Going to a ‘Salsa Club’ the first thing that makes an impact is the great upbeat music that is playing. The girls are spinning back and forth and adding their sensual style to the dancing while the guys are looking cool and smooth leading the ladies into crazy turn patterns. Then a new song comes up, this one is mellow and romantic, but it’s still considered a ‘Salsa’ beat. The weird thing is that even though the style of the ‘Salsa’ music has changed, the dancing style hasn’t. The ladies are still doing all the spinning while the gentlemen are leading their intricate partner work. So what’s wrong with this picture?
Someone might say, “one was a fast ‘Salsa’, and the other was a slow ‘Salsa’”. But what is ‘Salsa’ dancing? Is there a dance called ‘Salsa’? Is there a rhythm called ‘Salsa’? People like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz used to say that ‘Salsa’ is not a new music, and that they played old Cuban rhythms with a new sound. Salsa is a term used by FANIA Records in the 70’s to market a number of Latin rhythms (especially Cuban and Puerto Rican) in New York City and later the world. These different rhythms included Son, Son Montuno, Guajira, Guaracha, Chacha, Cumbia, Bomba, Monzambique, Pachanga, Descarga, Mambo and a few others. Each of these rhythms projects different feelings to the dancers, and their movements would reflect just those ‘feelings’.
Nowadays, new compositions include some of the aforementioned rhythms within the same song. The famous Celia Cruz song titled “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” is a perfect example. The introduction of the song is a Cumbia, the climax being a Mambo, and the ending is a Cumbia once again. Next time this song is played, pay attention to the dancers and see that most of them continue with the same dancing style even after the rhythm has changed.
The ‘Salsa’ Rhythms are such a complex field to be understood by beginner students, and actually advanced dancers are the ones who start hearing the difference(s) between each rhythm and adjust accordingly. The key to understand ‘Salsa’ is to stop hearing and start listening closely to the music. After paying close attention, some notorious differences will be visible (or better said audible) like the speed or tempo of the music, for example. Then begins the understanding of the different styles, like the Jazzy sound that includes strong brass presence and no lyrics, the Charanga sound that has the violin and flute predominance, etc.
Few ‘Salsa’ dance instructors know about the different rhythms, and the way to dance each one of them or how to adapt to each of them. Instructors teach all the steps that are needed (and if you are lucky how they apply to the music or rhythm) ; however, it’s up to the student-dancer to use them correctly and asked questions like “Why and How such steps fits the musical style?”. I.E. the Back Basic Step is the basic for the Son and Cumbia, the side basic step is the basic for the Rumba-Yambu or Guaguanco. (edited 2021)
A common question from beginner and intermediate students is “When are ‘Shines’ used?” The most common answers are “when you feel it” or “when the music tells you to”; however, the answer is a little bit more complex than that. ‘Shines’ or solo-footwork are the way dancers have found to preserve the Afro-Element of this dance. Africans did not involve any type of partner work (i.e. turn patterns) in their dance; also, their music was mainly percussive by using different types of drums. With this piece of knowledge, the correct answer should be, “when the percussion section occurs in the music.” Understanding the history and tradition will help understanding the music and dance.
A great music teacher once advised his talented student that to play one of the most difficult piano solos ever composed, the student must learn all the notes and practice them day and night, and once he is ready to perform, he must forget about reading the music sheet and play the notes by heart. Following the same advice, to be able to ‘Dance’ one must learn all the proper steps and techniques. Then after acquiring enough practice, experience and confidence, let the music speak through you, follow its lead and dance from the heart.