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The Etiquette of a Salsa Student: Part1

-by Kevin Toft

Please leave your ego at the door. Often it’s the stubborn or self-righteous person who will fight with their partner over who did something wrong or why it isn’t their fault the move isn’t working.

“Teachers are there to teach and partners are there to dance. In either relationship there shouldn’t be a struggle.”

Instead of arguing, do something more helpful. Assess what needs to be done to accomplish the move instead of wasting time with negativity. The important thing is to remind yourself that you aren’t the perfect salsa dancer yet and you are always reworking movements to fit you and your current partner better. Keep the tone of your practice constructive and creative as opposed to negative and stressful.

“Something I noticed while training in ballet was that for an instructor to give a correction means that you were close enough to perfect that they wanted to help you get there.”

If they didn’t give you a correction you still had a lot of figuring out to do with your own body before he or she’d even bother. Whether or not that is true is for you to decide, but the ballerina who told me that had actually convinced herself that it was the truth and she pushed herself to receive that acknowledgement from the instructors.

“It takes a conscious choice to change the way you think about something and lots of concentration at first but with time you can turn a critique of your dancing into a major compliment.”

For example, if you go out to dance and somebody says something negative about the way you were dancing at least you know that you were worth watching! Maybe the next time someone gives you a correction you’ll say to yourself, ‘finally I’ll be able to fix this move I’ve been struggling with,’ instead of, ‘why is he/she picking on me?’

“Put another way, you pay to go to classes and when the teacher comes to you personally and wants to work on what you need to work on that is much more valuable to you as a student.”

Don’t hide from critique, seek it. Then use it as motivation. Whether you’re attending group lessons or getting one on one attention with private lessons let others help you.

The Different Shades of Salsa

-by Kevin Toft

The Different Shades of Salsa

If you were to put a Colombian salsa couple, a couple from NY, a couple from LA and a couple who learned salsa at family parties while growing up, you would see four very different shades of one dance. Where the technique grew up is very important.

“Just as different countries have different languages, there are different regional ways of ‘speaking salsa.’”

The majority of salsa dancers were never trained. Growing up with the music and seeing your family dancing is how many Latin American people interpret salsa dancing. This style is unique in that it usually has a strong connection controlled by the leader. The basic step is largely made up of back steps and the timing is interpreted on the spot by the leader as he follows the music.

“In this style the most important thing is to feel the music. Don’t worry about the counts; let the feeling take you away.”

Another major Latin American salsa style is Colombian Salsa. This style is marked by a contrast between upper and lower body movement. A Colombian dancer will perform intricate and incredibly fast footwork while maintaining a calm and relaxed upper body. This style of salsa does not place emphasis on turn patterns like its North American cousins, rather the leader, while maintain a very strong connection, will perform a footwork combination. The follower will usually perform the same combination though they don’t have to. The combination will be repeated several times until a new combination is created. Some Colombian schools use set beats and some do not. Again, however, the most important thing is to feel the music.


“With this style the dancer’s feet are moving so quickly they are able to accent many different aspects of the music making this form of salsa highly musical.”


Without getting too deep into the history of salsa I’ll simply say that NY salsa is a combination of nearly everything the city has to offer. Salsa drew swing dancers, tap dancers, ballet dancers Argentine Tango Dancers and many more to the Palladium (a famous salsa music and dance hall in NY) and all these dances mixed.

“Eventually Eddie Torres, the Mambo King, regulated the beat in salsa, standardizing the basic step and NY style salsa became known as ‘On2.’”

When someone says that they dance On2 they mean that while doing a basic step they break or change direction on the 2nd and 6th beats of an 8 count. The connection in NY style is different from the South American styles. Over the years it has become generally lighter. This development has allowed for the creation of scores of new turn combinations as the lead to follow connection becomes closer to 50:50.

“This style places a large emphasis on the follower’s ability to do multiple turns and the leader’s ability to come up with complex combinations while complimenting the music.”


In LA, the major difference from NY style is when the dancer changes direction. In this style it is on the 1st and the 5th counts of 8 that the breaks occur. That’s why LA salsa is also known as On1. The lead in LA style salsa is generally more connected than in NY but not as dominant as in the Latin American style.

“LA style is also known for being flashier than the NY style, placing a stronger emphasis on tricks and dips and other bigger movements.”


Unfortunately, I have never been to Puerto Rico or Cuba so I can’t offer much definitive information as to their current styles of salsa. I can say that Puerto Rican salsa On2 has the male break forward on the 2nd beat where-as in NY the male breaks forward on the 6th. I can also say that Cuban salsa has very strong rumba influences which involve masculine interpretive movements performed by the male leaders.

With the advent of Salsa Congresses (2-5 day Salsa events with workshops, parties and performances all day and night) and Salsa Competitions, the different stylistic communities have learned a mutual respect for one another. The shades of salsa have grown closer together and techniques once exclusive can be found all over the world.


Paris style, UK style, Aussie style, Philly Style, Hong Kong Style, Miami Style and many more varieties of salsa have popped up in recent decades as the universal appeal of salsa dancing has reached around the entire globe. There are still areas where salsa is scarce but given time and enough interest you’ll either find yourself at a social or perhaps you’ll be teaching your friends how to dance. “In the end it doesn’t matter where you are or what language you speak. If you ‘speak salsa’ you’ll have someone to dance with.”

The “Right Way” to Dance Salsa

-by Kevin Toft

I’m not one to grimace, but when I’m at a salsa event and an instructor says something along the lines of “don’t do it this way, that’s the wrong way,” you’d see me grimace.

“Ok granted, there are some techniques that are dangerous if done incorrectly and there are standards that all teachers should be educating their students in but if someone can spin with a different technique there’s nothing wrong about it.”

In the end, there are countless combinations of body positions that can achieve a certain result. The trick is finding the right one for your body (and after that finding the right one for your partner’s). Salsa dancing, along with any form of dance is about developing a relationship with your body. Working on hand-eye coordination, eye-foot, hip-chest and every other combination until your body is completely your own to control.

“Eventually, your mind will start expressing itself through your body and you’ll be doing the most beautiful things through that link.”

Here’s my personal rule. If a move doesn’t make either person uncomfortable and you can stay generally on-beat it is fair game. For students out there who take classes from many different teachers and are receiving mixed messages, make sure to always give equal respect to all teachers. There’s always something to learn from anyone.

A surprising number of my students have come to me and said basically the same thing. They all want me to teach them “the right way” to dance salsa. What they really want to learn are the signals of lead and follow necessary to communicate with other dancers at a salsa social. What they think they want to learn is all the cool moves and shapes I create with my body as I dance.  There’s a syllabus of moves for every level of dancer, and I have meaningful reasons for teaching my specific technique the way that I do but my goal isn’t to make you look like me. Believe it or not I’m here to let you look like you.