Salsa Styles Comparison: LA, NY, Cuban, Colombian & Puerto Rican

As the world’s most popular social dance, salsa dancing has evolved in different forms in different places, giving us a few distinct salsa dance styles that are all fun to dance.

If you do a google search for different salsa styles you’ll probably see this list:

  • LA style salsa (Los Angeles style salsa)
  • NY style salsa (New York style salsa)
  • Puerto Rican style salsa
  • Cuban style salsa (properly known as Casino and Rueda de Casino)
  • Colombian style salsa

But here’s the thing…

The way people talk about salsa dancing often mixes the ideas of salsa style and salsa timing, so I want to start by explaining the difference and then suggest a clearer way to talk about both.

The Difference Between Salsa Styles and Timing

To start I’ll say historically it probably made sense to mix the ideas of style and timing when talking about salsa, especially because information was less accessible, but not anymore.

Now the culture of salsa is global, we have the internet and a more accurate vocabulary we can use.

Definitions

Salsa style: the visual aesthetic a dancer creates or a structurally specific way to dance salsa – a linear vs rotational structure, for example.

Salsa timing: the counts or beats of music you dance to.

Those definitions are very different, so let’s review how people typically talk about salsa styles and how we might improve our vocabulary to be more accurate.

Salsa Style Comparison

Using the definitions of style and timing above, let’s break down the various “styles” of salsa people talk about.

Then we’ll discuss how to better answer the question, “what style of salsa do you dance?”

LA Style Salsa (Los Angeles Style Salsa)

Timing: a tiempo On1, how the Vazquez brothers created it

Structure: linear

Visual aesthetic: The Vazquez brothers (Johnny, Luis and Francisco) developed this style which is known for being sharp, flashy and acrobatic. It comes from the land of Hollywood after all. It has a strong swing influence and uses a linear cross body lead structure. Free solo steps called “shines” are also used when the couple breaks apart.

Luis Vazquez co-founded Salsa Brava, Los Angeles’ first salsa team, and through various high profile performances and salsa congresses their style became famous around the world.

NY Style Salsa (New York Style Salsa) aka Eddie Torres Style

Timing: a tiempo On2

Structure: linear

Visual aesthetic: A smoother, laid back style with fancy turn patterns pioneered and taught around the world by Eddie Torres (born 1950); it uses the linear cross body lead structure and takes influences from the original mambo as well as ballet, jazz, tap and modern. It also incorporates the idea that both partners can break apart and dance freely on their own. These free solo steps are called “shines.”

Puerto Rican Style Salsa

Since I’ve never been to PR myself I reached out to renowned Puerto Rican salsa dancer and judge Tito Ortos to better understand how salsa is danced on the island. The following is a paraphrased version of our whatsapp conversation.

Timing: any and all timings

Structure: mostly linear salsa but they add some rotational moves

Tito started by saying that In Puerto Rico there are different ways to dance salsa. You can find people dancing On1, On2, On3 and some old timers who dance On4, to the bass. You’ll even find people who have no idea what timing they dance to and just go with what they feel – something very common throughout Latin America.

A couple notes about salsa On2 in Puerto Rico…

“Before we talked about dancing On2 here in Puerto Rico, people referred to it as dancing on Clave,” Tito explained. Dancing on clave in Puerto Rico means breaking forward on the two side of the clave:

  • If the song has a 2-3 clave you’d break forward on 2
  • If the song has a 3-2 clave you’d break forward on 6

When dancing on clave or to the conga (i.e. dancing On2) Tito said there was no specific way everyone dances. People dance both a tiempo (1-2-3, 5-6-7 breaking on 1 and 5) and contratiempo (2-3-4, 6-7-8 breaking on 2 and 6).

So if timing isn’t what defines Puerto Rican style salsa, what does?

Firstly, PR style is about hearing the music and interpreting it how you like, regardless of timing.

Secondly, without a deep explanation, Tito said, “The Puerto Rican style has its own cadence, flavor and space that we give to the follow, to do open shines, and that’s characteristic of the elegance of dancing in Puerto Rico.”

Sounds like we’ll just have to go to the island and experience it for ourselves! I know I look forward to going one day.

Thanks Tito!
Follow Tito on IG here.

Cuban Style Salsa or Salsa Cubana

Although commonly known and marketed as Cuban salsa or salsa cubana, the correct name for the dance is Casino when danced by one couple or rueda de casino when it’s danced in a circle with multiple pairs of partners.

While the Afro Cuban roots of danzón, son, cha-cha-chá, mambo, pachanga etc. migrated to New York to evolve into “salsa,” those same roots evolved into the genres known as songo and timba on the island of Cuba. Timba is now the most common music that casino and rueda de casino is danced to. Timba is not a dance.

Casino

Timing: originally danced contratiempo (like son) and now most commonly danced On1

Structure: rotational

Visual aesthetic: casino is danced by a single couple in a circular fashion, with the partners changing places and walking around each other as they execute various turns and figures. It can also incorporate folkloric movements from rumba and other dances that honor African spirits, known as orishas, from the Yoruba religion.

Traditionally casino is danced with both partners always stepping forward, never backward, This is a key distinction between non-Cuban styles where dancers often step backwards in their basic step.

Casino originated before the 1950s and was influenced by the dances that came before it: the danzón, cha-cha-chá and most heavily by son cubano.

