The History of Salsa

Salsa @ a Dance Festival
 There's been many different take on Salsa (the dance and music) and how it has captured the hearts of dancers from across the globe. How did it start? How did the LA style or the NY style come about? It's an unending debate that even my friends and I talked about a lot whenever we touch on the topic of history.

So what's the best way to find and learn more on the history of the dance we have grown to love? Thanks to the internet, searching for the answer is easier than traveling to the heart of Cuba to learn about the dance. But with so many 'facts' out there, which one hits closer to home?

That's where a lot of reading through all the various websites and digging through books comes into play to find that one common ground regarding this genre.

Here's what I've learn through all these 'research'.

The Salsa dance that we know across the globe started its roots in America, so in essence, it's very much an American dance as it is a Latin American dance. During the 1940s and 50s, Cuban musicians had a huge influence on the New York music scene. But once Fidel came to power, diplomatic relations fell apart between Cuba and the US. Cuban musicians could no longer travel to the United States and Cuban recordings received no air play time. So the Puerto Rican and NuYorican (New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent) musicians took on The Big Apple single handed.

These days New York salsa has a distinctly Puerto Rican sound ‚ smooth, polished, classic salsa. It tends to follow the jazz structure, incorporating lengthy instrumental breaks to showcase the ability of particular musicians.

Leading musicians that helped grew the Salsa music in New York:
  • Celia Cruz
  • Willie Colon
  • Eddie Palmeiri
  • The Spanish Harlem Orchestra
  • Jimmy Bosch
 The name salsa (mixture) has been described as a dance since the mid-1970s. The use of the term for the dance started in New York. It evolved from earlier Cuban dance forms such as Son, Son Montuno, Cha cha cha and Mambo which were popular in the Caribbean, Latin America and the Latino communities in New York since the 1940s. Salsa, like most music genres has gone through a lot of variation through the years and incorporated elements of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean dances such as Guaguanco and Pachanga. Different countries of the Caribbean and Latin America have distinct salsa styles of their own, such as Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican, L.A. and New York styles.

There is some controversy surrounding the origins of the word salsa. Some claim that it was based on a cry shouted by musicians while they were playing their music. Others believe that the term was created by record labels to better market their music, who chose the word "salsa" because of its spicy and hot connotations. Still others believe the term came about because salsa dancing and music is a mixture of different styles, just like salsa or "sauce" in Latin American countries is a mixture of different ingredients.

Now, how did this Salsa movement come about? We must give credit to Cuba for the origin and ancestry of creation. It is here where Contra-Danze (Country Dance) of England/France, later called Danzón, which was brought by the French who fled from Haiti, begins to mix itself with Rumbas of African origin (Guaguanco, Colombia, Yambú). Add Són of the Cuban people, which was a mixture of the Spanish troubadour (sonero) and the African drumbeats and flavora and a partner dance flowered to the beat of the clave.

Similar blends of music and dance style also occurred in smaller degrees and with variations in other countries like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Puerto Rico, among others. Bands of these countries took their music to Mexico City in the era of the famous films of that country. From there, Latin American heading into America brought along the music and dance into the States, predominantly to New York.

New York created the term "Salsa", but it did not create the dance. The term became popular as nickname to refer to a variety of different music, from several countries of Hispanic influence: Rhumba, Són Montuno, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha cha cha, Danzón, Són, Guguanco, Cubop, Guajira, Charanga, Cumbia, Plena, Bomba, Festejo, Merengue, among others. Many of these have maintained their individuality and many were mixed creating "Salsa".

If you are listening to today's Salsa, you are going to find the base of són, and you are going to hear Cumbia, and you are going to hear Guaracha. You will also hear some old Merengue, built-in the rhythm of different songs. You will hear many of the old styles somewhere within the modern beats. Salsa varies from site to site. In New York, for example, new instrumentalization and extra percussion were added to some Colombian songs so that New Yorkers - that dance mambo "on the two" - can feel comfortable dancing to the rhythm and beat of the song, because the original arrangement is not one they easily recognize.

This is called "finishing", to enter the local market. This "finish" does not occur because the Colombian does not play Salsa, but it does not play to the rhythm of the Puerto Rican/Post-Cuban Salsa. I say Post-Cuban, because the music of Cuba has evolved towards another new and equally flavorful sound.

