If you’re new to salsa, you may not realise that there are actually a few different types of salsa dancing. The music they are danced to is often the same with marginal differences, the timing and the basic step is roughly the same in each style. To the untrained eye all these different styles may look identical, but in reality they are different enough that you may have trouble dancing with someone who is dancing another style. Here is a guide to the most common styles you can expect to find in your local salsa club.
Why do so many styles exist and what sets them apart
The short answer to why there are so many different styles is simply: music evolution, geography and culture.
All styles share a common birthplace which is Cuba. By the 1950s, salsa music was popular in Havana and other places in the Caribbean. As Latin American immigrants settled in the USA they took their music, dance and culture with them. Salsa became so popular by the 1970s that new styles emerged in different parts of the world affected by popular influences of the time and given location.
Today, there are various different types of salsa dancing, popularised by either a region or a famous salsa dancer which often gives the particular style its name. Even then there can be marginal differences in the name and even dance basics of the same style depending on where in the world you are. It’s best to learn the style taught at your local dance school.
You can typically tell the different styles apart by observing certain technicalities: musical variation, timing, basic footwork, frame and attitude.
Cuban Salsa (Salsa Cubana, Casino)
Cuban Style Salsa is a relaxed and casual dance in comparison to some of the other salsa styles. Movement patterns are circular rather than linear with partners constantly moving around each other. In Cuban Salsa dancers follow with the feeling of the music, usually exuding a cool attitude for the leaders and lots of sass for the followers.
Cuban Salsa Characteristics
The most distinct feature of Cuban Salsa is the circular movement pattern. Which naturally translates to fairly simple footwork with a few turns and even fewer spins, if any at all. The arms are more complicated and a way for the leaders to show off. The followers in turn need to be flexible with arm movements while holding enough tension to feel the lead. Spaghetti arms are a no-no! Cuban Salsa lead relies on the push / pull feel.
Musicality and Afro-Cuban body movement are also very important in Cuban Salsa. Body isolations, hip and shoulder movements are less stylised and overall inspired by Afro-Cuban Rumba heritage. Movements are relaxed, rounded and characterised by a rhythmical bounce of the knees.
Cuban salsa is often danced in flat shoes and even barefoot as is Afro-Cuban Rumba. Being a street dance however, there are no strict rules regarding footwear or attire in social settings.
Cuban Salsa Timing
Cuban Salsa is danced a-tiempo (on 1) to traditional Cuban music. Cuban dancers tend to tap on the 4th and 8th beats of the music.
Dancers can sometimes be so connected to the music that they miss the 1st beat and dance ‘on 3’ instead. Although nowadays dancing ‘on 3’ is rather rare, Cuban Salsa is danced almost always on 1.
The Guapea is one of the most used basics. It is danced in open position. Both leader and follower dance a back basic away from each other on the first three beats (1-2-3) and then towards each other, rocking forward on 5,6,7.
The predecessor of Salsa, a traditional Cuban dance called Son, is danced contra-tiempo following the 2-3 clave.
Cultural and Historical Significance
Cuban Salsa is a popular style danced to music such as reggaeton, timba and salsa. As such Cubans consider it to be a part of their culture. Both Salsa music and Salsa dancing often make an appearance at social events ranging from small gatherings to special events.
Cuban Salsa formed as its own dance style in the 1920s. Cuban Casino became popular outside of Cuba in the late 1960s / early 1970s in the USA. Since then it has spread across the whole world. The name “Casino” comes from the Spanish word for “dance hall” where socials with popular bands at the time were hosted for the wealthier Cubans and tourists.
Rueda de Casino (Rueda)
Rueda de Casino, meaning a wheel of Casino, is a fast-paced and fun variation of Cuban Salsa. It involves two or more couples dancing the same moves together in a circular formation. Rueda is far from simple though. It features many complicated moves which the dancers need to remember by name and execute on a whim so that the circle remains unbroken.
The number of couples is unrestricted, however the more couples there are the more difficult it is to ensure that the circle is not disturbed. More advanced Rueda groups often change up the formation of the circle and the traditional leader / follower roles.
