The History of Salsa Music and Dance

This paper seeks to explore and expound the history of salsa music and dance and the journey through evolution to the modern-day format. The research will be carried out in order to define who were the people behind the development of the music as well as those who became instrumental in expanding dance territories as well as mixing it with other societies’ cultures to come up with the current style. Literature will be reviewed on the articles already written by scholars and researchers about the journey of salsa and its significance in human life and health. Lastly, this paper will also include an interview with a salsa musician and dancer who has an experience in the industry and a person who has seen different generations of the music and tried them to identify the differences.
Salsa is a famous style of social music and dance which is believed to have originated from New York drawing strong influence from Colombia, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The dance and music movements are drawn from the cha-cha-cha, son cubano, and mambo among other native Latin forms of dances. Salsa dance is believed to have originated back in the early 1970s (Pietrobruno 116). The dance is an effect of evolution from native Latin dances which are believed to have existed for decades. Its predecessors are the dances with rich history in the Latin America including son (son montuno in particular) and cha-cha-cha as well as Mambo, which is more popular in the Caribbean (Borland 467). Different countries in the Latin America have their distinct styles and forms of the salsa dance, which gives rise to the Cuban, Puerto Rican, Colombian, and New York styles. Therefore, the controversy is built around the legitimate origin of the salsa music with some people arguing that different forms of the dance originated from different countries at different times.
Other people argue that salsa genre started as a cry which was shouted by musical instruments players during their typical dances, and did not have any relationship with the music that was being played. There is another group that believes that salsa came about as a mixture of many dancing and musical styles which were formed from diverse cultural grounds at different times. Thus, there is no legitimate origin of the music. Salsa is believed to be a fusion of rather informal dances which roots are in the Caribbean (Borland 468). Salsa is danced to a music genre that is strategically structured to fit in the moves and the rhythm to bring out the inner feelings of the dancer. Furthermore, this type of dance is conducted with a partner who is supposed to be of opposite sex in most cases. Surprisingly, the dance originated in the Latin America region, but it experiences strong influence from African dance styles.
Literature Review

