For history and dry reading I could just point them to Wikipedia, but I know that it didn't help me to understand things better. Now it is more interesting, but when I was absolutely starting, it was pretty much useless. Even the videos don't say a lot; it's a bit like going to a restaurant for some cuisine type you don't know, and having to choose a dish by the ingredient list or by some photo: hardly ideal. So I'll write about what I feel can be more interesting / practical for someone wanting to start and choose.
Will also be interesting to check how my opinions evolve in a future.
My credentials: I am still mostly a beginner. I only started past May; I am in an intermediate level in salsa on 1, but in all the rest I am still a beginner with different levels of hope/lessness.
With that out of the way, let's start. First: types. There are 3 big "types" of salsa dancing (that I know of, anyway); looks like there are some subtypes, but that's not important for now.
- LA style, in line, on 1: this is the most typical type for beginners, at least here in Warsaw. In fact looks like if some course only says "salsa", then it is "on 1" by default. Named "in line" or "linear" because couples dance keeping a straight line with their displacements. It is the most "mechanical" to begin with, and possibly that is the reason why it is so typical for beginners: it´s easy to start. Given enough time, this type seems to tend towards somewhat acrobatic/spectacular figures. They dance to the phrasing of the melody, not to the percussion. The man always leads, and up to, say, a bit into the typical medium level, the woman only needs basic knowledge of the basic steps and paying attention to the man to survive (important if you want to dance at a party with some random girl, which might not know a lot about dancing salsa). After that point, the woman really needs to know how to understand the signals (and dance to them!); that is, it no longer depends only on the leading of the man.
- Cuban style, casino
, on 3: also found for beginners. The dance is free-er than on 1. Women seem to be able to dance with only basic knowledge of the basic steps; the rest is all up to the man, which is good for dancing with people you don't know. Also, maybe that's why lots of women say that this style is "funnier" and "more spontaneous". If the woman knows how to dance it, can be very energetic, very fun. An important subtype is Rueda de Casino, in which couples dance forming a big circle, and the figures are done by all the dancers simultaneously, switching partners continually; big fun and impressing to see.
- NY style, mambo, on 2: similar to on 1, but with important differences. They count in another way (to the percussion of the music, not to the melody), make the pauses in another way; so in fact you could think they are always moving, instead of the noticeable pauses in the other styles. You can distinguish them in the dancefloor because they seem to have a lot of time for styling (those expressive/spectacular/theatrical/stupid gestures that are done with whatever part of the body that is not actually needed in some moment); that's because of the difference in counting. That also means that they take more seriously into account the technique! The feeling is more "afro", more to the ground. Almost all the teachers seem to dance and enjoy (and even prefer) this style. And looks like people who dance a long time on 1 tend towards on 2; maybe simply because they tend to try everything else (addiction!), but it's typical to hear that dancing on 2 is more interesting. The man still leads, but the woman can do lots of styling. It isn't too easy to find partners to dance on 2, and in fact I haven't seen parties oriented towards on 2 (but there are for in line and cubana, even though of course given any music it's just a matter of will to dance whatever style you want).
However, figures from on 1 and on 2 are not exactly the same. Figures from on 1 seem hurried when dancing on 2. Possibly when you know enough you can adjust them yourself, but... at that moment possibly you don't need those figures anyway.
On 2 seems to be the hardest type to find for beginner courses; there seem to be more for changing from on 1 to on2.
- Chachacha, chacha, cha cha cha, ... whatever: I'd swear I had always heard "chachacha" in Spain; however there I was never interested in dancing. Here in Poland seems to be typically named "chacha", which seemed wrong until you try to dance it; let's say that a chachacha is quite danceable like a mambo but adding a "chacha" in the middle of the basic step, so ... now I kind of like the short name (another way of saying that is : a chachacha without the "chacha" steps in the middle is just a very slow mambo). Anyway, I digress. I've read somewhere that chachacha is "the king of latin dances"; no idea why (maybe it was marketing?). It's slower, it can be quite elegant / parsimonious. The music is characteristic. Again, it is not easy to find partners; typically when there is a chachacha, people use the time to rest or get a drink. I've tried following a chachacha course while also following a mambo course; the combination was perfect.
