What is Salsa History – Toronto Dance School | Salsa Lessons


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 salsa dancing some sort of flourish is utilized, be it a stomp of the foot, casting out the hand or kicking the lower leg. Salsa 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.


salsa dancer1Salsa music is a diverse and predominantly Spanish Caribbean genre that is popular across Latin America and among Latinos abroad. Salsa incorporates multiple styles and variations; the term can be used to describe most any form of popular Cuban-derived genre, such as cha cha chá and mambo. Most specifically, however, salsa refers to a particular style developed in the 1960s and ’70s by Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants to the New York City area, and stylistic descendants like 1980s salsa romantica. The style is now practiced throughout Latin America, and abroad. Salsa’s closest relatives are Cuban mambo and the son orchestras of the early 20th century, as well as Latin jazz. The terms Latin jazz and salsa are sometimes used interchangeably; many musicians are considered a part of either, or both, fields, especially performers from prior to the 1970s. 

Salsa is essentially Cuban in stylistic origin, though it is also a hybrid of Puerto Rican and other Latin styles mixed with pop, jazz, rock, and R&B. Salsa is the primary music played at Latin dance clubs and is the “essential pulse of Latin music”, according Ed Morales, while music author Peter Manuel called it the “most popular dance (music) among Puerto Rican and Cuban communities, (and in) Central and South America”, and “one of the most dynamic and significant pan-American musical phenomena of the 1970s and 1980s”. Modern salsa remains a dance-oriented genre and is closely associated with a style of salsa dancing.


Salsa music traditionally utilizes a 4/4 time signature. Musicians play recurring rhythmic accompaniments often in groups of eight beats (two measures of four quarter notes), while melodic phrases span eight or sixteen beats, with entire stanzas spanning thirty-two beats. While percussion instruments layer several different rhythmic patterns simultaneously, the clave rhythm is the foundation of salsa; all salsa music and dance is governed by the clave rhythm. The most common clave rhythm in salsa is the so-called son clave, which is eight beats long and can be played either in 2-3 or 3-2 style.

Rhythm and steps

Salsa is danced on a core rhythm that lasts for two measures of four beats each. The basic step typically uses three steps each measure. This pattern might be quick-quick-slow, taking two beats to gradually transfer the weight, or quick-quick-quick allowing a tap or other embellishment on the vacant beat. This is not to say that the steps are always on beats 1, 2 and 3 of the measure. (See Styles below.) It is conventional in salsa for the two musical measures to be considered as one, so the count goes from 1 to 8 over two musical bars. 

Typically the music involves complex African percussion rhythms based around the Son clave or Rumba clave. Music suitable for dancing ranges from slow at about 70 beats per minute to its fastest at around 140 beats per minute though most dancing is done to music somewhere between 80-120 beats per minute.

Clave (rhythm)

CLAVES_AFRICAN_CLAVE_LPClave (pronounced clah-vay) is a rhythmic pattern used as a tool for temporal organization in Afro-Cuban music such as salsa). The word clave is Spanish for “key”, in the sense of an answer key or a musical key signature. Depending on the style and musicians involved, the clave may play a role from a simple rhythmic decoration to an elaborate structural framework upon which the rest of the music must relate.


Afro Cuban Rhythms 

In order to understand Afro Cuban rhythms one must pursue an extensive study of the clave role and its relationship with the instruments, compositions and arrangements.  For it is the clave rhythm that provides the foundation in this style of music. 

There are two major clave styles in Afro Cuban music; the son clave and the rumba clave.  They are both two bar rhythms, consisting of a bar containing three notes and another containing two.  These rhythms can be approached two ways.  In the 3-2 often refer to as the “forward clave” and in the 2-3 refer to as “reverse clave”.  The choice of the direction of the clave rhythm is guided by the melody, which in turn directs all other instruments and arrangements.  In many contemporary compositions such as the ones recorded by Fania All Stars, Mongo Santamaria and Ruben Blades, arrangers make use of both directions of the clave in different sections of the tunes.  As far as the type of clave rhythm used, it depends on the style.  Generally son clave is associated with dance styles, while rumba clave is associated with folkloric rhythms.



