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Salsa - What Is It?

posted Oct 8, 2014, 11:37 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Nov 24, 2014, 6:54 PM ]
Salsa dancing is both very new and very old.  The word "salsa" is Spanish for "sauce", and like its meaning, the dance is a mixture of a lot of different ingredients from a lot of different places, all combined in a spicy, flirty mash-up.  Salsa is very improvisational and has so many different influences, that it really doesn't have a single point of origin, although Cuba takes most of the credit.  As far back as the late 1800s, African slaves mixed their native drum rhythms with Spanish music and instruments in various countries in the Caribbean, but particularly in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  French and English Contra Dancers (country dancers) fleeing Haiti brought what would be called Danzion to mix with this music, creating the beginnings of Salsa.

As musicians and dancers from Cuba and Puerto Rico traveled the world, but especially as they immigrated to New York and Los Angeles, they brought their music and their dance steps to an international scene.  Then, in the 1950s, the US saw an increased interest in Latin American music and dancing with the Cha Cha, Pachanga, Merengue, Mambo, and others.  This early improvisational Cuban dance style borrowed moves from all these other dances, and also threw in some Swing, Tango, belly dancing, Bhangra (a rural Indian dance style), tap dance stylings, and more!  Eventually, in the 1970s, the word "salsa" was coined to refer generally to Latin music and dance, but the name stuck to this one style that borrowed from everything else, including the newly created Hustle.

Because the Salsa is so improvisational and borrows from so many different dances and cultures, there isn't a single point of origin, nor is there even a single style that is "true" Salsa.  Every local region adapts the Salsa to its own style and flavor.  But there are 3 main or over-arching styles that are the most popular in the US.  These are:  New York Salsa, L.A. Salsa, and Rueda de Casino.  

The Rueda de Casino is a social dance, not a competition or "ballroom" dance.  It's sort of like the salsa version of square dancing!  There is a "caller" - a person who calls out the steps, and all the dancers start out in a circle around the dance floor with their partners and they all do the same step that is being called.  This style is characterized by each step having a Spanish name that is called out, by each step having a corresponding hand signal that the "caller" shows so that the dancers will know what step is being called even if they can't hear the "caller" over the music, and by frequently passing either the male or the female partners off to the next person around the circle.  It is common to have only one or a few steps called before it's time to pass the partner around the circle to the next person.  Rueda in Spanish means "wheel" and refers to the dancers forming a circle around the floor, and casino refers to the Spanish word for dance halls casinos deportivos.  

New York Salsa is primarily characterized as a slot dance, where the dancers remain in a slot or line like the West Coast Swing.  They dance in one place on the dance floor and primarily switch places back and forth, as opposed to occupying a circle of space on the floor or dancing in the line of dance around the outside of the floor.  Like the Mambo, New York Salsa often starts the basic step on the second beat in the measure.  Think to the popular movie Dirty Dancing, and the scene where Johnny is trying to teach Baby the Mambo.  We see a close-up of their feet, and when he starts to count out the steps, she keeps trying to step on the first beat and ends up stepping on his toes.  New York Salsa emphasizes elegance, efficiency, body isolation movements, timing, and precision.

L.A. Salsa is also a slot dance, but it incorporates cross-body leads which cause the partners to rotate so that it's almost a spot dance as well, where dancers occupy a small-ish circle or "spot" on the dance floor.  L.A. Salsa starts on the first beat of the measure, like most other ballroom and Latin dances.  L.A. Salsa focuses on sensuality, theatricality, musicality, and incorporates lifts, dips, and stunts.  Because of this, L.A. Salsa is probably the version that the average person is most familiar with, having seen it on TV in movies or in televised dance competitions like reality TV shows such as Dancing With The Stars or So You Think You Can Dance.  It is notable for its many spins and intricate arm work and arm "pretzels" like the Merengue.

The basic step for the Salsa is a quick-quick-slow done to music with a wide range of tempos from slow to very fast.  It's a rock-step on the quick-quick, and then bringing the foot that did the rock step back together with the other foot, and then pausing one beat.  The counting looks like 1, 2, 3, pause, 5, 6, 7, pause, with 1 and 5 being the rock step (either rocking forward or backwards, depending on whether it's the lead or the follow and whether it's the first or the second set of 8-counts), 2 and 6 being the rock back in place, and 3 and 7 being the reset where the rocking foot comes back together and then there is a one-beat pause with the two feet together.  The "pause" may be difficult to see if the music tempo is particularly fast.  Often, the "pause" will be filled by arm or body movements while the feet hold still, or the feet will simply move more slowly to the next step in a fluid motion to create the "slow" part of the step and to keep the dancers in motion.  If it's one of the styles of Salsa that starts on the second beat, such as the New York Salsa, the count is: pause, 2, 3, 4, pause, 6, 7, 8.  All the movement is done below the waist, using the Cuban Hips move.  

Salsa is danced in both open and closed positions.  In the open position, the dance partners hold both hands or just one hand and all the lead and follow signals are communicated through hand contact.  In the closed position, the male or lead dancer places his right hand on his partner's shoulder blade and the left hand holds her right hand gently, at a casual height between the waist and the shoulder.  Signals are communicated through the tension of the lead's left hand and gently guiding the follow with pressure on her back.  The female or follow's right hand rests gently on her partner's bicep and maintains contact along the entire length of the arm by lightly resting her right arm on top of his left arm that is touching her shoulder blade.  Her right hand is resting in his left hand, maintaining a comparable amount of resistance to her partner's.  The head and shoulders stay level with no bounce, and the dancers flex the knees to drop or rotate the hips with each step in the Cuban Hip motion.  Some styles include complicated or fancy arm movements, particularly in the open hold or at the end of a turn when the partners are only touching by one hand (the lead's left and the follow's right), leaving the alternate hands free to add style to the movements.

Here is a video of a couple dancing to a relatively slow tempo, where it's easier to see the quick-quick-slow footsteps.  Note the "slot" pattern of the dancers.  If you imagine a slot in the floor, the dancers seem to be moving only along that line or slot.  Also, you can see that both dancers are almost always visible to the camera.  There are very few moves that show either dancer's back to the camera or that block the view of their partner, except for the transition as one dancer passes by the other.  This is what is meant to "switch places", as opposed to dancers revolving around each other on a spot or circle of dance floor.

In this video, you see advanced dancers showing more of the tricks and lifts and spins to a much faster beat, characteristic of the L.A. Salsa style.  Because of the tempo and special steps, it's harder to recognize the quick-quick-slow rhythm.  But this is probably the version that non-dancers are most familiar with because its flash and style makes for popular and exciting television and performances.

The final video is a demonstration of Rueda de Casino Salsa performed by a dance team.  It's a little hard to hear if your volume is turned down, but there is someone actually calling out each of the steps that the group is supposed to do, which can just be heard as a voice shouting off-camera.  You can see the dancers all doing the same step, and you can see frequent partner switches.  Even though this is obviously a dance team and a performance, this is still accurate for the social version of Rueda de Casino, only social dancers wouldn't have matching outfits.  Calling out the steps may or may not be "choreographed".  In other words, the dancers may not know what step is about to come next and the caller may be improvising.  Even if the caller already has planned out what steps to call in what order, the dancers still may not know what will be called.  But because each of the steps is called out, all the dancers can do the same steps at the same time even if they do not know what will be called next, just like in American Square Dancing.