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“Orishas” by Mario Hounkanrin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Salsa — A Cultural Lens Between Black and White

How Salsa music and dance is a lens between black and white cultures, helping us understand, and appreciate more about one another.

Introduction

This story is intended for anyone wishing to learn a little about the “Cultural lens” that is salsa.

The Challenge

Many Western salsero/a(s) insist it is impossible for someone who did not grow up with salsa, to dance like someone who did, especially in Afro-Caribbean style.

Own Background

My salsa spirit came along around ten years ago, filling a romantic void in my life, which had appeared following marriage that had ended abruptly and unexpectedly.

What Salsa is

  • A form of Latin music and dance derived from Rhumba, related to many sub-genres and styles, including Merengue, Regaeton, Cubaton, Salsa-choke, Cali-flow, Zumba, Kizomba, Bachata, Cha-cha-cha, Son, and the Orishas,
  • A vehicle of distractive, effortless physical exercise, both alone and with partners.
  • A form of audio-visual, and physical communication between people.
  • Ageless. All can do it, young and old. Discos in Latin countries often welcome children, who equally love to dance.
  • The only subject with more folklore than that of having babies.

What Salsa does

  • Promotes romance and understanding between genders, and across cultures, and ages.
  • Encourages transcendental states and wellness of body and mind.
  • Cheers us up! It is impossible to feel depressed when practising it, watching it, or listening to it.

Salsa Influence

Folks who might not think Salsa has any influence on them, are probably affected by it anyway.

The Salsa Musical “Phrase” Structure

A description of the most basic complete Salsa phrasing structure involves three percussion instruments; the Clave, the Cow-bell, and the Conga drum.

The Cross-Cultural Lens

It is when we look at how the different cultures tend to dance differently to the beats of the different instruments that things start to get really interesting.

The Western Cow-bell Filter

Salsa newcomers will probably learn the basic step like I did, by memorising under instruction, where each foot should be, mentally repeating the step numbers, placing each foot in the appropriate corresponding position, following the footsteps of an instructor stepping out the steps, whilst calling out the numbers, where each step is timed on the cowbell.

Rhumba

Googling Rhumba quickly reveals it is a highly polysemic term, meaning many things to many people.

Infant dancing and playing Rhumba / Salsa in Cuba

The “On1”, “On2” Trap

Failure to remove the cow-bell filter, by introducing a useful concept of Rhumba when appropriate, leads down a rabbit-hole of what now seem to me to be inane academic considerations and discussions over whether a dancer might be (or should be) dancing “On1”, or “On2”.

The Salsa Vocal Phrase

The vocal phrase is that of the singer, as distinct from the musical phrase of the instruments.

I still see many long term Western Salseros / Salseras obviously still saddled with this restriction. Many will not dance to anything but Cuban timba music.

Subsequently, often, the only salsa music we hear in many Western social salsa dancing venues is just Cuban timba.

Which is a shame, because much as I love Cuban timba, there is a whole world of other great Salsa dance music out there, as well as other great Cuban salsa music which is not Timba!

Unnamed girl dancing with Rhumba moves to a classic Colombian Salsa Song
Carlos Sanabria “Improvisation” street dancing with some Rhumba moves

The most skilled Salsa is a mixture of those two things.

In the video below, we see the dancing of lead partner Terry SalsAlianza going from high quality routine, to spectacular, after his creativity leaps into orbit following a prolonged solo body popping sequence.

Terry SalsAlianza Rhumba Body-popping in a Salsa social, to the point of feigned boredom of partner, Amely.
Terry SalsAliansa and partner Melissa Sarah Katilimis dancing Cha-cha-cha.
Cuban Locals street demo of Guaguanco dance in Cuba.
Colombian locals street dance demo of salsa-choke, with visible elements of Rhumba.
Cuban Reggaeton, (“Cubaton”) girls dance instruction by named Cuban dance instructor, with distinctive elements of Rhumba
Cuban Son Dance demo by dance company, Baila Habana, with distinctive elements of Rhumba

Conclusion

We often use the word “Latin” to identify the cultural characteristics of many of the peoples traditionally associated with salsa.

Solarpunk

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