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Evolution of American Popular Social Dance & Music: Salsa

With Fantastically Entertaining Salsa Performances on DWTS featuring: Teams MnM and ValenRue

If Salsa Music and Dance were languages, there are many different dialects, fueling the debate on what is or isn’t Salsa.

My knowledge of music and especially dance, is underwhelming – if one is being charitable. However, possessed with inexhaustible curiosity, determination to learn, and good research skills, this piece attempts to answer the question: “What, exactly, IS salsa?” Included are videos of favorite Salsa music and dances performed on Dancing With the Stars and other fun Salsa content. Enjoy!

The Question Arises:

Watching Dancing with the Stars live Seasons 18, 19, and now the first three weeks of 20, at times Dancing With the Stars judges make remarks regarding a Salsa performance and whether a couples dance has sufficient “Salsa” content. The debate often continues on social media. Most styles performed on Dancing With the Stars fits neatly within the International Latin, International Ballroom, American Smooth or American Rhythm competitive dance categories, excepting less defined styles such as contemporary and jazz. Dances within these disciplines each have specific movements allowed, with clearly defined step sequences at the Bronze, Silver, or Gold Syllabus level, with greater flexibility in interpretation when dancers progress to the Open level. [LINK] Adding to the lack of clarity, large, organized championships for Salsa are a recent addition to the competitive dance world, with the two biggest being the World Salsa Federation and World Latin Dance Cup events commencing in 2002 and 2005, respectively. [LINK] Thus, interpretation of what constitutes a proper Salsa varies and honest discussion continued on social media, following DWTS’s TeamValenRue wonderful Disco Salsa, during Season 20, Week 3.

Meryl and Maks, DWTS S18, Week 7 Salsa with Troupe

Meryl and Maks, DWTS S18, Week 7 Salsa with Troupe

In researching the topic I’ve discovered, perhaps more than most dance styles performed on the show, Salsa is fusion of various stylistic components, resulting in Salsa’s with widely differing expression and appearance. Salsa is also a musical genre. If Salsa music and dance were a language, there are many different dialects. The variety present in this style may well fuel debate on what is or isn’t Salsa. I’ll explore both Salsa music and dance, below.

Salsa Musical Style:

Musically, Salsa also fuses various styles. The Cuban Son style being the foundation upon which Salsa music rests. Emerging in the early 20th century in Cuba, African and Iberian derived cultural influences blend to make a distinctive sound. Initially looked down upon by the upper classes, and regarded as street or lower class music, the style grew in popularity. Fundamental to Salsa and Son musical styles, is the Son beat or clave. Per wiki: “The Cuban son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin American music: its derivatives and fusions, especially salsa, have spread across the world.”[LINK]


Generic 3-2 guajeo.jpg
Generic 3-2 guajeo” by Dr claveOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Salsa Recording Artists:

As in Salsa dance, Salsa music has different “dialects” ranging from hard Salsa or Salsa dura to Romantic Salsa. Many Salsa recording artists are known for other styles of Latin music as well, ranging from Latin Pop, to Mambo, to Latin jazz. While there are many recording artists of note, the following offer an impressive or noteworthy discography of Salsa music.

  • Celia Cruz, known as the ‘Queen of Salsa’ music. “Cruz is indisputably the best known and most influential female figure in the history of Cuban music.” ~ Leila Cobo, Billboard Magazine [LINK]
  • Tito Puente, known as the ‘King of Latin’ music, popularized music with mambo or Latin jazz vibe in the US, is also known for his Salsa music. [LINK]
  • Fania All Stars, is an ensemble group put together by Fania Records in 1968 to showcase the style for what was the largest Salsa recording studio at that time. [LINK]
  • Marc Antony, more contemporary than the above, his work moves between Latin Pop and Salsa. He is the top-selling tropical Salsa artist of all time. [LINK]
  • Eddie Santiago, is highly regarded for his Romantic Salsa music. [LINK]
  • Grupo Niche, originating in Cali, Colombia, home to the Cali Salsa dance style, is known for their up-tempo Salsa music. [LINK]
  • Buena Vista Social Club, harkens back to an earlier time with roots in traditional Cuban music from the 1920’s-1950’s, including the Cuban Son, which influenced Salsa music. [LINK]
  • While subjective, here is one listing of the Top 10 Salsa albums of all time. [LINK]

Selected Recordings:

Embodying elements of the Cuban Son musical style, “El Cuatro de Tula” by Buena Vista Social Club, reaches back to the roots of Salsa music.

