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On this page:
Which style we teach
What else is there?
Historical context

Mambo style
Break on 1 style
Why "break"?
Break on 2 style
("New York" style)
Tutorial: converting 1 to 2
Break on 3 style
("Night Club" style)
A moral to the story

Salsa vs. Salsa
The different Salsa styles explained

Related pages on our web site:
Upcoming dance classes (Latin & Salsa I, Latin & Salsa II )
Places to dance Salsa

When folks talk about Salsa styles, they mean the different ways that the footwork can be matched up with the music. In different Salsa communities, people will start their dancing at a different beat in the musical phrase. They will also do different things about matching the remaining footwork to the remaining beats. It makes a surprisingly big difference, as any dancer will tell you after dancing with someone whose habits were formed in a different style. Below, we explain the various Salsa styles.

"Style" vs. "Styling." When Salsa dancers talk about the particular flair or body shaping that makes someone look good, they tend to use the word "styling" instead.


 Which Salsa style do we teach?

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We teach Break on 1 style, with an initial emphasis in class on the forward-backward types of moves -- because this combination is the most popular style. We add some sidewards moves later on.


 What else is there?

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You may hear or read about:

  • Mambo style
  • Break on 1 style -- (this is what we teach)
  • Break on 2 style, also known as:
    • New York style
    • Dancing on (or with) the clave
  • Break on 3 style, also known as:
    • Night Club style
  • Etc.

Note: The differences among these styles only make sense, and only matter, if you know at least a little Salsa. So in the notes that follow, we assume you know some Salsa. Also, the footwork notes in the charts are minimal -- they're as simple as possible so that the differences among the styles stand out. (The little charts are not designed to teach you Salsa. That's what our classes are for!)

We explain the differences among the major styles below. But first, a little historical context, to assist your understanding.


 A little historical context

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Salsa is a direct descendant of Mambo. Mambo originated in the late 1940s, and had a brief run as a super-popular fad here in Norte America in the 1950s (especially 1954). At the end of the 1950s, a slowed down and syncopated version of Mambo -- the Cha-Cha (originally called Triple Mambo) -- usurped Mambo's popularity. Then suddenly, in 1961, everyone in North America started doing the Twist, and partner dancing, including Latin partner dancing, fell completely out of fashion for about 15 years. In the mid-1970s, the Disco craze created a resurgent interest in partner dancing, and Mambo was revived in the New York Latin dance communities under the new name Salsa. The new dance was primarily Mambo, with noticeable influences and borrowings from Disco (which was itself primarily a slicked-up and polyesterized version of Swing). The new Salsa form of Mambo spread throughout Latin America and became the universal Latin club dance, with occasional modest regional differences.

A note on regional differences. You'll find that many Latin Americans have fierce ideas that only their own country dances "authentic" Salsa. Why regional differences? Simple: in the 1950s, new music traveled much faster than new dance steps. As the original Mambo music spread through Latin America in the 1950s, people quickly adapted local dances to fit it. For example, in Colombia, the sidewards steps of one form of Cumbia became the basis for Colombian-style Mambo/Salsa, and many Colombians still dance a Cumbia-like Salsa. The most interesting story involves the island of Curacao (a colonial possession of Holland), where a local dance called Tumba was adapted to the new Mambo music. Tumba is danced with a "break forward on the right foot" action -- the opposite of Mambo/Salsa dancing everywhere else. And because of the migration of people back and forth from Curacao to Holland, Salsa in Holland is usually danced on the "wrong" foot! (The Salsa teachers in Curacao have recently started teaching conventional Salsa footwork. Let's see how long it takes Holland to catch up.)

The cross-border migration of influences continues, now in reverse. Over time, dancers in the main Salsa centers of New York and Miami have cheerfully incorporated every idea they see that helps them look good, including moves from almost every regional variation. The cross-pollination also operates beyond Latin dance borders, of course: Salsa, recall, came about from an infusion of Disco (Hustle) into Mambo in the 1970s. More recently, Salsa dancers have swiped moves from the revival form of Swing dance called Lindy Hop, and West Coast Swing dancers have returned the favor by swiping their fanciest spins and wraps directly from high-end Salsa.

