.

Trust me on this one: forget about getting a big repertoire of moves at the beginning, just get a handful and get the basics extra solid! Everyone prefers 100 well done crossbody leads than a handful of crappy around-the-worlds and painful copas.

Work on keeping your back straight, butt out, knees bent, keeping the beat, and being smooth and firm at the same time.

Most importantly, have fun! Don't stress! Everyone screws up! just laugh it out and keep going!

The crazy turns, arm knots and all that will come on their own, trust me on this one.

Girls tell me they love dancing with me (they line up to dance with me I swear!), because I'm smooth and firm, and I only do moves I know I can lead.

In a nutshell, go out, work on basics and have fun!

By surflover00 — On Aug 31, 2010

johnson19- Keep in mind that you will usually need a partner when using a salsa dancing video to improve your skills. Salsa is a partner dance and it is useless to practice moves individually.

Find a friend who exercises regularly to be your partner. Even if they are not interested in salsa, they will get their workout in for the day.

You can also recruit a family member, roommate, spouse or neighbor to be your partner.

By ShowStopper — On Aug 31, 2010

johnson19- You can purchase a salsa dancing video in order to improve your skills. These videos teach salsa dancing step by step and are often designed specifically for beginners. Purchasing a video is a great alternative to formal classes and clubs because it can be done in the privacy of your own home.

Videos are created by professional salsa dancers so you can be sure that you are learning proper technique.

Salsa dance videos can be found at a few retail stores. However, it might be necessary to go online in order to purchase a video. Check eBay or Amazon before purchasing from an online retailer. You can often find great deals.

By johnson19 — On Aug 31, 2010

anon104145- I agree with you that salsa dancing should be done primarily in one place on the dance floor. Salsa clubs are often packed and when people move around too much it can cause a lot of chaos.

I love salsa dancing but want to improve my skills before going out to anymore clubs. Is there a way that I can improve my skills without attending a class or a club?

By anon104145 — On Aug 15, 2010

I am amazed at the fairness of your article. I am always disappointed when I read about salsa since the vast majority of articles are tainted by some kind of prejudice. Congratulations on your accomplishment.

You are so right about one style not being any better than another. Personal preference says it all. Also, I wish that more people would recognize that this dance is primarily a stationary dance. It would improve their appearance so much and would avoid some of the dance floor collisions that occur for no good reason.

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