The following shows both styles in the 3-2 variety.  You will discover that the difference lies on the fourth beat of the first bar.  In the son clave its on beat “four”, while in the rumba clave its on the ‘and of four’.  You should practice these rhythms clapping, while tapping quarter notes with your foot that is beats “one, two, three and four” then by tapping half notes with your foot that is beats “one and three”.





Salsa refers to a fusion of informal dance styles having roots in the Caribbean (especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the United States), Latin and North America. The dance originated in Cuba through the mixture of Mambo, Danzón, Guaguancó, Cuban Son, and other typical Cuban dance forms. Salsa is danced to Salsa music. There is a strong Afro-Caribbean influence in the music as well as the dance. 

Salsa is usually a partner dance, although there are recognized solo steps and some forms are danced in groups of couples, with frequent exchanges of partner (Rueda de Casino). Improvisation and social dancing are important elements of Salsa but it appears as a performance dance too. 

The name “Salsa” is the Spanish word for sauce, connoting (in American Spanish) a spicy flavor[1]. The Salsa aesthetic is more flirtatious and sensuous than its ancestor, Cuban Son. Salsa also suggests a “mixture” of ingredients, though this meaning is not found in most stories of the term’s origin. (See Salsa music for more information)


The history of “Salsa” dance is peppered with hearsay and contradiction. Although few would disagree that the music and dance forms originate largely in Cuban Son, most agree that Salsa as we know it today is a North American interpretation of the older forms. New York’s Latino community had a vibrant musical and dancing scene throughout the ’50s but found limited success with the ‘Anglo’ mainstream. In the 1970s, adoption of the term “Salsa” reduced the linguistic and cultural barriers to mainstream adoption of Latin music and dance. 

The modernization of the Mambo in the 1950s was influential in shaping what would become salsa. There is debate as to whether the dance we call Salsa today originated in Cuba or Puerto Rico. Cuba’s influence in North America was diminished after Castro’s revolution and the ensuing trade embargo. New York’s Latino community was largely Puerto-Rican. Salsa is one of the main dances in both Cuba and Puerto Rico and is known world-wide.

Interpretations of what the salsa dance is 

The late Celia Cruz, hailed by many as the queen of salsa, said that salsa does not exist as a rhythm, but that it is rather an exclamation for music such as guaracha, bolero, cha cha cha, danzon, son, rumba, etc.
The famous Latin composer and band leader Tito Puente also argued that there is no such thing as salsa but only mambo, rumba, danzon and cha cha cha, etc. 

According to the late David Melendez, one of the first organizers of the East Coast Salsa Congress and a salsa dancer in New York since the 1970s, the word ‘Salsa’ first referred to the music. The term was coined in the 1970s by young musicians like Hector Lavoe, Larry Harlow, Ray Baretto, Willie Colon, who wanted a different name for the kind of music they were playing. The term ‘salsa’ was then popularized by Izzy Sanabria, owner of the Latin New York magazine, and Jerry Massuci, owner of Fania Records. Today, the term ‘salsa’ as we know it, has become synonymous with the dance, yet the dance suffers a “crisis of authenticity” whereby dancers are perpetually disagreeing over what qualifies and does not qualify as “salsa”.

Origin of the salsa steps

The dance steps currently being danced to salsa music come from the son, but were influenced by many other Cuban dances such as Mambo, Cha cha cha, Guaracha, Changuí, Palo Monte, Rumba, Abakuá, Comparsa and some times even Mozambique. Solo salsa steps are called “Shines”, a term taken from Tap dancing. It also integrates swing dances. Salsa can be a heavily improvised dance, taking any form the interpreter wishes. Modern Salsa has elements of Jazz, funk, reggae, hip-hop and samba.

