What could be better than a sweat-drenched night of twirling and shaking to the driving beat of salsa’s clave?
Music and language learning form a useful, virtuous circle.
The music motivates learning and the learning benefits immensely from listening to music. In this blog, we’ve previously covered how you can learn Spanish from alternative pop and we’ve even analyzed a few songs.
But if you’re a salsa aficionado, or even just salsa-questioning, we figured you’d like to have a guide to learning Spanish from the hottest salsa tunes (plus a hip little playlist), a guide to what those step names you keep hearing actually mean, and some key vocabulary for interacting in Spanish on the dance floor.
I’ll cover all of that in this post, but first I’ll start with a question I’ve heard from learners quite often: Where in the world should I go to learn salsa and Spanish at the same time?
Where to Study Salsa and Spanish
The truth is, you can learn to dance salsa almost anywhere—it’s now a world dance. Just to give two weird examples, I’ve personally taken salsa classes in Istanbul, Turkey and Kazan, Russia. So anywhere in Latin America is fine too.
And don’t get stuck thinking that salsa is your only option to let loose and finally find your groove—it’s probably just the style of Latin music and dance that you’ve heard of most often. If you’re going to spend time in a Spanish-speaking land, there are so many other styles of dance you can learn.
In Latin America, I urge you to consider Afro-Peruvian dance, bachata, cueca and cumbia. In Buenos Aires, you can of course learn tango, but you’ll also be able to find Brazilian dances, which are my absolute favorite. In Barcelona, swing dancing is insanely popular with the locals. Each different type of dance will come with new vocabulary to learn and new songs to play.
If you do decide to learn salsa, you may want to consider what style of salsa is most common in your home city. Don’t go somewhere and learn Puerto Rican salsa if most people where you live dance Cuban salsa, for example—they’re pretty different. Most cities have Facebook salsa groups where you can ask about the local popularity of various styles.
Also, don’t forget that if you live in the United States, most areas have both Spanish-speaking communities and salsa communities. If you’re outgoing and chatty, you can meet people in your own area to practice Spanish—you don’t need to go to another country. You can also propose to exchange your English for help with Spanish, volunteer for organizations serving the Hispanic community and, of course, meet Spanish speakers by going salsa dancing!
Finally, here’s the absolute truth: The best place to learn both Spanish and salsa is Cali, Colombia. The high-level intricate footwork style, the originality and the evident joy of the city’s dancers is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Yeah, New York, I said it.
5 Swingin’ Songs to Learn Spanish (and Salsa!) on the Dance Floor
These are timeless songs that you’re likely to hear out dancing from any DJ who knows his salsa. If you have Google Music, you can listen to these and a few bonuses on this playlist. All of these songs also happen to have pretty accessible Spanish.
“Micaela” — La Sonora Carruseles
The lyrics include these lines:
Micaela cuando baila/El boogaloo la arrebata — Micaela, when she dances/The boogaloo snatches her up
If you haven’t heard of it, boogaloo is the American/Latin pop fusion from the 1960s, before all that reggaetón came about, and is one of the funkiest/silliest things to ever befall ears.
“La Vida Es Un Carnaval” — Celia Cruz
If you click through the above video to hear the Cuban salsa queen’s incredibly popular tune via YouTube, the full lyrics are in the notes for the video.
If the infectious and delirious beat hasn’t already chased away any money woes, belly aches and I-think-maybe-he-loves-someone-else-more-than-me blues, there’s this chorus:
Ay, no hay que llorar, que la vida es un carnaval,
es más bello vivir cantando.
Oh, oh, oh, Ay, no hay que llorar,
que la vida es un carnaval
y las penas se van cantando.
Oh, no need to cry, because life is a carnival;
It’s more beautiful to live singing.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, no need to cry,
because life is a carnival
and sorrows go away through singing.
You may have seen the word pena before as “pain,” but it songs you’re more likely to hear it in the general sense of sorrows and troubles.
“Rebelión” — Joe Arroyo y la verdad
This classic from Columbia is one of those cases where the song’s lyrics seem to have nothing to do with the pura alegría (pure joy) on the dance floor, and it can actually be kind of weird clash of feelings when you understand them.