How close is Mambo to Salsa? Both the music and the dance are closely related. Tito Puente, one of Latin music's greats, used to say at his concerts, "We play the same music. Before, it was Mambo. Now it's Salsa." Most Salseros would disagree a little -- you really can hear a difference between classic Mambo and the Salsa of today, but not a lot. Mostly the differences reflect the passage of time: new instruments added to the mix, and new musicians adding their interpretations to the music and rhythm forms.

The dance steps have also evolved, although, again, most of the changes reflect the passage of time. The most significant difference between dancing Mambo and dancing Salsa: nearly every Salsa community has simplified Mambo's relationship between the footwork and the music. This simplification is what characterizes the different Salsa styles. We explain below.


 MAMBO style

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Originally, Mambo was danced like this:

Chart - Mambo style

"1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4" vs. "1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8" Why two different ways of counting the music? Almost all Mambo/Salsa music has a recurring 8-beat structure that comes at you in two chunks of 4 beats. Salsa dancers typically count the music in 8's -- they'll talk to you about "1, 2, 3" and "5, 6, 7." Many Mambo dancers and almost all Ballroom dancers count the music in 4's -- for example, they'll count the Mambo Basic step as "2, 3, 4 - 1;  2, 3, 4 - 1." So we have included both. Sometimes it's easier to think in terms of 4's, sometimes in terms of 8's. The discussion below will switch from 4's to 8's as is convenient.

That business of doing a Rock-Step* on "2 - 3" and a Slow Step on "4 - 1" (that is, stepping on "4" and pausing during the next "1") is the hallmark of Mambo timing.

Here, the footwork is directly matched with the clave ["KLAH-vay"] beat that underlies all of the major Latin dances that have their roots in Cuban music -- Rumba, Mambo, Cha-Cha, Salsa. Notice that during the first 4 beats, the footsteps of the Rock-Step exactly match the clave beat. During the second 4 beats, the footsteps of the Rock-Step fall neatly in between the clave beats. In both cases, the dancing is very much in tune with the clave.

The clave was originally 2 wooden pegs -- now, any instrument might do -- that were struck together on the following beats: 2, 3, 5, 6-1/2, 8. (You'll notice that for clarity, we are now counting the music in 8's.) That is, during the first four beats you'll hear two pulses, on "2" and "3". Then you'll hear three pulses evenly spread across the next four beats: on "5", then halfway through beat "6", and then on "8". It sounds a bit like 2 claps, followed after a brief pause by 3 slightly slower claps. Occasionally the music has the combination reversed -- first 3, then 2 -- but the principle remains the same, and, at least in theory, the Man will start his Forward Rock-Step during the part that has the 2 pulses.

In practice, it is usually almost impossible to hear the clave beat in the music until you are very, very experienced in listening to Latin music. The complex overlayment of rhythm patterns usually masks it -- especially in contemporary Salsa. It is easier for most people to hear the "1" beat of a phrase and then count from there. Alternatively, you can ignore the counts completely . . . and match your feet to nearby good dancers.

This pattern is not danced by very many Salsa dancers any more.

It is still danced by older-generation authentic Mambo dancers. It is also danced by most Cha-Cha dancers. And the British have preserved this pattern in their very strange and very British (but pretty) versions of Rumba, Cha-Cha and Mambo, which the British have incorporated into what they humbly call their International Style of ballroom dancing. There are also still some Cubans and children of Cuban emigrants (in the Miami area) who dance Salsa with this Mambo timing -- however, many of them adjust the steps by evening them out, yielding 3 steps almost evenly spread across 4 beats of music.

You'll notice that in the chart we've marked a pause during the "1" and "5" beats. Do people really pause? Well, it depends on what you mean by "pause." It's not a complete dead-stop, like being flash-frozen. In actuality, you are still in motion a bit as you get ready for the next Rock-Step. Many dancers will add little foot flicks or taps during this beat, purely for fun. This is also the time when almost all leads begin for whatever is coming next. But relative to all that's happening on the other beats, it feels rather pause-ish. In Cha-Cha, of course, you are finishing up the end of the cha-cha-cha, rather than pausing.