Then, as a tree, Salsa has many roots and many branches, but one trunk that unites us all. The important thing is that Salsa is played throughout the Hispanic world and has received influences of many places within it. It is of all of us and it is a sample of our flexibility and evolution. If you think that a single place can take the credit for the existence of Salsa, you are wrong. And if you think that one style of dance is better, imagine that the best dancer of a style, without his partner, goes to dance with whomever he can find, in a club where a different style predominates. He wouldn't look as good as the locals. Each dancer is accustomed to dance his/her own style. None is better, only different.

Now, what about the variation of styles that is danced by dancers? In Malaysia, the more popular variants are the LA style, NY style and Cuban/Rueda with Són starting to grow in the country. So what is what and how did it all come about?

Colombian Style

Cali-Style or Colombian Salsa, is based on geographical location of the Colombian City of Cali. Cali is also known as the "Capital de la Salsa" (Salsa's Capital); due to salsa music being the main genre in parties, nightclubs and festivals in the 21st century. The elements of Cali-Style Salsa were strongly influenced by dances to Caribbean rhythms which preceded salsa, such as Pachanga and Boogaloo.
The central feature is the footwork which has quick rapid steps and skipping motions. Colombian style does not execute Cross-body Leads or the "Dile Que No" as seen in other styles, but rather step in place and displace in closed position. Their footwork is intricate and precise, helping several Colombian Style dancers win major world championships. Cali hosts many annual salsa events such as the World Salsa Cali Festival and the Encuentro de Melomanos y Coleccionistas.

Leading musicians playing Colombian Salsa:
  • Fruko Y Sus Tesos
  • Joe Arroyo Y La Verdad
  • Sonora Carruseles
  • Latin Brothers
  • Group Niche

Los Angeles style

The Los Angeles dance style (LA style) is danced strictly on 1, in a slot/line, using elements of various North American and stage dances. It is strongly influenced by the Latin Hustle, Swing, Argentine Tango and Latin Ballroom dancing styles. LA style places strong emphasis on sensuousness, theatricality and acrobatics.[citation needed] The lifts, stunts and aerial works of today's salsa shows are derived mostly from LA style forms with origins in Latin Ballroom and Ballet lifts.

The two essential elements of this dance are the forward–backward basic step 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), leaving the slot open. The follower then steps straight forward on 5-6 and turns on 7-8, while the leader makes another 90 degrees counter-clockwise and slightly forward, coming back into the slot. After these 8 counts, the leader and follower have exchanged their positions.

Albert Torres, Laura Canellias, Joe Cassini and Francisco Vazquez are credited for the early development and growth of LA Style. Later, such dancers as Alex Da Silva, Edie Lewis, Joby Martinez, Josie Neglia, Johnny and Janette Valenzuela are often credited with developing the LA style of dancing as we know it today.

New York style

New York style is danced in an ellipse or a "flat figure 8" on the floor, with the partners facing each other most of the time. Unlike other styles of salsa, New York style is danced on the second beat of the music ("on 2"), and the follower steps forward on the first measure of the music, not the leader. The etiquette of New York Style is strict about remaining in the close dance space, and avoiding traveling dancing in a sandbox area with a lot of spins, turns and styling. There is greater emphasis on performing "shines" in which dancers separate themselves and dance solo with intricate footwork and styling for a time—suspected origins from Swing and New York Tap.

Though he did not create New York style salsa, Eddie Torres is credited with popularizing it, and for having the follower step forward on the second beat of the first measure.

There are two distinct developments of New York salsa as a music and dance genre:
  1. Primary evolution from Mambo era was introduced to New York due to influx of migrating dissidents from all the Caribbean and other Latin migrants during Pre/Post Cuban Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s This era is known as the "Palladium Era". At this time, the music and dance was called "Mambo".
  2. The most famous dancer during this era was Puerto-Rican descendant Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar, also known "The King of Latin Beat".

  3. Secondary evolution during the late 1970s, Latin Puerto Ricans migrants, contributed a lot to the New York salsa development during the "NuYorican" era of Héctor Lavoe which greatly popularized salsa and modern Latin music throughout the world. Puerto Rican salsa superstars were the most important musicians during the era, such as Ray Baretto ("The Godfather") and many others. There are also salsa artists that transcend both periods, notably the legendary Puerto Rican Tito Puente ("The Mambo King").
These two developments create a fusion of a new salsa music and dance genre, different from its Latin American and Caribbean counterparts.