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According to Joanna Bosse (2008) in her article titled Salsa Dance and the Transformation of Style: An Ethnographic Study of Movement and Meaning in a Cross-Cultural Contex, since the emergence of salsa music in early 1970s, the dance has been able to capture global attention, and its evolution has given rise to different forms and styles, which make the dance more popular and complex. The dance has been able to spread and begin to write its history of success in non-Latin countries like Japan, Sweden and most states of the African continent. Salsa, according to Bosse (2008), is a modernization and reinterpretation of the Cuban dances and a combination of different forms and feelings with great influence from the Latin American culture. However, the exact emergence dates and places of origin for the music is still a mystery since some forms are more African than American. Anyway, the official origin is believed to be in New York. The relationship between the Cuban history of salsa and that of New York differs with the dates and dancing styles that are believed to have been the earliest.
Jonathan Skinner (2008) in his article named Women Dancing Back & Forth: The Resistance & Self-Regulation in Belfast Salsa makes a bold attempt to explain the relationship between salsa music and physical fitness as well as human physical behavior. In the explanation, Skinner argues that dancing is the best way to get physically fit without sweat or pain. The explanation seeks to relate the salsa movements with workout activities that people take in the gym and in the field while jogging. Skinner (2008) continues to say that salsa makes people look attractive, and their skin gets healthier through taking off unnecessary fat (weight loss). Skinner continues to say that salsa music and dance makes people faster and more intelligent because the complexity of the moves demands that the dancers put all their concentration in the footwork, which, in turn, relieves them off stress and makes them relaxed for better thinking. Lastly, salsa is enjoyable and makes people happy both when singing and dancing and in other life activities (Skinner, Jonathan, 2008).
Medical experts argue that salsa music improves human physical behavior by making people faster and flexible due to consistent flexing of muscles during music. It also improves heartbeat by making blood run smoothly and muscles get enough oxygen that supports brain. This all makes the musicians and dancers experience very low moments of stress. Due to its deep attachment to culture, salsa encourages people to uphold their traditions that affect their walking, speech, and dressing style. It is an all-rounded musical genre that brings together music, dance, culture, and human behavior.
According to Katherine Borland (2009), the New York salsa music style is known as an eclipse described also as a flat figure 8 on the floor where the dancing partners face each other during most of their dancing moments. This dance is carried out on the second beat of the music, where the follower steps forward with the rhyme. The New York salsa music style is known to be strict and very categorical as for the closeness of the dancing partners since the moves bring out the passion in music and emphasizes the friendship between the parties. Thus, according to Borland (2009), the closeness of the partners is what brings out the difference between this style and others. The style does not allow people to keep moving far from the dancing spot since most of its spins and turns are performed on the spot with the maximum closeness between the partners. In this style, there is a massive emphasis on the dancing shines where at times, in the middle of the dance, the partners separate and dance with solo steps before coming back with spins to each other. Footwork is the most crucial component of salsa dance, and all the diverse structures of it come to an agreement that footwork is the backbone of the dance.
Eddie Torres is recognized and appreciated for his enormous contribution to the New York salsa music as well as the dance, although he was not the founder of either. He is appreciated and honored for spreading, advancing, and popularizing the dance by introducing the footwork where the follower steps forward during the dance with the second beat of the music in the first measure. The origin of salsa, the evolution of the structure of movements, and the relationship with music has been a journey of success. According to J. McMains (2015) in the book Spinning Mambo into Salsa, the latter is more than just music since it brings the whole person into the movement which depicts the inner feelings and the love for culture. This is more than just a typical dance because it is a piece of art that is rich in heritage and cultural diversification being brought together into fusion. Footwork is the most important action in the dance since it is the element that brings out the difference between various form of the dance and shows the foundation and the belief of those who upgraded the traditional dances into salsa and made it a global practice.
According to C. Rondon (2008) in the book titled The Book of Salsa, this type of music and dance is a combination of emotions between two dancing partners, which makes their movement depict the attachment to dance. Even if there are sole dancing styles, salsa was structured to be a partner dance where two people synchronize their feelings and develop a strategic movements where they bring out an emotional devotion. According to The Book of Salsa, the music had become a dominant style in the mid-1970s all over the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries. Colombia and Venezuela became the salsa music hubs when the early developers of the dance became more committed to making a different and a rival style in New York. However, in the 1980s, the Latin unity and sociopolitical idealism diminished when the dance was mixed with other traditional forms of music and upgraded to fit the needs of the modern world. The primary reason for its formation was lost, and it became a global affair, thus losing its cultural and regional sense. During this transition period from the original form of salsa to the global dance, there came a strong rivalry from the Merengue, which was a dancing style of the Dominican Republic’s origin, the same Latin America.
P. Renta (2004), breaks down the history and journey of salsa music in the article named Salsa Dance: Latino/a History in Motion. In this article, there are two eras in the evolution and development of salsa music which begins in the late 1950s when mambo was known to be the primary dance. The article also brings out the names of those who were believed to be instrumental in the development of the dance including the ‘Godfather’ Ray Baretto and the ‘Mambo King’ Tito Puente. These are the people who contributed significantly to the development of the moves with footwork being their primary point of concern. Britta Schneider (2013) brings out the communities which were the founders of the salsa dance in an article named Heteronormativity and Queerness in Transnational Heterosexual Salsa Communities. Moreover, Jonathan Skinner (2008) in an article named, Women Dancing Back & Forth: The Resistance & Self-Regulation in Belfast Salsa explains that the Cuban salsa music and dancing style originated from the upgraded son dance, which was a primary dance in Cuba during the early days of 1950s. The author also (2008) goes ahead to argue that the modern salsa music is just a new name of the Cuban music style since most of it is derived from the traditional dances and music styles. According to the article, the Cuban music was a combination of Spanish-derived and Afro-Cuban elements in traditional music. This is where the modern salsa gains its African background and relationship.


According to P. Renta (2004) in the article named Salsa Dance: Latino/a History in Motion, salsa evolved into two different forms which started with the mambo era following the migration of people from the Latin American countries into Caribbean nations in mid 1960s. This era was known as the “Palladium Era”, which is believed to have given rise to the earliest forms of the salsa music. During this time, there were several dancers and developers who helped in driving the agenda forward. The second evolution took place in the late 1970s where the people from the Latin America begun to contribute to the reformation of the New York style. This era was known as the “NuYorican” era, which marked official redesigning of the traditional dances into the modern-day salsa (Borland 466). Ray Baretto, also known as the ‘Godfather’, was very instrumental in redesigning of the dance into the global and modern salsa (García 127). During that era, he was a primary artist in the development of moves, musical beats, and incorporating spins into dance motions as well as structuring the partner dancing.
Tito Puente became a legendary dancer in Puerto Rico, where the other dancers named him the ‘Mambo King’ for his contribution to salsa using the ancient mambo dancing style believed to have been the mother of salsa. During this second evolution, a lot of things changed making the dance lose its traditional and cultural significance to the people of both New York and the Caribbean countries (Bosse 45). After the massive migration of people between the countries for economic reasons, the music and dance was able to spread and get more developed where even the forefathers of the dance including Ray Baretto and Tito Puente could not follow all the moves and changes. This is what gave rise to different forms of the genre when participants realized that there were distinctions which were making it look different in different places. Eddie Palmieri is known to be an artist who has contributed significantly to the development of salsa music (García 127). He has done it through his piano rhythms which bring together jazz and funk styles and the Lastly, this paper will also include an interview with a salsa musician and dancer who has an experience in the industry and a person who has seen different generations of the music and tried them to identify the differences.

