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.”


  1. Hello! FYI – I posted a link to this from my website’s FAcebook page at saludos desde Los Angeles!