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What is salsa ?

Salsa is sauce. Spicy sauce, the stuff you use as a dip for tortilla chips. Although I know people who use it as sandwich spread ...

But wait a minute, wasn't this a Latin dance and music site ? Oh yes, sorry about the mix up. There is another, derived meaning for that same word. The story is that some Latin band leader (was it Chano Pozo ?), when entertaining the people in the New York dance halls of the 50's, used to shout Salsa ! at his musicians in an attempt to spice up the music. In the 60's and 70's, the Puerto Rican record labels that dominated the Latin music market in New York adopted this catchy phrase to promote their products. As such, salsa became synonymous with the style of Latin music or tropical music that was popular in that city in those days.

So what was this music like ? If you listen to records from that era, you will hear songs with a distinct Cuban son montuno, cha-cha-cha, mambo, rumba or bolero feeling, others are more like Puerto Rican bomba or plena. You can also hear a lot of Domenican merengue and even Afro-American jazz or cubop. Historically, the term salsa as a musical genre is not as limited as most people nowadays think it is !

For most music genres, there exists an associated dance form indicated by the same name. For salsa as defined above, this would be a bit strange : the rhythmic patterns of the musical genres listed above are so completely different that it is impossible to pair them with a single dance form. But somewhere along the line the meaning of the term salsa became restricted to son, mambo and other genres with a similar rhythmic structure. And that is what most people nowadays understand by salsa.

Not that we are purists, but we like to use the terms son montuno, mambo, cha-cha-cha ... instead of simply salsa. That is because these terms more clearly indicate what form of dance we are talking about, and if you are trying to learn or teach a dance this helps. A lot of musicians feel the same about this subject. The late Tito Puente was known to hate the S-word : he played mambo, cha-cha-cha, ... ! So we are in good company.

What is son montuno, mambo and cha-cha-cha ?

The historic view

If we want to go back all the way into time, we have to start with some English country dance that became popular as the contredance at the French court in the 17th century. Via spain, where it was called contradanza, it reached Cuba in the 18th century. There it was called danza. After the independence of Haiti, French officers and plantation owners fled to Cuba where they added to the popularity of this dance and soon it became Cuba's national dance. At the end of the 19th century, the dance liberated itself from its European heritage and evolved into a less strict form called danzon. The danzon music is still played today by modern charanga orchestras.

Another bloodline that contributes to modern Latin music starts with the son. This musical genre originated in the 19th century in the eastern mountains of Cuba as a mixture of African and Spanish elements. The foundation is the African percussion, on top of that is a Latin layer of harmony, melody and verse structure. It was the music of the working class. By the 1920's, son had spread west and had become the most popular music and dance for Cubans at all levels of society, although it was considered obscene by the upper class and even prohibited for a while. But that of course only added to it's popularity. It had been cleaned up a little to the tastes of the white urban population, but in the late 30's, Arsenio Rodriguez began reconnecting son with its African roots. He added the conga as an instrument to the rhythm section and also introduced a montuno section to the song structure where there was room for melodic and rhythmic improvisation. This under the influence of that other very African Cuban music genre, the rumba As such the son montuno was born. Son and son montuno are still popular today.

Now back to the danzon. The danzon is composed of a number of distinct sections. The coda or final section is of a very lively nature and musicians got in the habit of improvising on that part. In 1938, Orestes Lopez composed a danzon he called mambo. The coda for this piece of music, which was announced by the band leader as Mil Veces Mambo ! (a thousand times mambo), was inspired by elements of the son. Very soon this new mambo music got popular among the working-class. Pérez Prado was the first to market his compositions under the name mambo which he popularized as a specific musical genre. By the mid-1950's mambo mania had reached fever pitch. In New York it was played by the big orchestras under the leadership of Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez in the famous Palladium Ballroom. The city's best dancers gave demonstrations there and developed an expressive or even acrobatic style.

