Cuban or New York Salsa? What do you choose?

Cuban or new york style salsa, what do you choose? For most dancers, there is an obvious choice which then extends into the music you enjoy while dancing. You might even say there is a 'rivalry' between the two dances. 

To start, let's define some terminology,  'cuban style salsa', is actually called casino. For the last few decades, casino has been danced to timba music, which is a fusion of son with Afro-cuban rumba, yoruba as well as jazz and funk.

The salsa that came out of NY is also a fusion of Cuban son that emerged in the 70's, it combined latin rhythms from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of South America.  Arguably of course, each country had their own unique sounds developing in earlier decades.

I was also lucky enough to see Los Van Van in Barcelona this summer. 

I was also lucky enough to see Los Van Van in Barcelona this summer. 

My very first time in Cuba, I went to a concert of Los Van Van at the Casa de La Musica in Centro Havana.  I didn't know of Los Van Van, but I was told they were the most famous group coming out of Cuba. In fact, they just celebrated their 45th anniversary this month. 

I had learned to dance new york salsa in Ottawa but I hadn't been dancing for years. And while I had taken a few classes in rueda de casino (see the bottom of the post for a description of rueda), I didn't know the extent of the difference. 

La casa de la musica was packed, I hung out towards the back of the venue with Amanuel, a Canadian who been living in Cuba learning to dance casino. An hour into the concert someone asked me to dance. I was nervous, but did not want to refuse. We began and I struggled - a lot. He quickly pointed out (as Cubans do) that I was off rhythm.  I was embarrassed, but he was right - I couldn't find the beat; the time wasn't as obvious as I was used to hearing in Ottawa. Where was the 1? Years later, having learnt a lot more about Cuban music, things have improved, but like anything, it takes time to train your ear to something new.  

Watch a NY style dancer move to timba music or, a casino dancer dancing to latin jazz, and there will be a look of confusion or discomfort. Truly, it's a humbling test of your 'musicality'. 

In many cities, there is a 'salsa divide'. Venues are dedicated to casino or new york dancers, who generally don’t attend cross-genre events. For instance, in Toronto, you go to Lula lounge and Salsa Klimax for Cuban, and to Dovercourt and Babaluu’s for New York. In Montreal, it's Titosalsabor for Cuban and Moka, 6/49, and Le Social for New York.  But why the divide?  There are great aspects to both styles.

In Ottawa, where the dance community is small, what's great is that you don’t have to choose. At events like Rahim's Salsa Friday's and Salsaria, there are dancers from both sides, we are a bit like West Side Story (e.g., Salsaria Tropicasino Christmas salsa party last night). Admittedly there is less Cuban, but generally, we mix it up; we make it work!  

I am not a musicologist, and I can't explain the ins and outs between Cuban salsa/timba versus 'salsa dura', but I do know there is a great selection of music in both genres that can be danced by both groups of dancers.  Although many NY dancers may not like timba, and vice-versa I believe common ground exists.  Yes, the music is different, but the beats are the same!  Even if you don't like timba, there is a lot of great pre-timba Cuban music.  And salsa dura? It's just incredible. 

Soy DJ La China

I'd like to share with you a few of my favourites.  On December 19th, 2014, 'DJ La China' (i.e. me) will play a set starting at 10:30 PM at Rahim’s Christmas Party. Within salsa, I will play about 50% each timba/pre-timba, and salsa dura, with some bachata, kizomba and cha-cha-cha. So Cuban or NY? If it wasn't obvious, I choose both!  Come out to dance and I’ll put on some music to ‘muevate’! 


A few of my favourites.  First off, timba. Pupy was one of the founding members of Los Van Van:

'Me Estan Llamando' Pupy y Los Que Son Son

And of salsa dura, the one and only Hector Lavoe:

Hector Lavoe's 'El Cantante'


What is the difference between casino and New York style salsa?

In a very basic sense, casino ('Cuban salsa') is a rounder style where the dancers move in a circular motion and the female always returns to the man’s right hand side. Today casino is danced on1 (although perhaps when it was danced more as son, it was also danced on2). 

In contrast, New York style (whether on1 or on2) is danced in a linear fashion and the male and female switch places in a line. Eddies Torres made NY style on2 and pachanga body movement and footwork famous. Casino also has the ‘guapeo’ (one of the male basics) which is different although there is also the regular forward (on 1) basic.  

Finally, casino also ties in other movements from Cuban rumba and Yoruba within the dance, but I've seen this less outside of Cuba. Many folks thinking of 'rueda de casino' when they think of Cuban dance, so what is it?  Known as 'rueda' for short, it is a circular formation of casino dancers where the partners complete the moves from casino at the direction of a caller.  It's not a difference dance, just a different way of dancing casino.