Basic step

The basic movement common across most salsa styles is to step quick-quick-slow over the 4 beat measure. Typically the quick steps are on beats one and two, and the slow step is actually a quick on beat three followed by pause or tap on beat four. That is you step left-right-left-pause/tap then right-left-right-pause/tap. Notable exceptions to this timing are Mambo, Power On2 and Colombian styles, which begin the three step sequence on beat 2; and Cuban styles, which may start the sequence on any count. New York Mambo is unique in starting on one and breaking on two – that is, instead of stepping forward on the first beat with your left, stepping in place with your right and then returning your left to where it started, you step in place with the left on the first beat, step back with your right and then return your weight to your left.

Break step

The Break Step is important in most styles of salsa. It serves two functions. First, the break step occurs on the same beat each measure and allows the partners to establish a connection and a common ground regarding the timing and size of steps. Secondly the break step is used in an open break to build arm tension and allow certain steps to be led. On which beat the break step occurs is what distinguishes different Salsa styles.

Basic Step On One

On counts 1, 2, and 3, the leader steps forward, replaces, and steps backward. On count 5, 6, and 7, they step backwards, replace, and step forward again. The follower does the same, but with forward and backward reversed, so that the couple goes back and forth as a unit. This basic step is part of many other patterns. For example, the leader may dance the basic step while leading the follower to do an underarm turn. 

The following variants of the Basic step may be used, often called breaks.

* Forward break: Starting from either foot, step Forward, Replace, In-place, counting 1,2,3 or 5,6,7
* Back break: Starting from either foot, step Backward, Replace, In-place, counting 1,2,3 or 5,6,7
* Side break: Starting from either foot, step Sideways, Replace, In-place, counting 1,2,3 or 5,6,7

Basic Step On Two

Many ballroom chain schools’ “mambo basic” has the leader commencing with a side left on 1 and a break backwards on 2, on the first bar. 

If the break steps occurs on count 2 and 6, it is called “On Two”. There are two main ways in North America of dancing On Two:

* Power-On2 is danced as the basic step on 1, but beginning on beat 2 with a break step, and holding on 1 and 5.
* Eddie-Torres-On2 breaks on beats 2 and 6, but holds on 4 and 8.


The lead steps slightly back on the left foot on 1, then takes a break step backwards on the right foot on 2. On 3 the left foot steps in-place and over 3 and 4 the weight is transferred to the left foot. On 5 the leader steps slightly forward on the right foot, and breaks forward with the left foot on 6. On 7 the leader steps in place with the right foot and over 7 and 8 the weight is transferred onto the right foot, ready to repeat on 1.

Eddie Torres Style is so called because it was widely formalized and popularized by Eddie Torres whose clear teaching style and production of instructional videos opened up access to Salsa for many New Yorkers. It is not claimed that he invented the style. In those videos, Eddie Torres himself calls this “Night Club Style”.

On2 steps analyzed

Also note that most “Torres” On 2 dancers slightly rush the one and the five count. This means that they are stepping a moment before the one and the five are played by the music. It can be clearly seen when they dance and heard when they count. While this might seem strange at first it really makes sense if you analyze the steps. The counted “one” falls between the musical eight and the musical one, while the counted “five” falls between the musical four and the musical five. This means that the distance between the (early) one and the two is the same as the one between the three and the (early) five, and it is a dotted quarter note. Because of this the quick-quick-slow “On 1” pattern becomes a slow-quick-slow one for “On 2” dancers, and the reduced difference between the quicks (one quarter note) and the slows (one and half quarter note) gives the “On 2” dance its typical flowing quality. 

If we turn our attention to the steps we see how, in the basic step pattern, every step that requires a foot movement will fall on a “slow” count, while a simple weight transfer will be on a “quick”, making this “On 2” feeling more natural and comfortable.

Dancing Salsa On1 and On2 compared

While in closed frame, two partnered dancers can not be simultaneously dancing On1 and On2 respectively without causing injury to one another since the break steps are taken at different times. 

