The History of Salsa & other Latin dances

[The History of Salsa] [Salsa and its associated Rhythms] [History of Rueda de Casino] [History of Cha Cha] [History of Merengue]



The Latin music we hear today has its origins in Cuba where the blending of African drum rhythms and Spanish guitar evolved into a variety of Latin American music: Son, Danzón, the rhythms of Carnival, Cha cha cha, Mambo, Salsa.....even Tango came out of Cuba.

During the war in Cuba in 1898 US Soldiers got a taste for Cuban music. Later, during Prohibition in the USA, Americans went to Cuba where drinking alcohol was legal and they became infected with the Latin rhythms.

As early as 1909 radio recordings came out of Cuba. In 1932 American Radio came to Cuba to record Orquesta Anacoana. This amazing all-female orquesta consisted of 10 sisters. They were the first females in Cuba to openly play percussion, horns and other instruments. Locked in the house for days at a time during the war, they had nothing to do but practice. This group evolved into one of Cuba's leading orchestras and one of the first to get top billing in New York. One sister, Graciela, went on to become the lead singer for Machito's orchestra.

It wasn't long before musicians in the USA began incorporating Latin rhythms into their own music. In 1900, W.C. Handy visited Cuba and began our legacy of Latin jazz here in the USA. Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Stan Getz and Cal Tjader have all followed the tradition by blending and evolving Latin jazz. Gillespie added a Cuban drummer named Chano Pozo to his band in 1938 and they began to compose together.

Even the less esoteric forms of music in the USA have sampled Latin rhythms and incorporated them with great success. Sam Cooke, The Diamonds, Johnny Otis, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley and Nat King Cole all helped popularize Latin music with hits containing elements from Cuban music. Gloria Estefan is one of the most well-known contemporary popularizers of Latin music in the USA. She has very successfully blended English lyrics and and rock and roll style with her Cuban musical heritage.

To find the roots of Cuban music we look to West Africa where the slave trade thrived. The Yoruba, Congo and other West African people created rhythms in ancient times to call forth various gods. Sadly, these wonderful rhythms were brought over to the New World under dire circumstances. One drummer named Ijibwa was taken captive and placed on a slave ship for America. He was forced to play on deck to keep up the spirits of the prisoners so that the "merchandise" would arrive alive.

The slaves used the drum rhythms in Christian worship too. Slaves were forced to adopt Christianity upon arrival in the new World, but often called their own gods by Christian names so as to avoid punishment. A similar practice was the progenitor of the "Yo Mama is so..." jokes in existence today among African-Americans. "Mama" was actually a code word for "Master". Hardly anyone telling these jokes today remembers what "Mama" actually stood for in slave times. In Latin music most of the listeners are not even aware that the drum rhythms we dance to are actually religious in meaning, dedicated to various African gods. Cabillolos (secret societies) still exist in Cuba and keep alive over 200 different rhythms for different African gods.

Troubadours from Spain brought Flamenco guitar music to Cuba. Out of this came Son. Rural Cubans brought the folk guitar to Havana after the war in 1898. Isaac Oviedo was one of the originators of son. He taught himself the guitar by watching other musicians and started the group Santiga Casana, a charuquita group; kettle drum (timbál), ceramic jog, accordion and guitar. In 1926 Oviedo brought the Matanza Sextet to Havana. Later on Emilio Orfe created the danzón style with violin, cello, flute and African drums. He started his first orchestra at age eleven!

Oreste Lopez helped create Mambo by combining danzón with African rhythms from the street. The dancing itself came out of rehearsals where couples would come over and improvise. Lope put together Arcanos Orchestra in 1938.

Xavier Cugat was another important figure in popularizing Mambo. Born in Spain and raised in Cuba, Cugat was initially trained in classical violin beginning at age 8. His music was a unique blend of Afro-Cuban and Flamenco influences. Cugat spent time in New York and Berlin before giving up music to become a cartoonist for the LA Times (!), but in the 1940's Charlie Chaplin dragged him out of his musical retirement to compose a score for the Chaplin film City Lights. Cugat formed a group, "Cugat and the Gigolos" and found that he could make a living in Hollywood doing tropical music for films. He created a smooth Latin blend of music that was very popular with Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire.

