Origins of Salsa Dance
Salsa dancing today is the most popular partner dance in the world. However, not many people are familiar with the complex history of how the dance originated.
In this brief history of salsa, we’ll explore the origins of the world’s most popular Latin dance, from the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico to the global phenomenon that it is today.
Who Invented Salsa Dancing?
Who invented salsa dance? This is a common question that many beginners who are curious about the dance want to know.
The simple answer is that no one person invented salsa dancing.
Salsa dance (like many other dance forms) evolved organically over the course of many years from a mixing and remixing of earlier dance styles, and the unique expressions of thousands of different dancers.
Even today the dance is not formalized and continues to evolve as new dancers continue to explore new expressions and movements.
Because salsa originated as a mixture of earlier dances, to fully understand how salsa dance evolved we have to first look at the dances that came before it and influenced its creation.
Mixing of Cultures in the Caribbean
The word “salsa” in Spanish means “sauce”, and like the name implies, salsa dance and music is a mixture of many different ingredients.
The place where the disparate ingredients came together to create the unique blend we know today is in the Caribbean islands, particularly the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
It was here that three vastly different cultures began to mix together for the first time starting in the 1500s, during the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
1) Taino – Indigenous Tribes
The first ingredient of Latin dance and music is the native peoples of the Caribbean, known as the Taino or Taino-Arawak. These were the people that first inhabitted the Caribbean prior to the hispanic conquests.
Not much is known about the Taino people’s music or dance, but it is believed to have been simple in terms of melody and structure, and employed instruments such as wooden drums known as mayohuacanes, as well as rattles (similar to maracas), güíras (scrapers), and various types of flutes and whistles.
Many of these instruments are commonly used in salsa music to this day.
2) Spanish Conquerers
The second ingredient of salsa dance and music is European, particularly the Spanish who first colonized the Caribbean islands.
The Spanish brought with them their traditions and cultures, particularly partnered dancing, which was a new concept in the Caribbean.
European partnered dances such as the waltz were much more formal and favored straight lines and stiff posture compared to the Latin dances that we know today, but provided the foundations of lead and follow and partner dance technique.
The Spanish also introduced new instruments for music such as the guitar, as well as more complex arrangements of melodies, rhythms and vocals.
3) African Slaves
The final ingredient of early Latin music was the rhythms and movements of Africa, which were brought over to the Caribbean in the forms of slave labor by the Spanish.
Unlike in the United States, the Africans that were brought over to the Caribbean were able to preserve their unique cultural heritage through music and dance and influenced the development of new art forms.
African dances, unlike European dance, favored more curved shapes, bent knees, and an emphasis on hip and body movement, which has grown to become one of the hallmarks of Latin dance.
African religions also influenced the development of Latin dance, with movements taken from the Yoruba religion being regularly incorporated into salsa dance even today.
African drums (congas and bongos) and rhythms (clave and tumbao, also greatly influenced the development of Latin music.
All of these unique ingredients came together for the first time in the Caribbean islands, and gradually started to mix together over the course of centuries to build the foundation of Latin dance and music that we know today.
Cuba – The Epicenter of Latin Music & Dance
Many countries in the Caribbean have contributed to the development of Latin music and dance, namely Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but the country that has influenced salsa the most is Cuba.
During the early 20th century, Cuba was the epicenter of Latin music.
Prior to the embargo of Cuba by the United States, many Latin dances and music would originate in Cuba, spread to the US & Mexico, and then spread to the rest of the world, such as the Cha Cha Cha and Mambo crazes of the 1950s.
Many of the core movements and connections that are used in salsa dancing to this day come directly from Cha Cha Cha, Son and most notably Mambo.
Mambo – The Precuror to Salsa
Of all the Latin dances, the once with the most direct connection to salsa dance is the Mambo.
Mambo music originated in Cuba in the late 1930s and became a craze in the US in the 1950s.
The mambo dance form and music was developed to its pinnacle in New York City in the famed Palladium Ballroom.
It was in the Palladium Ballroom that dancers competed and showcased their talent, and started to create a unique dance style mixing together various other dance forms. The Palladium offered mambo dance lessons (taught by Frank “Killer Joe” Piro), but much of the dance was improvised, with dancers drawing from their own dance experience.
Some of the dances that influenced the development of mambo include Latin dances such as Son, Afro Cuban rumba, and Danzón as well as American and European dances such swing, hustle, ballet, Jazz, and tap dancing.
Some of the most well known and influential mambo dancers of the Palladium Ballroom era include Audie and Margo, Pedro Aguilar (aka “Cuban Pete”), Millie Donay, as well as groups such as the Mambo Aces (Joe Centeno and Andy Vázquez) and Cha-Cha Aces.
The Palladium was also the place where famed salsa musicians such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez first started to develop their music styles.
The Palladium closed in 1966 and the popularity of mambo also declined during that time, but it laid the foundations for the birth of salsa.
The Birth of Salsa
The term “salsa” to describe the music and dance as we know it today was first adopted and popularized by Johnny Pacheco, the founder of Fania Records, the music group that popularized salsa around the world. The group consisted of the top Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in New York at the time.