Dancing On2 means that the break step synchronizes with the accented slap of the tumbao, the pattern played on the conga drum(s), while the On1 break step synchronizes with the first beat of the measure. For this reason it is said On2 is more rhythmically oriented, whereas On1 is more melodically oriented. 

Note that commonly On2 starts the basic pattern with the lead moving back and the follow moving forward, while On1 the lead starts the basic step forward and follow steps back.

Common salsa turns 

The following turns are used in almost all salsa dancing regardless of the basic used or style employed.

* Outside Turn (Underarm Turn) – similar to the “arch turn” in swing and many other dances, follower turns clockwise
* Inside Turn – follower turns counterclockwise (to her left)
* Spot Turn – either, or often both, partners turn 360° remaining in the same spot
* Extension – partners break in opposing directions to build arm tension between them. Often leads into a spot turn or an in-and-out.
* In-and-Out (Copa) – From a cross-hand hold (left over right), leader creates an extension, then pulls the woman in with the right hand while leading the left hand over her head to the other side of her, causing her to turn 180° to her left. The follower is then pushed back out, and will do at least another half left turn to return her to facing the lead.
* Cross Body Lead – follower is led to opposite side of lead, causing them to swap positions in a counter-clockwise fashion. Exists in other Latin dances such as Cha-cha-cha.
* Reverse Cross Body Lead – same as Cross Body Lead, but couple exchanges positions in a clockwise fashion.
* Basket – A type of extension where the leader is behind the follower and holds the follower’s arms wrapped around her shoulders while she breaks forward and the leader breaks backward.
* Windmill – A type of lead for a turn where rather than leading the turn from above the follower’s head, the leader loops the arm widely down and up, so that the movement appears more vertical than horizontal.


There are many characteristics that may identify a style. There may be different step patterns, different timing of steps, particular movement on the dance floor (ex: slot, circular), dancer preference of turns and moves, attitude, dress code, and others. The presence of one or more of particular elements does not necessarily define a particular style. For example, many styles can be danced “On One” or one style may be danced “On One” or “On Two”. Also Cha Cha Cha The following are brief descriptions of major “recognizable” styles.

Cuban style 

Cuban-style salsa (also called Casino) can be danced either on the down beat (“a tiempo”) or the upbeat (“a contratiempo”). Beats 1,3,5 and 7 are downbeats and 2,4,6 and 8 are upbeats. 

An essential element is the “Cuba step” (also known as Guapea), where the leader does a backward basic on 1-2-3 and a forward basic on 5-6-7. Usually the fourth beat is not counted. The follower does the same, thereby mirroring the leader’s movement. Another characteristic of this style is that in many patterns the leader and follower circle around each other. 

The cross body lead is an essential step in this style too and is referred to as Salida Cubana or as Dile que no in Rueda de Casino Dancing. This move becomes essential in the more complex derivative of Cuban Casino leading to the many moves of Rueda, or wheel dance. Here multiple couples exchange partners and carry out moves synchronized by a caller.

Los Angeles style (LA)

L.A. style is danced on 1, in a slot. It is highly influenced by Hollywood and by the swing & mambo dances. L.A. style emphasizes sensuousness, theatricality, and acrobatics. 

The two essential elements of this dance are the forward/backward basic as described above, and the cross-body lead. In this pattern, the leader steps forward on 1, steps to the right on 2-3 while turning 90 degrees counter-clockwise (facing to the left). The follower then steps forward on 5-6, and turns on 7-8, while the leader makes another 90 degrees counter-clockwise. After these 8 counts, the leader and follower have exchanged their positions. 

Francisco Vazquez, along with his two brothers, Luis and Johnny, are often credited with developing the LA style of salsa. Francisco taught both of his brothers how to dance and all of them went on to become famous worldwide through their unique style of dancing. Francisco Vazquez, along with his brother Johnny, founded “Los Rumberos” Dance Company at the start of their career, which is still the leading dance company in Los Angeles. Luis Vazquez, along with then Joby Vazquez (now Joby Martinez) founded Salsa Brava Dance Company, which was another leading dance company in Los Angeles for many years. 

