How did salsa get started?

Salsa music and dance have a beautiful and complex history. Pulling from the classics of Latin culture like Son, Rumba, Guaguanco and Jazz, this fledgling dance style held strong and blossomed into the distinct sound and beat that is Salsa. Using the Spanish word for ‘Sauce’, a salsa is a blend of different ingredients that turns into something spicy but distinct and flavorful.  One man who is credited for naming this music genre is Johnny Pacheco. He is said to have chosen the name because of its influences from Latin America and the Caribbean. As you have undoubtedly noticed when you listen to Salsa, the mix comes together so nicely.

The roots of this saucy dance and music style come from the musical styles of Africa and the Caribbean. Instruments like the drums, bongos, and claves have been included as a carryover in this new type of music. Salsa as a genre was popular all over Latin America but started to gain more attention in Cuba as early as the 1800s. It was unknown by most Americans until they visited and many brought back this interesting sound. Many American musicians even incorporated aspects into the music they played back home. During the 60s and the 70s, Puerto Rican Musicians in the United States would rearrange and combine Cuban and Puerto Rican musical genres, mixing the rhythms and beats together.

Many of the new sounds were familiar to the Latin culture but remained distinctive and novel to the ear. These artists of salsa culture used the best aspects of Danzón dance of French and Haitian immigrants, combined with Rumbas of many African Slaves and the music of the Spanish Troubadours. When they are all pulled together, it creates a sensuous sound we know as Salsa. Those cultures mixing together were likely first performed in the early 1800s and the first Americans would have heard it closer to the end of the same century when they were fighting in the Cuban war of 1898. After many of the veterans of this Cuban War began returning home, they brought back this new music and dance. Since then it spread and evolved into many different styles. Though even the Salsa of the 1960s is different from what we listen to today.

Soft lit room with two dancers
Attending a Salsa Congress is a great way to learn new moves. (Photo cred Pixabay on Pexels)

Gaining Popularity

The next big growth movement was in 1960’s Spanish Harlem. New York’s large immigrant population helped foster this music scene as it expanded into what we know today as Salsa. They provided the foundation from which all modern styles were built. To name some of the types we have today, you must include Colombian style, Cuban style, Miami style, Rueda de Casino, Los Angeles Style and New York Style. Each local has its own groove and rhythms in the Salsa culture. Rueda de Casino is considered more raw and sensual than the Miami Style because of the way the girl places her arms and their turning patterns. The men of the Cuban style tend to bend more and get low to the ground whereas the male dancers in the Miami style tend to be a bit stiffer with a puffed-up chest.

Each school of dance will feature different theatrics and music. The styles are distinct and exciting to learn because each one has its own nuances that are attractive and enticing. A great way to learn about more styles is to attend a Salsa Congress. These exhibitions are multi-day events where both professional dancers and amateur come to gather and share their skills. Often involving many different classes and specific workshops, you can gain quite a lot of practice at these shows. There are usually opportunities to compete as well. Here you can try your best either solo or social with a partner.

1997 was the flagship year for this format of the event. The Puerto Rico Salsa Congress started that year and has since become a staple to the community.  Anyone who is committed to learning more about salsa whether it be the history or its newer styles, attending a Salsa Congress is the single best way to be totally immersed in the right kind of environment. These events will get you dancing 3 days and nights straight. You will leave exhausted but you will get valuable tips and recommendations from the partners you choose to dance with on how to improve. Another great way to see yourself improve is to bring a camera and film yourself dancing.

person playing the bongo drums
Salsa music incorporates clave, bongos, and the drumes (Photo cred Stephen Niemeier on Pexels)

The Big Names

When you attend a Salsa Congress, you often get to see the legendary dancers who are the cream of the crop. The best of the best will attend the competitions and sometimes hold workshops too.  These dancers love what they do and their passion is infectious. Salsa competitions happen all the time and for that reason, among others, these events are a blast to attend. The music is delightful and everyone is in a good mood. Often after the competitions are finished, they will open up the floor and you can try out some of the moves you saw earlier on stage.

One name that you will frequently see on the stage bills is Eddie Torres. Affectionately known as the Mambo King, his knowledge and skill in the New York Style of Salsa is world-renowned. He has been dancing for over 20 years and his passion for teaching means he is often at these events and teaching others how to improve. Just from seeing him speak, you can see his connection and passion for dance. He still can be found teaching classes and workshops in New York.

Terry Tauliaut often dances with his Partner Cecil Ovide. They are a top dance team in the Salsa scene. Their dancing chemistry is palpable. Every move looks so fluid and planned that when it is executed, it looks like they have been doing this all of their lives. Located in Paris, France, you can attend educational classes where they team you how to be a fantastic social dancer.

team dances salsa together in black and white
Salsa brings together many Latin influences. (Photo cred Pixabay on Pexels)

The Big Bands

Without music, dancing wouldn’t be as much fun. The bands help to make Salsa dance more lively and fun than it already is. Often with 5-10 musicians, the bands will play for hours and with the same vigor and excitement as their first song.  The Godfather of Salsa music is Tito Puente. Over five decades, this man has played all kinds of instruments and repeatedly left his mark on the genre. Influencing countless other musicians of his time and those to come, his music pulls you out of your seat and gets you dancing before you realize what happened.

Willie Colón is another musician that has greatly impacted the Salsa genre. Born in the South Bronx of New York, he started on the trumpet at a very young age and later moved on to the trombone. He was 17 years old when he recorded his first album for Fania Records. That album sold 300,000 copies. Joining with Hector Lavoe, they become known as the best duo in Salsa Music. While their first couple albums were not received well, Their 1970 album 'Cosa Nuestra' contained multiple billboard hits.  In this album, they had started to develop more in the rhythm and percussion aspects.  With Colón playing trumpet and Lavoe singing, they hit stardom and left a lasting impression on the Salsa genre.



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