Colombian salsa: What’s it all about
When night falls over Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali, the city lights up with salsa — a palpable electric current that animates and unifies this twinkling city nestled in the jungle. More than deserving of its title as the global salsa capital, the city lives, breathes, and dances salsa like nowhere else on earth — to its own distinct rhythm: Colombian salsa.
Completely unique from the other 3 major global salsa styles (On-1, On-2, and Cuban Salsa), Colombian style salsa (aka Salsa Caleña) is all about moving your feet. Dancers kick, shuffle, and swivel across the floor, punctuating the dance with swift turns. But don’t let that deter you! Salsa Colombian style is much more approachable than it may look, and we’re here to get you up to speed — quite literally, as the dance is famous for its fast footwork and explosive energy. (You will also find plenty of the familiar, forward-back basic step of On-1 Salsa in Medellin Colombia!)
Colombians like it fast
Salsa made a grand entrance in 1968 when New York musical duo, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, tore it up at Cali Colombia’s annual cultural festival, the Feria de Cali. It was like salsa set fire to the city, as neighborhood salsatecas sprung up and new, innovative musical groups proliferated. But Caleños (people from Cali) didn’t just take the music and dance it as it came. The city made the rhythm its own. To dial up the energy, DJs would play records at nearly twice the normal speed. (So much so that Richie Ray was disturbed by the chipmunk-like effect this had on his voice).
A frenzy of footwork
As salsa spread, much of Colombia started dancing along in a similar style to the Colombian Cumbia, a folkloric courtship dance. Cali went a step further. To match the uptempo, wildly-energetic spun by Cali’s DJs, Caleños took some of the basic steps of the Cumbia, and layered on fast kicks, skips, shuffles, and twists.
The result? An exhilarating dance that feels more frenetic, playful, and explosive than it does romantic or graceful. Salsa Colombian style is really all about the fast footwork. Since those days, the style has permeated all of Colombia, including Medellin, where everyone and their mother dances salsa in the way trailblazed by their neighbors in Cali.
Colombian-style footwork is powered by some of the kicks and loose, rock-and-roll styling of Latin Boogaloo — as well as the swift skipping, shuffling and swiveling steps of the Caribbean dance, Pachanga. To this day, Pachanga is so vital to Colombian-style salsa, that one of the city’s best-known salsa anthems is Grupo Niche’s classic, “Cali Pachanguero.”
With all this talk of kicks and shuffles, you may be wondering — do you need to know crazy footwork in order to dance salsa Colombian style out on the town? No way! Salsa Caleña is as diverse as it is energetic. The flashy, lightning-fast style you’ll see in dance academies and competitions varies quite dramatically from the casual street style you see in neighborhood bars, or even on the street.
Colombian style salsa, street edition
Paradoxically, street style Salsa Caleña may be one of the easiest salsa styles to learn as a beginner. Very similar to the Cumbia, it’s got an intuitive basic step, simple turns, and accessible footwork (occasional small kicks or taps). Informally passed down from generation to generation at block parties and family barbeques, the street style you’ll see in local dive bars is almost never taught in group classes. But ask any instructor in Colombia, and they’ll be able to get you dance floor-ready in just a few private lessons.
In its crazier, more advanced forms, Salsa Caleña boasts acrobatic tricks and flips, and the dancers’ whirring feet reach such high speeds they seem to blur together like a cartoon character on the dash.
Planning a trip to Colombia?
Once you get here, the sheer, contagious energy of Colombian salsa is sure to pull you in. You won’t want to sit on the sidelines. Our advice? If you’re traveling to Medellin, join an immersion! Whatever your level of experience with other salsa styles, Colombian salsa is completely unique and well worth learning.