* You have probably noticed in your dancing that the term "Rock-Step" is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, you step on the first beat of it, and then rock back onto the other foot without changing its location, on the second beat of it. It might be more accurate to say "Step-Rock." But the universal practice is to call it a Rock-Step.


 BREAK ON 1 style

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Almost all Salsa dancers today dance simplified versions of Mambo timing, of which "Break on 1" style is the most common. This style moves the Rock-Step to "1 - 2" and the Slow step to "3 - 4" -- which most people find much easier to hear in the music. Thus:

Chart - Break on 1 style

The advantages to this style are (a) it preserves the authentic dynamic dance structure of Mambo, and (b) it makes it much easier for most people to find the starting beat in the music. The disadvantage is that the relationship to the clave beat is heavily diminished. Switching the Rock-Step to the "1" beat reduces the complex interlocking relationship between the dance and the music.


 Digression: Why the term "break"?

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Why the term "break," as in "break on 1," to describe the timing of the Rock-Step?

We're not really sure, but we will cheerfully guess. We suspect that the forward/backward Rock-Step was called a "break" to contrast it with a common style of dancing that came before. (In most fields of endeavor, new things are given names that make sense to the practitioners, and since the new thing is new because it is different somehow, the name often describes the difference from whatever everyone was already doing.) In some other dances of Cuban origin, the basic step was entirely side-to-side, rather like doing a slow Cha-Cha-Cha to one side, pausing, and then doing a slow Cha-Cha-Cha back to where you started. The step might be described as "Side-Together-Side, pause; Side-Together-Side, pause." You can still see this in a popular Latin dance called Bachata. Perhaps something like this was the dance hall precursor to Mambo. Which would make Mambo's new forward/backward Rock-Step quite a change. Not only is it different in technical detail, but it feels very different when you dance it, giving an entirely different energy and flavor to the dance. If you were used to the pure sidewards style, this new business of suddenly popping forward or backward for a moment would in fact feel like you were "breaking" out of the predictable pattern.

Note that the forward/backward Rock-Step offers a strong "break"-like contrast only if you are normally going sideways, as in the older varieties of Mambo, Cha-Cha and Salsa that travel sideways in the middle. There is not much contrast in the newer forms of Salsa that move all the steps forward and backward. Ironically, the phrases "break on 1," "break on 2," etc. only came into common usage after most dancers had already stopped dancing the older styles with the sideways middle.

In New York, people who have only danced the newer forward-backward forms of Salsa will tell you that the term "break" refers to the beat during which you dig in and then reverse direction. This is charming and even accidentally correct, but we think it is historically bogus.


 BREAK ON 2 style

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Also known as "New York" style, or "dancing on the clave" or "dancing with the clave"

The large New York Puerto Rican community of Salsa dancers -- along with the substantial Cuban contingent there -- eventually adopted a different simplification, called "Break on 2" style, or "dancing on (or with) the clave." From what we've heard so far, this style was evolved by Eddie Torres, a self-taught and terrific dancer in New York, who did more to keep Salsa alive than anyone else after the initial late-70s/early-80s fad passed; virtually all Break on 2 dancers and teachers in New York are current or former Eddie Torres students. Within New York City, this style is usually referred to as dancing "on 2" (without the word "break"). Outside of New York, it is often called "New York" style. Thus:

Chart - Break on 2 style

You'll notice that we've added some extra details about the footwork, because it's just not very obvious to folks with a Break on 1 or Mambo background.

Break on 2 style preserves Mambo's dancing of the Rock-Step on "2 - 3" -- which maintains the close relationship to the clave beat. It changes the Mambo timing, however, by giving the dancers something definite to do with their feet on the "1" beat. And it changes the Mambo dance structure by grouping the steps together at each end of the structural pattern, instead of spreading them dynamically across it.

At first glance this seems not very different from the Mambo style. And at second glance it even overlaps with Break on 1 style, in that the same feet are hitting the floor on the same beats (although in a completely different pattern). But in practice, it is tremendously difficult to get your body to accept the change from either Mambo timing or Break on 1 timing to this Break on 2 style -- your feet will constantly want to jump back to the pattern you are used to. You'll notice this especially whenever you come out of a turn.