New York style salsa emphasizes harmony with the percussive instruments in salsa music, such as the congas, timbales, and clave, since many or all of those instruments often mark the second beat in the music.

Rueda de Casino at a friend's wedding reception

Cuban Style / Salsa Cubana

In Cuba, a popular dance known as Casino was marketed abroad as Cuban-style salsa or Salsa Cubana to distinguish it from other salsa styles when the name was popularized in the 1970s. Dancing Casino is an expression of popular social culture; Many Cubans consider casino a part of their social and cultural activities centering on their popular music.

The origins of the name Casino are casinos deportivos, the dance halls where a lot of social dancing was done among the better off, white Cubans during the mid-20th century and onward.

Historically, Casino traces its origin as a partner dance from Cuban Son, fused with partner figures and turns adopted from the Cuban Mambo, Cuban Cha Cha Cha, Rumba Guaguancó and North American Jive. As with Son, Danzón and Cha Cha Cha, it is traditionally, though less often today, danced a contratiempo. This means that, distinct from subsequent forms of salsa, no step is taken on the first and fifth beats in each clave pattern and the fourth and eighth beat are emphasised. In this way, rather than following a beat, the dancers themselves contribute in their movement, to the polyrythmic pattern of the music.

What gives the dance its life, however, is not its mechanical technique, but understanding and spontaneous use of the rich Afro-Cuban dance vocabulary within a Casino dance. In the same way that a sonero (lead singer in Son and Salsa bands) may "quote" other, older songs in their own, a Casino dancer frequently improvises references to other dances, integrating movements, gestures and extended passages from the folkloric and popular heritage. This is particularly true of African descended Cubans. Such improvisations might include extracts of rumba, dances for African deities, the older popular dances such as Cha Cha Cha and Danzón as well as anything the dancer may feel.

Casino is danced in three points which makes up a circular motion as partners face each other in intricate patterns of arms and body movement. This is distinctive from the North American Salsa styles which is danced in a slot (two points) and linear positions as taught by the North American and European dance studios.

Casino has a strong basic step known as guapea (lit. "Chill Out" by Afro-Cuban Community), also known as pausa, in which the male lead puts his left foot behind on the break, which is a contrast to the most common basic Salsa step, in which the lead places his left foot forward.

Casino styling includes men being "macho" and women being femininely sexy, with major body and muscle isolations, through the influence of Rumba dancing. During the dance, dancers often break from each other during percussion solos and perform the despelote, an advanced form of styling in which the male and female partner get physically close and tease each other without touching through the gyrating of hips and shoulders while performing muscle isolations.

The major distinction of Cuban Salsa Styling is that male partners have tendencies to show off (following Afro-Cuban Guaguancó influence), under the cultural guise of males having to attract attention and tease females. This is the major point of differences between Casino and Northern American forms of Salsa, which ascribe to the ballroom adage of "men are the picture frame while women are the picture."

Leading musicians playing Cuban Timba:
  • Los Van Van
  • Pupy Y Los Que Son Son
  • Maraca
  • Charanga Habanera
  • NG La Banda

In Malaysia, the birth of salsa came about roughly about 20 years ago as a small group of dancers got together and started taking lessons and through a lot of hard work, gave birth to the scene by opening their own schools in popular housing estates to provide easy access to dancers to learn. Most of us know about it through word-of-mouth and attending tester classes to see what the hype is all about. We even have local instructors and performers that has ventured out and perform in other countries and bringing the Malaysian name to the world. In recent years, we have also seen a steady growth of performers being invited to perform and teach at international convention. Looking back at how we started and where it has reached so far is definitely amazing.

In the Asian region, the growth of the salsa scene has also helped grow the number of venues that welcomes dancers into their premise to dance. For the list of places to dance in Malaysia, you can click here. And for places to dance in Thailand, you can click here. For now, these are the only list I've compiled as I personally dances in Malaysia and had visited the venues in Thailand. And as there's not one definite list online for me to find out where to dance, I compiled my own and is updated whenever the venue changes.

Next, will touch on Bachata. So do drop by and stay tune.

Viva la variedad, Viva la Salsa!


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