9 Different Types of Salsa Dancing and What Sets Them Apart

A man and a woman dancing salsa.

If you are a beginner to salsa dancing, chances are you do not know that there are numerous types of salsa dancing around the world.

Dancers usually sway to the same salsa music, with only a few exceptions. As such, the untrained eye might not be able to recognize the differences between many salsa dances. 

Some individuals also like to mix it up by switching from one salsa dance style to another.

So if you are only familiar with one salsa style, you may have trouble dancing to a different technique. 

But fret not!

We know how salsa dancing can get pretty confusing for beginners, so we did the hard work for you.

We have created this guide to teach you about the different types of salsa dancing. By the end of the article, you will learn how to distinguish each style and discover the right one for you.

Without further ado, let’s get on with the article!

Origin of Salsa

Before we discuss the different styles of salsa, we would like to address the origins of the music and dance. The following information will help you understand how salsa evolved throughout the years.

Salsa originated in Cuba from various dance music such as Cuban son, cha cha cha, mambo, and other Afro-Cuban musical elements.

By the 1950s, salsa music was popular in Havana and other places in the Caribbean. There, more foreign influences, specifically American jazz, were introduced to salsa.

When Cubans and Puerto Ricans settled in the United States, they continued to play and make Afro-Caribbean music. However, they adapted American jazz and other popular sounds from the radio to develop salsa further.

The rise of salsa is mainly tied to Fania Records, often called the Latin Motown.

Musician Johnny Pacheco and lawyer Jerry Masucci founded the record label in 1964 and signed up numerous artists from different backgrounds. Some of the most famous Fania musicians include Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Bobby Valentin, and Tito Puente. They blended various rhythms and styles of Latin music to create salsa, as we know it today.

By the 1970s, salsa was popular among Latino communities in the United States.

What followed in the following decades is the emergence of other salsa styles.

Salsa Romantica in the 1980s is a smoother version of salsa music, celebrated by both Latino and non-Latino communities. 

American pop artists of Latino heritage further brought salsa influences to mainstream music. These include Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Enrique Iglesias.

With the acclaim of the music came the popularity of the dance.

A couple in a sensual salsa dancing pose.

9 Types of Salsa Dancing

In the past, salsa dance was a combination of Afro-Cuban, cha cha cha, son, and mambo music.

But as it gradually spread around the world, variations of the dance evolved over the decades.

Today, there are now various types of salsa dancing, popularized by either a region or a famous salsa dancer.

Los Angeles Style Salsa (Salsa On One)

Los Angeles style, also known as LA style or salsa on one, is famous in the West Coast of the United States and other parts of Europe. It originated in the 1990s, making it the most modern type among different salsa dance styles.

Some of the pioneers of LA Style salsa include Albert Torres, Laura Canellias, Rogelio Moreno, and The Vasquez Brothers.

LA Salsa Characteristics

LA-style salsa borrows elements from Colombian salsa, Latin hustle, and Latin ballroom. As such, the dance is characterized by mechanics and structure.

Hustle, swing, and tango influences are also prominent in LA-style salsa. There is an emphasis on fast spins, complicated footwork, and shine steps.

LA style is always danced on one in a slot or line. This means that you do the break step on the first count or musical phrase, hence the name “salsa on one.” 

But perhaps the main characteristic of the LA style is its flashiness. Dancers combine jazz and hip hop moves with ballroom dance, and sometimes, acrobatics. They also use tricks, which can be entertaining to the observer.

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LA Salsa Timing

The LA-style salsa has a beat timing of 1,2,3 – 5,6,7.

The dancers will break on the first and fifth steps. Then, they pause on the fourth and eighth count.

After every eight counts, the music will loop, also known as a phrase. Thus, the repeating music phrase makes it easier to start dancing “on one” and stop on eight.

Los Angeles salsa follows the pattern of the drums or the melodies of the music.

LA Salsa Steps

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New York Style Salsa (Salsa On Two)

New York-style, also known as salsa on two or nightclub-style salsa, is another dance style popular in the United States. But it is less known worldwide than the LA style.

The roots of salsa on two originated in the 1960s in New York City. Eddie Torres was credited for popularizing this salsa dance style.

New York Salsa Characteristics

New York style is more compact than other salsa styles, with dancers staying closer together. It also avoids moving in a sandbox area with many spins, styling, and turns.

Instead, there is an emphasis on footwork, timing, precision, and body isolations. Dancers separate from each other to perform “shines” or individual footwork patterns. This move likely draws inspiration from swing and New York tap.

