Salsa has deep roots starting back as early as the 18th century. It was traditionally a Cuban style of music and dance when Salsa was first brought to the United States by the American soldiers returning from the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War of the late 1800s. Jumping forward to the 1960s, another wave of popularity came as Puerto Rican musicians in New York’s Spanish Harlem started to rearrange and combine Cuban and Puerto Rican musical genres. Salsa over its long and creative history has been a genre of social movement and change.
The music we have come to love borrows extensively from traditional African and Caribbean beats and rhythms such as Cuban son, Rumba, and Guaracha to name a few. By incorporating traditional instruments like the bongos, timbales, and claves, helped to combine a familiar sound to a new type of music for the next generation. Starting off, it is a very fast-paced style of music. At 150-250 beats per minute, the dancers are moving quickly, and considering the Salsa Dance rhythm requires three steps for every four beats, everyone on the dance floor can appear to move quite vigorously. The odd number of steps that are so essential to the style creates the syncopation that is so iconic in Salsa Dance and Music.
Social Aspects of Salsa
With origins from all over the world, the music’s lyrics often sang about the struggles of everyday life and the challenges that faced the impoverished. Salsa has always been a lyrically and politically motivated genre. Over the span of the 1970s people all over Latin America came to embrace salsa music as their own. It is likely that Salsa’s international rise in popularity was due to many Latin countries concurrently gaining independence as sovereign states or experiencing civil rights movements for their people. Salsa being seen as the people’s music rather than the music of the states that had previously had control over them make it more attractive and easy to identify with. The social changes happening around these communities flowed into the music they listened to and thus became incorporated into the Salsa Culture.
This liberation from the music of the state allowed this genre to feel like one’s own. Artists like Celia Cruz who grew up in Havana, Cuba singing Guarachas would have seen and lived through these changes. She went on to help develop salsa into how it is known today. Over her career, she made 23 albums that hit gold. The music style was and still is very popular.
The style's popularity also grew thanks to Pedro Aguilar, known as ‘Cuban Pete’. He was a star in the Latin dance world. He gained fame as a salsa dancer during the beginning of the Mambo craze and made history as being the first man of color who danced with a white woman on stage. On that historic day in 1951, he danced at the famous New York Palladium Ballroom with Millie Donay. His long career led him to dance in movies, television, and on stage.
Schools of Dance
Being involved and making social change is a strong tenet of the Salsa culture. By the 1970s, people were adding bits of flair here and there to the more traditional Cuban style of Salsa. These additions grew into the various Salsa schools we have today. Rueda de Casino started in Miami in the 1980s. It has the partners dancing in a circle where you can see that it has a lot of influence from disco. The men of the Cuban style tend to bend over more and get down and dirty yet the male dancer of the Miami style will hold his chest up high and have a slightly more rigid upper body. When danced in Columbia, their style has a lot of footwork involving extra kicks and steps. The upper body stays quite rigid while the legs and hips do most of the movement. Los Angeles and New York styles are still battling it out. Los Angeles style is thought to be one of the faster tempo Salsas with quick footwork and hip movements, it can be quick and flashy.
One of the innovators of the Los Angeles style is Johnny Vazquez. He started in the 80s with his two brothers Francisco and Luis. Together they formed a dancing trio. Interestingly, at the time that the Vazquez brothers started dancing, most salsa dancers ascribed to the more traditional Cuban style. By incorporating steps from Swing and Mambo into their dance routines, the Vazquez team managed to gain recognition as a distinct style and headlined many of the Salsa Congresses. Johnny Vazquez has been able to maintain his prowess even today.
Dancing salsa can become a lifelong passion. Eddie Torres is known as the Mambo King because of his dedication and brilliant performances. He started dancing in his teens but didn’t begin dancing professionally until his early 20s. Since then he has become a significant figure in the community and is easily one of the most recognizable icons in the Salsa scene.
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Music Making a Change
Artists have been inspiring social change for a long time through their music. Ismael Rivera and Rafael Cortijo are two innovative Puerto Rican musicians who are remembered for paving the way for inclusiveness in Latin music. Rivera would sing and Cortijo would play the timbales, together they combined African and Puerto Rican sounds such as Bomba and Plena into the Cuban style of music. Bomba is one such style of music that both men grew up hearing. It can be used as a generic term for a specific number of rhythms, it more truly represents the cooperative relationship between the dancers, percussionists, and the singers. By bringing traditionally different sounds together, a new creation was brought to life for a whole community.
One band that breathed new life into an old genre of music is the Buena Vista social club who gained notoriety for their self-named album in 1996. The bandmates joined together to reinvigorate the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Ranked as 266 out of the 500 best albums of all time according to Rolling Stone Magazine. The significance came because they were one of only two non-English speaking albums on the whole list. The series of awards brought recognition and appreciation of Latin music that would be felt by many in the salsa community. Two years later, they were awarded a Grammy for the same album. This ensemble of Cuban musicians helped Latin music break through the glass ceiling into mainstream awareness.
Music and dance have the power to carry their history in their lyrics and rhythms. The artists who dance and sing Salsa help the histories live on by teaching the next generation. You can see it by watching any salsa dancer or musician. The passion they bring to the stage and the enjoyment you can see on their face is infectious. It is easy to see how Salsa has been so influential to so many lives.