When done properly, this is a very fast dance in 4/4 time (using 8 beats) but our classes generally walk things through and then practise at a much slower pace. The listed tempo of the music depends upon whether you regard the steps as using pairs of short bars (odd numbers won't work) or matched halves of long bars.
All steps must be kept very small - largely under one's own upper body. This is to keep up with the speed of the dance but also to avoid treading on your partner or other couples. Like other Latin American dance styles, steps are taken on the balls of the feet (not the heel leads common in modern ballroom styles).
By convention, leaders (typically men) start with their left foot first while followers (typically women) start with their right foot first. Note that we don't restrict anyone to dancing any particular role - it's your choice - but there's an advantage to leaders being taller (and more assertive and good at planning) and followers being shorter (and more perceptive and quick to react). So pick the role which best matches you personally - or try learning both! There's also a separate tradition of men dancing with men; but that tends to be in a more combative way - challenging each other to perform more intricate moves.
The step rhythm pattern is 3 steps and a gap within 4 beats. For "on-1" dancers this is counted 1-2-3 (pause) 5-6-7 (pause). For "on-2" dancers this is counted (pause) 2-3-4 (pause) 6-7-8 (which matches the other Latin American dances). These variants each have their devotees but Cambridge mostly has the on-1 styles dominating at present.
As well as those rival rhythmic choices, there are also several quite different styles of salsa dancing. The earliest was mambo. The most recent ongoing ones are Cuban (/ Rueda) and Cross-body (L.A./N.Y.). Unfortunately the basic footwork has been given different and conflicting naming in each of these salsa styles - and that's before even adding the possible combinations of arm positions.
If you are attending a special one-off beginners class or taster session, you will mostly only be learning the basic footwork rather than advanced "armography" but also some of the special character or party moves (called "shines").
This is an "around the room" group dance. Couples are linked up into a circle (large or small) and will gradually exchange partners during the dance. A caller dictates which figure everyone is going to dance next. However, Cuban Salsa figures are also danced by individual couples. So most of the same figures are usable with a single partner and can be led and followed in a standard way.
This is a crowded night-club style of dance for individual couples. There's no expectation of co-ordinating with what other dancers are doing. The figures are very linear, with partners literally swapping places within their own space in the room but not otherwise in any particular orientation. It includes some fast spins.
The leader steps forwards on the left foot, steps back again in place on the right foot and then approximately closed on the left foot (ie very near to the right foot). The end result is one of going nowhere much at all. Meanwhile, the follower steps backwards on the right foot, steps forwards again in place on the left foot and then closes with the right foot.
For the second bar or second half of the bar, the roles are reversed with the leader dancing the follower's steps and the follower dancing the leader's. This pairing of forwards and backwards basics allows the couple to dance quite closely as a unit when facing each other.
In xbody salsa this basic footwork pattern is called the mambo step. In Cuban salsa it's sometimes called the son step (and the term mambo means something else entirely!).
The leader steps sideways on the left foot (ie to the left!), steps in place on the right foot (ie back to the right) and then closed on the left. This similarly means returning to the starting position on the floor. Meanwhile, the follower steps sideways on the right foot, steps in place on the left foot and then closes with the right foot.
Once again the roles are reversed for the second bar or half-bar. This time the combined effect when facing partner is for both to be moving in the same direction to one side and then to the other. The step is used to set up spins or tight turns.
In xbody salsa this basic footwork pattern is called the rumba step. Whereas, in Cuban salsa the term rumba means something subtly different.
The leader steps backwards on the left foot - pushing away from partner before replacing forwards again on the right foot and then closing with the left foot. Meanwhile, the follower still steps backwards on the right foot, replaces forwards on the left foot and then closing with the right foot.
The role-reversal half also exists.
This move is used to create space between the partners ready for underarm turns.
Turning before stepping backwards leads to an opening out motion away from partner when a couple is dancing together. The basic footwork is otherwise the same as for the back breaks.
This pattern is called the hand-to-hand in rumba and cha-cha (when performed at arm's length rather than as an opening out from close hold) but back-open in xbody salsa and salsa step in Cuban salsa. It forms the basis for the enchufla turns (change-of-place).
When dancing side by side in Rueda (ie Cuban salsa) but not in shadow (ie still with leader and follower using the opposite foot) the basic footwork for marking time between harder figures has the leader swapping the direction of the normal forwards and backwards basic to go back on the left and then forward on the right. This is so that the couple steps back together and forwards together (opening and closing). In this ring situation it is called Guapea. When danced facing a single partner (away and towards) it is Casino step.
The follower is on the leader's left hand side. With the leader stepping backwards rather than forwards on the left foot component, both will be stepping outwards from the circle for the first bar or half-bar. There is also an element of turning away to look at the potential new partner in the neighbouring couple on either side. Then on the second bar or half-bar, both are stepping forwards and inwards on the circle to touch base and face partner again - potentially ready for a new figure.
The simple cross-body pass of salsa as a stand-alone figure to change places is the same as the cross basic in rumba, with the leader performing something like a 3 point turn to get out of the way while the follower crosses in front from one side to the other (exchanging places).
In Cuban salsa it is given a little more attitude with the follower initially refusing to cross over with a slight back step rather than coming straight forwards (and even potentially turning around to go back again!). This is not an option in the linear styles of salsa where the leader might be trying to lead a spin in either direction as part of the passing move.
In Cuban salsa this core figure has the name Dile Que No (or DQN for short) when used as the standard ending component of a longer, compound figure. It is also the standard move for collecting a new partner on a call of Dame.
The Rueda call of Dame can also be used for skipping out partners. Eg Dame Dos means a move to the next but one partner around the ring. To accomplish this it is the leader who passes on the inside of the ring.
This is the passing of the follower from leader's left to right side to change places without any extra turn - ie just using the couple's rotation to the right.
The simple right turn, using the left foot half of the bar, is a core move for either follower or leader in the linear salsa styles and resembles somewhat the spot turn of rumba. In Cuban salsa it's generally only part of a compound figure, eg a DQN refusal, Sacala (L-to-R handhold) or Exhibela (R-to-R handhold) for the lady.
There are many other turns in salsa. Eg simple left turn, travelling turns, switch-back turns and a hook turn. The commonest left turn is Coca-Cola for the follower vs Giro for the leader. The hook turn (always to the right, and for the leader only) is Evelyn when the handhold is changed behind the back and Ronde when the linked hands are passed overhead.
Enchufla is the same as the commonest change of places in RnR and jive. The follower turns half left under the joined arms with back to partner (facing into the ring) while the leader turns half right with partner in front (also facing into the ring). In salsa, the plain Enchufla is followed by a DQN to change places back again.
Decorated versions of the Enchufla include: Enchufla Doble (ie stop-and-go in jive), Enchufla Complicado (with a role-swapping change-of-places in between) and Enchufla Ronde (leader's hook turn on end before DQN).
Cuban salsa has a stepped out (ie not a spin) double-right turn for follower to change places in front of leader (ie passing inside the ring). The single handhold version (LRH or RRH) is called Vuelta or Pimienta. The double handhold version (with right hands crossed over left hands) is called Sombrero and ends with the hands dropped over each person's head. The no-hands version is called Vacilala. Each of these ends with the customary DQN to bring partner back across.
Sombrero Con Mambo is a variation where the couple remain in place, with hands still crossed over their heads, to dance a 4 tap-step decoration for a whole bar before continuing into the hand-drop and DQN part of the figure.
Balsero is a Sombrero with hands held high for a complete walk-around.