Note another important difference in Break on 2 style: the man characteristically starts forward during the second half of the musical cycle, that is, during the "5, 6, 7." In all other styles, the man starts forward during the "1, 2, 3, 4" phase of the 8-beat musical cycle. (On the dance floor, the really expert gents will start their dance by stepping forward on the "6, 7." In the classroom, however, the men will usually be asked to start the easiest way possible: they'll start on "1" with the backward half of their Basic.)

Break on 2 Salsa has a different feel to it from Break on 1, mainly because all three foot-falls are bunched together at one end (before the "pause"). This eliminates much of the dynamic and percussive shifting of your balance point that gives Mambo (and its Break on 1 Salsa descendant) its rich and characteristic flavor. There is less of a "structured" feel to Break on 2 style, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage (beside the loss of the authentic original movement structure) is that the men, and sometimes the women, tend to lose track of the footwork, since there is much less structural guidance. This is especially true at the Beginner and Intermediate levels. Another disadvantage is that many standard Salsa/Mambo moves that move to the other end of the slot are harder to do with the "on 2" footwork. The main advantage is that on-the-spot maneuvers are much easier, now that the footsteps are grouped at each end, and whole categories of on-the-spot turns, spins, wraps, etc. become easily reachable from within the Break on 2 context. Which leads to another disadvantage (or advantage, depending on how narcissistic you are feeling) -- Break on 2 dancers tend to be more "solo" oriented than Break on 1 dancers. The partnering aspects can fall away almost to nothing, unless the two dancers maintain a strong psychological connection to each other.

We have to warn you that many Break on 2 dancers are very snobbish about it -- especially the mediocre ones.

Final note: there are actually several different styles calling themselves "Break on 2" style. The main other one that we have seen is identical to the original Mambo style except that the man starts forward during the second half of the musical cycle, that is, during the "6, 7, 8" instead of during the "2, 3, 4." A third flavor makes one tiny adjustment to the New York Break on 2 style charted above: it requires that the man start forward whenever the clave is in its '2 pulses' phase -- which is sometimes on the "1" beat; sometimes on the "5" beat, depending on what the musicians are up to in that particular song.


How to convert your "Break on 1" dancing to "Break on 2"

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If you already know Break on 1 style, here's a little step-by-step tutorial for converting your Break on 1 dancing to Break on 2. Try applying these changes to your Break on 1 style of dancing, one at a time:

Step 1:  Shift the timing.
Instead of starting forward into the Rock-Step on "1", wait until "2". Just let the first beat go by while you get ready, then step forward into the Rock-Step on "2". You may have to actually count out loud as you do this, which is fine. (If there are people around, count silently and try not to move your lips.) So far so good: this has converted your dancing to the original Mambo timing.

Step 2:  Re-arrange the "Slow" step.
Instead of dancing "Step - (pause)," start dancing "(pause) - Step." It will feel like your foot is floating for the first half of the Slow step, and then finally landing on the second half. So far so good: you are now dancing "break on 2" style. You'll probably notice, however, that after almost every turn, your feet will automatically return to "Break on 1" style. So one more adjustment is needed:

Step 3:  Re-arrange your brain.
After a while, look down and notice that there's a pattern forming in this Break on 2 footwork: a kind of "triangle" of steps at the front end, beginning -- surprise! -- with the RIGHT foot, then the LEFT foot immediately goes forward even more, then the RIGHT foot is stepped on again. (Similarly at the back end, but with the LEFT foor first.) Just before re-arranging your brain, notice that your first footfall forward is on the "1" beat -- but it is not your usual "first" foot (left foot) any more. While you are noticing things, notice that the "Rock-Step" is still there, using the original feet, but it feels like it's in the middle now. Most people find it easier to adapt to Break on 2 style by thinking of the "1 - 2 - 3" and the "5 - 6 - 7" as triangular wholes, rather than re-calculating and re-calibrating from Break on 1 style every time. Eventually, after lots of time (figure about 10 to 20 hours of dancing), your brain and body will start to make the flip -- you'll be thinking in terms of the triangle, and your feet will finally stop automatically switching back to Break on 1 style after every turn! Good work!