New York salsa dance form also appears groovier and smoother than the LA style. It is more controlled, which shows elegance and grace.

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New York Salsa Timing

To the beginner, New York-style salsa looks precisely like the LA style because it also danced in a slot or a line.

The salsa timing is also 1,2,3 – 5,6,7.

But instead of breaking on one or five, New York-style salsa moves on the second and sixth steps.

In this case, leaders will move backward on two using their right foot. Meanwhile, followers will step forward on two with their left foot.

New York salsa follows the pattern of the drums instead of the melodies.

New York Salsa Steps

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Cuban Style Salsa (Casino)

Cuban-style salsa, known as casino in Cuba, is popular in Latin America, North America, and Europe. It originated in Cuba in the 1950s, where the locals often dance bare-foot on Cuban music.

Cuban Salsa Characteristics

Casino style salsa borrows rhythm from other dances, such as Cuban son, cha cha cha, danzón, and guaracha.

Hip movements and pulsing body actions are common among the dancer’s movements. These come from Afro-Cuban, mambo, rumba, and Reggaeton influences.

The main characteristic of casino dance is its more casual and relaxed vibe.

There are no strict rules when it comes to casino-style salsa.

Dancers often go with the feeling of the movement and the salsa rhythm. They usually go with complex arm movements while keeping footwork simple. They are more spontaneous, making the casino a freestyle dance in some ways.

Due to these factors, Cuban-style salsa is ideal for social dances in various regions around the world.

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Cuban Salsa Timing

Unlike American styles in linear patterns, Cuban salsa is danced on a circle. It also uses different timings.

A salsa dancer using Cuba style can break forward on rumba timing (on one), contratiempo (on two), or Tiempo (on three).

In the traditional contratiempo style, however, dancers do not step on the first and fifth beats. Instead, they emphasize the fourth and eighth beats of the salsa song.

Cuban style does not merely follow a beat. Dancers contribute to the overall movement.

Cuban Salsa Steps

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Salsa Rueda de Casino (Casino Rueda/Salsa Rueda)

Salsa Rueda de casino, or casino Rueda, is a variation of the Cuban-style salsa. It is named after the Spanish word “rueda,” which literally translates to wheel or circle.

Salsa Rueda Characteristics

Casino Rueda is basically a group dance version of the Cuban salsa.

Two or more couples form a big circle and dance as a crew. There is also a caller shouting out the moves. 

As the music goes on, couples can switch partners and dance on command. They perform several turn figures while making sure they stay together on a circular dance floor.

Thus, dancers must have excellent accuracy, memory, and speed to ensure the flow goes smoothly.

Casino Rueda has an overall fast-paced and dynamic energy to it. The dance is often performed in social gatherings, making it an essential part of the Cuban culture.

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Salsa Rueda Style Timing

Like Cuban salsa, the Casino Rueda style can be spontaneous, based on where the music takes them. Dancers do not follow specific beats and move depending on the command of the caller.

They can break on one or three and tap on the fourth and eighth beats. 

Salsa Rueda Style Steps

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Miami Style Salsa (Miami Casino/Classico)

Miami salsa, also known as Classico, is another dance style that evolved from the Cuban salsa.

It traces back to the 1960s when Cuban immigrants arrived in Florida. They brought Cuban salsa and incorporated American-influenced movements to create Miami salsa as we know it today.

Miami Salsa Characteristics

Miami style borrows most moves from the Cuban style. It is also danced in a circular pattern, but it is more flamboyant.

Miami salsa emphasizes more intricate and interconnected arm movement similar to “pretzel-like” moves. Thus, it requires a relaxed and flexible upper body for performing advanced steps.

The most obvious difference, however, is the footwork. It is more complex, with the addition of the diagonal back step.

Furthermore, cross-body lead variations are common in Miami-style salsa. These ultimately allow for longer sequences of movement.

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Miami Salsa Timing

Unlike traditional Cuban salsa, Miami style is often danced on one. There are numerous taps and open breaks.

But since it is danced on a circle, it has many turn patterns compared to LA style on one. It also requires a more advanced skill set and memorization.

Miami Salsa Steps

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Colombian Salsa (Cali Style)

Colombian salsa, or Cali style, originated from the cumbia dance. It is widely performed in Colombia, especially in Cali, hence the name. There is even a dance festival entirely dedicated to salsa—the Salsa al Parque.

Besides Colombia, the Cali-style salsa is also popular in Latin America.