As mambo music and dance developed, musicians experimented with new beats and tempos. Triple mambo was created by tripling one of the beats very rapidly. When you dance to this fast rhythm, the scraping and shuffling of the feet produce a sound that goes a bit like "cha cha cha". Later the tempo of the this new music was slowed down so that the non-Palladium dancers could also move to it, resulting in today's cha-cha-cha

Your first son and mambo steps !

Bear with us because we've never tried to explain a dance step to a complete novice in writing only. But we'll give it a go. We're afraid though that this chapter might sound a bit ridiculous to any experienced dancer.

For those who have never done any dancing other than free style : if you want to dance as a couple, and you want to avoid standing on each others toes, there are a few simple rules to follow. These rules are characteristic to any particular dance. In it's most basic form, for each dance these rules can be reduced to what is called a basic time step.

For our purpose, the basic time step for son, mambo and even bolero are so similar that we won't even try to explain where they differ. What does this basic time-step look like ? Easy :

You won't be surprised if we tell you that this is only a very crude approximation of the mambo or son basic time step. But it should give you an idea. And although this basic time step is very important, we hardly ever dance it because there are so many other interesting steps. If you want to learn the finer details, come to our classes !

A little word about the cha-cha-cha basic. As we explained above, the cha-cha-cha rhythm evolved from the mambo by tripling one beat. This happens in the basic time step where you bring your feet back together and change your weight to the other side. The tripling in the rhythm translated to the dance gives a rapid weight shift from left to right to left to right or vice-versa. Because each weight shift is accompanied by a slight movement of the feet, the characteristic cha-cha-cha sound is produced.

One more thing : the forward and backward steps are called break steps. Not that this is an important concept, but we will use this term in the next chapter.

The big divide : on-1 or on-2 ?

Now it gets complicated. If you have no dance experience whatsoever, you probably won't understand what all the fuzz is about. But if you hear some dancers discuss this subject, you'd think there is a religious war going on. This is our small attempt at defusing the situation.

When dancing you try to follow the rhythm of the music. All the musical genres that we discuss here are played in 4/4 time : there are 4 beats to a bar of music. A single basic time step takes 2 bars of music : one for the forward break, one for the backward break. Up to this point, every dancer will agree with us. The problem is on exactly what beat of a bar the break step should be done, and as you might have guessed there are 2 major schools of thought.

When you try to identify the different beats in a piece of music, you will almost always let yourself guide by the emphasized first beat of the bar. This is your starting-point. If you don't hear this beat, don't try learning to dance. When doing the basic time step as described above, to most people it will feel very natural to let the break step coincide with this emphasized first beat. This style of dancing is called dancing on-1. So what is wrong with it ? Nothing. But just maybe there is another way that is more authentic and more deeply related to the underlying rhythms of the music.

An important thing to understand is that Caribbean dancing is not about your feet but about your body : your hips, your shoulders, your rib cage. You move your feet only so that your hips do the characteristic Cuban hip motion and your shoulders and rib cage do the accompanying counter body motion. This hip motion happens when your feet are placed together and your weight is shifting to the other foot. If you let the emphasized 1st beat coincide with this most important motion, the break step that follows it is on the 2nd beat. This style of dancing is known as dancing on-2.

Since most people execute their break step on-1, this breaking on-2 thing must be very artificial, or what ? Before jumping to this conclusion, we advise you to have a closer look at the exceptions, those that do dance on-2. Have you ever seen an old Cuban couple dance to an authentic son montuno song ? These people grew up with the music, they know its origins and its rhythms, maybe not in their heads but most certainly in their hearts. They never went to any dance class so they don't do any fancy turns or steps and you should be able to analyze their footwork quite easily. And when you do, you will see them breaking on-2 !