Don Aspiazu started the Rumba craze in 1930 with his Rumba dance team and full orchestra. Anglo-Americans were in a frenzy over the "fiery tempo and barbaric melody" and thought of Latin music as daring and fascinating. The film industry continued to popularize Latin music with Desi Arnaz and his orchestra singing such songs as "Babalu" and "Cumbanchero". In 1940 he popularized the conga line dance.

Tito Puentes' contribution to Mambo is well-known, as are the contributions of Willy Colon and Celia Cruz. Cruz was recorded on Cuban radio at age 7 and made her first record in 1951. One lesser-known figure is Arsenio Rodriguez, one of the true fathers of Salsa. A blind drummer in Cuba, he began to evolve the Salsa sound from Mambo in the early 1960's.

People continually argue about the difference between Mambo and Salsa. Some say they are the same thing. Some say Salsa is something you eat! Some think Salsa is a generic label for all different types of Latin music. But if you listen to the early Mambo of Tito Puente, Machito, Beny More, Tito Rodriguez and the many greats who started playing before 1960, and then listen to some of the newer folks on the block, you'll find a distinction there easily enough. As to whether to move the body or feet on the first or second beat, that is a whole subject all on its own.

Rueda de Casino

During the late 1950's in Cuba, there was a popular dance -- some might call it a "dance craze!" -- that was done in the streets and in the clubs, and in people's homes. It was called Casino Rueda, or Rueda de Casino, or simply Rueda. Rueda means "wheel". Casino refers to the kinds of turns and breaks you might normally see in ordinary partner Salsa dancing. 

"Swing Your Partner Round and Round..." If the first few words of this notorious dance command ring a bell, then open your ears, as you may start to hear phrases like "dame una" (give me one), "dame dos con vuelta" (give me two with a turn), and "exhíbela" (show her off)... the list is endless. Rueda de Casino is Country and Western square dancing SALSA STYLE! If you like dancing Salsa, then imagine the sensation of doing so not with one person but with an entire group. Picture this... you step out to your favorite Latin nightclub. Later in the evening, the floor opens as couples gather in a circle. You know the moves, the names, the signals. You grab a partner and you're about to enter into the most incredible Salsa experience. Rueda de Casino was originally danced in the 1950's to the Cha cha beat in members-only clubs in Cuba known as casinos deportivos. These casinos sponsored dances with live orchestras where dancers would get together and create new styles. It was in these casinos that "la rueda" was born. Unfortunately, the Castro regime stifled a lot of popular cultural activities, forcing them underground. Rueda de Casino eventually resurfaced in people's living rooms, on the street, at clubs and parties. It was first introduced to Miami in the early 90's and is rapidly making its way across the United States. 

Rueda de Casino, in its truest form, is an art of communication that requires dancers be alert and quick. A leader calls out or signals the dancers to a short combination of intricate steps followed by commands such as "adios", "enchufa", or "dame..." which are patterns that lead dancers to a change of partners. There are reportedly more than 150 moves, each with a name that often has a double entendre or some cross-cultural humor buried in it. Each pattern also comes with a hand signal or gesture which are well needed in large circles and/or loud night clubs. It's incredible to watch but certainly much more so to participate. Everyone in the wheel, including followers, keep their eyes peeled to the caller. When the dancers are on in "la rueda" it is intoxicating and addictive

The form of the Rueda -- passing partners in a wheel -- hints at its early, colonial origins, which were probably a "mezcla", a blend of French Court Dances (brought to Cuba by Haitians) and the indigenous Afro-Cuban dance movements. With Cuban emigration to the US -- with an especially large influx into Miami -- the Cuban culture, music and dance blossomed here, and, along with Mambo, Cha cha, and Salsa, Rueda has reemerged. Recently, Rueda has sprung up in Los Angeles and here in San Francisco (a dance group from L.A., led by Tomas Montero, performed Rueda at last year's SF Carnival Parade!)


Cha cha is the newcomer of the Latin American Dances. This dance was first seen in the dance-halls of America, in the early fifties, following closely Mambo, from which it was developed. The music is slower than Mambo. 

Chonque was the grandfather of Rumba and Cha cha with African rhythms and Spanish guitar, but Enrique Joren came up with the first full-fledged Cha cha in 1951. He wanted it to be a medium rhythm, very recognizable and not too frenetic. His creation came from the idea that there should be a music created specifically for dance and participation, not only for listening, or for a select elite. 

