Salsa Tutorial: 10 Ways to Improve Your Basic Salsa Step

Couple dance the salsa basic step
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Spins, dips, shines: these flash salsa moves steal the show. But the move that we do most when dancing salsa, no matter whether we’re a beginner or professional, is the basic.

Every single other move in salsa uses the basic as a foundation. The 4-5-6 might change, or the 1-2-3, or even the entire 8-count—but the step is still built from the basic.

And that’s why, if you polish your salsa basic step, you’ll notice a drastic improvement in everything you do on the dance floor. You’ll dance more fluidly, have more control and balance, and look much better. What’s more, you’ll feel better to dance with, i.e. your partner will have a better time too!

Keep reading for ten ways to improve your basic. Since ten’s a lot, I recommend working on one or two at a time. Bookmark this list and come back to the other points when you’re ready.

Salsa 101: The Basic Step, the Break Step and the Rock Step

Before we get started, let’s clear one thing up: which salsa basic?

The truth is that there are many salsa basic steps, from side steps to dile que no and the cross-body. But in most salsa classes, there’s only one that’s considered the salsa basic.

If you’re already familiar with the salsa basic step and know what “break step” and “rock step” mean, you might want to scroll down to our first tip. But if you’re reading this article ahead of your very first salsa class, you’re preparing to go from on1 to on2 (or vice versa!), or just don’t know what “break” and “rock” refer to, keep reading.

Now, I’ve got some good news for you: across most mainstream salsa styles today, the steps for the salsa basic don’t vary. Depending on your teacher, you might do it on different timing, but the steps themselves are identical.

How to Dance the Salsa Basic Step

In the salsa basic step, we either step or shift our weight on the one-two-three and the five-six-seven. Four and eight aren’t quite a pause (and we’ll get more into that later), but you’re not doing anything new on them.

RELATED: The Rhythm Is Everywhere! A Quick Guide to Common Salsa Rhythms

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And here’s what we do on the one-two-three and five-six-seven:

  • A step forwards with your left foot (called your break step)
  • A shift in weight backwards (called a rock step because you’re not actually moving, you’re just shifting your weight—or rocking—from one leg to another)
  • A step back to the middle with your left foot
  • A step backwards with your right foot (another break step)
  • A shift in weight forwards (another rock step)
  • A step back to the middle with your right foot
  • And repeat!

Some dance teachers will get leaders to start with the first movement and followers with the fourth one; this is called salsa on1. Others will get leaders to start with the third movement and followers with the sixth one; this is called salsa on2. But as you can see, the steps themselves are exactly the same.

Since we don’t take a new step on the 4 and the 8, that means that when dancing on1, we make steps three and six last twice as long. And when dancing on2, we make steps 2 and 5 last twice as long.

The Salsa Basic Step With Counts: on1 and on2

In other words, when you dance salsa on1 as a leader, the basic step looks like this:

  1. A step forwards with your left foot (a break step)
  2. A shift in weight backwards (a rock step)
  3. A step back to the middle with your left foot
  4. No new movements
  5. A step backwards with your right foot (a break step)
  6. A shift in weight forwards (a rock step)
  7. A step back to the middle with your right foot
  8. No new movements

Followers, meanwhile, start on step 5.

And when you dance salsa on2 as a leader, the basic step looks like this:

  1. A step in the middle with your left foot
  2. A step backwards with your right foot (a break step)
  3. A shift in weight forwards (a rock step)
  4. No new movements
  5. A step back to the middle with your right foot
  6. A step forwards with your left foot (a break step)
  7. A shift in weight backwards (a rock step)
  8. No new movements

Followers, again, start on step 5.

Fun fact: the names on1 and on2 refer to which musical beats your break step happens on.

Now we know the basic movements and what our break and rock steps are, let’s take a look at how to polish these movements. The good news is that all these tips will help you dance with more control, style and pizazz—no matter which salsa style or timing you’re dancing.

