My salsa is better than yours!

12 Jul

Why limit yourself to dancing just one style of salsa (or to just one partner for that matter)?

The world is full of salsas: On 1, On 2, Cuban, Caleña, Lineal, Verde, Picante… with so many types it’s no wonder that things can be confusing for a budding salsero.

Almost everyone you talk to will tell you:

  • their style of salsa is the best
  • that it’s the most widely danced
  • that it’s the easiest to learn
  • that it looks the most spectacular
  • that it will help you meet the most beautiful women!

All I can say about this is: BULLS#!T, BULLS#!T, BULLS#!T.

Salsa is a dance that has evolved over the years from it’s 0riginal form in Cuba to the many diverse and beautiful styles that we see today. Just like with languages, every distinct type has something unique and beautiful to offer so it’s impossible to say that there is a “best” type. English is not the “best” language on Earth just because it is the most widely spoken nor is French because it is considered the most romantic (by some). The same applies to the different styles of salsa.

I’m very lucky in that living in many different places over the years has given me exposure to and appreciation for many different types of salsa. I started dancing LA style in Japan and got to practice Cuban style when I moved to a new city there, I was introduced to New York style in Hong Kong and later in Dublin and now I dance Cali style every week right in the World Capital of Salsa. Over the years I’ve learned to piece the different styles together helping to give my salsa it’s own particular flavor and I think that everyone should at least experiment with doing the same.

What’s your salsa?
The 4 main styles of salsa are:

  • Los Angeles (LA)
  • New York
  • Cuban
  • Caleña (Cali style)

Of these, the first 3 are probably the most widely danced internationally. I’ve included Cali style because I consider it (or at least variations of it) to be very popular in South America and because of some of its characteristics which make it unique.

LA and New York style are lineal salsas i.e. salsa that is danced forward and back in a line (or slot) whereas Cuban and Cali style are non-lineal salsas i.e. they are danced in a more circular or side-to-side fashion.

And before anyone calls me on it and tells me there are many more styles of salsa; stop right there. I’m well aware that there are other styles but they are not as widely practiced as the styles above and I don’t really have the time to research and write about them all! Maybe in another article.

LA Style
LA style salsa is also commonly known as On 1 because the “break” (i.e. the change in direction from forward to back) occurs on the 1 count (and on the 5 count when returning) with the lead starting by stepping forward.

It is probably the most popular style of salsa internationally (i.e. outside of South America). Any large, developed city in Europe, Asia, North America or Australia probably has an LA salsa community.

It features complicated hand combinations and “swing” style movements as can be seen in this video:

New York Style
Also called On 2 or Mambo, this style breaks on the 2 count (and 6 when returning) with the lead starting by stepping back which allows for a “smoother” looking dance.

It is the most popular style of salsa danced in New York (obviously) but there tends to be On 2 “sub-communities” anywhere LA style is danced.

Dancing On 2 is often seen as an evolution from dancing LA style On 1 with many advanced dancers sticking with On 2 after making the switch. Frankie Martinez gives a great quote about the transition from On1 to On 2 in this interview.

Music for On 2 dancing is influenced heavily by jazz (lost of brass and piano) resulting in a very elegant dance style that often features “shines” i.e. a time during the dance when the partners separate and dance by themselves, interpreting the music in their own ways.

Cuban Style
Salsa Cubana, also known as “Casino” is probably the second most widely danced form of salsa internationally. It developed from Cuban “Son” and the African influence in salsa can easily be seen with the freedom of movement and focus on shoulder motion.

Cuban salsa, unlike lineal salsa, is danced in a much more circular manner with the partners changing positions constantly during a dance. It also features many complicated “knot-like” hand combinations with the lead often ducking in and out of different closed hand positions. Salsa Cubana does not have a cross body lead but has a similar movement known as “Dile que no”.

