How Latin is the Dance of Salsa? (Part I)

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When it comes to salsa dancing, people readily agree that there is a variety of styles in which salsa can be danced: L.A. style, New York style, Cali style, Puerto Rican style, etc. There is no clear consensus, however, when the following question is asked:

Where in Latin America does salsa dancing come from?

If we are to call salsa a “Latin” dance, then we need to be able to locate the origins of salsa dancing somewhere in Latin America—for that’s what “Latin” is: a shortened version of saying “Latin America,” just like “America” is a shorter version for the “United States of America.” In trying to find a proto-origin for the dance of salsa, three countries usually get thrown into the discussion: Cuba, Colombia, and Puerto Rico. The dust hasn’t settled enough for anybody to see clearly where salsa, as a dance, originally came from in Latin America. At the very least, we can say the salsa that is danced in Colombia is a Latin dance because, well, because it’s Colombia, a country which belongs to what is understood as “Latin America.” So is Cuba, though in Cuba what is danced is, technically, casino and son, not salsa. Puerto Rico is tricky because even as Puerto Ricans identify themselves more with Latin America, Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the U.S., and Puerto Ricans have had U.S. citizenship since 1917 (in case you didn’t know). But let’s say that if salsa dancing had originated in Puerto Rico, it would be considered a Latin dance, too.

Yet even if we cannot find a clear-cut origin for salsa dancing in Latin America, we can certainly explore the idea of how salsa’s “Latinness” has remained uncontested when it comes to styles of salsa developed in the U.S., such as the New York (on 2) or Los Angeles (on 1) styles, the two styles of dancing salsa which are the most widely-danced in the world—and probably the ones you, the reader, dance and identify with. Indeed, how “Latin” can a dance which developed in the United States be? Unless you think that the U.S. is part of Latin America, not a whole lot.

In fact, a Wikipedia query on the term “salsa” yields the following: “Salsa is a popular form of social dance that originated in New York with strong influences from Latin America.” According to Wikipedia, salsa is a dance which originated in the U.S. It has Latin influences, sure, but it is a U.S. dance—just like jazz music has African influences, but it would not be considered “African,”
because it is a product of the United States.

But let’s not trust Wikipedia. As you know, anybody can edit it.

dance with me

Instead, I propose the following: If we are to try to make sense of why we consider salsa (in its New York or Los Angeles styles) to be a “Latin dance,” we first need to understand what has been understood by “Latin dance” in the U.S. since Latin dances began circulating in this country in the early 1900s, and in which ways this understanding of Latin dances has been transformed throughout the decades. Only in this way will we be able to understand salsa dancing in more than the abstract—a dance which comes from somewhere in Latin America with no history, no flag, no border—and place it within a broader context which takes into account social, racial, cultural and political processes of resignification and identification which allow a dance developed in the U.S. to be considered “Latin.”

To that effect, we will briefly examine the role of the ballroom as it pertains to Latin dances. Perhaps you don’t associate salsa dancing with ballroom dancing, but ballrooms were the medium through which Latin dances were introduced to the U.S. In fact, ballrooms created the concept of “Latin dance” and have ever since been instrumental in the development of what we know in the U.S. today as Latin dances (this will be covered in Part 2). Did you know, for instance, that the reason many people refer to the dance of chachachá as “Cha-Cha” is because of ballroom? Kathryn Murray, in her biography of Arthur Murray, writes the following:

Another dance that gave him pause was the cha-cha-cha. At first we taught it by counting out “one-two-cha-cha-cha.” This worked in practice but was impossible to diagram; it looked like five beats to a measure. Arthur retired himself into his office with the problem and after two hours emerged with a solution. He changed the name of the dance to cha-cha and the count to one-two-three-cha-cha. The two “cha-chas” are said very quickly, making one beat, or a total of four beats per measure. (9)

Also, let’s not forget that the place accredited with where it all started for modern salsa dance, the famous Palladium, was a ballroom!

Rather than being a nod to history buffs, discussing the role of the ballroom in Latin dancing is a logical step to take if we are to have a historically-conscious discussion about the development of salsa dance in the U.S. This will become even clearer in Part 2 of this article, as we enter the 1980s, the period in which salsa on 2 and salsa on 1 were developed, and examine how ballroom concepts of Latin dance were recodified in order to suggest a more “authentic” approach to changing concepts of Latinness happening in the U.S. at the time.

