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Salsa Articles

Learning to write Salsa- nese

Or, how to write Salsa Figures

Why a "salsa written language"? Memorizing salsa figure is one of the toughest challenges in the salsa learning process, especially for men. Whether you choose to dance by executing learned figures or by improvising, a language to write salsa figures can be extremely useful. In its most basic use, it could greatly facilitate the speedy recording of salsa figures without any High Tech devises, just by using pen&paper (I suggest almost at the same speed we write standard English). It could be used during a salsa class, a practice or even in a club after seeing other dancers performing a nice figure.

Perhaps more interesting, a salsa written language can allow to 'develop' salsa figures from scratch, just by using creativity, abstract thinking and 'pen&paper'. You would not even need to actually 'try' the figure, nor the presence of a dance partner. If this horrifies you because you believe it is a cold, sterile, too technical way to approach dancing by disregarding 'feelings', you may want to remember that it was by 'pen&paper' that Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and others wrote their masterpieces and it is by 'pen & paper' that all salsa music arrangements are written.

Purpose and limitations.

The aim of this draft is to propose a method to write salsa figures in a concise and practical manner. We want to be able to record/code/archive salsa figures and ideas quickly, possibly during a practice, a salsa class or even in a club. We also envisage the salsa figure written on a wall during a practice/class to help the dancers remembering the sequence while learning.

In order to achieve this, the method needs to be able to store all the essential elements of a figure, but only the essential . This includes turns, hand positions, time sequence and main decorations. It will be assumed the 'user' has a sufficient knowledge of basic salsa to work out the 'non essential' elements, like steps, basic foot position and position of the dancers. Also, the language needs to allow writing/reading a figure in less than, say, 2 minutes. This requires the language must be as visual as possible, while still possessing the above features.

Any language is 'difficult' to learn. It takes years for a fully absorbing, newborn brain to learn to speak, years to learn to read and write. It takes years to learn to program a computer and to quickly write and read a music score. It must be understood that a useful salsa written language can not be trivial and may require a minimum effort to learn.

This language is designed to code figures for 'social' salsa, not choreography. Not all details of each body movement are included (feet, hands, arms, expressions). At the moment the language is designed to code NY style figures. I believe an extension to Cuban figures is relatively straightforward and I will work on it afterwards.

I strongly request feedback to understand whether this effort is useful at all and how it can be improved.

Main Elements

By far, the great majority of variation in salsa is given by turns and hand holds.


Standard Turns. We will use the symbol @ for a turn. Because we do not account for feet position and we aim to describe the dance within a purely geometrical framework, we will not define turns as 'inside' or 'outside', rather as 'left' or 'right'. Left turn means that the person who is turning goes towards his/her left (basically it is a counter clockwise turn. We use the term 'left' since it makes the symbol more intuitive to read, as it will be seen below).

Left and right turn are described by putting a superscript number over the @ symbol. The superscript goes either to the left or to the right, depending on whether it is a left or right turn, respectively. The superscript number shows how many turns are to be performed.


'one right turn' ⇒ @1

'one left turn' ⇒ 1@

'two and one half right turns' ⇒ @2+1/2

Ducking. Occasionally turns are executed by bending down or 'ducking'. In this case the direction and number of turn will be written as above, but by using subscript rather than superscripts, in order to give the visual idea on bending down.


'one right turn by ducking' ⇒ @1

Hand Holds

This is by far the element that provides the most variation in salsa figures. Because hand hold is a crucial part of leading, the hand hold will refer to the man hand positions. Since we have only 2 dancers (and we all have only 2 hands!), the man hand positioning will unambiguously define the hand position for the lady as well.

First we discriminate between two basic hand positions. The symbol N will be used for 'normal hand hold'. This is defined as the 2 dancers standing in front of one another holding hands in normal position (i.e., the man right hand holds the lady left and vice versa). Hands can be held either up or down. As above for turns, we will use superscripts for 'hands up' and subscripts for 'hands down'. The presence or absence of subscript or superscript indicates whether that particular hand is holding or it is free.


'man right to woman left, hands up' ⇒ N*

'man left to woman right, hands up' ⇒ *N

'man right to woman left, hands down' ⇒ N*

'man right to woman left hands down & man left to woman right hands up' ⇒ *N*

Similarly, the symbol C will be used for 'crossed hands' (or "shake hands position"). This is defined as the 2 dancers standing in front of one another holding hands in crossed position (i.e., the man right hand holds the lady right and vice versa). All the rest follows as above.