Early in the song we hear the story of esclavitud perpetua (perpetual slavery) that an African couple finds themselves in in America, under a Spanish owner:
Él les daba muy mal trato
y a su negra le pegó
He treated them very badly
And he hit his black woman
This is a song of rebelión, however, in which the male slave attains some sort of unspecified vengeance, and thus to this day the cry is still heard:
No le pegue a la negra.
Don’t hit the black woman.
“La Quiero a Morir” — DLG (Dark Latin Groove)
This song, from the hit New York-based salsa/bachata/reggeatón group, is enormously overblown but I have to admit I enjoy it. And the Spanish is perfect to know should you ever need to express your undying devotion to your Latin honey-buns, with phrases such as:
- La quiero a morir — I love her to death
- Me dibuja un paisaje y me lo hace vivir — She draws me a landscape and she makes me live it
- Me atrapa en un lazo que no aprieta jamás — She traps me in a lasso that never squeezes me
- Es que cuando me besa mi cuerpo me tiembla y por eso la quiero — It’s that when she kisses my body I tremble and that’s why I love her
It also sounds rather close to being trapped in a toxic, semi-abusive relationship. But such is true passion as expressed in lots of pop songs…
“Trovador” — Africando
This is from a wonderful band that was put together to combine New York Latin musicians with African pop singers. The resulting salsa music is unique, and otherworldly. Most of the other (equally wonderful) songs from this group are in Wolof, French and other languages spoken in Africa.
The lyrics recount being a troubadour wandering with a guitar, singing first-class songs.
¡Canta, trovador! is the mantra chanted by the chorus singers. It means “sing, troubadour!”
Deciphering the Spanish in Salsa Steps
When you take a salsa class, you get the double benefit of also learning a few Spanish phrases. But even if you speak some Spanish it can be a bit tricky to figure out the relationship between the step name, the step and the meaning of the words.
Here are a few of the most common steps that we always hear thrown around in the salsa world, and some explanations. This is just a sampling—you’re bound to learn lots more Spanish phrases as you learn salsa.
1. Dile que no (Tell him no)
In dile que no, the woman crosses in front of the man; this is one of the first steps learned after the basic steps and turns.
Dile que no means “tell him no” and the step gets this name because the man opens up a path for his partner, but the woman crosses in front of him with a long step using the leg closest to him, and thus orienting herself therefore slightly away from him. It gives the impression that he’s opening up and she’s ignoring or refusing him.
Here’s the Cuban version of the step.
2. Giro izquierda (left turn)
Giro is the noun for turn, and izquierda means left. Girar is the verb, so you might also hear an instructor use the command form gira a la izquierda (turn left) or also hear this on the street when you’ve asked for directions.
3. Giro derecha (right turn)
You guessed it: the right turn. These turns form the basis of many other moves, so if you’re taking a salsa class you’ll hear these words used a lot.
4. Dame (Give Me)
In a Cuban-style rueda (salsa in the round), a leader will shout out the names of the moves that each couple in the circle is to execute. Dame is one of the most basic; it means “give me.”
In the video below, the speaker calls it by the variant name dámela, or “give her to me.” The point of the step is that each man takes the girl on his right in the circle, and thus winds up with a new partner.
The verb in question is dar (to give), and the command form da is used along with the indirect object me (me). So if you say “dame un libro,” you’ll be passed a book instead of a girl.
5. Dame de mentira (Give me fake-out)
In this step, instead of giving up your girl and taking another, you make as if you’re going to do so but instead keep her.
You can use the phrase de mentira for all sorts of fake-outs. For example, amar de mentira is probably not the kind of loving that your partner wants.
6. Guapea (Swagger)
It might seem strange that the basic step (base) in a Cuban rueda is called guapea, from the verb guapear, to swagger or be flashy … but when you see it done right (as below), it deserves the name.
7. Enchúfala (Plug her in)
I know, I know, this step doesn’t look like plugging anything in to anything. But when you’re actually performing it, there’s a point with the arms extended and a bit of tension that does somehow make sense of the phrase; you feel kind of like you’ve just plugged in a cord and taken up the slack. Anyway, that’s how I feel. Perhaps this will help you remember the word/step too.
