The Full History of Salsa

Through war, colonization and the fusion of European and African cultures, salsa dance and music developed. The following is a brief explanation of how dance that originated with English Country dance migrated across Europe and finally arrived in the Caribbean.

In the 17th century London England, John Playford wrote a book called the English dancing Master; (1651). He describes the art of dancing as a commendable and rare quality fit for young gentlemen if opportunely and civilly used. He states “it is a quality that has been formerly honoured in the Courts of Princes…” The sequences in the book include: Al-a-Mode de France, Argeers, Prince Rupert’s March, Spanish Gypsies, Spaniard, Staines Morris. As can be seen from the names of the sequences there is reference to French, Spanish and even Morris dancing.

Wars between the colonial European powers lead to the exchange of many customs and cultures, including dance. England’s claim to the French crown by Edward III caused the 100 years war between France and England from 1337. English country dancing was adapted by French royalty.

The French royals assimilated these English country dances and modified them into Contre danse . Later in the 18th c. Louis XIV took the Spanish crown and caused the War of Spanish succession and exported the French Contre dance which the Spanish adapted into Contra danza (Country dance).

The French ruled the Spanish for many years causing more wars and revolutions. The French Revolution, during the reign of Louis XVI, used dance to control his Royal courtiers by forcing them to come to Versailles. He made them learn dance routines which were designed for two reasons: first, to ensure hierarchy between rulers and servants and secondly, to draw the power base where he could control it, in Versailles. So he made it difficult for anyone to overthrow him, although they eventually did.

During the Napoleonic war, Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as a puppet king in Spain causing the peninsular war 1808. During these wars, the French installed their ways of living and cultural activities, one of them being dance in royal circles. The French Revolution and Napoleonic war were also taking place in the Caribbean, which at the time was still a colony of the European powers of; the English, Spanish, French and Dutch. The Spanish colonized Haiti but the French overthrew the Spanish and colonized the west side of the Island (now Haiti) of Hispaniola which is shared with the Dominican Republic.

At the beginning of the French Revolution, African slaves lead by Toussaint Breda) Louverture revolted against their masters and ruled independently for almost 21 years until 1843. During this time the slaves imitated their ex-masters royal court dances such as Contra Danza which developed into Danzon. When the Spanish regained their colony, many of the ex-French slaves fled to the neighboring Caribbean island of Cuba, where they landed on the coast of Santiago.

From the 14th c. in England to 19th c. in Cuba, English country dancing has migrated, been transformed, adapted and assimilated into some of the Cuban folk dances, the most famous of these dances being salsa.

Cuban folk dances:

1 Son
2 Rumba :- Columbia, Guaguanco and Yambu
3 Pachanga
4 Palo de conga de comparsa
5 Guaracha
6 Cha cha cha
7 Danzon, Habanera and bolero
8 Mambo
9 Afro dance
10 Orishas – lecumi African spiritual deities.

Cuban music and dance flourished from the influences of the French and Spanish courts, Romany gypsy harmonies and African rhythms. The free slaves, now servants or indentured servants were allowed to practice their religions and were allowed to celebrate Christianity. Therefore they combined their African deities with Christian saints and developed a religion called Santeria. In Cuba, all the Christian saints are paired with Yoruban (African) spirits. So the Cubans have an opportunity to retain their African historical roots, “in consultation with the church, the Spanish government established cabildos which were founded on ethnic lines”. p21 (S Steward, Salsa 1999 ).

Between the 18th and 20th centuries, Cuba changed colonial hands from Spain to America. In the 20th century, America went through the depression and this caused drastic cutbacks in food and luxuries such as alcohol. Alcohol was banned in the late 1920s and this prohibition lead to white Americans flocking to the Caribbean for cheap alcohol from their nearest rum-producing island of Cuba. The Hispanic (Spanish speaking people) Americans from Cuba and Puerto Rico were not rich enough to travel so easily and they distilled their own rum illegally having small homemade parties.

The Americans who went to Cuba started businesses in gambling, prostitution and set up hotels and casinos. Many of these Americans were gangsters, Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were involved in Cuban stocks and companies. Al Capone’s house still stands in Varadero. The gangsters had many areas of business that flourished outside of America which included the sale of alcohol and gambling in casinos.

Americans went to Cuba, got drunk and enjoyed the social scene which included the entertainment from the ballrooms and street dancing of the Cubans. With reference to salsa today: there are many dance performances where the dancer will wear a pin-striped suit and gangster hat to refer to the American Jazz influences during prohibition. Americans were fascinated by the exotic dancing and wild rhythms Cubans exhibited.

The Americans imitated these dances and rhythms and took them back to America after prohibition. At that time any type of exotic dancing was looked down upon by Western society. This made it even more attractive to those who enjoy forbidden fruit! The dances from Cuba were too syncopated for western ears so the rhythms were simplified, but in their simplification, they were incorrectly labeled.