Life is a Carnival or “La Vida es un Carnival” by Celia Cruz is a beloved song familiar to almost everyone.

The up-tempo “Cali Pachanguero” (Pachanguero means ‘rowdy’ in English) by Grupo Niche exemplifies the exuberant Cal style Salsa.

Origins & Elements of Salsa Dance Style:

Fascinatingly, Salsa originally incorporated elements of the Hustle. A five step dance without turns, the Hustle emerged from New York’s South Bronx in 1972 from the Puerto Rican community and danced at “house parties, hooky gigs, and basement club dances.” A six step version with turns, called the “Spanish Hustle” and later the “Latin Hustle” followed the early version.  By 1977, the dance was simply called the “Hustle” and popularized in the 1977 film, “Saturday Night Fever.” [LINK]

Salsa as a dance style emerged from New York City in the 1970’s, with significant contributions from the Puerto Rican community. [LINK] At least five variants of Salsa dance style exist, with their nexus in the geographic location of origin. New York, Los Angeles, Columbia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, each has their own basic step, each shown at the [LINK] The video at this [LINK] expands to thirty-six basic steps incorporated in various Salsa dance styles. Salsa as performed today is noteworthy for having many and varied “tricks,” especially at higher performance levels. Exciting and potentially dangerous, Salsa tricks involve lifts, spins, and other moves, which often are quite acrobatic in appearance. As a “street dance” Salsa is fun, ever evolving, and exhibits an exuberant earthy vibe.

One of the most fascinating competitive styles is the Cali Salsa, originating in Cali, Colombia. The dancers movements are amazingly fast and precise.

A Few Salsa Favorites on Dancing With the Stars:

Season 18, Meryl Davis and Maksim Chmerkovskiy:

Group Salsa in homage to the video released for the song “Adrenalina” by Wisin ft. Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin. Judge Bruno Tonioli noting Meryl pulled attention while dancing with some of the best professionals in the United States.

Season 20, Rumer Willis and Valentin Chmerkovskiy:

Group Salsa pays tribute to the origins of the Salsa, including elements of the Hustle, in a stand out performance to the 1996 remix version of “Turn the Beat Around” by Gloria Estafan. The song, first recorded in 1976 by Vicky Sue Robinson is a Disco classic. Judge Len Goodman called it the best dance of the season thus far.


Based on my research, Salsa as a dance style fuses elements from other dance styles, offering many more variations than one might initially believe. New York, as its point of origin, historically incorporated Hustle movement into the Salsa. Valentin Chmerkovskiy paid tribute to the origins of the Salsa with his exciting, dynamic ‘Nuyorican‘* infused Disco Salsa he performed with celebrity partner, Rumer Willis during Week 3, Season 20 on DWTS. I love this dance, the song, and their performance. It’s so entertaining, I’d love to see it incorporated into the June production run of SWAY: A Dance Trilogy. Fingers crossed! Want to know more about SWAY? Check out the SWAY information and reviews on the home page for this blog or go to

If you enjoy dance, tune in weekly to ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. It’s a lot of fun and very entertaining.

There are several couples who could win this Season. I’m supporting Rumer and pro partner, Val. If you’d like to vote, below are useful voting links and phone voting numbers for the remaining celebrity contestants. You may vote all three ways: phone, Facebook [FB Voting LINK], and DWTS website [DWTS Voting LINK]. Phone voting closes one hour after the show ends in your viewing area. Both Facebook and DWTS voting sites remain open until Tuesday, 8PM Eastern, after the show airs Monday night.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 2.37.53 PMBONUS:

  • Here’s a useful website, offing a good overview of Salsa music and dance, broken down into geographical locations known for producing quality examples of both. [LINK]
  • More information on the history of Salsa music and quintessential tracks and albums. [LINK]
  • *’Nuyorican’ Movement encompasses music, dance and more. Originally intended as derogatory term, it was embraced and transformed, proudly highlighting the influences of the New York population with Puerto Rican roots. [LINK]
About SharonKinDC (15 Articles)
Intellectually curious. Asks 'why not'? Wife, Mother, Friend, Bizwoman. Love travel, architecture, design. Zep phreak. CFam supporter.
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