In the step name, the verb is enchufar and it’s used in its informal command form with la (her) as the direct object. So you can also say “enchufa el cable, por favor” (please plug in the cable). The noun form enchufe means a socket, and is also a useful slang word for a good business connection or someone who can get you a job.
8. Recoge (Collect, gather up)
When you do a recoge in salsa you’re gathering the girl back up after an open break. The word is the command form of recoger (to gather up, collect, pick up); for example, recoger el correo means to pick up the mail.
The video below shows the recoge as part of a more complicated sequence, but should launch directly at 0:25 (the moment of the recoge).
Key Vocabulary for a Night of Salsa Dancing
Inviting a woman to dance
Perhaps you have been taught ¿Quieres bailar conmigo? (“Do you want to dance with me?”). Don’t say this. The lack of confidence can be off-putting, and half of the women you ask will refuse. The woman who you’re asking of course wants to dance, that’s why she’s at a salsa club in the first place.
On the other hand, if you approach with a huge smile, already starting to move and holding out your hand invitingly, 95% of women will grab your hand jump in. At maximum, you can say “¡Vamos a bailar!” (we’re going to dance!).
Sometimes women who are new to salsa and/or self-conscious about their ability to dance may initially respond with something self-effacing like “no sé bailar bien” (I don’t know how to dance well). You can respond, “no importa, así se aprende” (don’t worry, this is how one learns) or else “no importa, no tengo ni idea tampoco” (don’t worry, I have no idea either).
Obviously, you should adjust the moves you use to the person you’re dancing with. Salsa shouldn’t be about showing off your moves, it should be about making your partner feel like she’s a beautiful dancer.
Inviting a man to dance
Yes, women should woman-up and ask men to dance. Men (quality men, at least) are impressed with this and will rarely refuse. Often at events for more seasoned dancers, there’s a serious gender imbalance that makes it hard for women to dance much. My few female friends who regularly invite others always dance the night away while other women are waiting on the sidelines.
I often hear women use more tepid phrases than men do, like “¿bailas conmigo?” (will you dance with me?). When I hear a woman use the command “¡baila conmigo!” (dance with me!) it’s far more enticing.
Latin dances tend to be steadfastly heteronormative, but some places do have gay salsa events and/or are accepting of men dancing with men, women dancing with women and even women leading men. All of the above phrases can apply to any gender.
Refusing a dance with someone
It’s polite to give anyone who asks at least one dance (unless they’re drunk, trying to pick you up or otherwise obnoxious). That said, there are times that you will be tired, distracted, or previously committed to dancing with someone else.
- Ahora no, pero la próxima sí. — Not right now, but the next one (song) yes.
- Estoy cansado/cansada. — I’m tired (man/woman).
- No ahora, gracias. — Not now, thanks.
- Ya me prometí a él/ella. — I already promised myself to him/her.
- Tomo una pausa. — I’m taking a break.
- Qué bien que bailas. — You dance well.
- ¿Me enseñas este paso? — Will you teach me this step?
Flirting and Salsa
Flirting while you dance salsa is a no-no—that’s for drunk young’uns who just want an excuse to rub against each other.
Salsa might be flirty, but it’s just a game, really, and you shouldn’t try to change it into something it’s not. However sensual they might be, good dancers really are just there to dance, and you risk quickly running out of dancers who want to suffer your advances if you get handsy on the dance floor.
But, that said, if you feel like you’re hitting it off, striking up a conversation after a nice dance is absolutely acceptable. And it’s a chance to use your Spanish!
I’ve previously written an entire post on flirting in Spanish, but here are two conversation starters to use when you’ve just finished a dance with a really charming hip-waggler.
- ¿Dónde aprendiste a bailar así? — Where did you learn to dance like this?
- ¿Qué cosas te gusta hacer cuando no estás bailando? — What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?
May your future nights of salsa be rewarding and intoxicating…and entirely, from now on, in Spanish!
Mose Hayward writes about dancing, flirting, and language learning for nomads at TipsyPilgrim.com.
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