Other people who also helped create L.A. Style as we know it are, Rogelio Moreno, Alex Da Silva, Joby Martinez, Josie Neglia, Cristian Oviedo, Luis ‘Zonik’ Aguilar and many others. Tony Cordero and Robert Menache helped spread the influence of the LA style to Long Beach and Orange County.

New York style 

New York style emphasises efficiency of movement, elegance, and body isolations. By focusing on control, timing, and precision of technique, dancers aim for smooth execution of tightly woven complex patterns. In New York City this style is danced strictly On 2, although dancers around the world often integrate elements and repertoire from New York into their dancing On 1. 

On 2 timing emphasises the conga drum’s tumbao pattern, and encourages the dancer to listen to percussive elements of the music. Advocate of New York Style consider this to more accurately reflect the Afro-Caribbean ancestry of the music. 

Many also refer to this style as “Mambo” since it breaks on beat 2 of the measure, though there are other dance forms with a more legitimate claim to that name. (See Mambo.) 

In a social setting, New York style is danced more compactly than LA style. The etiquette of New York style is strict about remaining in the “slot” and avoiding travelling. 

New York style tends to place a greater emphasis on performing “shines” where dancers separate and dance solo for a time. 

New York style dancers are typically very serious about the musicality and timing of their dancing. To satisfy their tastes, “socials” are often held that cater to almost exclusively playing “salsa dura” (lit. “Hard Salsa”. This is mid-to-up-tempo salsa with an emphasis on percussion and band orchestration rather than the vocals. 

The longest-running social in New York is the Jimmy Anton social, which is held every first, third and fifth (if there is a fifth) Sunday of the month. 

While the New York style is the predominant style found in the eastern United States, the style finds favor with professional salsa dancers and salsa teachers the world over. Thus, it can be seen at salsa congresses all around the world.

Famous On2 dancers

New York Style’s first and most famous champion is popularly held to be Eddie Torres. Eddie Torres has been dancing since 1962 and has been teaching since 1970. Countless figures in the salsa scene have performed with the Eddie Torres dancers, such as Seaon Bristol (a.k.a. Seaon Stylist), Amanda Estilo, Eric Baez, April Genovese de la Rosa, Jai Catalano and many more. 

Other important figures in the On2 style are Frankie Martinez, Ismael Otero, Tomas Guererro, Osmar Perrones, Griselle Ponce, Milo, Ana and Joel Masacote, Jimmy Anton, Joe Burgos and many others.

Venezolana (Dominicana) style

Venezolana Style Salsa is the style danced in Venezuela and Dominicana. 

In this style are characteristic with the follow things: 

    * style has basic step – Cumbia step
* dancing carries out steps in beat salsa(1+2+3+pause)
* style has expressed impulse
* movement as turns and all dance are carried out on a circular trajectory
* movements sharp enough and effective (in comparison with Salsa Casino)
* there is tap with 1 and 5 steps
* The majority of movements and turns are carried out by “scrolling”, instead of step-by-step (unlike Salsa Casino)
* the minus of style consists that if even one of partners does the slightest mistake at turn is very strongly noticeably and forces down all dance
* the minus consists that the quantity of turns is much less in comparison with Salsa Casino and Salsa LA

Colombian style

Colombian Style Salsa is the style danced in South and Central America. In the Colombian style basic-step, partners dance side-to-side and mirror each other’s movements. In Colombian style, the break is on the three and the “spare beat” is always used for a tap or other embellishment. 

Colombian Style can be danced not only to Salsa music, but also to Cumbia music which is frequently played in Latin nightclubs. 

In advanced Colombian style, danced for example in Cali, the upper body is kept still, poised, and relaxed while executing endless intricacies in the feet. 

This style is especially appropriate on packed nightclub dance floors where space is limited. Most of the steps danced during the Merengue, another Latin dance which is popular in Salsa clubs, have been carried over from Colombian style Salsa. 

