Is Salsa Really a Latin Dance?

salsa dancer1


If you have read some of my previous posts, you may have noticed that I have subtly dropped the phrase “American salsa dancing” here and there when referring to L.A. or N.Y. styles of salsa dancing. You may have noticed that I don’t call it “Latin salsa dancing,” or “Latin dance.” There is a reason for that, and this reason will be the topic of this piece.

The thesis of this piece is quite simple: salsa dancing, as it is being spread across the world, is not a “Latin dance,” as many would call it or have you believe. Indeed, salsa dance, as we know it, is actually an American (United States) dance.

Okay. So before you shout, “Blasphemy!” (maybe you already did) hear me out; keep reading. You might learn a thing or two.

Now, usually, when people tell their friends that they dance salsa, in the event that their friends do not know what salsa dancing is, the explanation that follows is usually that salsa is a “Latin dance.” Other times, if people dance more than one dance—let us say, salsa, merengue, and bachata—they say to their friends that they dance salsa and other Latin dances, therefore including salsa in the repertoire of “Latin dances.”

Little do these people know, when they say this to their friends, that salsa dancing really doesn’t qualify as a “Latin dance”—at least not when it comes to the salsa dancing to which they are referring.

I remember the first time I told this to someone, about four years ago; to this day, her reaction has left me pondering about how something so obvious could be so inconceivable to some people. I guess this is why I am writing this piece: I want to make sure that I state the obvious.

Anyway, here is the story. I was at this restaurant which had a “Latin Night” on Saturdays, and after a couple of dances I headed for the bar to grab a drink. A Puerto Rican lady whom I knew came up to me and told that she wished she could dance salsa like I did. I thanked her for the compliment, but told her that I did not dance salsa; that I danced casino (correcting that common mistake is like reflex for me now). I knew she was Puerto Rican, so I asked her if she had not learned how to dance salsa in Puerto Rico. She responded that she had, with her family, but she wanted to learn more, so she was taking classes at this dance academy. The day before she had gone for the second time. I knew the dance academy she was talking about, and it specialized in L.A. style salsa, so I told her, “That’s cool. But I’m sure that’s quite different from what you danced in Puerto Rico.” She looked at me, confused, and asked, “What do you mean?” It was my turn to look confused. I said, “Well, I mean that you are learning an American dance. You know, L.A. style. Los Angeles style. That stuff´s from here, the United States.”

When I told her this, she gave me this look of realization, of something clicking in her brain. I could almost see a shining light bulb atop her head.

We talked for a while more, in which I encouraged her to reminisce about how she used to dance in Puerto Rico. I found out that she was not a social dancer, in the sense that we think about social dancers—you know, going to socials and clubs all the time and dancing as much as you can. Rather, she would dance very basic stuff which she would mimic from what the other members of her family would do when they would gather for a party or some other form of social celebration. So, of course, with this very minimal knowledge of what she had done before, I could see how it could be difficult for her to distinguish between how she had danced in Puerto Rico and what the L.A.-style dance academy taught her in the two beginner lessons she had attended. Essentially, she didn’t have the necessary knowledge to tease apart the difference.

Now, she did not have that level of knowledge, but if you are reading my blog, chances are you do. So, let me give you an idea of how Puerto Ricans dance salsa. Take a look at this video (fast forward to 1:15 to see the actual dancing):

This is a great video, in my opinion, for a couple of reasons: a) this is clearly a Puerto Rican celebration happening, so culturally it is very appropriate; and b) it shows you how Puerto Ricans really dance salsa (I’m talking about the common people who live there and learned to dance in the island, not about the stuff you see Puerto Ricans performers do on stage or the workshops you get at salsa congresses from Puerto Ricans; those have either been heavily influenced by American salsa dancing, or are specifically catering to an American salsa dancer).

As you can see, this is very different from the salsa dancing that you know (L.A., N.Y styles). Very, very different. Of course, they all share the same basic step footwork because that comes from the Cuban dance of son. But other than that, these are very different dances. To prove it, watch a couple of minutes of this video, which shows a couple dancing L.A. style salsa. You will not even have to watch past the first minute to know the dances do not look alike.

Now, I began with Puerto Rico for obvious reasons. Puerto Ricans play a major role in any history of salsa music article or book written out there; therefore, in the effort to search for the “Latin” in salsa dancing, going to Puerto Rico first seemed logical.

The next logical step would be to go to Cuba, because Cuba is the other country which usually makes an appearance in the salsa narrative. Now, I have dedicated a whole blog post to explaining that in Cuba what is danced is not salsa, but rather casino (Read it here.). So I recommend reading that piece for a more in-depth explanation. Therefore, because in Cuba people do not dance salsa, and what they dance—casino—does not look like American salsa, we have to go look for the “Latin” in salsa dancing somewhere else.

Let us go to Colombia, then. Colombia is the other country that usually gets thrown into the mix. Before writing this piece, I did a quick Google search about the history of salsa dancing, and found that Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Colombia seemed to be the only ones with “styles” of dancing salsa worthy enough of mentioning, besides the United States.

