Latin Dance 101

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You hear Latin music and it makes you want to dance – but is it a Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, or something entirely different? The beat tempts you to the dance floor, but what do you do once you’re out there?

Today my friend and professional Latin dance instructor, Jennifer Gonzalez, guest posts and gives us the basics!


Lovin’ that Latin Dance!

by Jennifer Gonzalez

It is hard to believe that just 13-14 years ago I had no idea that merengue, salsa, bachata, or cha cha cha were dances. Ok, maybe in the ballroom world I had heard a bit about cha cha cha or salsa but definitely nothing else. The only type of Latin dance I had ever laid eyes on was whatever came out of Mexico or California. As much as I love the Mexican culture – the dance just didn’t do it for me.

Then one day, I met this man. He was (well, still is) Puerto Rican and he introduced me to ‘his’ music! I fell in love with the music instantly.  For one of our dates, we went to go to see the movie, “Dance With Me” staring Chayanne and Vanessa Williams. In the movie, Chayanne takes Williams’ character to a club where they dance ‘real’ salsa (not the ballroom kind.) My eyes probably popped out of my head at that moment as I watched and saw what I thought looked like the most fun you could have out at a club.

I told my then-boyfriend, “I must learn how to dance salsa!” So for my birthday we went to a tiny little club that we had found in the City Paper. After only one lesson I was hooked. I had no problem with the rhythm or the steps and wanted more. What I didn’t know was that these lessons were going to open up a whole new world to me full of music, dance, and culture. Little by little I started to learn other dances, where they came from, and how they fit into the culture of Latin America.

What intrigues me is that many times people have a hard time distinguishing Latin music. A merengue will be playing and someone will ask, “Is that salsa?” No. They sound nothing alike. To me.  How can you tell them apart? You learn about them!

Merengue is the easiest of the Latin dances to learn. It involves just two beats and two steps. 1-2, 1-2. The man and women mirror each other’s feet as they dance and start in closed-position. As they step, there is a slight bend to the knee which will move the hips. They key is to not move your shoulders to the side or to bounce – that will give you away as a gringo (or non- Hispanic person) immediately!   The bend in the knee while dancing gives the hips the movement that everyone wants but works so hard to achieve. Because of the easy steps, the leader can move through series of turns without too many issues.  The dance originated in the Dominican Republic in the 19th century and is considered the ‘national dance’.  If you take a trip to the Dominican Republic and stay in a resort, you will most likely find merengue dance lessons each afternoon or evening (sometimes both).  You can see the basic movement in the videos below:

One dance gaining in popularity right now is bachata.  Everyone and their mother and brother want to learn Bachata – especially here in the Washington DC area. Again, this dance comes to us from the Dominican Republic. Many call bachata the ‘country music’ of Latin music. The lyrics are often full of heartache, pain, and love and as a result, the dance itself can portray all of these things. Traditional bachata dancing requires partners hold each other very close in the closed position. Their legs will straddle so as to not step on each other’s feet (with the woman’s right-leg often between the men’s legs while dancing).  The dance involves 4 steps – 4 to the right, 4 to the left with the 4th step being a left-lift or hip pop (see the video).  Although many dance very close together, it isn’t necessary. It can be beautiful danced with space between the man and the woman.

Salsa dancing is one of the most complex Latin dances. Not only are the steps harder to learn but there are variations within the dance itself which have caused controversy for years.  Salsa music first originated in Cuba (as mambo) before being brought to the United States by Cuban musicians. The origins date back to Cuban Son. When the Cubans brought their salsa to the states it wasn’t yet considered ‘salsa’.  Only after the United States shut the doors to Cuba and other artists took the music, added their own flavor (like Fania All Stars) was it given the name ‘salsa’.  The style became immensely popular in Puerto Rico due to singers like Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Tito Puente, and others and slowly moved throughout the world. Today, you will find that styles of salsa vary from country to country. Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and more all have their own distinct style of moving.

