Salsa music is born from a mixture of music from the Spanish conquerors, the African slaves and the American jazz.
One of the musical is the contradanse, danced in Versailles, France and then passed on to the Spanish Court. From there it went to the Caribbean during colonisation. Another big influence for Cuban salsa is the African rhythm. African slaves kept their religious rituals (santería), many of which included dances. North America also influenced salsa in the Batista dictatorship, bringing American artists and the influence of jazz into Cuba and into salsa music.
However, the salsa that we know nowadays, was born in the 70s. We find other Cuban rhythms within salsa, such as danzón, son, chachachá, mambo, conga… With this incorporations, other musical instruments are introduced too, like the piano, trumpet or saxophone.
Cuban and Puerto Rican expats in New York as well as the commercialisation of salsa, made this genre quickly develop in the 70s. First across America and then all over the world. The excess of commercialisation at the end of the 70s, turned salsa into a repetitive formula and people were not interested in music without any novelty. The 80s also brought merengue and disco music, which did not help the expansion of salsa music.
During this period, salsa left behind strong sounds and fast unloads (hard salsa) and started using a more melodic sound, allowing to dance at a slower pace (romantic salsa). Nowadays both types co-exist and are danceable.
It is also worth mentioning that salsa in Miami grew notably with voices like Celia Cruz. Carnival and the promotion of salsa in Miami comes from those Cubans who exiled because of the political regimen of the Castro brothers. In Miami, salsa is a symbol of Cuba without the Castros.
Salsa music has a set structure: introduction, melodic phase, rhythm or percussion phase, melodic phase and final phase. Normally, one of the musicians play a specific rhythm (la clave – the key) and the rest joins in, forming a polyrhythm. The most common claves are those of rumba, son, samba, all descendants of the African clave.
In terms of the dance, the Cuban style has more freedom in steps and figures. It is a free and spontaneous way of understanding dancing and it is typical from Cuba. There is also Linear Salsa, more usual in academies or dance schools.
Linear Salsa is also known as LA style due to its origins. It is danced in an imaginary straight line in forward and backward movements where him and her interchange positions, doing more complex figures than in Casino Salsa. It can look more elegant and it is considered as ballroom dance.
Cuban Style, also known as “casino”, has its origin in La Habana’s Casino Deportivo, thus the name. Originally Cuban salsa was just called “casino dance”. At the end of the 60s, it recovered popularity and so far, it has not stopped gaining popularity.
It is danced in a circle where changing places or turning are very frequent. Except very few specific figures, almost all “rueda” (wheel) figures can be done in pairs. The basic Cuban steps consists on one step backwards, stepping in the floor with the other one and back to the original position. After a short pause, it is repeated with the other feet. The step backwards should not be exaggerated, it is only done to facilitate the hip’s movement.
The Cuban style has more rhythm and it is not oriented towards competitions, unlike other ballroom dances. It is, in its own way a ballroom dance, but with rolled-up sleeves and it is still evolving.
I feel like Linear salsa, due to its tradition as a ballroom dance, made higher class people see it as something elegant and of their same class. However, Cuban Salsa is danced with anyone, anywhere and it doesn’t have as much structure or choreography as Linear Salsa does. Therefore, traditionally, it is seen as a lower class dance.
Both salsa styles are hypnotic to see and fun to dance. Each has its own difficulty. Some people may prefer improvisation and others might need a choreography. The beautiful thing is to share the music, and if you dare, the dance.