Rueda de Casino

In the 1950s Rueda de Casino became popular in the Casinos Deportivos in Havana, something like a country club or social club for wealthy white Cubans, and eventually spread throughout the island and beyond.

Timing: originally danced On3, also contratiempo, now most commonly danced On1.

Structure: rotational

Visual aesthetic: Think of it as the party version of casino, where multiple couples dance in a big circle, switch partners and even do moves as a group. A “caller” (líder, capitán, or cantante in Spanish), calls out the moves and everyone executes them at the same time.

It’s super fun and if you make a mistake you just laugh it off and keep going!

Colombian Style Salsa / Cali Style Salsa / Salsa Caleña

Born in Cali Colombia, Colombian style salsa is quite unique to the country and rarely danced outside, although I imagine this will change as more Colombians travel and use Tik Tok to show their style to the world.

Timing: On1, but you’ll also see it danced On3 by the average Colombian who isn’t a trained dancer.

Structure: rotational

Visual aesthetic: salsa caleña uses very simple turn patterns and is known for its super fast footwork, using the syncopated “repique” step. It’s most commonly danced to salsa brava, percussion-heavy salsa, since the high energy matches well with the fast footwork.

It doesn’t use the cross body lead as seen in linear salsa or the “dile que no” as seen in casino and rueda de casino. The basic step is similar to what most English speakers would call the “cumbia basic,” but it only uses the back rotational basic on one side and then steps straight back (a small open break) on the other. Partners face each other as they do their basic step and fancy footwork, then they typically add some basic turns and return to face each other for more complex footwork. It also tends to be very acrobatic for shows.

Also highly recommend watching world champion @diago.camilo on instagram.

The Problem with Mixing the Ideas of Style and Timing

The problem with talking about some of the salsa “styles” mentioned above is that they often mix the ideas of style and timing together into a convenient label.

This causes people to make assumptions:

  1. People think style and timing mean the same thing.
  2. People assume a style can only be danced on one timing.
  3. People say they dance a certain style when they actually don’t.

Here are some examples:

LA salsa / salsa On1 example:

If you say, “I dance LA style” it means you dance like the Vazquez brothers.

If you say, “I dance On1” it mentions your preferred timing but not style.

If your visual aesthetic doesn’t look like the Vazquez brothers then you’re not dancing the LA style they created. Johnny says it himself in this video (in Spanish).

If that’s the case…

The best response for most people is, “I dance linear style salsa On1.”

NY Salsa / Salsa On2 / Mambo example:

If you say, “I dance NY style” it means you dance like Eddie Torres or dancers from NY.

If you say, “I dance On2” it just means you prefer On2 timing, regardless of style.

If your visual aesthetic isn’t like Eddie Torres or a New Yorker then…

The best response for most people is, “I dance linear style On2.”

Alternatively, if you like various styles On2 just say what you like!

Puerto Rican Style Salsa

Puerto Rican Style, as Tito explained it, is a perfect example of how timing has nothing to do with style.

People across the island dance to various timings, but there’s something about the island and its rich history that gives the dancers there their own flavor.

If you’re not from Puerto Rico it’s probably better to say “I dance linear style salsa to [enter timing].”

Cuban Style Salsa / Salsa Cubana

If you like to dance casino or rueda de casino simply saying that is usually enough, since On1 is by far the most common timing these days. That said, know that these styles can be danced to any timing!

Colombian Style Salsa

It’s probably fine to just say “I dance Colombian style salsa” because I’ve never seen it taught to a timing other than On1 (except you will see people dance it On3, as explained here). Also, congratulations on being able to do amazingly fast footwork!

Looking for a more in depth comparison of the differences between salsa on1 and salsa on2? Here’s a detailed salsa on1 vs on2 breakdown.

The best way to answer the question “what style of salsa do you dance?”

Just fill in the blanks…

“I dance _____ (structural style) on ____timing”

Structural styles:

  • Linear style salsa / salsa en linea
  • Casino
  • Rueda de Casino
  • Colombian style salsa / salsa caleña

Timing:

  • On1
  • On2 (a tiempo, contratiempo, syncopated, clave)
  • On3

Note: if someone dances On2 they typically learn the various ways to dance On2–or at least they should because they’re all awesome–so saying “I dance On2” is fine. Just know there are various ways to dance On2.

Summary

Everyone dances differently and that’s the beauty of dance.

It’s not about being the same, it’s about being yourself and interpreting the music in a way that feels awesome to you. Of course, when dancing with a partner, following some basic principles helps to make communication clear.

Style and timing are two different things but we often mix the two ideas

Style refers to a visual aesthetic or structural way of dancing and timing refers to the beats you dance to. A style can technically be danced on any timing.

The historic way of talking about styles naturally raises some issues so the best way to answer the question “What style of salsa do you dance?” is…

“I dance ______ (structural style) on _____ timing.

Lastly, as you progress as a dancer you’ll develop your own visual aesthetic and personal style. It’s fine to take inspiration but make your goal to explore and develop YOU as an individual. Don’t try and be someone else.

Who knows, maybe someone will even name a style after you!

If you have any comments, corrections or knowledge bombs to drop on me, DM me on instagram at @thedancedojo or @robncampbell

I hope this article helped you become more aware of the salsa styles that exist and how you can talk about them more accurately with your friends!

– Robin

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