While most people who are introduced to salsa initially learn salsa on 1, or LA style salsa, the following step guide follows the counts for salsa on 2, or New York style salsa which is similar to Mambo. That being said, any of these steps can be used while dancing LA style or Cuban style salsa by switching around the appropriate counts.
Footwork and Shines
Before entering the realm of partner work, it is important to know the basic steps so that dance partners remain synchronized and avoid stepping on each other. It also becomes crucial to learn and develop steps that focus on shines as you advance because dancers often break apart while social dancing to show off their footwork skills. While shines often consist of a series of improvised steps, the following basics are what bring them together:
- Basic Step: Each step in salsa is danced within an 8 count of music to the counts 1-2-3, 5-6-7. Notice there is a pause on 4 and 8. You step forward on the 1st count with the right foot followed by a break step backward on the 2nd count with the left foot. The 4th count is skipped and followed by a break step forward on the 6th count. The 8th count is skipped as well. These counts apply for both follows and lead while doing footwork and shines. While doing partner-work, the basic step for the leads is reversed.
- Side Basic: You step in place on the 1st count with the right foot followed by a step to the left with the left foot on 2. The 2nd step is also a break step to the right so you step in place with the right foot again on the 3rd count. The 4th count is skipped. You step in place on the 5th count with the left foot followed by a step to the right with the right foot on 6. The 6th step is also a break step to the left so you step in place with the left foot again on the 7th count. The 8th count is skipped and the process is repeated.
- Back Basic: You step in place on the 1st count with the right foot followed by a step backward with the left foot on 2. The 2nd step is also a break step forward so you step in place with the right foot again on the 3rd count. The 4th count is skipped. You step in place on the 5th count with the left foot followed by a step backward with the right foot on 6. The 6th step is also a break step forward so you step in place with the left foot again on the 7th count. The 8th count is skipped and the process is repeated.
- Front Basic: You step in place on the 1st count with the right foot followed by a step forward with the left foot on 2. The 2nd step is also a break step backward so you step in place with the right foot again on the 3rd count. The 4th count is skipped. You step in place on the 5th count with the left foot followed by a step forward with the right foot on 6. The 6th step is also a break step backward so you step in place with the left foot again on the 7th count. The 8th count is skipped and the process is repeated.
- Right Turn: You step forward with the right foot on 1 and forward again with the left foot on 2 and do a break step. As you go backward from the break step you turn to the right until you’ve turned 180 degrees and step with your right foot on 3. You keep pivoting on your right foot until you have completed a 360 degree turn and are facing the front again as you step with your left foot on 5. The remaining counts resemble those of the basic step.
- Left Turn: You step forward with the right foot on 1 and forward again with the left foot on 2 and do a break step. As you go backward from the break step you turn to the left and step in place with your right foot on 3. You keep turning until you’re facing backwards when you step with your left foot on 5. You keep pivoting with your left foot to complete another 180 until you’re facing the front again as you do a break step with your right foot on 6 and step forward with your left foot on 7.
The following video gives a demonstration of all of the steps mentioned above:
Things to keep in mind:
- Your torso is never supposed to rotate while doing these steps.
- Step on the inside balls of your feet.
- Your steps should never be too big so that your weight can easily be switched from one foot to the other.
- There is generally supposed to be some hip movement. The hip opposite of the leg you are stepping on sinks to create that motion.
- Your arms should be at ease but remain at chest level at all times unless you add your own styling.
Introduction to Partner Work
The counts for the leads during partner work are reversed to that they break backwards on 2 and forwards on 6. There are 2 types of holds to keep in mind before attempting partner dancing:
- Open hold: This position has both the lead and the follow facing each other. The lead holds a strong frame with both arms facing the follow at waist height and palms facing upward. While the lead maintains a strong frame, his/her arms are at ease. The follow takes hold of the lead’s hands with palms facing downward. It is important to note that leads are never supposed to tightly grip the hand of a follow. It is the follow’s job to hold on to the lead’s hands. The open hold also has a lot of variations which allow dancers to perform complex patterns and combinations of steps.
- Closed hold: This position slightly closes the distance between the lead and follow. The lead puts their right hand on the follow’s left shoulder blade and provides a frame for the follow’s left arm. While resting their left arm on the lead’s right arm, the follow puts their left hand on the lead’s right shoulder. The lead’s left hand and the follow’s right hand are in a hand hold at about chin height. This varies for the combination of each pair’s height differences. There are also various ways to do the hand hold. A common one is for the lead to cup the follow’s fingers.
The following video goes into the details of the different holds:
Basic Partner Work
All of the basic footwork patterns can be done using either hold in partnerwork. The leads dance to the reverse counts and initiate each step while the follows read the signal of each arm’s pull or push in order to know which step is coming up.
- Cross Body Lead: This step falls under the basic category because it is used very often in combination with other steps. The lead steps to the right on the 1st count and does a back break to the right so that they are now facing to the left. When the lead does this, their arms naturally guide the follow so that, instead of breaking on 2, the follow pushes forward. The lead then simply continues the basic step after the follow turns so that the positions are now switched.
- Right and Left Turns: The lead initiates this move by raising their hand (it could be either arm depending on the hold) on the 7th count. The follow recognizes the signal so that they are prepared to do a turn on the next 8 count.
- Cross body turns: Again, the lead must signal with the help of their arms in order to let the follow know that there is a turn coming along with a cross body lead.
- Hair Brush: This isn’t really a step but a motion of the arms that can be combined with most steps. The elad simply takes the arm of the follow they are holding and do a gentle tossing motion so that the follow brushes their hair before bring the arm back around towards the lead.
- Spins: A spin is different from a turn because it is executed on one foot and in one motion without taking any additional steps. This is where it becomes extremely important to stay on the inside ball of the foot in order to complete a spin which can seem almost effortless. Spins can be done to either side as well. While spinning to the right, dancers do a prep on the 6th and 7th count and spin on the counts of 1,2, and 3. While spinning to the right, dancers do a prep on the 2nd and 3rd count and spin on the counts of 5,6, and 7. Again, the leads must signal the follows before spinning them on the counts going into the prep by doing a circular or side-to-side motion with their arms.
While these are just most basic salsa steps which anyone at an intermediate level should be able to do, these steps form the foundations around all the other steps and patterns which are essentially complicated combinations of hand holds, arm signalling, body movement, and footwork. We highly recommend taking salsa classes in order to fully understand each movement if you are a beginner.