Rueda de Casino Characteristics
You may be wondering how all of the dancers know what move to perform and when. The group will have a designated cantante (caller) who lets the group know what move to dance and when to start it. Hand signals are used in tandem with vocal commands, especially in busy and loud social settings.
Many of the moves involve swapping partners which means memory, speed and accuracy are key to ensure the circle remains unbroken. Constant changes of partners create an energetic dynamic and a smooth flow within the dance.
LA Salsa (On 1, Cross Body Salsa)
LA Salsa is fast and flashy. Partners move up and down a line rather than in a circle. Moves commonly involve spins, dips and tricks making the dance feel powerful and fast. Highly stylised, theatrical and at times acrobatic this dance is great for performances.
LA Salsa is the most modern of the Salsa styles. It was developed and popularised by the Vazquez Brothers in the 1990s in Los Angeles, hence being commonly referred to as LA Salsa.
LA Salsa Characteristics
This is one of the most demanding and complex of the Salsas with an emphasis on styling and fast spins. In contrast to the Cuban style, the LA style is much more structured and technical. Many of the moves are created from cross body lead variations.
Shines are an equally important component of this style. Partners break out of hold and dance freely facing each other. The footwork is fast and focuses on musicality. More and more often Afro-Cuban body movement is used in shines.
Ladies will often use arm styling and hip movements, striking dramatic poses. Gents favour fast and tricky footwork in an attempt to impress their dance partner and any on-lookers.
LA Salsa is danced on 1 meaning the leader breaks forward on the first beat of the music. The basic step is a forward and back “Mambo basic” with linear motion.
New York Salsa (On 2, Mambo Salsa)
New York style Salsa is also a linear form of salsa, similar to LA style Salsa. New York Salsa is distinguished by controlled, highly technical movements that are elegant, graceful and not rushed. Visually it is smooth and flows very well.
Eddie Torres (known as the “Mambo King”) is credited with helping to formalise the on 2 salsa timing. This style first became popular in New York, giving the style its name. Even though it is often referred to as Mambo it is quite different from the Ballroom Mambo it is based on.
New York Salsa Characteristics
Technically speaking, dancing on 2 refers to the beat the dancers break forward on. In this style it is firstly the followers that break on 2, on the second beat, and leaders break forward on 6. Dancing on 2 is rhythmically more difficult and is usually danced by intermediate / advanced dancers.
This timing makes the dance more laid back and slower than dancing on 1. Followers have more time to execute their turns and moves are visually elongated giving the dance the feeling of elegance. On 2 dancers feel that their style is more musical because it more closely aligns with the tumbao and clave, two common musical patterns found in salsa music.
Similarly to LA Salsa this style is characterised by multiple spins, complicated footwork and shines often featuring Afro-Cuban body movement. Many of the turn patterns also evolve from cross body lead variations.
Are there any other types of Salsa?
The short answer is: Yes, there are! The four types mentioned above are the most common styles found internationally. In the UK, where we are based, Cuban and LA are the most prominent. But here are some less commonly encountered styles.
Miami Style Salsa (Miami Style Casino) – Miami Style Salsa evolved from the Cuban style, but is much more intricate and technically advanced. Many of the moves are the same as in Cuban Salsa, the Guapea basic being the most common, and the style is still more circular than linear.
Colombian Salsa (Cali Style, Cumbia) – named after Cali, Colombia where it originated, this is a circular style of Salsa. It is characterised by extremely fast footwork and quick knee movements. Outside of Colombia there are very few cities in the world where Colombian Salsa is danced.
Puerto Rican Salsa – originating from Puerto Rico this style is linear. While movement patterns can be more simple than in other linear salsa styles there is an increased focus on body movement, shimmies and hip movement. It is believed that shines originated from Puerto Rican Salsa.
Salsa Choke (pronounced “cho-que”) – this style also originated from Colombia. Unlike other styles of salsa, Salsa Choke is danced in a group line dance where people dance solo. A dancer leads a step and the others in the group follow. Salsa choke is danced specifically to salsa choke music.
Which style do I choose!?
The salsa style you end up learning will most likely depend on what is taught at your local dance studio. It is important to regularly practise your chosen salsa style, so it’s best to learn what is popular in your area.