Rueda de Casino: is the name for a Cuban salsa group-dance that features 2 or more pairs of dancers performing synchronized combinations and exchanging partners while dancing in a circle (rueda). The moves are directed by a “caller” who calls out the next combination to be performed. Rueda de casino circles can be huge!

Cali Style
Salsa Caleña, is the style of salsa most commonly danced in Colombia and from what I’ve seen myself, in many parts of South America. It takes a great deal of influence from another popular Colombia dance called Cumbia.

It is a non-lineal salsa with a lot of diagonal “back-step” movements and huge focus on exceptionally fast footwork and hip twisting. The basic objective is for partners to move their feet together in a synchronized fashion which can be as simple as just stepping on the same counts or it can involve very complicated leg flicks and kicks with not a huge amount of focus on arm work. There is no movement similar to the cross body lead or “Dile que no” in salsa Caleña.

Salsa Caleña also features an interesting “false” double step where the dancer taps his foot down and quickly raises his heal up and then down again which makes Cali style footwork look incredibly fast. Apparently professional dancers in Cali practice this step for hours on end supporting themselves with their hands against a wall to make themselves faster.

I’m confused! Which style should I pick?
That depends on a lot of things:

  • What styles of classes do you have available to you in your area?
  • What is the most popular style danced in your town?
  • Do you plan on learning to dance in preparation for visiting a particular country?

Do some research, and find out about your nearest salsa scene. There may not be much point in learning how to dance New York style salsa if you’re going on a two week vacation to some place in South America where no one can dance it.

But…why bother picking?
I can’t think of any logical reason why someone would want to dance only one type of salsa (apart from wanting to dedicate their time to get really good at a particular style).

Learning different styles of salsa enriches the style that you already dance and allows you to dance with even more people (just like learning a new language).

For example, in both Japan and Ireland I’ve danced with latin women (who danced salsa but never took a single dance class in their lives) and I noted straight away that they couldn’t follow a linear style of salsa. However I had taken a few Cuban salsa classes before and knew how to guide them through a more circular style of salsa that they were used to.

I spoke a little of their salsa language and because of that I could communicate better with them than if I had just continued “speaking” in my own. Have you ever been abroad and had a local shout at you in their language, hoping you’d understand if they continued long enough? Well it didn’t work then and it won’t work in salsa (at least not in the time it takes to complete a song).

Be proud of your style
People who know me know I dance a particular way and that I throw in a few extra kicks and foot flicks for flourish, which I picked up from the few classes of Cuban salsa I’ve taken and I also frequently add Cuban style turns to my mostly lineal dances. Since I moved to Cali I’ve added a lot of Cali-style moves to my toolbox too.

I’m proud of the style I’ve developed over the years through my different backgrounds and experiences and I really think everyone should aspire to develop their own unique style of salsa.

So forget about deciding on what’s the best style of salsa out there and just focus on learning as much as you can from as many different sources as you can find. You’ll be a much better dancer for it.

Keep dancing folks!

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17 Responses to “My salsa is better than yours!”

  1. Allen Craig July 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Well, just someone call their dance “salsa” doesn’t make it salsa. I’ve seen this a lot here in South America. They play salsa music and dance however they want and just call it salsa.

    Caleña seems like an interesting, very latin dance, but I wouldn’t consider it salsa. The music in the video isn’t even salsa or mambo, it has a completely different beat count! But I never lived in Cali, so I’m not the expert here.

    And anyway, nice posts. Glad you got to see a little paisa salsa.

    • The Dancing Irishman July 18, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Hey Allen, although the salsa here is very different from what is danced in the states or Europe it is still very much salsa. The rhythm is the same but the steps are different. It’s taken time but I have come to appreciate the free-style feel of the salsa danced in Colombia. It may not be my favorite way to dance but I’m learning a lot from it.

