Salsa is a multiple level skill that involves complex yet simple movements.  Coordinating your feet and body in time with the beat, deciding on what to do next, and flowing with your partner all can be quite a lot to concentrate on concurrently when starting out. It can be a whirlwind for anyone learning the ropes. But, like other skill sets that one learns, it gets easier with time and much more enjoyable as many of the patterns transition to instinct. The Salsa culture is that of community and fun. You can walk into any studio anywhere in the world and you will see people enjoying themselves and someone will always welcome you in.

The salsa studios are where people come to dance and to learn to dance. It is a tiered skill because there are a series of levels in your learning and understanding of the dance and the culture. Starting off, beginners need to learn the basic step. Make sure to listen to the music and notice the beat. Salsa has 4 beats per measure so most movements will be thought of as two measures or 8 beats. The steps are a sort of shuffle that is better exemplified by watching a video on YouTube from SalsaVentura. This team breaks down the steps very simply and matter of fact. Throw in a little swaying of the hips and make sure to keep your bent at the elbow and not laying limp by your sides.

black and white photos of guy playing trumpet
Instruments like the bongos, trumpet, piano, claves, drums combine to make salsa. (Photo cred Dayvison de Oliveira Silva on Pexels)
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Attire

After you have learned the basic steps, you have to add some flare. The origin of salsa dates back to the 18th century in Cuban Culture. The dance moves are influenced by Afro-Caribbean dances as well as mambo, Cuban son, and rumba to name a few. Gaining popularity in the 1960s Spanish Harlem of New York, dancers would add flare to their dance by accentuating movement in their hips and upper body as well as wearing brightly colored clothes.

The flair of salsa is not only displayed in your movements, it is what you wear and your machismo. Machismo is the confidence you bring into the room and with you on the dance floor. Salsa dancers usually wear clothes that flow and are easy to move in. These are bright colors and sometimes sparkly because the culture has an aspect of being bold and getting noticed. Women generally wear high heels when dancing and at events. You can search online for ‘Ballroom dance shoes’ and there will be a series of websites showing a wide selection to choose from. It is said that 2.5-3 inch heels are recommended while most prefer the 3 inches. The flexible soles of these dancing shoes will be a godsend after you have been dancing for a whole night straight. Make sure the shoes are a tight fit otherwise you can expect blisters and sore feet, after all, is said and done. For men, you want to find a pair of leather shoes whose soles are flexible. The tight leather may be painful at first but once you break in your dance shoes, you have a pair that will last a lifetime.

social dance as partners
There are many different styles of dance in Salsa. (Photo cred Ryan Snaadt on Upsplash)

Salsa Congress

To put in some mileage and break in those new shoes, think about getting a ticket and attending a Salsa Congress. This is a multiple-day event held all over the world where people come together to compete, dance, and learn Salsa. Since those who attended Salsa Conferences are of all different skill levels, these celebrations of practice, learning, performance, and competition can be challenging to the newcomers. It is recommended that you attend a couple of lessons or workshops throughout the event so that you can understand the form and culture of salsa.

A mainstay of these events is the workshops. Often taught by professional or retired professional dancers, they can provide first-hand insight and advice about how you are moving and ways you can improve. These teachers are passionate about their craft and love seeing newcomers find their own passion as they learn to dance Salsa.

Keep in mind that there is no single salsa dance style. There are regional nuances that distinguish the schools of thought so to speak. Classically, the Cuban style is the main type taught in schools. This would be considered more traditional salsa. But since the 60s and 70s, other parts of the world have adopted the culture and made it their own by adding a bit here and there. In Columbia, they dance a distinctive style that will feature a lot more active footwork. The dancers will add in partner lifts and tucks that are not really seen in traditional Cuban dance. The Miami style is known to be more flashy where the men will dance with slightly puffed up chests and their upper bodies will appear more rigid than other styles.

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band playing the saxaphone
The music is the backbone of any Salsa congress. (Photo cred Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash)

The Bands

Dancing is one thing but it is not nearly as much fun without the amazing bands that supply the beats and rhythms. Salsa music uses many African and Caribbean beats and cadences. As a genre, they have incorporated many traditional instruments like the bongos, drums, and claves into the sounds we would consider to be today’s salsa. Played between 150-250 beats per minute, these fast paced and complex percussion sounds are based heavily on any of the four clave rhythms. They include Charanga, Changüí, Bomba, and when the clave is hidden acting as a negative beat. This key ingredient to the making of salsa adds to the loud congas, timbales, pianos, and guitars that make up the rest of the band.

Some of the bands are mostly instrumental, others include vocals. One group that has made their mark on the Salsa Genre is Willie Colón playing Trumpet and Hector Lavoe doing vocals. This team was a powerhouse in their day cranking out hits one after the other. Listening to their classic albums, you can still feel the soul they were imparting in the music they made. They loved making music and you can hear it on their records. While they gained popularity from their early albums, their 1970 record ‘Cosa Nuestra’ contained multiple hits that topped charts.

Another band that helped to define Salsa music as a genre is Buena Vista Social Club. They are an ensemble of Cuban musicians who got together in 1996 to revive the traditional music of Cuba before the revolution. Their hit song Chan Chan received numerous awards and their self-named album was ranked 260 out of the 500 greatest albums of all time by The Rolling Stone Magazine. Winners of a Grammy award in 1998 for their album, this team of musicians have made their mark on Salsa.

Over a very long career of making music, Celia Cruz produced 23 gold albums. She is the godmother of Salsa. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1925, Celia started her rise to fame in her 20s. Gaining notoriety for singing guarachas, she earned the nickname ‘La Guarachera de Cuba'. A Guaracha was a type of music traditionally sung in Cuban Theaters and dance salons. She went on to sing with big stars like Tito Puente, Marc Anthony, and Willie Colón.

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Seth