So let's try to explain what it is in the music that those authentic son montuno dancers hear and leads them to dance on-2. One of the most important percussion instruments in the son is the conga, and the rhythmic pattern the congero plays is, in it's most simple form, something like this (we hope your browser can play these sound files : it is rather difficult to discuss rhythms without actually hearing them, unless you are a trained musician). This rhythm is called the tumbao. The important thing to note in this rhythm is the marked, higher pitched slap on the second beat, inviting the dancer to do a break step. There are also the two lower pitched do-doom notes on beats four and four and a half, coinciding with the hip and shoulder motion. If you want to practice dancing on this rhythm, start by simply shifting your weight from left to right on the do-doom and back on the next do-doom. As soon as you feel comfortable doing this, try to add a break step on the slap immediately following the weight shift (when you shifted to the right, do the forward break with your left foot and vice-versa). And then you are dancing on-2. There is absolutely nothing artificial about it, in fact once you are used to it you can't imagine dancing any other way on this tumbao rhythm.

Since we are talking music theory anyway we'd better continue and introduce you to that other most important rhythm in Latin music : the clave. This rhythm is usually played on two hard wooden sticks (also called clave) and sounds like this. A complete clave pattern spans two bars of music. The first bar has two notes, the second three. Many people who dance on-2 say they dance on clave but you shouldn't take this literally in a sense that they step on each note of the clave - that is clearly impossible (six steps for five notes). What they want to express is the fact that they use the tension caused by the asymmetry of this pattern as a guide for their dance. Let me explain. The three notes in the second bar are evenly spaced in time and this will get you in a certain rhythm. But this rhythm is broken because the next note is delayed for a little while. This creates a certain tension that is released as soon as the two notes of the next bar are played, somewhat faster than the first three. The release of the tension is exactly on the 2nd beat of a bar, and this leads the dancer into doing a break step. Got that ? No ? Listen to the music and try once more, or come to our classes and we'll explain it again !

We've been cheating a little here. Actually, there are several different clave rhythms. If you want to know the full story, there are some interesting websites that you can find in our links section.

A modern salsa song will not always utilize a clearly recognizable conga. But most of the time there will be a very distinct bass guitar and this instrument plays approximately the same rhythm as the conga. Put on one of your favorite CD's and try to find the bass line. Most of the time you will be able to distinguish a long note starting on the fourth beat that is the equivalent of the do-doom discussed above. So this long note coincides with your hip motion. Also, the clave will not always be present as a distinct instrument. But all instruments will use this rhythm as a guideline. The piano, the brass section, ... they will all accentuate the clave in some of their solo's. A half decent sonero will even try to phrase his lyrics along the lines of the clave beat. Try to look for it and we assure you you will find it in any salsa song.

To close this chapter, let's play some Q&A.

Eddie Torres vs. son montuno

As explained above, the on-2 style of dancing has its origins in the Cuban son montuno. By some strange quirk of history, it was in New York that this style has been preserved and developed for several decades while the rest of the world was largely dancing on-1. It has come to the point where New York style is considered synonymous with dancing on-2 (although technically speaking this is incorrect). Without any doubt, one of the key factors in the blooming of this New York style is the high quality of the Latin dance-studios in that city, and most importantly the studio lead by Eddie Torres and his wife Maria. With some exaggeration, one could say they are the link between the contemporary dancers and the Palladium era dancers. Of course there are some other people in New York who have contributed a lot (e.g. the RazzM'Tazz studio) but most of the younger generation of New York Latin dancers, teachers and performers have passed at some point in their careers through the Eddie Torres studio.

But there is something rather strange about the way Eddie Torres teaches his basic time step : although he breaks on-2, he does not do the son montuno basic ! To explain this properly, we have to go into some more detail about the exact timing of these steps. This is also a good opportunity to clarify one other mystery we've silently ignored until now : the music is played in 4/4 time but there are only 3 steps for one bar of music. So how do you execute 3 steps on 4 beats of music ? Easy : introduce a pause, one beat where you don't step at all. Exactly where to insert this pause is what differentiates Eddie Torres' basic from the son montuno basic.