  2. Roisin August 2, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    salsa danced in Colombia is the most rhythmic and the best! the reason for this is that the people FEEL the music and will dance each song differently according the speed, rhythm, where th song is from etc etc A man will ask a woman to dance and instead of counting the steps in his head like a European man does, he feels the music and judges the woman and his aim is to show HER off as much as possible and make the dance an enjoyable one….
    In Europe there is a huge problem with dancing as people are taught complicated steps and turns before actually feeling the rhythm and being able to moce freestyle on their own before even comtemplating dacning with someone else…
    Woman want to be led by stong natural dancers that will adjust themselves according the the music and to her and not according to the steps they have learnt in some class…
    If a man cannot dance salsa with a South American woman can he really consider himself a good salsa dancer?? I dont think so, he is missing out on the most natural way to dance of them all…

    • The Dancing Irishman August 2, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

      I’ll admit Cali style is a much more natural (and basic) way to dance which has it’s great points (especially when dancing a slow salsa) but I don’t feel that makes it any better than the other styles. I will agree that in Europe or the States there isn’t enough emphasis on feeling the music but in reality that is something that only comes with time and plenty of dancing. That doesn’t mean, however, that complicated steps and combinations aren’t as fun (and I can introduce you to plenty of Caleñas who’ll agree with me on that one).

  3. Barcamp-Bordeaux.Com April 9, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering if you knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form?
    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having problems finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

    • The Dancing Irishman April 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

      Hi Barbara,
      I’m afraid I’m not the person to be asking, I’m really winging it on wordpress. Everything I added seemed pretty straight forward but I don’t remember what I did. To be honest I’m not sure what a captcha plugin is (looks ashamedly at the floor).

  4. Max July 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    South America?!?! Half of South America is taken up by Brazil and Brazil is not the land of salsa!! I feel that when you refer to South America, you essentially mean a handful of countries in Northwest South America, maybe Colombia, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.

    As to Cali salsa, as far as I can see, it’s only danced in Cali itself within Colombia. In other parts of Colombia, the way of dancing salsa differs substantially, without there being a specific form of dance dedicated just to salsa. Cali is unique in Colombia in that salsa is given prominence, while in other Colombian cities other rhythms are on an equal footing or are even more prominent.

    Another country you should pay attention to is Puerto Rico, whose salsa is often associated with New York style, though I think from what I’ve heard two different styles are danced there.

    I would recommend you read Travels on the Dance Floor (2008). Ever heard of it?

    • The Dancing Irishman July 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      I’ll admit I was way too general with that statement about S.A.
      I haven’t read the book but I’ll admit I already had the idea of writing something with a similar title hahaha!

  5. Luis Vazquez July 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm #

    Hi brother, you are right on everything, just dance and don’t let anybody tell you what’s best for you, just do what you feel do do, is like in life you have to learn about many different ways to survive, a lot of people told us at the beginning when we were creating the LA style that we were crazy and stupids, but we did what we felt to do and like any style or types of dance somebody like us or like other people are doing at this moment developing other styles of types of music,dance,technology or so on that’s what anybody who want to learn to dance I really recommend to learn different styles cause is going to make you a better dancer and you are going to appreciate and not discriminate other people and other styles of dance, I dance different styles but still if I go to a place and i dance LA style and is a Cuban,or Colombian club they start to talk wrong about my dance and if I start dancing their style they still continued to talk wrong and if I dance better even more cause is sad to say but I’m a Latino but sometimes your own people put you down not just in dance but in many other things, all I have to say after traveling the worl and dancing for more than 20years do what you feel to do and be open mind for everything in life at the end is your own life, y que viva la salsa y toda la musica,

    • The Dancing Irishman July 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

      Wow, thank you so much for your kind words.
      What an honor it is to have one of the creators of LA style salsa read and comment on my blog.
      You’re right, we all need to just dance what we want to dance and ignore the politics and the haters who say otherwise.
      Que viva la salsa!

  6. margie December 31, 2017 at 8:15 pm #

    I would dance cubian cali LA keep up the danceing


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