Because this is a research-oriented article, you will find quotes from books I have consulted. The list of works cited will be at the end of each part, ordered by last name.


The Ballroom and Latin Dances

Ballroom dance dates back to professional dance associations established in England and the United States, triggered by the rise of the waltz and the polka in the 1870s. Compared to previous dances, waltz and polka lacked formality in steps (Pietrobruno 117). These associations then codified dance steps and body posturing for these dances into clear rules of acceptable and unacceptable movement in dance. This process of codification would become a staple of ballroom dancing. Beginning in the 1900s, American ballrooms started to incorporate, modify and standardize popular Latin dances. Tango was the first. In regards to this Argentine dance, Juliet McMains notes the following:

[T]he idea of tango—its mythologized origins in the brothels, its boiling passion, its image of domination and rebellion—proved to be more profitable and marketable than the dance itself. Tango students…were either unprepared to learn the complexities of the dance, ill-informed about the technique, or uninterested in the movement style practiced in Argentina. Instead, a proliferation of new dances circulating under the same name emerged as dance teachers codified and redefined the dance for Western consumption. Westernized tangos were similar enough to other ballroom dances to be mastered without extensive study, referencing the Western fantasy of tango as exotic Other primarily by adopting only those elements most easily appropriated. (111-112)

The “Argentine” in tango existed more within an idea than within the dance, and people didn’t care. Indeed, ballroom instructors were not teaching tango from Argentina; rather, they taught a codified version, tailored to fit the standards of the students—who in this case happened to be middle and upper class men and women. Tango was followed later by samba. The Cuban son—under the name rumba—entered the States in the 20s, and other Cuban dances like mambo and chachachá were included in ballroom in the 50s were all transformed in accordance with the movement ideas of the European-based heritage of ballroom dance (Pietrobruno 118). In other words, they all suffered the same fate as tango.

As improvisations were largely eliminated from these dances through the standardization process imposed by the dance industry, the ballroom versions of Latin dances, explains McMains, became “Western appropriations with only limited similarity to forms practiced in Latin America and that rely extensively on Western stereotypes of Latinness for their emotional and aesthetic appeal” (112).

How far away were these ballroom practices to their Latin American counterparts? The following is an example of ballroom rumba:

And here is an example of Cuban rumba. You be the judge:


When mambo—the progenitor of modern-day U.S. styles of salsa—entered the picture in the 50s, the idea of what constituted a “Latin dance”—a codified-for-Western consumption dance with little-to-no similarity to the Latin original—had been established for decades thanks to the ballroom. Because mambo was of Cuban origin—and by extent Latin—ballroom naturally played role in the development of this dance. According to Sydney Hutchinson, “The basic North American mambo step was derived…from the ballroom-style rumba popular since the 1930s. In fact, ballroom mambo dancers of the 1950s wrote that the 234 count was also proper count for rumba” (29).

The mambo that was born at the Palladium was far from being strictly ballroom-based, however, even though a ballroom-based mambo was being developed simulteneously. Indeed, a diverse array of dancers and movement styles converged in the Palladium, and mambo became a confluence of many of these dances, most of which were not Latin in origin. As Hutchinson has noted, Augie and Margo Rodríguez blended ballet and mambo, flamenco styling, and ballroom-derived acrobatic lifts. Jazz dancer Jo-Jo Smith created a unique style of mambo jazz. Luis “Máquina” Flores borrowed moves from the Cuban rumba. “Killer” Joe Piro drew on Lindy-hop and jitterbug when he taught mambo at the Palladium. Pedro Aguilar (known as “Cuban Pete”) combined traditional rumba and freestyle with tap, jazz, acrobatics and even rock-and-roll dances (31). This was perhaps mambo’s greatest accomplishment: no matter the nationality or ethnicity of the dancer, they could add something new to the mambo.

Furthermore, this eclectic combination of styles made it very hard for ballroom to do what it does best: codify and standardize, leaving little room for improvisation. The mambo born in the ballroom of the Palladium was always feeding off from new dances, new styles, and new moves. It was unruly, much like the actual dances from Latin America, and like the waltz and polka had been on the previous century. And this unruliness is what ballroom instructors avoided.

It is important to note that the mambo that was danced in the 50s at the Palladium is not the mambo (salsa on 2) that we know today. Indeed, “the on-2 and on-1 counting systems are recent phenomena dating back no further than the 1980s” (Hutchinson 9). But the mambo of the Palladium did set the stage for what would come later: “Palladium dancers’ combination of ballroom dance, ballet, flamenco, tap, Lindy Hop, and rumba laid the foundations for today’s eclectic on-2 style” (Hutchinson 32).