'man right to woman right, hands up' ⇒ C*

'man left to woman left, hands up' ⇒ *C

'man right to woman right, hands down' ⇒ C*

'man right to woman right, hands down & man left to woman left hands up' ⇒ *C*

Time progression

Another crucial element of salsa variation is given by the order in which basic moves are executed. We will write movements from left to right following a hypothetical time axis. Movements happening at the same time will have the same horizontal position. By convention we decide to write the lady's movement at the top and the man's at the bottom. For example, a simple Hammer Lock is given by

Hammer Lock ⇒ @1

This shows that the guy leads a right turn for the lady, while his right hand is down and he left is up.

The Figure below represents the framework we use to write a full figure. A pentagram, recalling the structure of a music score is used. Time proceeds from left to right. The long vertical lines define a pattern of 2 bars of music (1-8 counts of salsa beats). This is the unit time frame within which most salsa moves are performed. The small vertical lines give the single bars (counts 1-4), to help time the movement more accurately. Should a move require finer definition, each bar can be divided into its 4 beats. We think this will be rarely needed.

Figure 1

The pentagram defines 4 horizontal 'rows'. The top row stores the lady's movement. The second row from the top stores basic change of positions (Cross Body Lead (XBL), Copas, Natural Top, ..). Since these involve mostly the lady, they are located above the 'time line' (thick line with the arrow).

The 3 rd row from the top stores the hand hold and hold changes. Since they are lead by the man, they lie below the time line. Finally the bottom row gives the man moves.

Figure 1 shows a very simple figure. We have 2 bars of music of basic steps (empty pattern) at the end of which the man changes hand position and holds right to right (C* ). At this point he leads a Cross Body Lead (XBL) with inside turn for the lady (i.e. a left turn 1@). The man then grabs the left hand of the lady with his left while still holding with the right ( *C*) to prepare the next move.

Minor elements

The above three elements (turns, order of moves and hand hold) account for at least 90% of what is normally done in a salsa figure. Other elements can be added to widen the repertoire of writable moves.

Hand drops, throws and catches

These are characterized by quick changes of hand holds usually with emphatic drops or throw of the lady's hands. Because they are quick, we represent them by two hand hold positions connected by an arrow. Which hand is dropped/thrown is given by an arrow close to the sub/superscript referring to the hand. The direction of the arrow describes the movement performed by the hand, ↑ for a throw, ↓ for a drop (more rarely we may need ← and →).


'man holding with crossed hands, right on top, left underneath. The man throws (↑) the left hand upward, and catches with the left on top and the right underneath' ⇒ 1C11C1

'man holding left to right, dropping (↓) the right hand of the lady and catching it with his own right hand down' ⇒ 1N→ C1

This is usually performed while the man executes a half left turn, which becomes

Combs / hands behind the neck

A comb is the action of putting one hand behind the neck of either the lady or the man and immediately releasing the hold. For a comb we will use a notation similar to the one for hand hold. We use the symbol (visually reminding of a large comb). Superscript will indicate whether the comb is performed with the right or left hand (depending on which side the superscript lies). The full word 'lady' or 'man' within the superscript will indicate whether the comb is performed on the lady's or the man's neck.


"Man performing a comb with his right hand on the woman" ⇒ ∃lady

Which hand of the lady is used is already determined by the hand hold so it is not necessary to add this information to the symbol.


"man holds right to right & left to left (right on top) and performs a comb with the right on himself"⇒ 1C1man

We will call 'putting the hand behind the neck' when we perform a comb but we do not release the hand hold . For this we will use the same approach as in the comb, by replacing the symbol ∃ with ∩ which again gives a visual picture of the hand action.


'Sombrero' ⇒ *C*manlady

The man holds with crossed hands, right on top, left down, leads the lady into a right turn, and puts his right hand behind the lady neck and the left behind his own neck.

Should the guy decide to release the hands immediately after the sombrero we would simple replace ∩ with ∃.


Roughly speaking, checks happen when the man suddenly stops the lady turning in one direction and leads her into a turn(s) in the opposite direction (usually after a pause). Coding checks requires more information because of a larger number of possibilities. For example, a check can be performed with either hand of the man on either hand or shoulder or hip of the lady, either on her left or right side. In the best scenario of a "not over-creative man" (no checks with feet, elbows or similar) we need to code 3 pieces of information into a single symbol.