Step 4:  Shift the timing again.
Remember: savvy Break on 2 gents will step forward on the "5 - 6 - 7" part of the music, instead of on the "1 - 2 - 3" part. So now, gents, wait until the entire first 4 beats of the musical cycle have passed and then begin. Easiest way to do this in real life, on a real dance floor: look surreptitiously around and match the timing of some guy who seems to know what he's doing. (Don't worry about your partner getting suspicious; she'll just think you're ogling the other women.) Addendum: the really expert guys tend to start by breaking forward directly into the "6 - 7" (forward Rock-Step) part, a lot like in regular Break on 1. So to move up yet another notch, practice waiting until the entire first 5 beats have passed.

Step 5:  Fill in the initial "1 - 2 - 3".
To give yourself something to do during the first 4 or 5 beats instead of merely waiting, gents, you can start by doing a backward half on the "1 - 2 - 3" part of the music (starting backward onto your Left foot, as it happens). Then your forward half will naturally match the "5 - 6 - 7" part of the music. Keep the introductory backward half small and not too powerful so that your partner doesn't stumble. Most guys find Break on 2 easier with this introductory backward start, because the "1" beat is much easier to lock onto than the "5" beat. In fact, almost all Break on 2 dancers from New York City start this way in the classroom, and only switch to starting on the "6 - 7" when out clubbing.

Step 6: (Optional) Tweaking it for style.
For style, many good dancers like to emphasize the "break" step, that is, the "Rock" part of the Rock-Step that occurs on 2 (and 6). One way to do this is with physical emphasis -- by punching into it a little harder. Another way is with 'temporal' emphasis -- by leaving a little gap before it. To do this, try to land your new "1" step a bit early, about halfway between the "8" and the "1". Yes, it's true: after all that struggle in Step 2 to shift the timing of the "Slow" step, we're now changing it part way back again. The final word, perhaps, is that you can land your foot any time at all during the Slow step -- at the beginning (e.g., Mambo style), at the end (as in Step 2 above), or in the middle (this new Step 6 idea).

Step 7: (Very optional)
Excellent! Well done! Ready to add Break on 3 timing to your repertoire? . . .


 BREAK ON 3 style

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Also known in some places as "Night Club" style

We have not seen this style often here in Boston, but we have seen some genuinely expert dancers do this -- and they called it Night Club style. It is nearly identical to Break on 1 style, except for the timing of the Rock-Step. Thus:

Chart - Break on 3 style

This simplified form of the Mambo timing is comparable to the Break on 1 style in both technique and level of difficulty. Here, however, the Rock-Step is moved back to the "3 - 4" relative to Mambo (instead of forward to the "1 - 2"). To do this style, gents can simply start forward (onto the R.F.) with the long, slow traveling step during "1 -2" and then do the Rock-Step afterwards ("3 - 4").


 A moral to the story

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Perhaps the coolest thing about all this is the following: you have a 75% chance of starting on the right beat! (In fact, there are even some folks who will dance a Break on 4 style, but it is essentially nonexistent in North America. So we'll stick to our 75% forecast.)

Sure, there will be a predominant style in each club, and even within each group of friends in a club. And some of the people will look at you like you're crazy or stupid if you can't dance their style. More importantly, most folks -- both men and women -- can only dance one style, and will stumble (literally) when trying a different one. That's how habituated they've become to matching their style of Salsa to the music. So if you want to dance with them, you really do have to know their style.

But somewhere, in this great Salsa-dancing hemisphere of ours, what you are doing is probably exactly correct.


 Where else can I learn Salsa?

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  • Our classes are by far the best Beginner and Intermediate Break on 1 style classes in the greater Boston area. We invite you to visit us any time! We also invite you to sign up!

  • For information about other places that teach Salsa -- including Break on 2 style, advanced Break on 1 style, and Rueda de Casino, a wonderful circular-group form of Salsa from Cuba's pre-revolution casinos -- email us. We'll cheerfully tell you everything we know after you have graduated from our level II classes! (Gee, we can't make it too easy for you to find our competitors!)

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Page updated 5-19-2002
Minor changes 10-22-2002
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