Toronto Needs to Keep a little Cumbia in its Salsa Mix

Photo c/o Toronto Salsa Practice

Toronto loves its salsa.  Bachata may be sexy, merengue may be fun but salsa has always dominated the Latin nightclubs; a niche dance and music community that has been going strong in Toronto for decades.  However, salsa-love would not be the same without a little cumbia in the mix.

Back when I started hitting the Toronto salsa clubs, about 12 years ago, a few cumbia songs use to always be sprinkled into a salsa club night, with some bachata and merengue, and maybe a cha-cha-cha or two.

Now, I only have a handful of dance partners who know how to lead a good cumbia and I only know of one downtown club that serves up a good set of cumbia songs.  This would be good ol’ El Rancho; a Latin nightclub known, famously and infamously, by most Toronto salsa-dancers.  For after all, any nightclub that has been opened since the 70’s would have its stories to tell.

Sometimes, a salsa lover needs to play with what salsa isn’t in order to appreciate what salsa is.  This certainly should not be the case with everything one loves, but in terms of salsa, I say this is a healthy practice.

Cumbia is not salsa.  Is often confused as salsa and, unfortunately, often danced as salsa.  Salsa, being a ‘sauce’ of styles and flavours, has some roots in cumbia, does play with cumbia sounds and movements — but it ain’t cumbia.  There’s a good reason for this.  Cumbia should be cumbia.  Salsa should be salsa.  And they should always stay in Toronto’s salsa mix because they compliment each other.

Salsa can easily be bogged down by complicated turn patterns and superfast/superhot rhythms and beats.  Even slow salsas can be busy.  There’s a lot going on musically and physically.  Cumbia is that great way to chill a salsa dancer out.   The movement of cumbia drops down, more predominantly, in the hips, is simplified, and makes the whole body movement more circular – or elliptical, rather.   Oddly, simpler can often be harder and this certainly befuddled me when I first learned cumbia.

The music is unlike any other.  It’s like salsa — but it ain’t.  Cumbia music always feels like a rolling, joyful journey that I always want to follow once I hear it.

Technically, all a salsa dancer needs to do is to not step on the 2nd and 6th beat, as we normally would in salsa.  The feet still step left and right or right and left, but the count is 1, 3 and 5, 7.  After a dancer agrees to stay with these simple rules, most salsa patterns will work while still staying in the world of cumbia.  Because the dancer drops the 2nd and 6th beat, the hips start to move more on a momentum, with both the music and your partner.    It’s beautiful, it’s poetic, and it’s perfect.

This is a shout-out to all the Toronto salseros – bug your salsa teachers to teach you just a little cumbia (they should all know it). This salsera just needs to keep a little in the mix.

photo c/o Salsa Dancers in Toronto

Miguel Gutierrez, of, is a Latin dance instructor and performer with a long standing in Toronto’s salsa community, and well-versed in cumbia, El Rancho, and salsa pretzel patterns.