header image

History of Salsa Dancing – The Origins of Salsa Dancing

History of Salsa. What is it? Where did it come from?

Curious? Come learn the history of salsa and find out the origins of this dance.

If you came up to me about 6 years ago and were to ask me about the history of salsa, I would’ve thought that you were asking me about some spicy sauce and looked at you funny. I was totally oblivious that this could be a dance… until my friend asked me to take my first salsa dance class.

After dancing for years, it finally dawned on me that even though I love this dance so much I don’t know the first thing about its history.

So come.. Be enlightened.. Set down your salsa shoes and join me in learning the history of salsa.

History Of Salsa Dancing

What is salsa?

What is this thing called Salsa? Have you ever wondered what the word "Salsa" means or its history? It is not something easily defined, as it did not stem from one specific place or person. Instead, it is a combination of multiple roots and cultures as well as the creativity many different persons. In general, Salsa evolved as a distillation of many Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances.


While it is definitely more than just Cuban, a large part of the dance originated on the island. The French who fled from Haiti brought the Danzón or the country-dance of England/France to Cuba. This dance began to mix with the African rhumbas such as Guaguanco, Colombia and Yambú. Added to this is the Són of the Cuban people, which was a mixture of the Spanish troubadour (sonero) and the African drumbeats. This type of syncretism occurred in other places like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, albeit not at the same grand level and manner as in Cuba.

Before and around the time of World War II, the music traveled to Mexico City and New York. It was in New York where the term “Salsa” was created. In fact, the use of the word salsa for danceable Latin Music was coined in 1933 when Cuban song composer Ignacio Piñerio wrote the song Échale Salsita. According to the late Alfredo Valdés Sr. the idea occurred to Piñerio after eating food that lacked Cuban spices. According to Valdés, the word served as a type of protest against bland food. It then flourished as a popular nickname for a variety of Hispanic influenced music including the rhumba, Són, Montuno, Guaracha, Mambo, Cha, cha, cha, Merengue, Guajira, Cumbia and others. Increased syncretism in New York occurred of the different sounds. In addition, there was greater investment and promotion of salsa, which generated more commercial music. However, the term did not really take off until the 1960s. One of the early salsa albums was the Cal Tjader Quintet plus 5’s Cal Tjader Soul Sauce in which the cover donned a fork on a plate of red beans and chili alongside an opened bottle of Tabasco sauce. Many Mexicans in San Francisco began using the term salsa to describe Tjader’s brand of music. Tjader’s music spread to other cities including Los Angeles and the East Coast. This was the start of Latin music being aired in different formats on radio stations across the country. It was in 1974 that Fania Records released Larry Harlow’s Salsa. Harlow became very popular and his album enjoyed tremendous sales. This really unleashed the term salsa and popularized it. After this, almost all Afro-Cuban rhythms and much of what was deemed exciting in Latin music acquired the term salsa. It also gained notoriety in the anglo-market. In June of 1976, Billboard magazine’s issue dedicated to Latin music contained a 24-page supplement called “Salsa explosion.”

The metamorphosis of salsa to what is heard and danced in clubs today has been a long, slow, and varied process. Not one person or place can be attributed as the founder of salsa. Instead, the dance and music has evolved over time through an elaborate syncretism of different sounds, cultures, and meanings. For example, in much of today’s salsa you will hear the base of són and the melodies of Cumbia and Guaracha. You will also hear some old Merengue as well as some old styles mixed with modern beats. Salsa varies from place to place and from one song to the next. The diversity and complexity of the music is what keeps its listeners enticed, as well as delightfully surprised, and its dancers on their toes. This is the beauty of the salsa.

This History of Salsa Article was
Prepared by Cathy Bartch
References for the History of Salsa: Salazar, Max. “Salsa Origins” www.SalsaRoots.com, Willie Torres Productions. (First published in Latin Beat Magazine in November 1991). Pretell, Jaime Andrés “A look at the Origin of Salsa” Willie Torres Productions



Other Articles of Interest

Salsa Dancing Articles
Salsa Shoe History

Return from History of Salsa, to Salsa Dancing Addict

By Cultural Dances: Salsa | World of Dance Sun Mar 23rd 2014 at 8:42 pm  

[…] that is held formally in the evening for a majority of the time. For a more in depth history, Salsa Dancing Addict  breaks down the […]