Though mambo had not come from anywhere in Latin America, it did not need to, in order to be considered “Latin.” As we have seen, in the context of the U.S., the Latin dances never were truthful renditions of the dances practiced in Latin America.

This is the original—Cuban—mambo dance:


All a dance needed in order to be “Latin”, then, was simply to evoke the (Western) idea of Latin America: an atmosphere with no history, no flag, no border that—unconsciously or not—felt familiar to dancers (because they were being taught dances that had been developed in the U.S. to adjust to their aesthetics) and yet foreign (because it highlighted sensuality, passion: things that middle class people were not afforded to experience in other ballroom dances).

One might argue, then, that mambo was “Latin” because it grew out of the ballroom setting—again, let’s not forget that the Palladium was a ballroom. And like the Latin dances of ballroom, mambo, even as it was unruly, was very far off from any dance in Latin America at the same time that it evoked certain stereotypical “Latin sensibilities” in dancers. That’s all a dance needed, at the time, to be considered “Latin.” Geographical accuracy had never mattered, nor had people cared. The fact that a Puerto Rican such as Pedro Aguilar was known as “Cuban Pete,” is a perfect example of this. To U.S. people, Latin America was a borderless region of interchangeable parts. And this conception of Latin America has not escaped today’s times. For instance, Cuban actor William Levy has also been called the “the Brad Pitt of Mexico.”

So the mambo of the Palladium became as Latin as nachos are Mexican.



Works Cited:

Hutchinson, Sydney. Salsa World: A Global Dance in Local Contexts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Print.

McMains, Juliet E. Glamour Addiction: Inside the American Ballroom Dance Industry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2006. Print.

Murray, Kathryn & Betty Hannah Hoffman. My Husband, Arthur Murray. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. Print.

Pietrobruno, Sheenagh. Salsa and Its Transnational Moves. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006. Print.


  • Chris says:

    The article says “The Cuban son—under the name rumba—entered the States in the 20s”, so it might be better to compare videos of ballroom rumba with Cuban son, rather than the unrelated Cuban rumba (guaguanco). Here’s a very nice example of son:

    Do you have any other background on how the names got swapped like that when they brought son to the US?

    • You’re right in that a better comparison would have been Cuban son with ballroom rumba. I opted for comparing something that had the same name, mostly because it would be less confusing, and the ballroom dance is still very far away from what either son or rumba are; so it proves the point that I’m trying to make just fine.

      As for the background, it’s simple: the word “son” doesn’t sell in the States. “Rumba”, or “rhumba”, as the dance AND music were also known, sounded more foreign; in short, it was a marketing strategy, in the same way that “Cuban salsa” is a marketing strategy for the dance of casino, which under its Cuban name would cause confusion in the States–so people argue–and wouldn’t sell.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Joseph says:

    Interesting how the definition of “salsa” music always changes from year to year on Wikipedia. It started off as basically Latin American music, then basically Cuban music, to what it is now. But now it does make the point that the “term (salsa) is also used to describe Dominican merengue, and the Colombian cumbia. Latin jazz”. Cumbia and merengue are “salsa” too? That would burst the bubble of many “salseros”.

    There was a great documentary on the Women’s network about an English lady who went to Cuba looking for what she thought was rumba, then finding out the history and dance of what Cubans call rumba. Still looking for that one.

    LA & NY styles of salsa are more popular in North America because they look similar to what people think dancing is supposed to look like like jazz, rock’n’roll, modern, even ballet. Even now you can even see some dancers out in Hip Hop moves in their salsa to make it more “urban”.

    Another masterful post. I am going to share it. Looking forward to part two (is it “salsa” or “mambo”?

  • Pierre says:

    The various styles of salsa music and dance were created by Latinos – an American term for somebody of Latin American origin. So regardless of where is was created, it is of Latin American origin. Simple.

  • Puertorriqueña says:

    I think this article lacks context, it is very subjective and even disrespectful to the Latino community.
    You shall see my counterpart when I finish my doctorate.

    • You know, it’d be helpful if you could point out how you think this article “lacks context” and is “disrespectful to the Latino community.” “Wait till you see my thesis” is not much of a rebuttal…

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