So let us talk about Colombians. Now, when it comes to Colombia, people seem to think that Colombians all dance salsa the same way. Therefore, when people mention “Colombian style salsa,” what they are envisioning in their heads is the crazy-fast footwork that the people from Cali (Colombian city) have become known for. But that is just for Cali. I have talked to many other Colombians who have told me that salsa is danced differently across different cities. But again, the “Cali-style” is what people know. So let us watch a video of that, and compare it to the American salsa video above.

Are there similarities? Sure. You may find some. But they are not the same dance, structurally speaking. Indeed, the Colombians definitively do not dance on the slot, like you are taught to do in the United States or anywhere else in Europe that this “Latin” dance is taught. In fact, this looks a lot more like casino than it does American salsa.

So. We cannot find the “Latin” in salsa dancing in Colombia, either.

So where the heck is the “Latin”?

I say, the “Latin” in salsa dancing is all in the fantasy you have been sold. Salsa dancing, as you know it, is not a dance that belongs anywhere in Latin America. And why should it? Even the names of the styles that you know how to dance explicitly tell you that they are not from Latin America. These styles were created in Los Angeles and New York. In short, in the United States.

This is the point I want to drive home. Now, with this I am not saying that salsa dancing in Latin America does not exist. Clearly, it does, as we have seen in the videos I have shown you. However, the way that salsa is danced in Latin America is definitively very far off the way it is danced in the United States and around the world. And again, the reason for that is that salsa dancing, as you know it, is an American dance.

I keep saying “salsa dancing, as you know it.” With this I am assuming that what you know how to dance is one the two most popular ways of dancing salsa, the Los Angeles style, or the New York style, because chances are that that was what you were taught. And chances are, as well, that you were taught that this was a “Latin” dance.

The word “Latin” specifically relates to the “peoples or countries of Latin America” (Merriam-Webster). In this sense, many could argue that salsa is a “Latin” dance because the people who began dancing it in the United States were Latinos or of Latin-decent. I mean, you just have to look at the names of the people often credited with the creation of these styles in the United States: Alex Da Silva, Liz Lira, Francisco Vazquez, Eddie Torres, Pedro Aguilar (“Cuban Pete”), just to name a few. I would agree with you and state that, in that sense and that sense alone, that is where you can find the “Latin” in salsa dancing. But again, the “Latin” in salsa dancing, as you know it, should not be seen as a product of any one Latin American country which was brought to the United States and taught here in the exact same way it was danced there.

Salsa, as you know it, is a phenomenon of the United States. That’s why, to me, calling salsa a “Latin” dance, when you are referring to the Los Angeles and New York styles, does not really complete the picture of what it actually is. Indeed, the American side and contribution to salsa dancing has been greatly underplayed in order to create a fantasy buttressed on the false exoticism of a “Latin” dance that sounds highly appealing to an American and European public. But salsa dancing, as you know it, is American even more than it is “Latin.” I mean, besides the point of it having been developed here, the similarities with other American dances like west coast swing are simply astonishing. Let us take a look:

In this west coast swing video, you can really see where salsa dancing borrows its structure from and many of its concepts. Heck, even some of the turn patterns are exactly the same. The one major difference is the footwork, yet even then there is no denying that the video that you just saw has more in common with what you know as salsa dancing than with any other of the videos from any other of the Latin American countries.

So, with all this said, let us go back to the title of this blog post: Is salsa really a “Latin” dance? The answer is: No. Salsa is an American dance, with American dance concepts, which caters to an American audience, and later would cater to Europe and other parts of the world, spreading the American version. The people who aided in its development, in their majority, were Latinos or of Latin-descent, but they were not replicating something that they saw in any one country in Latin America. They were creating something new; something intrinsically American.

Some people would argue that salsa dancing, as you know it, is Latin because when they go to some of the Latin American countries, they see people dancing the same way they dance in the States. It is true that this happens. However, this is not due to the dance having been developed there, but rather it has to do more with the effects of globalization. The United States is such a powerful country when it comes to getting its products out into the world, that it is no surprise that you see American salsa danced not only in Latin America, but also all around the world, in the same way that you would see a MacDonald’s in Venezuela, a Starbucks in Colombia, and Coca-Cola products, well, pretty much everywhere. Yet the fact that they are there does not make them “Latin.”

A parallel could be made with the dance of bachata. In the United States, the dance of bachata has been changed and modified so much from how it is actually danced in the Dominican Republic—where it comes from—that now you are starting to see instructors making the point of explicitly advertising for their classes as “Dominican bachata” to make clear that their classes will focus on a more culturally-faithful instruction of this Dominican social dance, rather than the American version of bachata, a fantasy version of this dance which many people have taken as the real thing and only recently have begun to realize that it has very little to do with actual bachata. The thing that saddens me, when I see instructors calling it “Dominican bachata”, is that when that happens it sounds like they are teaching some sort of rip-off of the “real” bachata (the one taught in the United States and, because of the American marketing power, spread around the globe), when theirs is the real one.

And that is what I am trying to say: let us not confuse the expression “Latin dance” that is used to refer to an American fantasy that seeks to exoticize and objectify Latin American culture by making fantasy products of easy consumption for the American public (in this case salsa, in its American styles), with actual dances from Latin America like tango, merengue, casino, diablada, joropo, cumbia, and others.

Salsa, as you know it either in its Los Angeles or New York styles, is an American dance, not a Latin one. I hope that has now become as obvious to you as it has been to me for years.