Introduction To The Common ‘Styles’ of Salsa

There are several styles of Salsa that could be compared to dialects of the same language.  You can speak to someone who speaks a different dialect and you can dance with someone trained in a different Salsa style.  But the nature of the steps and the patterns on the floor in each style are slightly different.  Thls link has an extensive summary of many styles and other Latin dances with video examples that are excellent:  www.langeasy.com/spanish7/salsa.html#mozTocId558265 .   

I would summarize the key features of the various styles as follows.  But i want to add one caveat.  Salseros sometimes have a favorite style of dancing Salsa and and are especially attached to it.  But they are all great ways to dance to Salsa music and none of them are any better or worse than any other.

L. A. style is no doubt shaped in part by the fact that Los Angeles/Hollywood is all about acting, being flashy, and drawing attention to oneself. This style is fast, sharp, and eye-catching.  It often includes what Salsa dancers call "tricks" (i.e. acrobatics).  In addition, L. A. dancers do a lot of their movements linearly, staying in a "slot."  L. A. style is generally danced "on 1" which means you change direction in the basic step on beats 1 and 5 of the 8 beat phrase.  

New York style evolved in a city where many great Mambo dancers made their mark. Mambo is "danced on beat two"--which means that the dancers change the direction of their movement on the second beat of the musical phrase. So it is no surprise that many NY dancers dance "on two." In terms of content, New York style Salsa tends to include a lot of multiple spins. This style emphasizes making moves look smooth and clean. The video on the side shows NY style salsa.

NY and LA styles are pretty similar, but  LA style is generally on 1 while NY style is typically on 2. 

A comment about dancing" on 1" or "on 2":
Breaking (i.e. changing direction) on beat one is generally thought to be simpler than breaking on 2, since beat one is the easiest beat to find or hear.  Many people first learn to dance on one and then switch to dancing on two. Those who love dancing on two often feel it is more musically sophisticated and that the rhythmic feeling of the dance is richer. Indeed, there is more rhythmic tension to dancing on an offbeat such as beat two.  But dancing on one is wonderful fun as well.  Certain songs seem to be particularly suitable for one or the other style, although both are always possible and both are perfectly fine ways to dance Salsa.

Cuban style Salsa is the style that is most like the Salsa done in Cuba, where the dance has its roots. I have heard many say that this style is characterized by a sort of male dominance.   Cuban style dancers don't tend to do fast, multiple spins.  They turn more slowly, typically and these are called “walking turns." In addition, the movement of the partners in this style tends to be circular as opposed to linear.  There is a lot of body movement in Cuban Salsa and you can more visibly see the Afro-Cuban roots of the dance.  Cubans tend to bend their bodies forward more, and their knees are also more bent.  Cuban moves can be danced by one couple on the dance floor, or by a group in a circle, which is referred to as Rueda de Casino.  See more on that below.

Rueda de Casino is the use of Cuban moves in a circle of dance couples with frequent partner exchanges.  It is also sometimes informally called "Salsa Rueda."  People sometimes compare Rueda to American Square dancing, in that dancers learn patterns and then do them in synchrony.  Some moves are just couples doing a move synchronously but there are others where the entire group of Rueda dancers function like a team and dance together.  Those are called "group moves" and create a wonderful team spirit. 

It is worth noting that Rueda is done in Cuba a little differently than the way this dance evolved in the U.S. since the 1970's.   Some Rueda dancers try to stay true to the original style of the roots of the dance.  But some Rueda dancers do moves that evolved in the US when the dance was brought here.  So under the category of Rueda de Casino, there are actually a couple of different "sub-styles."  One of these is sometimes called Miami style, and there is more detail on that below.

Miami style Salsa is dominated by the Casino Rueda moves that were popular in Miami around the 1970s and beyond. These moves have been used and adapted by Miami dancers. The steps are "pretzelly;" with intricate, interconnected arm movements. In this style, too, the movement of the partners tends to be circular as opposed to linear.

Miami style more or less originated with the Cuban style, but the approach evolved and changed in Florida.   Miami style Salsa tends to emphasize longer and more complex steps that can be blended into even longer sequences of movement. This approach was exported to many other cities via popular DVDs that Salsa Lovers and Salsa Racing produced and sold world wide.  It provided some standardization of moves in the early days of Rueda dancing that was very helpful for growing interest in the dance.  In more recent years, groups everywhere have altered and created their own moves so now there is an amazing array of steps and variety from one city to another let alone group to another. 

Rueda de Casino, the Cuban style moves done in a circle has taken an interesting turn in recent years.  There has been an explosion of different formations that are used in the dance—(e.g. inverted circles, Rueda Mixta and many other complex approaches to the formations for the dance).  A lot of the work on these "Rueda Structures" has come out of Europe and been imported to the US and elsewhere.  It makes the dance extremely exciting!

Final comment:   In 2015, a dancer named Juliet Mc Mains, published a wonderful book that deals with all styles and types of Salsa, tracing their evolution and history.  The title is “Spinning Mambo into Salsa.”  In the chapter on Casino Dancing in Cuba and Miami, she addresses the debate about dancing in the authentic Cuban style versus the Miami version of the dance.  She says that there was actually a lot of exchange of dance steps when people who lived in Miami and went home to visit family in Cuba.  They brought American steps to Cuba that the Cubans wanted to learn.  Likewise, Cubans picked up moves from their American relatives on visits and taught them to others in Cuba. 

McMains says that the types of Casino dancing (authentic Cuban versus Miami style) became less distinct due to this kind of exchange back and forth.  And then she said that the advent of the internet enabled dancers to see what was being done elsewhere so they could really organize the concept of distinctly different styles Congresses also allowed dancers to see how others danced.