1. Work on Your Weight Transference

Weight transference is the key to dancing salsa. It creates that amazing body movement from your hips up to your torso. It makes your dancing smoother, allowing you to flow from one step to another. And perhaps more importantly, it ensures you’re always on the right foot, prepared for whatever step is about to come next.

Beginner dancers often forget to shift weight on the rock steps, the movements we do on beats two and five in on1 dancing and beats three and six in on2 dancing. This might not seem like a big deal—at least your feet are in the right places!—but it can lead to taking the next step with the wrong foot. Practising weight transference at home can help you make sure you always step with the right foot, even if you don’t know the move.

Improver, intermediate and advanced dancers will also notice the benefits from practising weight transference. When you do this, remember that weight transference isn’t an instant change but rather a process. It might seem instantaneous when you’re dancing quickly, but going from 0% weight straight to 100% weight is impossible—and that’s a good thing, because it wouldn’t look good either.

So, slow down your weight transference, and pay attention to how your weight shifts from one foot to another. Push into the floor and let that energy propel your transference. See how doing this affects your body movement and your stability. You should discover that you feel more grounded and your body movement looks more natural.

If you find yourself bobbing up and down during this exercise, pay special attention to tip #4.

2. Know How to Use the Different Parts of Your Foot

Every single part of the foot is useful when you dance salsa, from your toes to your heels. They contribute different elements to the dance, from stability to hip movement, and you can choose to play with them depending on the song, your mood and your personal style.

  • Balls: These are the most important parts of your feet. You’ll connect to the ground through them, and they’re what you’ll step with.
  • Toes: These provide balance and stability, especially if you’re wearing high heels. Spread them out as much as possible within your shoes.
  • Heels: These can help you get a more grounded, traditional hip movement. That said, if you’re dancing to a fast song, you might not have a lot of time to use them. It’s also worth mentioning that some, but certainly all, teachers recommend not putting your heel down on the backwards break step. The important thing to remember is that the balls of your feet do most of the work, but your heels are still important.
  • Arches: You probably won’t think much about your arches as you do your basic, but they’re essential from one part of the foot to another, raising and lowering your heel and more. So, look after them! Stretch them periodically by flexing and curling your feet, and make sure to wear shoes that fit you well.

While at home, try shifting your weight from one part of your foot to another. Pay attention to how this affects your balance and body movement. It’s worth doing this both barefoot and in your dance shoes. Barefoot, you’ll notice the difference more—but you also need to know what it’s like in your dance shoes!

3. Dance Like a Duck—Or a Ballet Dancer

Dancing duck-footed might not sound like a good thing, but don’t worry, this tip won’t leave you waddling. Your good posture and weight transference will prevent that.

When you dance, keep your feet slightly turned out, almost as if you were a duck. This will give you better balance and stability, plus it unlocks your hip movement a little more. You’ll also find it helpful when doing turns and body rolls. It’s the same technique used by ballet dancers, although unlike them, you don’t need to aim for 90°!

Woman leads salsa basic step while man follows

4. Don’t Lock Your Knees

When we stand in a bar or chop food at our kitchen counter, we rarely lock our knees. However, there’s something about a dance class that makes us think we have to stand as tall and straight as possible. Relax: this isn’t necessary. While good posture is important, we don’t want to lock our knees or stand unnaturally.

Aim to always have soft knees. They don’t need to be overly bent; we don’t want to look bow-legged. However, they should be unlocked so that they can bend and straighten quickly and fluidly. This will allow you your movement to flow and look more natural. You’ll avoid bobbing as you dance. And, it will help you dance more quickly.

5. Have The Right Posture

Good posture will improve your frame, tension and balance. You’ll not only dance the basic with more control but you’ll connect with your partner better. Start by keeping your weight slightly forwards, charged on the balls of your feet, and your knees soft, like we’ve already talked about.

Next, roll your shoulders back to create tension without tensing up. If you’re not sure what this should feel like, take a mop and grasp the pole with both hands as if you were righting a bike. Keep the pole perpendicular to the floor, close to your body and roughly at the height of your belly button. Make sure your wrists are lower than your knuckles, and then spread your arms out as far as possible while maintaining the pole at the same height. This will position your shoulders perfectly, making it an excellent way to discover what good tension should feel like.

