The Differences between Cuban and New York LA Style Salsa

Over the holidays I had been teaching private Cuban Salsa lessons to a NYLA trained follow.  At our local Salsa dance club here in Edmonton called On The Rocks, the Cuban leads are more numerous than NYLA leads and my student was having trouble following Cuban leads.  By having to clearly delineate between the two for my student, it became clearer what the differences are and it comes down to four things:

  1. Circles – Cuban salsa dancing is about moving your follow around in circles.  For example, Setenta starts with the lead and follow trading places, and unlike NYLA, the follow ends facing perpendicular to the NYLA “line”.  From a follow’s perspective the difficulty is that the entire first eight count to Setenta means walking out a circle.  On 1,2,3, the follow turns to the right and gets into the hammer lock and on 5,6,7 the lead, pushing the follow’s hip, moves them around until they have switched positions.  In Rueda de Casino, the follow needs to walk such that they are down stream and face the lead so that the following enchuflas allow the lead to end up on the right side for Guapea.  However, in social Cuban dancing, the lead may take the follow around three-quarters of a circle or more, over multiple eight counts, before undoing the hammer lock.  That pull on the hip to start the follow walking around is what strictly NYLA dancers misinterpret as a lead to unravel the hammer lock.  Which leads me to:
    • Step out the turns – NYLA dancers love nothing better then to run through a triple spin on 5,6,7 where as Cuban dancers take it slower and with accentuated hip motion, walk out a single turn.  The typical problem beginner NYLA dancers face learning Cuban is that they turn much too fast and without knowing where the next “one” of 1,2,3 is, end up out of sync.
  2. Prep on seven – The basic NYLA prep is a downward rotation with the follow’s right hand and happens on 1,2,3 but the Cuban prep is on 7 with the follow’s hand going their left.  NYLA dancers expect to “follow the hand” and step to the left on one instead of preparing to turn on 1,2,3.  For a beginner NYLA dancer learning Cuban, that misstep means they get out of sync.
  3. The “Slot” – “Neutral Position” or “the pocket”.  This is where the follow ends up on the right side of the lead, unlike NYLA, where the follow is either in front of or behind the lead.  The “Pocket” is where Cubans start all sorts of moves, from Dile que no to Sacalas to Pasealas.  It is also the position that Cuban follows should end up when doing a vascilala, e.g. where they are prepped on seven and then turn in place as walk around to the right.
  4. Body motion – NYLA follows are about flowing arms and hands with accentuated flourishes.  Cuban follows are about continuous figure eights with the hips, two per eight count.

Agree?  Disagree?  Let me know in the comments below.

Although a fairly common ability, I have danced both NYLA and Cuban for years now and like them both.  What is more uncommon is that I also have training as a follow in both NYLA and Cuban.


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About Sean Donovan

I am a web developer, underwater hockey player, salsa dancer and sometimes writer. According to my girlfriend, I have a few too many hobbies, but love them all.

4Comments | Discussion on “The Differences between Cuban and New York LA Style Salsa

  1. Wow thank you for sharing your experience and opinions. This was just the issue I had recently. I am a beginner cubaanse salsa student and I went to a predominately la salsa festival. I heard one song that i could dance cubaanse salsa to and asked a girl if she would not mind dancing cuban style with a beginner. She replied “this is not cubaanse music” . My little bit of self confidence that took me months to build up evaporated instantly and for the rest of the festival I was at total loss as to how you can distinguish if a song is cubaan or la style. Your comments are a great help thanks. Maybe by next year I will have built up a little bit of self confidence to ask someone for a dance again.

  2. Is there also difference in songs, between cuban and newyork style, Can we dance any style in one songs or not.

    • A great question! I notice a difference, for example, I find the Cuban songs can be less clear about where the 1 and 5 are. Songs good for NYLA are usually “flashy”, for example, they intentionally add sections where a “hit” can be applied so you can do a dip or shine.

      And yes, you can dance cuban to a NYLA song and visa versa, but some songs just feel better doing one or the other. I find the choices for songs on which the ON2 beat is clear is narrower though.

      But I leave it up to our resident DJ, Clavecito to really answer the question.

    • It’s a good question. Technically, you could dance either style to any song with 4 beats in a bar but I agree with Sean that certain dance styles lend themselves better to particular types of salsa music. My very simplistic analysis of this is that it is the music that is the inspiration for the dance and the music that inspired NY/LA salsa (mambo) tends to have one dominating rhythm. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot going on in this music because there it. It’s just that all the instruments tend to support one rhythm, which makes this rhythm easy (or easier) to identify. This is import because NY/LA style salsa has a lot of rules: when to prep, when to turn, where to end up at the end of the move and so on. If you can hear the rhythm in a song easily, then you can focus on your moves. Cuban style salsa (called casino) on the other hand, is a lot less structured. Casino dancers don’t worry too much about rules and this is a good thing because the Cuban salsa (timba) that inspired the moves tends to be poly-rhythmic in nature. In other words the rhythms that different instruments are playing can at times compete with each other for attention. This can make it more challenging to find one rhythm to dance on. This is ok however because casino moves depend less on such things as when to prep and where you should end up at the end of the move.

      My personal experience is that when I first started dancing I didn’t care much about the type of music I danced to. However, as I continue to develop an appreciation for the board range of music that make up ’Salsa’ I find more and more that dances feels better when the dance style matches the music. The fact of the matter is that dance instructors and choreographers build their moves to match specific musical styles. Casino moves can have a lot of Afro-Cuban movements to them, which play on the afro-cuban rhythms found in Timba. NY/LA movements can have lots of footwork that work with a song’s montuno section and precisely timed movements that rely on a song having a dominating and consistent rhythm.

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