We choose the symbol ! because of the surprise effect inherent in a check. Sub/superscripts are used to indicate where and how the check is performed. Similarly to hand hold, a symbol * is used to indicate which arm the man uses.


"check performed by the right hand raised" ⇒ !*

"check performed by the right hand down" ⇒ !*

Which part of the lady's body is used for the check is written explicitly (shoulder, hand, elbow, hip). The sub/superscript location gives which side it is performed on.


"check performed by stopping the lady on her right shoulder" ⇒ !shoulder

"check performed by stopping the lady on her left hip" ⇒ hip!

By combining information about lady's and man's action we have a full check description.


"check performed with man right hand by stopping the lady on her right shoulder" ⇒ !* shoulder

"check performed with man right hand by stopping the lady on her left hip" ⇒ hip!*

Undoing actions

Certain effects are created by doing and undoing a movement quickly (as if 'rewinding' a tape). This is common of Cuban salsa, especially in its Miami version. A typical action is given by putting a hand behind the lady neck and removing it quickly. We simply write undo to indicate this action.


"man puts his right hand behind the lady neck and removes it quickly" ⇒ ∩lady undo

Notice the difference between putting the hand behind the neck and releasing (comb) and withdrawing without releasing (undo) . Should some other move happen in between an action and its undoing, we may need to make it explicit which action the undo symbol refers to. We can achieve this by including this within brackets after the undo symbol ⇒ undo(..)


"man puts his right hand behind the lady neck, does "something" and afterwards removes it"
⇒ ∩lady .. something .. undo(∩)

'Standard' moves

Certain moves are 'standard' and happen repeatedly in salsa figures. For example Hammer Locks and Inverse Hammer Locks, Sombreros and others. It may be convenient to define symbols for such actions. This would speed up writing considerably. Notice that this happens commonly in 'natural languages' and it is at the core of 'inventing' words. "The animal that produces milk and wool" is given the name 'sheep' to make it easier to deal with, "the object with wheels which runs on a road, carries people and uses petrol" is given the name 'car', "the sister of a mother" is called 'aunty' and so on..

So we suggest to use:

Hammer Lock ⇒ @1

Inverse Hammer Lock ⇒ @1

These should be inserted into the 2nd row of the pentagram, immediately above the time line.

Above the man leads a Cross Body Lead with inside turn with his left hand, catches with Normal Hold and leads a Hammer Lock.

Appendix 1 - Formal relations, equations and transformations.

We call position the state of location and hand hold of two dancers at a given time. We call move a sequence of positions in time. A move is the transition of the dancers between different positions in time. We call a figure a sequences of moves, with an inherent structure made of a beginning, a progression and an end.

We define 2 moves as equal when, given the same starting position, they result in the same final position. That is, after the execution of the moves the dancers find themselves in a similar position.

We define a figure is equal to zero when after the execution of a figure the dancers find themselves in the position they started from.

Trivially, given any move, we have move undo(move) = 0.


1@= 0

@1 = 0

1@ @1 = 0


Also, we notice that, independently from the hand hold, we have




Very interestingly, we notice that some simple algebra can be performed. For example


@1 @1
and since

=0, then
@1 @1


Although this may appear to be a trivial relation, something we could have worked out without the need of any symbol, the fact the some basic algebraic operations is allowed by this notation is quite remarkable. It surely suggests that this could be extremely powerful to generate, transform, as well as analyze, figures on paper.

Here is a non trivial, and potential very useful relation to remember. We know that we can write and Hammer Lock as


In my videos I call Double Hammer Lock the following

@1 @1

This involves executing a normal HL, falling by a further right turn for the lady. Because of the hand position generated by the HL, this Right turn demands the lady to duck. This is a quite difficult move to execute which requires a certain level of flexibility. However, it is interesting to notice this

@1 @1
= *→N* *N*


What this shows that the hand hold that results by leading a right turn with Normal hold, is equivalent to throwing the right hand of they lady with the left hand of the guy and catch the same above the right hand of the guy.

This suggests a much easier way to perform a Double Hammer Lock

@1 @1

*N* *N* *→N* *N*

I believe this is a more powerful demonstration of the use of this language. We can summarise in words "when you want to perform a turn in Normal hold, and such turn is uncomfortable you can reach the same final position by throwing a catching the hand. Then you can proceed with the rest of the figure as before


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