Colombian Style Characteristics

Traditional Colombian salsa is danced to cumbia music. It is characterized by the distinctive sound of the accordion guiding the performers.

The Cali-style salsa itself borrows elements from the cumbia dance, a folk dance from Colombia.

Cali salsa is known for its intricate and rapid footwork, with the occasional athletic lifts and tricks. Meanwhile, the upper body remains relatively rigid.

Dancers often hold their partners close when swaying to Colombian salsa music because of the fast beats and crowded dance floors.

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Colombian Style Timing

Colombian-style salsa is counted in bars of four instead of the typical dancing measure of eight counts.

The timing of Colombian salsa is usually on one, but some dancers break on three.

There are no forward and back steps, also known as mambo steps. Instead, the movement follows a circular pattern and includes numerous “back to center” or “side to center” footsteps.

It also has a longer pause between the first and last three beats. On these pauses, the salsa dancer performs a tap.

Colombian Style Steps

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Salsa Choke

Salsa choke, pronounced as “cho-que,” is another type of salsa dancing from Colombia.

The roots of the dance originated from Tumaco, located on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Locals from this region relocated to Cali due to the civil war and introduced the dance to the city.

However, the global rise of the dance was credited to the Colombian national soccer team. These professional players showcased their salsa choke moves in 2014, which slowly took over the country and the rest of Latin America.

Salsa Choke Characteristics

The Spanish word “choke” translates to bump, so the name of the dance basically means “salsa bump.”

This dancing style integrates the standard bump and grind dancing with traditional salsa moves. 

And unlike other styles of salsa, salsa choke is a type of group line dance, where people dance solo. A salsa dancer leads the step, and the other people in the group follow.

Salsa choke also takes some elements from Afro-based rhythms. It is danced explicitly to salsa choke music. This music genre is a blend between salsa, reggaeton, and other urban sounds, such as electronica and house beats.

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Salsa Choke Timing

There are no forward and back steps in salsa choke.

Instead, it requires the dancer to step side to side. Some performers also execute hip-hop movements, similar to LA-style salsa.

Salsa Choke Steps

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Puerto Rican Salsa

Puerto Rican salsa was derived from Danza, a type of ballroom dance in southern Puerto Rico. The pioneers of this salsa style include the Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York in the 1950s.

Felipe Polanco further made Puerto Rican salsa famous in the United States.

Puerto Rican Salsa Characteristics

Puerto Rican style salsa is characterized by clean lines and partner work. It focuses on styling and traveling combinations, resulting in elegant movements.

This dancing style also allows individual movements, where the soloist can execute shines or intricate footwork. Shimmy is also a common technique in Puerto Rican salsa.

Moreover, Puerto Rican salsa tends to highlight the follower or female dancer. It emphasizes arm movements, which can be very flamboyant.

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Puerto Rican Salsa Timing

Dancers can perform the Puerto Rican salsa either on one or two.

To the untrained eye, Puerto Rican salsa danced on two may look similar to the New York salsa. 

But the latter requires the follower to step on two. Meanwhile, the former has the leader breaking forward.

Furthermore, Puerto Rican salsa follows a unique five-beat step based on the clave rhythm. Thus, it introduces sliding forward and back to follow the music.

Puerto Rican Salsa Steps

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Competitive Style Salsa (Cabaret)

Competitive-style salsa is exactly what it sounds like, a type of salsa dancing meant for competitions. It derives from other styles of salsa, depending on where the event will take place.

As such, characteristics, timing, and steps of the cabaret dance can vary a lot.

One thing is for sure, though—competitive-style salsa is not a social type of dancing.

It is more rigid and structured. It also incorporates flashy moves, such as dips, flips, lifts, and other tricks.

There are several international salsa competitions. These include World Salsa Open, WSF World Salsa Championships, and World Salsa Summit, among many others.

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Characteristics That Set Different Salsa Dances Apart

You might be wondering why there are so many ways to dance salsa. Below, we briefly talk about the factors that differentiate salsa styles apart.

Region

Geography plays a significant factor in setting various dance styles apart.

For instance, Los Angeles-style and New York-style are both popular salsa dancing in the United States. Meanwhile, there is the Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa in Latin America.

Musical Variation

All salsa dance styles were inspired by salsa music that initially peaked in New York during the 1960s.

However, salsa music itself borrows elements from different musical genres. Each dance style incorporates a particular genre more than the other.

For instance, the New York dance style uses salsa music fused with jazz sounds.

Meanwhile, Latin American salsa styles use Cuban dance music. 