An interesting point might be the opinion that dancers have about their non-chosen types. (Interesting because, in Aikido, people tend to have a poor opinion of the barbaric and useless karate and taekwondo and whatnot; of course, people in karate and taekwondo think the same of aikido and of each other and whatever else. Heck, aikido people even tend to dismiss other aikido styles for whatever reason, from "not refined" to "too aggressive", the fuckers. So, imagine my surprise when I found that this kind of animosities exist in dancing too! ). Officially, all the types are just that, types. But when you pay attention to the things that are left unsaid, to the implications, or even sometimes to the openly snide remarks by some teachers, the picture changes. Looks like cubana dancers typically think that in line dancers are an arrogant, strict, mechanic, counting bunch, while in line dancers seem to think that cubana is for those that can't dance in line. (Interestingly, for now cubana is being quite harder for me than in line, maybe because of the kind of courses I have been trying). Meanwhile, mambo dancers joke that in line dancers are always hurried up and miss the point of the music, breaking / ignoring the real flow of the rythm with artificial pauses...
And what about non-salsa dances?
- Bachata: Characteristic music. Very close dancing, but you can choose how close and/or explicit to be; from sinful to childish. Can be beautiful, but lots of people seem to dance it in a too machanical / spectacular / tasteless way (really, do you need to shake the girl's head 3 times in the same song? does that even feel like, you know, dancing? maybe you are recording some videclip?). I've heard an interesting explanation, by a girl no less: some people want that close proximity but then don't really know what to do with it, so they start just throwing out all the figures they can think of (and she hated it!). And sounds possibly right to me.
- Kizomba: "angolan tango". Even more characteristic music; I was surprised to find that a reggaeton-like rythm could make such beautiful music and dance. Quite close dance (and you can't choose, like in bachata!), but generally more elegant/less explicit than bachata, I would say. After some debate I'd say that bachata is to "sexy" what kizomba is to "sensual". The rythm/counting is not as fixed as in salsa or bachata, and looks like ideally the woman has to be VERY receptive to let the man lead well. But when it works, it feels great, and quite different. (I'm finding a surprising number of people relating kizomba to internal martial arts; or rather, they relate it to dancing in general, but for some reason the relationship appears more explicitly in kizomba)
Other types about which I don't know anything: I've heard good things about Tango, I am curious about Jazz, and I don't feel attracted to Flamenco (yes, I am spanish, so what? for the record, I also don't feel like bullfighting ;P).
"And what about trying one type of dance and then another, or even mixing? Don't you get confused if you pick up more than a dance at the time?"
Personally I don't, and see lots of other people doing the same. However there is always the possibility of trying more than you can digest; after all looks like it's more important to practice than to go to the classes, so if you are not going to have the time or chance to practice, the class is... well, maybe not useless, but... not as good as could be. (that's the reason why I am leaving mambo, chachacha and possibly bachata, at least for now)
Also, a couple of teachers gave me their opinion on trying different styles. One said he only wanted to dance one type, and do it great, "not like those people who dance lots of things and don't dance well any one type" (He had won some important competition, so possibly he had a point, and I think he didn't know I was at that moment attending, like, 6 different types. I simply tried not to blush ;P).
On the other hand, the other teacher said that if I didn't feel strange by doing so many things, it could be good for me, because I would end up with my own dancing style and more figures and more ways to combine them. Which is true; it's funny being able to throw a little cubana in the middle of a linear dance, or the other way round. I think it's good even from the pure bodymovement angle; cubana and mambo and kizomba feel more afro than linear, for example, so it's refreshing to apply a bit of that afro to linear.