What does salsa look like when danced? Excellent question! As people start to learn they may find themselves confused. The styles to pick from are: on1 (LA style), on2 (New York/Puerto Rican style), casino (Cuban style), or Colombian.  They each have their own way of relating to the music but one thing stays the same: the clave.  All salsa music is built upon the clave. If you dance up the clave or down the clave does not matter – just stay with the music. Salsa is danced in 6 beats: 1-2-3, 5-6-7 with on1 and on2 styles pausing for the 4 & the 8.  However, Cuban and Colombian salsa most often use every beat of the music.  Trying to decide which style to learn can be confusing but I suggest to just pick one, learn it well, and then move on to another.

Video 1 demonstration:

Cuban salsa:

New York Style:

Colombian Style:

Beyond Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata

Beyond the dances mentioned above there are numerous other Latin dances available. The most popular is probably the cha cha cha. Most people are familiar with the cha cha cha from ballroom dancing or tv shows like Dancing With the Stars. Again, cha cha cha was born in Cuba. It progressed from the Danzón and received the name ‘cha cha cha’ from the sound the footwork would make on the floor. And although many people call it just the cha cha – the proper name is cha cha cha. The footwork is most similar to salsa but with a syncopated step on the 4 and 8.  For a feel of the cha cha cha, I might recommend people break out their old Santana music and listen to “Oye Como Va.” This song was written by Tito Puente as a straight cha cha cha but Santana took it and created an incredible rock song. The cha cha cha is still there in the song. Although the cha cha cha can be danced to some popular music (as they show on tv) it is best danced to classic cha cha cha music for the proper feel.


Another popular dance is Afro-Cuban rumba. Again, ballroom took what they called rumba and created their own dance. When you say ‘rumba’ in Cuba or in Puerto Rico or other Latin American countries they will most often assume you are talking about the rhythm that originated in Cuba. Because rumba is so diverse and complex, I would suggest reading this article I wrote for Ritmo Bello which explains the types of rumba as well as gives examples.


Learning these dances not only gives people the opportunity to connect with a culture (Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Dominican, etc.) it provides an outlet for exercise and socializing. Some of my greatest friends have come through dancing salsa.  And for me, I know that I still have so much to learn. Watch the videos, pick up some music from Amazon or iTunes, and get in the groove!


Jennifer Gonzalez has been dancing salsa for the past 12 years and salsa rueda/casino for the past 10. She danced and taught with SAOCO DC for 4 years before having to focus her interests elsewhere due to kids, work, and life in general. She has also taught at the San Francisco Salsa Rueda Festival for two years and independently throughout Northern Virginia. Jennifer dances LA Style on1 and salsa casino but prefers salsa casino. She has trained with Aramis Pazos in Washington DC in AfroCuban dance. She works full-time as a web content manager and in search engine optimization/social media marketing. In addition, Jennifer authors Salsa Casino in DC – a blog dedicated to sharing events, classes, and more that are happening in the Washington DC Metro area as well as teaching people about the Cuban history of dance. Additionally, she is a regular contributor to and The Examiner. When she is not dancing, thinking about dancing, or writing about dancing she spends time with her two children and husband.


  1. My favorite dance is the bachata. I remember the first time I danced it. I was on vacation in VA, and went to a club at VA beach on a Friday night with my cousin. Then on Saturday night we went to a closer club and it was latin night. It just so happened that my cousin and I saw two guys from the night before at this other club too.

    The club was mainly playing bachata and salsa. So, a Dominican guy from Boston was kind enough to take me on the floor and teach me how to Bachata. It was simple and it was fun. I have been hooked ever since.

    But, I really do love the rhythm of the music. Now, when I am stressed out, I just tune to Batanga and go to the bachata station and relax.

    • Bachata is by no means simple. It is, in fact, the world’s most technically AND physically difficult social dance, after only Argentine Tango (although some might hold out for Viennese Waltz). I get this from someone who grew up in the Dominican Republic. Salsa is a snap in comparison to bachata.