Dance Influences

As salsa music evolved over the decades, so did the dance.

Most dance styles draw inspiration from the region where it is danced.

The Colombian salsa, which originated from the cumbia dance, is an excellent example of a style influenced by other dances. 

Timing

Timing also set different salsa dances apart.

Salsa on one simply means that a dancer breaks forward or back on the first beat.

Although it is usually associated with the Los Angeles-style, it is also used in other types of salsa dancing. These include the Cuban style (including the Rueda) and Colombian style.

In contrast, salsa on two requires the dancer to step forward or backward on the second beat. It is commonly linked with the New York-style. However, the Puerto Rican style also uses salsa on two.

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Foot Pattern

Besides timing, the foot pattern also distinguishes salsa styles.

There is linear salsa, which requires couples to dance in a slot or line. Salsa dances that use linear foot patterns are Los Angeles, New York, and Puerto Rican styles. 

Meanwhile, circular salsa allows partners to dance around each other without the need to follow a fixed-line. Colombian, Cuban, and salsa Rueda are dance styles using a circular pattern. 

Turns and Figures

The complexity of the turns and the overall figure of the dancer also differ depending on each salsa style.

For instance, Cuban and Miami salsa styles have more intricate arm movements when spinning. Meanwhile, the New York and Colombian salsa focuses more on footwork while performing twists.

Attitude

Finally, the attitude of the dancer can define a particular salsa style from another.

One good example of this is the Los Angeles salsa. This dancing style is defined by fast spins, dips, and more flair than traditional salsas. Thus, more dancers tend to be more flamboyant than their New York counterparts.

Other Popular Latin Dances in Salsa Clubs

Salsa is often danced in clubs. However, in these salsa clubs, you will often encounter other types of dances. They are often confused with salsa, but they are entirely different dances.

We will take a look at the other popular Latin dance styles performed in salsa clubs. Hopefully, the information below will help you identify one type from another.

Bachata

Bachata is a popular dance in salsa clubs that originated in the Dominican Republic. It is often played in slow, romantic music. Partners will dance in a close embrace and follow three beats and a tap. Overall, bachata dance is more sensual than salsa.

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Cha Cha Cha

Cha cha cha originated in Cuba and became popular in the United States by the 1950s. It typically uses Cuban, Latin pop, and Latin rock music.

Like the salsa, it follows a 4/4 timing. The main difference, however, is the footsteps. It uses a  step-together-step pattern that goes 1,2,3,4&5 – 6,7,8&1.

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Kizomba

Kizomba comes from Angola. Although it has African roots, it is often danced to modern Portuguese music. There is no fixed footwork, unlike salsa. Instead, couples dance in an open or close embrace and sway to slow and insistent electronic beats.

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Merengue

Merengue is a traditional folk dance from the Dominican Republic. It follows a 2/4 timing with necessary steps on 1,2 – 1,2. It also has weight changes on every beat, which is similar to marching.

Overall, merengue is easier than salsa. Beginners can practice it to familiarize themselves with the hip motion of the salsa dance.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Which salsa style should I learn?

With so many salsa styles, you are probably wondering which one to learn.

But you must know that all these styles are salsa. They may vary in some ways, but they are essentially the same.

Thus, you should not worry too much about the type of salsa you want to learn.

Local dance studios will probably teach the most popular dancing style in the area. This makes it more practical and valuable for you.

Can I dance salsa to any music?

Salsa is not limited to traditional salsa music. Therefore, you can dance salsa to any musical genre as long as it has the right tempo. Just look for a song with a 4/4 beat that emphasizes the third and seventh note.

How can I learn salsa dance for beginners?

Salsa is a relatively easy dance to learn for beginners.

You can start by practicing the necessary steps on your own. There is no need to perform with a partner right away, unlike other dances.

Once you master the basics and familiarize yourself with the rhythm, you can confidently start dancing salsa with a partner.

From then on, it is only a matter of practice and timing to get better in salsa. And sooner or later, you can start to pick up on other styles that we talked about above.

Where can I learn to dance salsa?

You can learn salsa dancing in Latin bars, Latin music venues, dance festivals, and even on the internet. But perhaps the best place to familiarize yourself with salsa is dance studios.

Instructors will teach you the basics step-by-step and in-person so that you can get moving in no time!

Conclusion

As you can see, there are many types of salsa dance. Some styles are tied to a region, while others emerged from the fusion of various genres.

Regardless of the style, salsa dancing is a fun and social activity you can perform to express yourself.

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