3 Moves to Learn Salsa

Posted by Jake on 12th May 2015

On the surface of it, Salsa looks like a really complex dance – but I’m today putting it out there that it’s really simple and every move in Salsa is just a combination of three fundamental moves…

OK, before we get into it – a few fairly large caveats:

  • This is not my idea - I’ve got to give credit to Nicky Lloyd Greame on this one.  And I hope she will forgive me if I’ve muddled up her thoughts on this!  But a workshop she gave a few years ago captivated me and has had me thinking ever since.
  • I don’t know everything, still have much to learn myself and I’m willing to admit that Salsa Dancing like any art form is massively subjective – every teacher and student has their own take on it.  This is simply my opinion, and admittedly stolen at that.
  • I’m not really talking about three specific moves – but three types of move that are on some level, fundamentally the same.  I’m stripping away the window dressing and getting to the core of the matter.
  • I think Salsa is a simple dance, but it takes years to master.  And I certainly wouldn’t call myself a master.
  • With these three moves, and a healthy dose of different positions and decoration, there are infinite possibilities – and that’s what makes the dance so inspiring and addictive.
  • I don’t count the basic steps like the mambo and sidestep – they’re more about fundamental skills like timing and stepping than moves in my book.
  • I’m talking about Cross Body Salsa which strictly speaking is danced on a line – the slot.
  • I’m referring to partner work, not shines.
  • Rules are there to be broken.

If you can forgive me the above, and aren’t rushing to hit the back button, then on with the show…

Move 1 - Turns

First up – Turns.  Whether to the right or to the left; for the lead or for the follow; turns are a fundamental building block of Salsa.

You can do a full turn by turning through 360 degrees.  You can turn a quarter, or a half.  You can turn twice, three times or more.  But a turn on the spot is a fundamental move.  Turning while you travel across the floor, involves a combination with some other move.

A few tips:

  • Keep your knees bent and your centre of gravity low.
  • Step out your turns until you’re comfortable spinning on one foot.
  • Keep your thighs/knees together as you turn and your feet underneath you – don’t take big steps and move off your centre.

When you’re dancing on the line (in the slot), a dance with only 360 degree turns is going to leave both partners looking at the same side of the room all night.  Boring right?  That’s where my next ‘move’ comes in…

Move 2 - Cross Body Leads

During a Cross Body Lead, the lead guides their partner across their body from one side of the line to the other.  Importantly, both partners do a half turn (180 degrees) in the process to face the opposite way.  This means they get to see the other side of the room for more than a fleeting moment.  Nice.

As a general rule of thumb, the slot belongs to the follow – so it’s the lead’s job to get out of the way while the follow goes past.  Not getting out of the way is a mistake that a lead will only make once, as their partner comes through with the knee…

I’d put both a classic Cross Body Lead and a Walk Through in this category, they achieve much the same result.

Move 3 - Open Break

An Open Break is a moment of tension that is created by both partners stepping away from each other.  This allows the lead to get their partner moving forward more vigorously than she usually would.  Useful in a whole host of situations.  Like if there’s a sudden fire behind her.  Or you want to do a Copa (more on that later).

A difficult one to teach on its own, because it’s usually combined with Moves 1 & 2.  But while you can Open Break in isolation, admittedly it’s fairly boring.

Building Blocks

OK, so my whole premise aside, I’m willing to admit this is something of an over simplification – but a useful one.  These building blocks allow you to construct and deconstruct any move in Salsa.

Beginner moves tend to be one of the three moves in isolation, or possibly two like a Cross Body with a Turn.  As moves get more complex, they tend to include more and more building blocks in a single count of eight – until you can barely see what’s happening.

And non-standard positioning and decoration gets added, which I’ll cover shortly.

Because some of the combination moves are so common and fundamental, and have quite specific ways to be danced, I tend to teach the following eight moves as the core moves that everyone should know to form the building blocks of a good understanding:

A Practical List of Core Moves

  • Right Turn (Turn)
  • Left Turn (Turn)
  • Cross Body (Cross Body)
  • Walk Through (Cross Body)
  • Cross Body with Left Turn (Cross Body plus extra Turn)
  • Cross Body with Right Turn (Cross Body plus extra Turn)
  • Open Break (Open Break)
  • Copa (Open Break + Turns)

And the next time a lead says to me, “I’m bored of my moves, need to learn more.”  I’m going to refer them to this post and say, go and make up your own!  Learn the practical list of core moves and the stick them together.  Try stuff.  That’s what I do for your classes.

Different Positions

So I mentioned Positions earlier, so I’m going to explain what I meant by that.  I’m talking about the relative position the lead and follow have to each other.

I’m including things like open hold, closed hold, hammerlock, titanic, crossed hands, hand knot, no hold, on the slot, off the slot.

For me, a hold is the way you connect with your partner – so all holds are positions, but not all positions are holds…  Ahem.

Just my way of looking at things, I don’t want to get into an argument about semantics!

Most moves can be performed from a whole range of different positions, but they remain largely the same.  Part of the trick to becoming a competent lead for example, is being able to lead the core moves from different positions so that they feel the same to follow.  This is where a fair amount of judgement and subjectivity is introduced.


The final piece in the puzzle for me is decoration.  In this category I lump a lot of things like styling, combs, hand flicks and the like.

Often, the inclusion of decoration is simply to mark the music, make things look and feel nice – or to change position.  For me it doesn’t really change the moves you’re doing – it just adds to them.

Sometimes, like in the case of necessary styling, it actually makes things easier or safer.

A Challenge

Well that’s Salsa in a Nutshell.  Like I said earlier, credit must go to Nicky Lloyd Greame for the ideas here – but I’m a passionate advocate of this philosophy and the more I’ve thought about this way of looking at things – the more I’ve added to the ‘Three Move’ concept with my own ideas.

Now while I think Salsa as a partner dance is a simple dance, I do think it takes years of practice and ups and downs to master the subtleties of positioning, tension, timing, musicality and elegance that combine to make a truly inspiring dancer.  And the combination of different building blocks leads to infinite possiblities.

But if this post acts as a simple frame to your understanding of the details and subtlety – then great!

OK, time for a challenge.  I dare you to find a video of any partner dance move from Cross Body Salsa that you think breaks the rules above and post it in the comments.  Just stick the URL of the YouTube video into the comment box.

I’ll do my best to break it down in terms of the concepts I’ve outlined.

Something tells me I’m going to regret this…

By Jake

Nearly a decade ago, I resolved to run a salsa night the way I thought it should be run and the idea for StreetSalsa was born.  The rest as they say is history..

I've made some of the best friends you could wish for through dancing, and want to share what a life-changing experience dance can be.

By Nicky on 14th May 2015 at 22:28

I love this post (obviousy)... would be interested to see other peoples thoughts on this. :-)

Thanks Jake

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