Now, tense your stomach and glutes, keep your head looking forwards rather than down, and start practising the basic. At first, it might feel strange to dance with so much tension, but it will soon feel natural.

6. Let Your Hips and Upper Body Move Naturally

We’ve looked at several things that facilitate body movement: weight transference, using different parts of your feet, having soft knees and turning your feet out slightly. Now, let’s look at two of the things that can go wrong with body movement and how to avoid them.

The first common mistake is forcing hip movement. The second is keeping your upper body so still it looks robotic, especially compared to your sashaying hips. The fix for both of these? Let your hips and torso move naturally.

When you transfer weight from one foot to another, your hips naturally develop their own movement. If you want more hip movement, you just have to push deeper into the ground.

As for your torso, it will also naturally move. If dancing cross-body style salsa with a partner, you’ll want to keep your arms relatively still—but a subtle bit of torso movement is a good thing.

7. Keep Your Body Above Your Feet

Here’s another common beginner- and improver-level mistake: leaving your torso in the middle while your feet travel for their break steps. It’s often a symptom of poor weight transference, so if you notice this happening, revisit tip #1 on this list.

Keeping your body above your feet isn’t just about weight transference, however. It also reduces the risk of treading on or kicking another dancer, plus it means you won’t end up leaning backwards or forwards and break your connection with your partner.

Try videoing yourself while you do the basic. If your upper body is staying in the middle, focus on leading each movement with your torso and taking smaller steps. And on that note…

8. Take Small Steps

Sometimes, big steps are a good thing. For example, if you’re giving a performance, they’ll help you fill the stage. Or, if you’re a teacher, you might want to exaggerate your movement so the entire class can see. Most of the time, however, small steps are better.

Small steps allow you to move with more control and natural body movement. You’ll find it easier to keep your torso above your feet, and you’re less likely to end up bobbing up and down as you step. Plus, fast songs won’t wear you out and floorcraft—the art of not bumping into other dancers—won’t be as challenging.

To work on this, practise the salsa basic step in a doorframe. Once you’ve got that mastered, progress to the cross-body step.

9. Think Quick-Quick-Slow

This step is going to build on the weight transference you’ve already been practising. When you first learn salsa, you’re often taught that beats four and eight are pauses. However, stopping still will make your dancing clunky and awkward.

Instead, try thinking of three and seven as slow or double steps, so that the salsa rhythm becomes quick-quick-slow. You should still step on the three but then extend the body movement through the four. Slow down the weight transfer, and enjoy squeezing more body movement out of this so-called pause.

10. Stagger Your Middle Step

This tip is about those on “in the middle” steps that happen on beats three and seven (on1) or one and four (on2). Instead of keeping your feet parallel at this point, try positioning your right foot slightly in front of the left one. Imagine an invisible line beneath the big toe of your left foot and the arch of your right foot, and you’ll have the distance just about right.

Staggering your middle step like this has numerous benefits. It means your basic step doesn’t visually stop; you’re always going forwards and backwards. Because of this, it allows you to really extend those slow steps on beats three and seven by moving your torso further in space. It also creates a more dynamic feel to your hip and torso movement because your body always a little bit more angled—even though your posture and frame remain perfect. And it can actually allow you and your partner to dance closer without feeling like you’re at risk of stepping on each other’s feet, something that can come in handy on very crowded dance floors.

Unconvinced? Video yourself dancing the basic staggered and unstaggered. You’ll notice how much difference just a couple of inches can make to your body movement.

Despite it’s name, there’s nothing basic about the basic step. I prefer to think of it as the foundation step or base step: the one that supports the rest of your dancing. And improving your foundations will always lead to a more stable, enjoyable and stylish salsa dance.

Feature photo credit: Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock.com

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Ella Baila is the alias of a bachata teacher. She dabbles in most Afro-Latin dances and is blues-curious.