It is said that Colombian salsa evolved during the big band swing era, when swing dance steps were danced to Cumbia music. Cumbia was traditionally danced in folkloric ensembles without holding one’s partner.


Dancing style (also called Palladium or Power-2) popular at the Palladium Ballroom in 1950 which eventually spread across the United States during the mambo craze. 

This style is similar to Los-Angeles style, but it instead begins on the second beat of the measure, rather than the first. The basic step timing is 2-3-4,6-7-8 with the breaks on 2 and 6. This style is taught by Razz M’Tazz dance company of New York, whose director, Angel Rodriguez, coined the term “Power 2.” 

It is important to note that although this style is also known as dancing “En Clave”, the name is not implying that the step timing should follow the rhythm of the Clave as in 2-3 or 3-2. It only means that you take the first step (and break) on the second beat of the measure, where a clave beat in 2-3 starts.

Puerto Rican style 

This style can be danced as “On One” or “On Two”. When danced “On Two”, the leader steps forward with the left foot on count 2. The basic continues like the New York basic with the timing rotated 4 beats. 

There is a Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico where salsa groups all around the world attend and perform. The first Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico was in 1997.
La Rueda 

In the 1950s Salsa Rueda (Rueda de Casino) was developed in Havana, Cuba. Pairs of dancers form a circle (Rueda in Spanish), with dance moves called out by one person. Many of the moves involve rapidly swapping partners. In the Philippines 2005, a growing interest among young Filipinos led to a fusion of salsa and community dance, later called Ronda de Salsa, a dance similar to Rueda but with salsa dance moves that were choreographed locally and in Filipino names. Among the popular calls in Ronda were: Gising, Pule, Patria, Dolorosa, Lakambini and La Antonio. 

There two main types of Rueda de Casino: 

   1. Cuban-style – “Rueda de Cuba” (Original type of Rueda, not so formal) 
   2. Miami-style – “Rueda de Miami” (Formal style, many rules, based on a mix, hybridization of Rueda de Cuba and Salsa Los Angeles-style )

Salsa Disco 

This is a version of salsa which actually is a discothec-version of social dancing. The difference from other versions is that it is, as they say, “a rattling mix “. In Salsa Disco there are moves from Salsa Los Angeles-style, Puerto-Rico style, Casino etc. It often includes the expressed tap which is characteristic of the Venezuela style and also tricks and acrobatic elements of rock-and-roll which are inadmissible in the original Salsa Cubana. 

It is this kind of Salsa which you can see in discos of 80-90% of cities under the name salsa while only 10-20% really dance a pure salsa style which is quietly passionate, strongly pronounced and unforgettable. The good thing about Salsa Disco is that it is easy to learn to do well whereas learning pure Cuban or Los Angeles style to the same level of proficiency requires a lot more effort.

Salsa styling

Incorporating styling techniques into any style of salsa has become very common. For both men and women shines, leg work, arm work, body movement, spins, body isolations, shoulder shimmies and rolls, and even hand styling have become a huge trend in the salsa scene. There are lessons dedicated to the art of salsa styling. Hip hop, jazz, flamenco, belly dancing, ballroom, break-dancing/pop and rock, Afro Cuban styles, and Bhangra have all been infused into the art of styling.


Normally Salsa is a partner dance, danced in a handhold. However sometimes dancers include shines, which are basically “show-offs” and involve fancy footwork and body actions, danced in separation. They are supposed to be improvisational breaks, but there are a huge number of “standard” shines. Also, they fit best during the mambo sections of the tune, but they may be danced whenever the dancers feel appropriate. They are a good recovery trick when the connection or beat is lost during a complicated move, or simply to catch the breath. One possible origin of the name shine is attributed to the period when non-Latin tap-dancers would frequent Latin clubs in New York in the 1950s. In tap, when an individual dancer would perform a solo freestyle move, it was considered their “moment to shine”. On seeing Salsa dancers perform similar moves the name was transposed and eventually stuck, leading to these moves being called ‘shines’.