A Guide to Learning How to Salsa

Stage 2-1: Fundamentals of Moves & Patterns

Stage 1: Fundamentals of Moves & Patterns
Every pattern in salsa dancing involves one, two, or three fundamentals:

Crossbody Leads,
Open Breaks, and

Although a pattern may appear different between one another, the patterns have a backbone that will involve any of the three. With the basis of similarity between patterns, learning these fundamentals will allow the dancer to effectively learn one pattern after another with less difficulty.

Crossbody Lead
The objective of the crossbody lead is to bring the follower from one side to the other. The follower and leader will end by facing 180 degrees from their original start. The following diagrams demonstrate a complete crossbody lead:
Diagram 1. Crossbody lead at count 1.
Diagram 2. Crossbody lead at count 2.
Diagram 3. Crossbody lead at count 3.
Diagram 4. Crossbody lead at count 5.
Diagram 5. Crossbody lead at count 6.

Diagram 6. Crossbody lead at count 7.
A crossbody lead involves eight counts, four counts to prepare for it and four counts to execute it. The leader will signal that a crossbody lead is requested by stepping out of the way with their shoulders to your left, giving you a clear path in front of you, seen in diagram 3.

On count five the leader will pull so that you go across them to end by turning left to face the opposite direction (Diagram 6). You will start turning left on count 6 and ending to face the opposite direction (facing the leader) on 7.

The goal of the follower is to walk in a straight line across the leader and execute a clean left turn that is exactly 180 degrees. It is the responsibility of the leader to provide an unobstructed path through the crossbody lead.

For counts 1 through 5, continue doing the basic step. On count 6, the right foot continues to step forward but you also turn left halfway (diagram 5). On count 7 you should be facing the opposite direction completely as in diagram 6.

A crossbody lead involves eight counts, four counts to prepare it and four counts to execute it. To signal the follower that a crossbody lead is requested you must step to the right of the follower and turn left so that your shoulders and their form a 90 degree angle, seen in diagram 3.

When the follower sees that they have an unobstructed path in front of them you can lead them accross with your hands. Once the follower passes and turns step to face the follower. Remember that you stepped out of the line so that she can go across so you have to get back into it.

Leading with the hands is done in two parts: the right hand hold is used to pull the follower accross while the left hand hold is used to to turn the follower to face the opposite direction. Using both hands and with the concepts above in mind the objective is to bring the follower across and turned within three counts. By the 7 count the follower should be done turning and you should be in front of them.

On counts 5 & 6 the lead pulls the follower with the right hand while the left hand turns the follower on counts 6 & 7.

A Reverse Crossbody Lead has the same concepts however instead of the leader stepping to the right, the leader steps to the left of the follower.
Diagram 7. Reverse Crossbody lead.


Open Break
The open break is used to:
Bring the follower closer to the leader,
cause each partner to pass one another,
signal to the follower that a turn is next, and
signal to the follower tha a pattern is next.

The open break is successful when the concept of "Tension Between Partners " is applied from Tier 1, Stage 3. A classroom instruction on the open break is ideal however we can cover the general movements.

Followers should remember that when the leader pushes you on your right or left hand, you do not allow your elbow to pass the line of your body. Your elbow should always stay towards the front half of your body.

Remember that in order for this to occur every single time you have to have a counter-pressure back towards the leader during the push from them. Your counter push/pressure should be equal to the leader every time.

Remember that when the leader pushes on your left hand your left leg steps back, and when the leader pushes on your right hand your right leg steps back. If you give back the same pressure back to the leader when he pushes you on your right hand, the energy produced by his push should cause you to step back wih the right foot.

Once the leader pushes the they will pull back with the same amount of distance used for the push. Once they pull back, they will lead you into any one of the above movements.

It is important to understand that when the leader pushes or pulls you, your body complements the direction of movement of your arm. Do not allow your body to just stay in place while only your arms move.

Leaders should understand that an open break should have follow-thru that is, if you give a follower a push it has to be sharp and quick; followed by an equal sharp pull. When you give a firm push to the follower it should not be easy to do so, as the follower should be giving back some sort of resistance to the push. If that is not the case in a classroom setting you must inform the follower.

There are two parts to the open break, the position of the follower's arms prior to the push and the energy applied towards the follower.

For a typical left-handed open break, the follower's arms (just like in the basic step) should be parallel to the ground prior to pushing them it back. During this motion, the follower's forearm should continue to be parallel to the ground. If the follower's forearm is not parallel, you must push the follower's hand down and back so that you can have the follower's forearm back to parallel.

Having the forearm parallel to the ground would mean that the energy pushed on the follower's hand travels through the arm to the elbow, and then travels up to the follower's shoulder. The energy applied will cause the follower to step back with the appropriate foot. If the follower's hand is at a position higher than the elbow then the energy applied towards the hand dissipates as it does not continue through the follower's arm due to the angle of the follower's arm in relation to the leader's direction of the break.

The energy applied for the open break starts from the shoulder, not the hands. Push from the shoulders, allow the energy applied to travel down your arm, and then it should transfer across to the follower's arm and end at their shoulder. Also remember that you should not curl your fingers during the open break. If you need a firmer hold on your partner's hand clamp their fingers between your thumb and fingers.


Of the three fundamentals turning is used in every single pattern. In fact, a cross body lead has the follower executing a half turn to complete it. Although many believe that a turn describes a rotation for 360 degrees, there is a variety different turns with names that describe the direction or speed of the turn (e.g. hook turn, left turn, right turn, checked turn, etc.).