Have a look at the table below :

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
son montuno pause left break forward balance back on rightleft in placepause right break back balance back on leftright in place
Eddie Torres right in place left break forward balance back on rightpause left in place right break back balance back on leftpause
break on-1 left break forwardbalance back on rightleft in place pause right break backbalance back on leftright in place pause

This is a very crude description of the mechanics of the three basic time steps, but it is very useful as a clarification of the differences and similarities that exist among them. Let's forget about the last row - which we've only included for sake of completeness - and concentrate on the first two. You'll notice that they are in fact quite similar, their only difference lies in what happens on beats 4 and 5 (or their mirror images : 8 and 1) right after you've balanced back from the break step. Eddie Torres teaches you to wait one beat before you continuing with your next step, a son montuno dancer would step back immediately and introduce a pause where both his feet are together.

It is obvious that the difference between the two on-2 styles of dancing is minimal, and people who are used to dance both will tell you without any doubt that both styles feel very similar. In fact, when the tempo of the music is fast, it will be difficult to tell if you are dancing one or the other style, or something in between, because the pause will be very short. Also, experienced on-2 followers will have no problem dancing with a leader that guides her in either of two styles. Most of the time she won't even notice that her partner is doing something a little bit different than she is doing, or she might even adapt her step subconsciously.

So much about the similarities, now a word about the differences. A critical Eddie Torres dancer will say that the son montuno basic time step is awkward because it interrupts your natural movement when you pause on the 5th beat with both feet next to each other. A son montuno dancer will answer that there is no interruption of movement at all : dancing is not about your feet but about your body and you need that moment where both feet are together so that you can gradually change weight from one foot to the other and do the Cuban hip motion and counter body shoulder motion. He will also criticise the Eddie Torres dancer that his basic step reduces the freedom of movement for the hips. The reply he'll no doubt get is that this is not true at all because there is no real pause on the 4th beat of the Eddie Torres basic time step but only a very slow step that starts on the 4th beat and finishes on 5th and that this step can very well be combined with all the hip and shoulder motion you desire.

We have put it a bit to the extreme in the previous paragraph, but in New York some on-2 dancers do have very strong opinions about this subject. We believe this is largely due to the status Eddie Torres has as a Latin dance instructor : it is almost considered blasphemy to prefer the son montuno basic above the basic time step of the mambo king ! Not that we want to suggest the man doesn't deserve the respect he gets from the New York mambo community, on the contrary. We think Eddie Torres has very good reasons to teach what he teaches, there might even be a very sound historical link with the danzon as some people have suggested (see the links), but this shouldn't be used as an argument against the son montuno basic. We advise anyone to try out both styles, learn where they are different and similar, be enriched by the experience and use the one they feel most comfortable with. You might find out as we did that it feels much more natural to dance the son montuno basic on a slow tempo song, and when the music is faster it doesn't really matter.

Cuban salsa vs. New York salsa

This is a non-issue. If you have read our short historical analysis above, you should know why. If you want us to get really mad you can always try to start a discussion with us on this topic. But for the very last time, here we go again.

All styles of salsa as a dance form are Cuban because they have the danzon and son as their common background. It's as simple as that.

If someone says Cuban salsa he or she most often means the form of dance used by most young Cuban people today. The correct name for this style is casino or casino rueda if they do it in a circle. We didn't invent that name, that is the name used in Cuba, they didn't use the name salsa over there until recently.

Casino is heavily influenced by North American swing or jive. That is especially true for the turn patterns used in that style (the simple ones are exact copies). So you could say that casino is North American salsa, right ?

Dancing on-2 is what all Cuban old-timers do when they hear a son montuno : they listen to the clave and tumbao, simply follow the music, and end up breaking on-2. In that respect, the New York style of dancing is even more Cuban than what most young Cubans dance today.

If you dance your basic time step without a slow step but with a kick or tick on the 4th beat of the bar, or if you dance it without breaking front and back, your style of dance is influenced by the Colombian cumbia. This is not Cuban at all.

We warned you we would get mad ...