The name Cha cha is an imitation of the "rhythm" from dancing Cuban side steps. From the less inhibited night clubs and dance halls the Mambo underwent subtle changes. It was triple Mambo, and then peculiar scraping and shuffling sounds during the "tripling" produced the imitative sound of Cha cha. This then became a dance in itself. Mambo or triple Mambo or cha cha as it is now called, is but an advanced stage in interpretive social dancing born of the fusion of progressive American and Latin music. 

After the World War II the Mambo was pushed aside by the Cha cha which became popular around 1956. According to its roots the Cha cha should be played passionately without any seriousness and with staccato allowing the dancers to project an atmosphere of 'naughtiness" to the audience. 


The Merengue is the national dance of the Dominican Republic, and also to some extent, of Haiti, the neighbor sharing the island. There are two popular versions of the of the origin of the Merengue. 

One story alleges the dance originated with slaves who were chained together and, of necessity, were forced to drag one leg as they cut sugar to the beat of drums. The second story alleges that a great hero was wounded in the leg during one of the many revolutions in the Dominican Republic. A party of villagers welcomed him home with a victory celebration and, out of sympathy, everyone dancing felt obliged to limp and drag one foot. Merengue has existed since the early years of the Dominican Republic (in Haiti, a similar dance is called the Meringue).

It is possible the dance took its name from the confection made of sugar and egg whites because of the light and frothy character of the dance or because of its short, precise rhythms. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Merengue was very popular in the Dominican Republic. Not only is it used on every dancing occasion in the Republic, but it is very popular throughout the Caribbean and South American, and is one of the standard Latin-American dances. 

There is a lot of variety in Merengue music. Tempos vary a great deal and the Dominicans enjoy a sharp quickening in pace towards the latter part of the dance. The most favored routine at the clubs and restaurants that run a dance floor is a slow Bolero, breaking into a Merengue, which becomes akin to a bright, fast Jive in its closing stages. Ballroom Merengue is slower and has a modified hip action. Merengue was introduced in the United States in the New York area. However, it did not become well known until several years later. Ideally suited to small, crowded dance floors, it is a dance that is easy to learn and essentially a "fun" dance.


Pachanga : fast footwork and fast spins Colombian style salsa (a fusion of Cha cha cha and Mambo). Originally only 7 steps - now hundreds.

Boogaloo : a fusion of Mambo and Rock and Roll. the original Salsa from the 1960's and 1970's. Originally 12 steps. however in Cali these steps became 30 new steps and became much faster.

Son : the root of all salsa, a traditional cuban dance.

Guaracha : This dance can almost be described as the cuban version of pachanga and boogaloo. Like pachanga and boogaloo this dance has almost an infinite number of steps, with the dancers interprteting the music with their legs, hips and feet.

Fox : similar to ballroom foxtrot - only more like tango.

Mambo: A Son Dance derrivative, mixed with mexican influences.

Cumbia : a traditional Colombian dance that African slaves danced. There are three different versions of Cumbia dependent on the region.

Porro : Porro is very similar to Cumbia in rhythm, however it is normally a little faster. Where in Cumbia there are no turns/spins in Porro spins and turns are part of the dance.

Salsa : meaning "sauce". This developed as a mixture of: Son, mambo, Cha Cha Cha and Boogaloo. Currently the major styles are: Colombian salsa, Cuban salsa, Puerto Rican salsa, LA/New York style salsa. Of all these styles the most dynamic is Colombian style salsa from Cali Colombia - the Salsa capital of the world.

Charanga : often considered to be a name given to a band. However, Charanga music and dance can best be described as something in between salsa and pachanga.

Merengue : Originally from the Dominican Republic, generally danced to two beats. There are four basic Merengue steps.

Bachata : this dance's origins are in Conga. Colombian Bachata is danced slightly differently to the Bachata danced in Spain and Dominican Republic.

Bolero : Also sometimes referred to as Son Bolero. The origins are in Son - only much slower. There are a number of different boleros with different steps and speeds.

Vallenato : This traditional Colombian dance has a number of distinctive rhythms: Paseo,  Merengue

Tropical: Many different rhythms and mixtures of rhythms.