Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cuban Salsa Songs vs Linear/Western Styles

The main division of dance and musical style I see in Salsa is that of Cuban versus Western (two terms that I have picked).

Here are my thoughts on Cuban styled salsa (the music and the dance style):
  • Quite complex melodies and bass lines
  • Often a drum kit is used instead of a full complement of Latin percussion instruments
  • The feel is grounded - a lot of Cuban basic/sidesteps, a distinct pause between the forward step and the back step, and a lot of shoulder movement / rumba movement
  • At other times, the music can be quite jumpy... a cumbia feel, particularly when the Caballo conga pattern is being played.
  • All on-beats are given equal attention: 1, 3, 5, 7. This gives an upbeat/happy sort of a feel, and it is also very rhythmical/regular feeling.
For western styled salsa, these are my thoughts:
  • The melodies, bass lines, and lyrics are very simple, repetitive, and jazzy. Even though the music is complex, if you break each instrument down, they are playing fundamentally simple constructs.
  • There is a real swing to the feel of the music, due possibly to more of a pop influence (i.e. a definite down beat and upbeat, or in other words, the upbeat isn't as regular). So, you can really hear the 1 and the 5, which gives a "swing" across each pair of bars.
The Differences to the Dance

Cuban styled salsa music is complicated - it's great to listen to, but very complex. I can't dance linear/western salsa to Cuban music. While I can stay in time, I don't feel the music in my style of dancing (linear), and I get angry/upset dancing a linear style to it! Linear has a smooth jazzy tone to it, whereas Cuban feels more jumpy yet intricate. However... good Cuban dancers often are very smooth in their dancing, which is a pleasure to watch.

Hopefully you already know that Cuban styled salsa is typically danced in a circular motion, whereas Western salsa is danced in a slot pattern (great for nightclub dancing where there isn't much room).

Western/linear dancers employ a technique/motion called "light and shade", which to me represents the "quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-slow" salsa fundamental of on-1 dancing, or the "slow-quick-quick, slow-quick-quick" fundamental of on-2 dancing (which is the same timing as on-1, incidentally). I have a feeling that the term "light and shade" originates from ballroom. To me, light and shade encapsulates the "feel" of linear salsa music... a slow break away from the center of both dancers, then a quick exchange across the track, then back into the shade again.


Done well, linear styled dancing uses minimal floor space, which is a bonus for busy night clubs. Additionally, it is a good style (particularly on-1) for performances where big-hitting show moves are required (moves match up with the music nicely, so too for shines). For Cuban performances, it is easier (to a degree) to line up yourself and your partner with the audience (requiring less choreography), recover from mistakes, etc. I have performed freestyle Cuban routines (in front of audiences that include Albert Torres, Super Mario and the like) without any issues... the routines come across fairly choreographed. However, when performing Linear routines, personally, I feel that these must be choreographed to every single beat of the music, as one mistake and the entire section can go out the window.


  1. I really like your blog and your angle. You took it down to the roots in order to better your dance, that's awesome!

    By the way, are those schalloch's you are playing in the picture? If so, how do you like them?

    The Timba music that our dancer's ears are trained on usually blows the American stylists heads wide open! But because the style is so physically expressive it helps to have a wide and complicated base to draw from.

    Light and shade? Interesting.

    And yes, it is much easier to 'fudge' Cuban Salsa choreography which to me is an advantage if you are the 'improvisational type' because every performance has its own feeling that stemming from atmosphere, current emotions, audience etc.

    Thanks for the post!

    Eduardo (

  2. Hello, Could you tell me the difference between Puerto Rican, Palladium Style and New York Style?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi John,

      I won't be able to give you a good enough answer... I recommend posting the question to It will generate quite some debate!