The music of cha cha cha was created in Cuba in the early 1950s, derived from Mambo. The difference is that it had a syncopation between the fourth and first beat of the next bar, and that dancers typically started on the second beat, not the first.
A visiting dance teacher named Pierre Zurcher Margolie noticed this new style of dance, and took it back to London with him, creating ballroom cha cha. The dance also continued to develop in Cuba. Fundamental to the dance is the starting (or break) on two (not one), and the chasse on the four-and-one. The name Cha Cha Cha is an onomatopoeia for the sound of the feet when dancing the chasse part of the basic step, and the sound of the guiro as well (the down-up-down action on the four-and-one).
Differences between Salsa and Cha
Here are the key differences between the two dances (as I see it):
- Cha cha (the music) is very similar to slow salsa, but differences include the cowbell being hit on all beats (not just the "on beat"), and no clave (normally).
- The guiro also has a different pattern between salsa and cha (in salsa, there are two half-rests per bar, whereas in cha, it is a continual pattern).
- The cowbell can sometimes to a syncopation across the 4-and-1 as well.
Here is a link to a cha cha that I have sped up. Note that it sounds rather like salsa, except for the cowbell hitting every beat, not just the off beat.
On the other hand, here is a salsa song that I have slowed down to show just how similar it is to cha. Note, I purposely picked a section of the song which had no clave or cowbell, to align it fairly closely to cha.
Timing of the Cha Cha Basic
Cha is danced (normally) as: 2,3,4-and-1, 2,3,4-and-1. Don't dance cha on the on-beat (1,2,3-and-4), as this will mean that you miss the cha cha cha percussion of the song (provided by the only three major strikes of the congas in the entire bar - open,open,hand a.k.a. 4-and-1).
I feel that you can start the cha (as a lead) on either the 2 or the 6. To me, since cha doesn't have the clave, and does have a prominent 4-and-1 (due to the slowness, "uncrowdedness" of the song), I feel comfortable dancing on either the 2 or the 6... I really only count char as a one bar beat (where I identify salsa as a two bar song/dance).
The cha cha cha chasse is danced is on both the downbeat and the upbeat, which makes a nice bridge across the music.
Other Song Types
Note that there are other types of music than you can dance Cha Cha to (depending on how you feel the music). Many pop/rock songs have a cha beat to them (ranging from "Smooth Operator" by Sade through to "I hate everything about you" by Ugly Kid Joe). Of course, you can also dance cha cha to some other Latin types of music, including Guajira.