Transnational and Heterosexual Themes in Salsa

Salsa runs through two primary ethnomusicological themes which include transnational and cultural/traditional contexts. In transnational theme, the genre has been able to capture the attention of its global lovers, and the current style is a combination of different formats derived from several international backgrounds. For instance, the style that was developed from mambo in New York has now travelled to Japan and Sweden, where the styles are entirely different from the traditional one (Bosse 45). The developers of salsa in New York have been able to learn the modern-day style, which draws its influence from transnational context. The other theme is the traditional/cultural context which is evident in the manner in which Cuban dancers uphold the music in a cultural way. For instance, these musicians and dancers argue that salsa is another name for Cuban music, which shows how much salsa means to the society of Cubans. This dance and music style is currently running through the transnational context, and the spread rate depicts the international acceptance by people from non-Caribbean or Latin American countries (Bosse 45).
Salsa is a global affair and has brought people from different cultures together to practice something that was a traditional music genre for a specific community in the old days. Thus, it teaches the world about the Caribbean culture and way of life, hence becoming a transnational activity (Pietrobruno 116). This is a broad attemp to explain the transnational theme in the music as well as the cultural context. Lastly, salsa bears a heterosexual theme and multi-gender context (Morel 66). This is a genre that is practiced by people of both male and female genders without being divided or bearing their format and style. Typically, salsa is a partner dance which means that a male dancer has to have a female partner for the primary objective to come out (Morel 66). Thus, the heterosexual theme means that a person should be dancing with a partner of the opposite sex to bring out the emotional bit of the dance.


In the quest of learning more about salsa and its significance in human life and, more specifically, to the people of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, I conducted an interview with a salsa music and dance instructor from Cuba. This is a lady who has been on international tours establishing salsa schools and sponsoring the schools that have salsa classes. Her name is Mónica Muñoz, a 33-year-old female instructor. The lady is very instrumental in the spread of salsa since her main objective is to train international dancers who will later take the dance to their native countries. She is also significant to my research because she has been able to learn all the forms of salsa available in the Caribbean region as well as the modernized form of the New York dance. This means that she has enough experience in salsa, and she is also knowledgeable about history of the genre as well as its significance in the life of a dancer who may be a local or international figure.
According to Mónica Muñoz, salsa is one way of training people on the Cuban culture, and when I asked her about how much the dance carries concerning the culture, she was quick to tell me that, “Salsa is our culture, it is our way of life”. I asked her the question on how old she was when she tried the first dance step, and she humorously answered me that she started dancing salsa before she was born. She could feel her mother dancing when being pregnant with her; thus, she started learning the dance steps back in the womb. This was a funny way of telling me that she has been dancing all over her life. Mónica has quite a significant amount of knowledge in the dance and all the music genres associated with the salsa dance. I was able to point it out in the way she was vibrant in answering my questions to a point we had to stop the interview and watch her demonstrating the difference between the typical Cuban salsa and that of New York origin. She has trained people how to dance on both styles until she can be able to combine moves and make her own dance.
Her understanding of the genre is quite substantial, and her students can testify to her excellence in the dance. I asked her why she decided to capitalize on training salsa instead of going to the university and learn the corporate skills like business administration or management. In response to that question, Mónica Muñoz said, “My students are from the corporate world, I teach doctors, engineers, managers, and other senior ranking business figures, meaning that salsa is better than their jobs, and that is why they come here when they are free.” This was a simple way of telling me that the society in Cuba upholds salsa like any other work, and people pay a lot of money just to be taught how to dance. In short, salsa is a profession just like nursing, and people comfortably earn a living from it. I wanted to know why salsa dancers are always slim and of good looking figures; thus, I asked her the question of the salsa’s significance in human health and fitness. In response to that, Mónica Muñoz said, “Salsa is the best way of losing weight with a smile on your face.” This means that the dance is not comparable to other forms of weight loss physical activities like jogging and aerobics. In summary, the interview was significant to my research, and I was able to learn several things about the genre and its importance as well as why some people are very passionate about it. The interview gave me a chance to interact with a professional in a field I have always tried to understand due to its rich and complex history.
Salsa music and dance have been a gradually evolving system of entertainment and sociocultural transition between generations and between different societies. This is a form of dance that depicts a significant social attachment to the Caribbean and Latin American people. The history of this type of music dates back in the early days of 1970s, when the world was more traditional than the modern one is. This dance helps the participants in understanding themselves and bringing out their feelings of self-appreciation. Initially, the dance was a form of honoring traditions. Therefore, however much salsa develops, the element of culture is still intact. There are different aspects of salsa depending on where each of them developed from and whichsociety contributed to its development. Salsa helps people in getting physically fit since it is a dance and a form of workout. Its musicians and dancers are known to be physically fit and health; thus, salsa dance has an attachment to humanity and human heath for both mind and body.

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