Salsa “ingredients” – Part I: Cumbia

This series explores the many dances that have influenced and helped create salsa.

The literal meaning of “salsa” is a sauce composed by mixing together a number of spicy ingredients. This is a very apt name for the dance – not just because it’s spicy and sexy, but also because salsa evolved by mixing elements of various other dances, including guaguanco, Cuban són, mambo, danzon, cumbia and a strong African influence.

While you were learning your salsa steps in beginner classes, you may have heard us calling out for “guaguanco” or “cumbia” while doing shines or warming up. Aside from being salsa staples, these words also refer to dances in their own right. Today, we are exploring cumbia!


Cumbia originated in Colombia’s costal region, and began as a courtship dance among the African slave population. During the dance, the women would wave their long skirts while holding a candle, and men would dance behind the women with one hand behind their back, and the other hand playing with their hats. (Fun fact: due to its origins as a slave dance, before the mid-20th century, dancing Cumbia was considered inappropriate for the middle and higher social classes.)

Cumbia has evolved over time into many different styles and genres, and flourished during the mid-20th century, which is considered the “Golden Age of Cumbia”. In most Andean states (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia), Cumbia is still more popular than salsa!

Here is a sample of Cumbia dancing. This style of cumbia music, called cumbia sonidera, is specific to Mexico.

The cumbia basic step consists of two back breaks. On each back break, the partners are stepping away from each other, creating tension that then brings them back together (think of stretching an elastic band, then easing it back). This momentum is also used to create circular turn patterns.

Cumbia influence in salsa

Salsa borrows many elements from cumbia, including its basic step. The “cumbia step” in salsa (also known as “back step”, or “Cuban break”), where the dancer takes two breaks while rotating their body to the opposite side, is in fact the basic step of cumbia.

Another common cumbia element found in salsa is the “open break”, which happens whenever both partners step back at the same time, creating a tension in their arms that gives them momentum to go into a turn pattern. This is a key cumbia element.

So next time you learn a move involving an open break, you’ll be learning a cumbia move!


2 thoughts on “Salsa “ingredients” – Part I: Cumbia

  1. Pingback: Salsa “ingredients” – Part III: Són cubano | azucarottawa

  2. Pingback: Artist of the Month – Salsa Celtica | azucarottawa

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