Salsa is one of the most dynamic and important musical phenomena of the 1900's. In many Hispanic communities, it remains today the most popular style of dance music. Salsa represents a mix of Latin musical genres, but its primary component is Cuban dance music.
The roots of salsa originated in Eastern Cuba early in the l900s. There, Spanish & Afro-Cuban musical elements were combined, both in terms of rhythm and the instruments used. By mid-century, this music came to Havana where foreign influences were absorbed, particularly American jazz and popular music heard on the radio. By the end of the l950s, many Cuban and Puerto Rican people including musicians had settled in the U.S., especially in New York. This created the environment where salsa music completed its development. "El Barrio" (Spanish Harlem) was the main place where this occurred. Many bands were formed; immigrants continued to make Afro-Caribbean music, but they adpated the sound to their new world. They were influenced especially by American jazz.
Gradually in the 50s and 60s, salsa as we know it today was emerging. The most famous musicians of that time were Tito Puente, called the King of Mambo, and Celia Cruz, known as the Queen of Salsa.
The rise of salsa music is also tied cloely to Fania Records which was founded in l964 by the musician Johnny Pacheco and an Italian-American divorce lawyer named Jerry Masucci. The two met at a party in a NY hotel. They struck a deal to launch what became the most influential record label in Latin music's history. Fania was known as "the Latin Motown," with one huge hit after another becoming popular all over Latin America. Many artists became very famous with the promotion they received from the record label "La Fania." Fania Records remolded Cuban music into a sound more appropriate to Latin New York, and they called the sound "salsa."
By the l970s salsa was becoming so popular that Fania's bands and artists were touring all over Latin America. This decade was the real "heyday" of salsa. The type of salsa music that Fania promoted came to be referred to as "hard salsa."
Then in the 80s, another style of salsa which was softer and more romantic was born, with artists like Gilberto Santa Rosa. Around this time, Latin musicians began to have an impact on mainstream U.S. music. Latin music was becoming trendy here and beginning to intrigue the rest of the world as well.
Both types of salsa remain popular today and with the popularity of the music, came the popularity of the dance. Salsa refers both to the music and the dance done to that music. The rhythm for Salsa is quick-quick-slow. To dancers, a "quick" is a step that lasts for one musical beat and a "slow" lasts for two beats.

Photo of Latin Motion and DanceInTime by Jim Pesci.

During the 1950s, a dance craze called Casino Rueda became popular in Cuba. It began in El Casino Deportivo, a Havana social club. The name "casino" comes from the social club where the dance began. "Rueda" means wheel or circle. It is a type of salsa dancing done by a group in a circle, with partners being passed around. This wildly popular dance was done everywhere in Cuba---in the streets, in parking lots, in clubs, in homes.

The moves to this dance are numerous and can be very complex. The dance is done by two or more couples who do the moves in synchrony. A member of the circle calls the moves for everyone to execute. Each move has a name and most have hand signals since it is hard to hear in noisy nightclubs. Moves can be called in quick succession, and along with frequent partner exchanges, this creates a very dynamic and exciting atmosphere for everyone involved.

The group nature of the dance is unique and makes it quite social. A group consciousness develops to make the rueda work well---with everyone watching the leader for the calls. Dancers have to open up their sphere of awareness far beyond what is necessary for ordinary partner dancing. Whether you are dancing or watching, it is thrilling when a rueda circle works well and flows smoothly!!

This festive dance was brought to Miami by Cuban immigrants and took hold there in the l970s and l980s. From Miami, it spread first to major U.S. metropolitan centers with large Hispanic populations and eventually to other cities as well. The movie "Dance with Me" has a segment of rueda dancing which helped poplularize the dance in this country. Casino Rueda can be done to any salsa music. It is best danced to music with a driving beat and no rhythm breaks. (Latin music often changes rhythm throughout one song, unlike American music.)

The timing of the dance is "quick, quick, slow"----exactly the same as salsa. The "slow" beat is twice as long as the "quicks." Hence there are 4 beats to a measure and the dancer steps on 3 of them.  Note that salsa dancers can step on beats 1, 2 and 3 or on beats 2, 3, and 4. The former pattern is called "dancing on 1" and the latter is called "dancing on 2," assuming that the first step is the break step. Some dancers prefer to dance on one since that is more consistent with an American approach to music, and the first beat is easier to find. But some people prefer dancing on two, which is a little more musically difficult. Rueda in this country is generally danced on one. To the reader, this difference--which beat the dance pattern starts on---may seem like a small matter. But to serious "on 1" or "on 2" dancers, it is the stuff of endless discussion and debate!!

Salsa/rueda is related to the ballroom dance mambo. Mambo is always danced "on two" and the moves are sharper. In mambo, you hold still on beat one. In salsa you continue to glide through the beat even when you are not taking a step. This creates a more fluid, undulating feeling to salsa---like an ocean wave. (To read an article published in a dance magazine about Casino Rueda, click here .)

I want to add a note about an interesting film that is currently being produced about Cuban dancing.  A woman named Sarita is producing a documentary on Cuban Salsa which addresses the origins of Rueda de Casino.  It features Cuban culture and dance by following the lives of some members of  "La Rueda de Guanabacoa," a Cuban dance team. A trailer for this movie has been completed and you can watch it by clicking on the link below.
Readers who would like to contact Sarita about contributing to this project in any way can reach her at

Side Note:

I had the pleasure of doing a dance performance October 8, 2005 in which we simulated the nightclub scene from the movie Dance With Me.  This scene depicted the tremendous joy of dancing a Rueda circle. 

A Hustle dance instructor named Joyce Szili put together this show for the Sat. night Gala at the U. S. National Dance Championships.   A number of movies featuring different dance were represented.  She asked people with expertise in a dance to imitate a movie scene featuring that dance.  So for example, some tango teachers imitated the tango scene in Scent of a Woman, and a Hustle dancer did a scene from Saturday Night Fever, etc. 

I was assigned to do the Rueda nightclub scene from Dance With Me.  We used the same music they danced to in the movie and we did some of the same steps.  It was a lot of fun, and since the scene we were imitating was so lively and joyful, our performance was as well!

This movie was of some historic importance since it did a lot to expose people in the U.S. to Casino Rueda.  I personally know a number of people who told me that they were inspired to learn the dance after watching the movie.

This photo was taken on 10/8/05 at a performance where the dancers simulated the famous Rueda de Casino scene from the movie "Dance With Me". This movie helped make the dance popular in the US.

Copyright Barbara Bernstein of, 2005