      • Well Joe… it sounds like you’re just saying what you’ve heard opposed to actually taking the time to learn all the dances. The basics of Bachata are easier than salsa. The basics of salsa aren’t that hard. What you’re hearing is that the syncopated steps of Bachata can be harder than salsa but you don’t specify which type of salsa. Sure there can be very complicated footwork in Bachata – same as salsa. However, let’s take Cuban salsa as an example. In Cuban salsa you often learn the different Afro-Cuban rhythyms – for the Orishas. Those rhythyms are complicated and are all slightly different. Those get incorporated into the salsa because Cuban music incorporates them. That requires some in-depth learning. Bachata does not have different rhythyms. It is far more basic (that doesn’t mean it is a lesser form of music – just different) and does not require the learning of different steps to match different rhythyms. I would really encourage you to get out and learn for yourself rather than just spouting what you’ve heard.

      • I stand by what I said and have been reliably told by someone who knows bachata from her days growing up in the Dominican Republic. But there – here – is one other proof: Bachata would not be the “IN” dance it is today if it were easier than salsa. The dancing public does not want easy dances, They want challenging dances – – – dances that are difficult to learn, difficult to do, and physically taxing. They want something that is more challenging than salsa, and bachata fills the bill to a “T.’
        How to explain the popularity of Savoy Lindy? It is HARD. Why have Bossa Nova and Lambada (despite its offering, like bachata, the opportunity to “dry-hump” while dancing) never been hits with the dancing public? Because they are EASY. Easy enough to be practically picked up on-the-spot without any formal coaching. Why is West Coast Swing – a truly lovely, sweet dance – all but dead? Because it is EASY. Yes, it does require a small amount of coaching to learn the basic step and a few patterns, but then one is all set for a truly delightful dance experience. The only studio around the NYC area that offers bachata teaches it in a twelve-week sequence of 90-minute classes, at $45 a pop. That’s 18 hours of instruction and $540 to learn how to do what? Dry-hump on the dance floor? And that’s for SURVIVAL-LEVEL PROFICIENCY. Good grief, Charlie Brown!!! Let’s have a few easy dances, like St. Louis Shag and Viennese Waltz. Happy dancing, whatever you do!!!

  2. FANTASTIC POST! I’ve learned a lot in this post alone than I have with my own Dad (a dancing fiend as well). You’d think I’d have it in me to dance, but that gene skipped me & went into my son (whom also loves to dance!). I really truly wish one day to have Jenn teach me how to dance.


  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. It is almost as if I wrote it. I say this since this is how I try to explain to people that are new to the genre. Very well done!

    And, as a side, the girl in the merengue videos, Erika, is actually the cousin to a good friend of mine. She used to be one of the dancers on “Caliente” when it used to air on Univision.

  4. Really nice post from Jennifer (who is an AMAZING dancer)! I love the first three dances and styles of music (I’m especially obsessed with bachata and salsa) and this is a great way to explain the differences. :)

    • While I’m glad you enjoyed the guest post, I would prefer that you simply link to it. Duplicate content is not good for SEO (search engine optimization) and is generally frowned upon by Google. If you contact the author of the post directly and she is interested in re-posting her article, (as she retains the rights to these words), I would appreciate if the article was re-worded and not directly cut & pasted. Thank you!

    • Hello Salseroruiz! Thanks for enjoying my article. I appreciate it. However, please do not repost it. If you’d like to write a blurb/paragraph and reference it (and me of course too – see bio) that’d be great. Or if you’d like me to write for your site, you can contact me about that via email. Thanks so much!!

  5. Great post! I’m musically illiterate, so I thought the only difference between Merengue and Salsa is that one is faster than the other. And I’d never heard of Bachata, which isn’t surprising given that I know very little about dances. I love how you compared them in this post and added videos to illustrate the differences.

  6. Bachata is much, much harder than salsa. It is, in fact, the world’s second most difficult social dance, after only Argentine Tango. This from someone I know who grew up in the D>R>

  7. I am not the best ballroom dancer in the world, but I am always looking for new dances to learn to expand my knowledge. I didn’t know that there was a dance called Bachata! I really like the idea that it is full of heartache, pain, love, and that the dance will portray all of these things, which probably makes it a really passionate dance. It might be a good idea to watch Latin music videos to see if one could find a song that will be great to dance the Bachata to. Thanks for all the insight!

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