A Brief Explanation of Salsa and the Seven Ballroom Dances

There are seven basic ballroom dances. Fox Trot, Waltz and Tango are known as the slow or smooth dances. Cha Cha, Rumba, Samba and Swing are referred to as the Latin dances. These seven dances encompass the seven basic dance rhythms that exist.

In our school, you will learn Fox Trot, Waltz, Cha Cha and Swing/Jive in the beginner programs. As you continue with your lessons, you will be introduced to Rumba, Tango and Samba. We presently offer six different levels of ballroom dance from beginner to advanced. We also offer Salsa as a separate class, though it’s not considered ballroom. Here’s a brief explanation of the dances.

Fox Trot

The story is that a New York Broadway dancer named Harry Fox, who had come from England, originated the Fox Trot in the early 1900’s. It’s danced to slow music in what is called 4/4 rhythm, or for dance purposes, 4 beats to a bar of music. This is the most common musical rhythm. The most distinctive feature of the Fox Trot is its smoothness. Although required in many dance styles, smoothness can best be learned in Fox Trot. The dance progresses counter-clockwise around the outside of the dance floor. This movement direction is known as line-of-dance.


Both Austria and Germany claim to have originated Waltz some four centuries ago. The music is a 3/4 rhythm, meaning there are three beats to a bar of music. Some people, even some DJs, think any slow piece of music is a Waltz, but it must have 3 beats to a bar. European or Viennese Waltz is a quick tempo 3/4 rhythm. We in North America dance a slow 3/4 which is dreamy and very romantic and therefore often many people’s favourite dance. The most distinctive feature is its rise and fall, which makes the movement ebb and flow like the music. This rise and fall develops balance and control, which is needed in all dances. Waltz is also danced counter-clockwise around the outside of the room.


Although Tango has been danced in Europe for more than 200 years, it evolved into its present form in Argentina in the early 1900’s. Silent movie idol Rudolph Valentino popularized it in America in the 1920’s. The rhythm is 4 beats to a bar of music, but the beats are defined and they are separated, which is known as staccato rhythm. The dance technique that is developed in Tango is body contact, where the man holds the woman firmly against his body. For the man, Tango is a very passionate, masculine dance, while for the woman it is full of flair. Tango is also danced counter-clockwise around the room.


Originally from Cuba, the Rumba is danced to music that has a seductive, primitive charm which is embodied by the dance’s hip motion. This Cuban motion, said to be an extension of natural hip movements, is Rumba’s most distinctive feature, and it makes the dance very sensuous. It is a 4/4 rhythm, but it does not travel around the room, and is known as a spot dance.

Cha Cha

Originating in Cuba, Cha Cha was born in the 1950’s and is an outgrowth of combining Rumba and another Cuban dance called Mambo. Cha Cha incorporates Cuban hip motion, but also features overt upper-body style and presentation, which gives it its distinctive quality. It is the only dance where couples separate and dance solo. Cha Cha was the first Latin craze to sweep across North America. The latest is Salsa.


Of the seven basic dances, Swing is truly an American invention. Back in the 1930’s and 40’s, a time known as the Big Band Era, the bands played up-tempo music that was called Swing. The dances were East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and the Lindy Hop. With the birth of Rock ‘n Roll in the 1950’s, East Coast Swing was renamed Jive. It’s the easiest of the three swing dances, and the most versatile. It obviously works to swing music and Rock ‘n Roll but also to country music and even contemporary artists like Lady GaGa. Again, it is a spot dance done to 4/4 rhythm music. It requires quick footwork, but the primary skill it teaches is leading because the man has to learn to lead with both hands. Swing/Jive is still the most popular up-tempo dance of all time.


Samba is the last dance our students are introduced to. Originally a Brazilian carnival dance, it gradually developed into a graceful ballroom style while maintaining the high-spirited abandon of the fiesta. The two most distinctive characteristics of Samba are its smooth up and down knee action and its quick weight changes which develop agility. Many Samba steps break out of the standard ballroom two-hand hold and allow for lots of fancy arm styling.


Salsa is the latest Latin dance craze and the most popular club dance. It’s hard to imagine that any dance could top Disco in popularity, but Salsa may be as close as it gets. Salsa is like a street version of another Cuban dance called Mambo. They both have the same rhythm, but they have different timing. The timing in Salsa is easier to learn, making it accessible to more people. The dance pulsates with the same sensual, passionate rhythms of all Latin music. It’s lively tempo demands a strong lead from the man, and the lady must have excellent balance and avoid dizziness in the many intricate turns. Because of this, it’s sometimes referred to as a Latin version of Swing, Jive, or Jitterbug. Salsa has great energy and is just sheer fun.