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The metamorphosis of Salsa to what is heard and danced in clubs today has been a long, slow, and varied process. Not one person or place can be attributed as the founder of Salsa. Instead, the dance and music has evolved over time through an elaborate syncretism of different sounds, cultures, and meanings.

This nonetheless, it is popularly attributed to Cuba, but actually Salsa's roots belong to a mix of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean dances and musical styles that can be traced back to the Caribbean of colonial times.


As is true with many types of Latin dances, it can be difficult to discuss Salsa dance history without first talking about the history of Salsa music. One of the most direct antecedents of the music is the Cuban Son. Son was being played as early as the 16th century, but it truly gained popularity in the late 1800s. It is a mix of Spanish music and African rhythms and instruments indicative of the New World - the traditions of the Spanish colonists mixed with the culture of the African slaves brought to work on their plantations.

The part of the dance and music that evolved on Cuba occurred when the French, who fled from Haiti in the late 1700s following a slave uprising, brought with them the Danzon, a country dance from France. This dance was mixed with the African rhumbas that the Cuban slaves brought with them from Africa, such as the Guaguanco, Cumbia and Yambu. It was later added to a mix of African drumbeats with Spanish love poetry. This musical amalgamation was not exclusive to Cuba; it was concurrently happening in the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Origin of Name

The word means "sauce" in Spanish; it brings to mind the spiciness of the dances.

Just before the onset of World War II Salsa music and dance made its way to Mexico City and New York. The term "Salsa" was used for the first time in New York in 1933. It occurred following a song written by composer Ignacio Pinero called "Echale Salsita." Following this the term "Salsa" was then used to classify a broad range of different Latin American musical styles including the rhumba, Son Montuno, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha cha and Merengue.

It was not until the 1960s that the term gained widespread acknowledgment as a form of dance and music. The album Cal Tjader Soul Sauce by Cal Tjader Quintet plus 5 is generally believed to be the album that did this. It sold 150,000 copies in 1964, and fans in San Francisco started to refer to the music on the album as Salsa. The term quickly spread to other cities such as Los Angeles and the East Coast.

By the 1970s Latin music was being heard across the U.S. on different radio stations. In 1974 Fania Records released the album Salsa by Larry Harlow, which was to prove to be a popular album. After popularizing the word "Salsa," all other music with Afro-Cuban beats was classified under the term of "Salsa." This was followed two years later in 1976 by a 24-page supplement in Billboard Magazine that was called "Salsa Explosion."

Because the name was created with marketing in mind, it has been the cause of debate. Even though the dance has developed its own personality in the U.S., some artists of Latin descent do not recognize the term. Indeed, they do not appreciate this lumping together of such diverse music and dances. Others feel that the term is an attempt to whitewash the dances' Cuban roots, given the general political sentiment in regards to Cuba since the rise of Castro. Yet in the end, the name does not really matter for most Latin dance afficionados.

Included Dances

Just like its namesake music grew from the Cuban Son, the first dances called Salsa came from distinctly Cuban dances like the Mambo, Rumba and Cha cha. The Mambo has its roots in the Spanish contradanzas of the 1700s. The Cuban people added their own flavor to this staid European social dance. The Cha cha is a more recently developed dance. It grew from modifications to the Mambo style in the early 1950s. The Rumba is another dance based on African beats.

Even though Salsa began as a catchall term for a diverse group of dances, it also took on a personality all its own. New York musicians were known for adding elements of Jazz to the sound, and dancers sometimes borrowed moves and a tendency to improvise from Swing dance.

Different Forms

Salsa varies from place to place and from one song to the next. The diversity and complexity of the music is what keeps its listeners enticed, as well as delightfully surprised, and its dancers on their toes. This is the beauty of the Salsa.

Dominant forms of the Salsa dance include New York Salsa, LA Salsa, and Cuban Salsa.

Basic Steps

There are a few basic steps of Salsa; the most common is the three weight changes (or steps) in each four-beat measure. The beat on which one does not step might contain a tap or kick, or weight transfer may simply continue with the actual step not occurring until the next beat. The option chosen depends upon individual choice and upon the specific style being danced. One of the steps is a "break step", which involves a change in direction. Different styles of Salsa are often differentiated by the timing of the break step (On Beat "Downbreak on 1" (LA Salsa) or Off Beat "Up beat on 2" (New York Salsa)). After 6 weight changes in 8 beats, the basic step cycle is complete.

In many styles of Salsa dancing, as a Salsa dancer changes weight by stepping, the upper body remains level and nearly unaffected by the weight changes. Caught in the middle are the hips which end up moving quite a bit - which is famously known as the "Cuban hip movement."

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