Essential to salsa style, Cuban-motion is the name given to the characteristic latin-dance hip-action. Here is a step-by-step guide to achieving the proper salsa hip movement.

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Cuban motion

Cuban-motion, the typical latin-dance hip action, is not hard to achieve and will give your salsa dancing an authentic look and feel: a controlled and pleasant swaying that arises naturally if the steps are performed in a relaxed manner. The hip movement should not be deliberate in any way, it should arise as a consequence of doing the steps properly with a smooth shifting of weight from foot to foot, it is not achieved by “wiggling you bum”.

Preparation

Find somewhere with a bit of space where you can move a few steps to left and right.

This is what you do:

Stand in a relaxed fashion with your feet together and your knees very slightly flexed. Bend your arms at the elbow so your forearms are more-or-less parallel to the floor. Your hands should be relaxed, quite close together, fingers slightly bent. Look straight ahead, not down at your feet.

The upper part of your torso, ie, the upper-part of your spinal column (dorsal vertebrae) neck and head, should be more-or-less vertical throughout. Don’t tilt this part of your body to left or right. Keep your shoulders more-or-less parallel to the floor, but, on the other hand, don’t tense up in an effort to keep your shoulders level and your head straight.

The footwork is what is known as “ball-flat”. This simply means that as you take a step, the ball of your foot should hit the ground slightly before you lower the rest of your foot. (As opposed to normal walking which is “heel-flat”.)

  • Gently shift your weight onto your right leg as you bend your left knee just a little and take a small step to the left, about 12 inches (30 centimetres). As you take the step, you should feel your hips move slightly to the right
  • Press down with your left foot to shift you weight onto your left leg and you should feel your hips moving to the left
  • Take a closing step with your right foot to bring your feet together
  • Let your weight shift back to your right foot and you will feel your hips going to the right
  • Repeat this sequence as you travel sideways across the room until you meet the wall or a piece of furniture.

If you didn’t feel you hips moving in the way I described, make sure you’re taking small steps (about one foot, or 30 centimetres, but not less). It is very important to take small steps. Small steps and the smooth shifting of weight from foot to foot is what creates Cuban-motion. (Did I say you should take small steps?)

When you reach the wall you should head back in the opposite direction so I’ll repeat the instructions with left and right reversed.

  • Gently shift your weight onto your left leg as you bend your right knee just a little and take a small step to the right, about 12 inches (30 centimetres). As you take the step, you should feel your hips move slightly to the left
  • Press down with your right foot to shift you weight onto your right leg and you should feel your hips moving to the right
  • Take a closing step with your left foot to bring your feet together
  • Let your weight shift back to your left foot and you will feel your hips going to the left
  • Repeat the sequence.

The essence of what’s happening is this: your hips go away from the the side that is taking a step. When you step with your left foot, your hips go to the right. When you step with your right foot, your hips go to the left.

OK, let’s assume at this point, that you’re stepping back and forth across the room with your hips swinging wildly. It’s time to tone it down. You should maintain sufficient muscle-tension in your lower back to keep the movement controlled, it should be a gentle, pleasant, swaying motion.

Translating these steps into the salsa eight-beat sequence

Stand as described above with your elbows bent and knees slightly flexed.

Let your hips move as described above. Remember: small steps. Still going from side to side.

Beat 1 Step to the left with your left foot.
Beat 2 Step to the left with your right foot to bring your feet together (closing step).
Beat 3 Step to the left with your left foot.
Beat 4 Step to the left with your right foot while bending your knee a little more and touch the floor beside your left foot with your toe or the ball of your right foot. Your weight will stay on your left leg.
Beat 5 Straighten your right leg as you step out to the right with your right foot.
Beat 6 Step to the right with your left foot to bring your feet together (closing step).
Beat 7 Step to the right with your right foot.
Beat 8 Step to the right with your left foot while bending your knee a little more and touch the floor beside your right foot with your toe or the ball of your left foot. Your weight will stay on your left leg.
Repeat the sequence.

Music

To practice this and get the movement right it’s best to use some fairly slow music, cha-cha-chá tempo is about right to start with, a good choice is Oye Como Va by Tito Puente or Santana, which is about 32 bars per minute with a pronounced beat. You can check the tempo of any music you have with the Salsa City Beat Counter. If you don’t have any suitable music you can use this online metronome to give you a beat, set it at 126 beats per minute to start with.

As you gain confidence you can increase the tempo of the music you use. With faster music you necessarily use less hip-action; you don’t have the time between beats for large amounts of lateral hip movement.

Cuban motion in other basic steps

Here’s how Cuban-motion translates into the most popular basic steps. I’m going to describe the steps starting on “one” with the left foot.

The footwork is mostly “ball-flat” as above, but you don’t have to lower your heel completely to the floor when stepping back (“breaking back”). Especially when dancing to faster-tempo music.

Cuban style

Once you get Cuban-motion going well in the side-to-side steps it should occur quite naturally for you in the the basic step of the Cuban “open-break” style, in which you step back alternately with either foot. But just for reference I’ll break it down beat by beat. The hip-action occurs between the beats as well as on the beat so I’ll describe everything. I’m assuming you’ve done the steps in a class or at home with the help of a video.

Stand as described above with your elbows bent and knees slightly flexed.

  • As you “open out” slightly to the left, shift your weight onto your right leg and step back with your left foot to hit the first beat, your hips will move slightly to the right
  • As your left foot presses down on beat one you hips will move to the left
  • As you step in place with your right foot and close with your left foot on beats two and three your hips will move back to the centre
  • On beat four as you pause, or tap with your right foot, there is a major shift of weight onto your left leg and your hips move a little to the left
  • As you “open-out” slightly to the right and step back with your right foot to hit beat five, your hips continue moving a little more to the left
  • As your right foot presses down on beat five you hips will move to the right
  • As you step in place with your left foot and close with your right foot on beats six and seven your hips will move back to the centre
  • On beat eight as you pause, or tap with your left foot, there is a major shift of weight onto your right leg and your hips move a little to the right. Your hips will continue moving a little more to the right as you step back on the way to beat one

And back to the start of the sequence.

Mambo (forward-and-back) style

The analysis of Cuban-motion in the mambo basic step is a little more complex but the essential principle is the same: the hips move away from the leg that is most active in the step.

Stand as described above with your elbows bent and knees slightly flexed.

  • As you shift your weight onto your right leg and step forward with your left foot to hit beat one your hips will move slightly to the right
  • As your weight transfers to your left foot on beat one, your hips will move to the left, across the centre-line of your body
  • As you step in place on beat two your hips move back to the right, going slightly beyond the centre line of your body
  • On the closing step for beat three, your hips come back to the centre
  • On the pause for beat four, there is a major shift of weight onto your left leg and your hips move slightly to the left
  • As you step back with your right foot to hit beat five your hips will move slightly more to the left
  • As your weight transfers to your right foot on beat five, your hips will move to the right, across the centre-line of your body
  • As you step in place on beat six your hips move back to the left, going slightly beyond the centre line of your body
  • On the closing step for beat seven, your hips come back to the centre
  • On the pause for beat eight, there is a major shift of weight onto your right leg and your hips move slightly to the right. Your hips will continue moving a little more to the right as you step forward on the way to beat one

And back to the start of the sequence.

Remember, the Cuban-motion hip-action should not be deliberate, it arises naturally from the rhythmical shifting of weight from leg to leg. If you become comfortable with it in the basic steps it will become an instinctive part of you style whichever moves you are doing. With faster music, the hip-action becomes less pronounced. You must take smallish steps to make it work. If you take large striding steps your weight doesn’t just shift, instead, you fall onto the stepping foot.

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