Salsa began as a country dance in Cuba largely based off of Son. A byproduct of the exploration into the New World, the dance has roots in both European and African traditions. Over the years, salsa adapted to the changing of time and location. The mingling of different heritages (Cuban, Puerto Rican, American) and the inclusion of various styles of music (Jazz, Mambo, Funk, Latin Rock), all led to radical changes within the salsa community over the decades. As the proponents of these dances moved to different areas of the US, their style began changing. Today there are numerous versions of salsa dancing with a select few being most popular. The characteristics of a style include: the basic footwork, the frame or handhold, timing, moves, attitude, slight variance in music, and connection.
New York Style
In the 1970s, Eddie Torres created this style which emphasizes efficiency of movement, elegance, and body isolations. The beat on which the dance break i.e shift their weight also gives the style a more colloquial name of On2, although this is really not specific to which type of On2 it is. Additionally NY Style is sometimes labeled Mambo, although this is somewhat of a misnomer as Mambo is always danced On 2 and is actually a different dance altogether. The timing in New York Style connects well with the tumbao and clave patterns inherent in Salsa music, specifically Salsa Dura (Hard Salsa). Practitioners of New York Style place great emphasis on "shines" in which dancers drop their connection and showcase their individuality through complex footwork and body movements. As mentioned before, Salsa Dura, which is different from other salsa music, has a strong Afro-Cuban rhythm and are typically medium to fast tempo songs which allows for the dancers to explore their own creativity and musicality. NY On2 Dancers are said to "dance with the beat", such that they dance almost as if they were another instrument soloing throughout the song. At Salsa Congresses, New York Style is the style of choice for most professional dancers and performers.
Conversely, L.A. Style is yin to the yang of NY Style. L.A. style specializes in theatricality, acrobatics, musicality, sensuality, and high energy. Having roots in Mambo, LA Style is danced On 1 such that the dancer breaks on the 1 versus breaking on2 like NY Style. Compared to their NY counterpart, those who dance LA style are said to "dance to the beat". This means they follow the downbeats of the music. But how do you identify LA from NY? Well if you were watching these dancers from outside the club and couldn't hear any music, typically you would notice the LA dancers first. They are the flashy, energetic, trick inclusive, all out dancers. That's not to say NY isn't like this, but traditionally NY style is smoother and more elegant. Today this style can be seen on such popular shows as "Dancing with The Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" due to its flashiness and commercial appeal. The main proponents of this style are the Vazquez Brothers (Johnny, Francisco, and Luis). The music accompaniment is often high tempo salsa songs sometimes to ridiculous speeds.
The Cuban basic is known as Guapea, where the leader breaks back on 1-2-3 and does forward basic on 5-6-7. A tap generally occurs on beats 4 and/or 8. The follower mirrors these movements. Largely a circular dance, the partners move around each other in a rotating fashion. Conversely LA and NY are linear salsa or dancing in the slot, where they go forward and back. This style of salsa is well known for its complex handwork and simple footwork. The leaders are generally the point of focus in these dances as opposed to the follower, like in NY Style salsa.
Rueda de Casino (aka Casino Rueda)
In the late 1950s, a group dance arose out of Cuba entitled Rueda de Casino. The circular nature of Cuban Salsa allows for this multi-couple dance where a "leader/caller" controls the whole group by calling out names and giving hand signs of choreographed moves. This dance requires its participants to practice with a group or be well versed in all the possible variations of the moves and hand signs. An average level caller will know up to 300 moves. Today there are two styles of Rueda; Miami Rueda and Cuban Rueda, which can differ greatly in hand signs and calls.
Cumbia (Colombian Salsa not Cali)
Cumbia is a type of salsa danced in Latin and South America. Cumbia, like Cuban, is a circular dance where partners dance around each other. I like to call it the Latin American two step because it is a home style dance taught at a young age. The style has very few advanced turn patterns. Although I have personally seen high energy Cumbia, for the most part dancers feel content simply rotating the frame and only doing a couple turns. Cumbia additionally has its own style of music that can be hard for beginners to differentiate, but includes slightly longer pause on the 4 and a different rhythmic feel. Yet it can still be danced to "regular" salsa music.
Originating in nightclubs in Cali, Colombia, dancers focus on being proficient and articulate in advanced footwork while keeping the upper body still. Often called the "Salsa Capital of the World", Cali, Colombia is largely the only place to find this style.
Palladium (Ballroom Salsa)
An early version of modern day salsa, this "less refined" style began in the 1950s. Also called Power 2, this style is similar to LA Style in footwork, but it is danced "On 2". The basic step is exactly the same as LA but the timing is 2-3-4, 6-7-8 with the breaks (weight change) on 2 and 6 (instead of 1 and 5). This is the footwork Mambo dancers use in ballroom competitions although with very different styling.
They are other styles of salsa out there like On Clave, Puerto Rican Style, Miami Style, and even newer developments like London or Texas Style. There are many options out there and deciding which one is best for you is a personal decision. The styles listed above are the most popular in the salsa world and need future dancers to help promote them. So get out and learn any of them maybe even all of them and spread the word and your talent. Good luck and See You on the Floor!