Johnny Pacheco chose the word “salsa” because of its spicy connotations, and the term has stuck to this day.
At first salsa was just an umbrella term for New York-style Latin music (for example, many of the mambo songs by Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez in the 1950s are today classified as salsa) but has gradually evolved into its own distinctive music genre.
Salsa quickly became the most popular form of music amongst Latin Americans, and soon expanded globally beyond its Latino base to listeners around the world, with Fania touring globally, including Europe, Asia and Africa.
Salsa dance evolved organically as a way of expressing salsa music through movement, and incorporated many of the moves and techniques developed during the mambo area, as well as incorporating other dance forms such as swing, Latin hustle, tap dance and more.
Salsa dance was for many years a “street dance” with no formal set of rules and people expressing themselves however they wanted to the music, but as salsa music grew in popularity dance instructors began to offer salsa dance lessons with formalized rules and curricula.
One of the most well known early salsa instructors is Eddie Torres, known as “the Mambo King”, who performed with Tito Puente and was one of the first to release salsa instructional videos. Eddie Torres trained many of the top dancers in New York, which continues to be one of the epicenters of salsa dancing to this day.
For this reason, salsa on2 has come to be known as “New York-style” salsa, but as salsa’s popularity spread around the world, other different styles of salsa also started to evolve.
The Different Styles of Salsa Dancing
There are many different styles of salsa dancing that have been developed by dancers around the world.
Salsa On1 – LA Style Salsa
One of the most popular is salsa on1, also known as LA-style salsa which was popularized in Los Angeles, another early salsa dancing hot spot.
The Vazquez brother (Francisco, Luiz and Johnny Vazquez) are often credited with developing and popularizing the style.
In on1 salsa, unlike on2 salsa, the break step happens on the first beat of the music, which is more in line with swing dance and other popular Western dances.
Many beginner dancers find it easier to find and dance to the first beat of the music than the second, and perhaps for this reason salsa on1 is the most popular form of salsa danced around the world today.
Cuban Salsa – Rueda de Casino
Another distinct style of salsa is Cuban-style salsa. Cuban salsa, like LA-style salsa is danced on1, but is danced in a circular motion similar to swing dance, rather than linearly like New York or LA-style salsa.
Cuban salsa dancing also incorporates more Afro movements, although the Afro moves are increasingly being incorporated into on1 and on2 salsa as well.
There is also a unique form of salsa dance developed in Cuba known as Rueda de Casino or Salsa Rueda, which is a synchronized group dance in which all the dancers dance in a circle and execute moves called out by a single leader.
Colombian Salsa – Salsa Caleña
Salsa Caleña evolved from cumbia, the national dance of Colombia, as well as other Colombian folkloric dances. It is danced in a circular motion, similar to Cuban salsa, with the incorporation of kicks, flicks and other rapid movements.
Colombian salsa is known for its fast speed, which came about from dancers in clubs taking records and speeding them up, with dancers competing to see who could dance the intricate steps the fastest.
Colombian salsa is incredibly popular within Colombia itself, with many festivals and competitions, but is not danced much outside of its native country.
Salsa Congresses – A Mixing of Styles
The different styles of salsa evolved largely independently (though with some mixing) based on geography in the early days of the dance.
However, that began to change in 1997 with the organization of the first salsa congress, a multi-day salsa festival featuring workshops, performances and competitions.
The first salsa congress was organized in Puerto Rico by Eli Irizarry, with hundreds of dancers from 19 different countries participating.
With so many dancers from around the world participating, many dancers for the first time encountered other styles of salsa dancing, and found their dance styles incompatible. This led to the start of standardization of salsa dancing styles, with some consolidation of less popular styles.
Salsa congresses rapidly grew in popularity during the 2000s thanks to salsa promoter Albert Torres (who helped promote the first salsa congress in Purto Rico), with today over a hundred different congresses happening every year in countries around the world on nearly every continent.
This has led to a continuos mixing of styles, with on1 and on2 dancers incorporating more elements of Cuban salsa, Colombian dancers incorporating linear moves, and many dancers learning multiple styles of salsa so that they can dance with more people around the world.
Salsa has always been a mixture of dances, and that is true even today.
In addition to salsa congresses, the growth of the internet during the 21st century has made all styles of salsa accessible to people around the world through sites such as YouTube and Instagram.
Salsa dancers around the world continue to mix, remix and combine different dance styles to create unique expressions of dance. There is more formal salsa instruction now, but also many different approaches taught by instructors around the world.
Salsa performance have grown in popularity thanks to salsa congresses, as well formalized salsa dance competitions, and the medium of the Internet has provided for new expressions of salsa through salsa videos, although many people still just enjoy salsa dancing for its social aspects.
Salsa is a continuously evolving art form, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it remains as popular and relevant as it is today.
We hope you enjoyed this brief history of the origins of salsa dance! Let us know in the comments if we missed anything or if you have any questions about this amazing and dynamic dance!