The Americans confused rumba for mambo and taught all the movements in a very sanitized way with little hip movement or syncopation. America also mixed Cuban music with Jazz giving it a more contemporary sound. Genres such as son and danzon developed in Cuba but once exported to America developed into a new style of mambo and cha cha cha. New forms of Latin jazz emerged in the 60s such as bebop. In the 60s rock and roll took over the popularity of Latin jazz and this genre started to die out. Latin dances in New York ballroom were closing down. Band orchestra leaders such as Machito and Tito Puente were losing their appeal.

This is when a marketing genius came to reinvent the wheel with some marketing spin. Izzy Sanabria was an MC but more importantly the promoter of the most famous Latin group of the time, the Fania All-Stars. Izzy needed to package and label the product of Latin music from the Caribbean before it died out. Izzy used the term salsa as a catchall umbrella term for all the Latin rhythms to increase Fania All Stars’ marketing appeal. This definition was fine at the time because it ensured the survival of Latin Caribbean music from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Since the late 90s, the definition started to create problems for musicians because so many record labels described their music as salsa when it had no relation to the music that the Fania All Stars intended to describe. Even the lead singer of Fania All-Stars, who was widely acknowledged as the Queen of salsa: Celia Cruz, herself said there was no such thing as salsa, and that there was only specific rhythms like guaracha, mambo, rumba, cha cha danzon, son etc. The great Latin bandleader, widely acknowledged as the King of Mambo, Tito Puento himself acknowledged that he plays mambo and other rhythms but there is no actual rhythm called salsa. Izzy Sanabria used the description to sell records of Fania All-Stars and their music used Spanish words with Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican rhythms which were mainly played in 4/ 4 time but sometimes 2/ 4 time signatures such as merengue.

The definition of salsa music has now become a victim of its own success because musical rhythms from such countries as Argentina, Brazil and Jamaica are being mixed with Latin instrumentation into their music and called it salsa. So we end up with a constantly changing hybrid of music which almost has no similarity to what was intended back in the 70s when the term was first used by Izzy Sanabrias Fania All Stars.

Salsa history in the UK

In the 80s, and early 90s in the UK salsa would be danced by doing basic steps composed of the side step, a back step, an open step, or 3 steps followed by tap. Teachers from South America and the Caribbean island of Cuba would teach in London. Homero Gonzalez from Cuba was one of the first established salsa teachers in London.

The late 90s bought about change in the way salsa was danced. Americans came over and danced salsa with the forward and back mambo step which incorporated the cross body lead and lots of turns.

A lady called Edie, a.k.a. Edie the Freak who distributed videos of her performances in this style which was then known as LA style. She then sold videos and DVDs worldwide based on the LA style of salsa. The UK followed her teaching until the late 1990s and early 2000 when a gentleman called Eddie Torres came and performed shows in the New York mambo salsa. He trained teachers and developed what the author knows as the Eddie Torres technique Salsa Night Club Style.

Eddie Torres in his videos and DVDs acknowledges the roots of his movement and style as Cuban, in volumes 1 and 2. Eddie Torres was the pioneer for salsa mambo style in the UK and all over the world. Unfortunately, some people have tried to segregate what he taught from Cuban style and there are camps of dancers who will not dance with each other because they believe that their styles are ultimately too different or superior. Eddie Torres also taught his style to be danced on the second beat of the bar. He also used different techniques for leaders preparing the followers’ turns. Some people interpreted that the LA style taught by Eddie the Freak must also be taught the same way as Edie Torres.

Some people assumed the style in the UK, pre-Eddie Torres was an incorrect style, although it could be argued that the American style was also an incorrect version of Cuban style. This led to many UK teachers squabbling over who was a good teacher and who was not based on the style they taught and whether they taught the new Eddie Torres style. Apart from the confusion and resentment this created, it also leads to a fracturing of the salsa scene in the UK. If you have studied Eddie’s videos and taken his classes you will see and understand that this was never his intention. You will also notice that his style and teaching are strongly influenced by Cuban dance styles of son and rumba.

The most influential dancer who came before Eddie Torres is Cuban Pete (Pedro Aquilar), who was not Cuban at all but Puerto Rican and he danced New York mambo on 2, to the clave rhythm. He is reported to have created 100 steps which are used in salsa dancing today including the cross body lead. Songs have been written about him and films made about his life in New York. The city of New York have proclaimed June 14th Cuban Pete day. He was around New York in the 40’ s dancing mambo which is what we now call salsa.


Interested in other dance styles:

Learn Salsa dance

Ballroom dance styles

Argentine Tango dance steps

Basic dance vocabulary