Depending on the speed of the beat in the music, speed will vary from one type of turn to another and thus vary the techniques used however; all turns have a similar basis of movement. All turns follow the rules of the basic step; there is a weight transfer from one foot to another based on the appropriate step for each count. The only difference between your forward basic step and turning is that in turns you are rotating your body to a new direction during the steps, whereas in the basic step you continue to face forward.

Understanding Terminology
'Outside Turn' and 'Right Turn' are words that describe the same movement, a person executing a right turn. However, using the words 'Right Turn' describes a Leader executing a turn whereas 'Outside Turn' describes a follower executing a turn. Likewise, 'Inside Turn' and 'Left Turn' are words that describe a person executing a left turn; with the words 'Right Turn' describing a leader executing a right turn.

Not only are there words to describe the direction of the turn but also the way the turn is being executed, in regards to the foot placement or use (or lack of) of the hand holds. For example, words like 'Right Hook Turn' or 'Inside Free Turn' are proper ways to describe a specific method of movement.

Note: If you have not done so, you can read the descriptions for Hook Turns, Free Turns, and Turns in the Terminology section of the website.

Execution of a Turn
Under normal circumstances a turn is executed and completed within 4 counts unless the circumstance is a triple, or more, turn. However in order for a turn to be executed it must be properly set up.

Although salsa dancing is on an 8-count step patterns are conducted in 4-count parts regardless of the length and complexity. A turn also involves 8-counts however only four of those counts is used to execute the turn. The other four counts are used to *set up* the follower, or the leader, for the turn.

For example, an outside turn (which is the follower executing a right turn) is set up by the leader by bringing the left or right hand hold above the follower's head by count 3, but the leader does not turn the follower until count 5 has started. Also, the follower completes the turn by the count of 7.

Another example is the free inside turn. The leader takes 3 counts to set themselves in the right position to turn the follower however the leader does not turn the follower until the count of 6. Although it took the leader 5 total counts to set the pattern up, the follower took three counts to execute the turn.

Technique 1: Pivoting
An important technique to remember is that turns are done on the balls of your feet and not your heel. All turns involve the rotation around a point so you will want to, if you have not already; understand the concept of moving on your toes from Tier 1 of Basic Steps.

As described above, the only difference between your forward basic step and turning is that in turns you are rotating your body to a new direction during the steps. Turning also involves the transfer of weight from one foot to another however to do this we have to understand a technique called pivoting.

Pivoting can be defined as "the rotation of the body around one foot that is kept in a stationary position." (Source: www.basketball-plays-and-tips.com/basketball-glossary.html) Although the source is from a basketball website the definition is clearly explained here.

Refer to above that it takes four counts to execute a turn. So the question is when do we pivot? Let's cover a forward stepped outside turn as an example.
The first count and step will be with the left foot. The left foot steps forward but the turn does not begin yet. The next count involves the right foot so on the second count the follower transfers the weight to the right foot, while at the same time turns the body and the feet so that the follower faces 90 degrees from the right from start.

(Insert image here. 3 images. start of turn, count 2, and end of turn.)

On count 3 the follower pushes themselves into a right turn by pushing off of the left foot and pivots on the right foot. To finish the turn the follower would have completed the turn (and faces back to forward) and has the weight on the left foot, ready to step back with the right foot to continue the basic steps.

What if the turn involves traveling? Traveling turns have three pivot points; each point is associated with one step and thus one count. A travel turn is conducted by stepping and moving towards a point while turning.

Technique 2: Foot Spread
In order for a turn to be sharp and clean, there must be as little surface connection between the dancer and the ground as possible, thus a point has less surface friction than a circle. To replicate this you will need to turn on the balls of your feet and always keep your feet close to one another.

Remember from Tier 1 that taking big steps slows you down. In turning the same concept applies.

An example is to picture how a ballet dancer spins. In order for them to be clean in their turns they have to bring themselves to the tip of their toes before they turn.

Technique 3: Within A Line
Because you are pivoting on a stationary foot during a turn, it means that you should end at the same spot as when you started. It is very common to see a person attempting a turn but end at a spot 1-foot or 2-feet away from where they started. This is typically the result of the person not keeping the feet close together.

(Insert image. A bad turn: before and after. Offset.)

A good example is to imagine yourself on a very narrow beam. In order for you to stay on the beam means you have to be very precise on where your feet should be.

Technique 4: Use of Arms
Recall that for a turn to be clean you want to minimize surface friction as much as possible. The other type of surface friction you should be concerned about is the one created by your upper body and arms. Although you cannot do anything about your body you can reduce surface friction by keeping your arms close to your body. During turns, when possible, bring your arms towards your upper body.

Technique 5: Spotting
This final technique discussed is the most important to learning as it allows you to conduct spins with minimal dizziness. Note that spinning and turning describe two different movements. Turns describe a rotation or a movement around something whereas spinning describes a repetitive and quick movement.

Spotting is defined as the action of focusing on a fixed point and turning the head at a different speed than the body. (www.ballroomdancers.com/Learning_Center/Glossary/Default.asp)

To elaborate in regards to salsa dancing, the body and feet should be moving faster than the head during the turns.

The point to focus on should be in the general vicinity of your partner, if not your partner. Not only does spotting aid in minimizing dizziness, spotting allows you to end your turns or spins facing your partner and not some other point. However, there will be patterns where your turns will require you to end facing a different direction other than your partner.

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