How to use our Salsa Timing products
We produce our DVDs so that they are original, versatile and exhaustive. By original, we mean that rather than replicating ideas already contained in other DVDs we try to look for what is missing among other DVDs and cover that. This does not mean our DVDs are necessarily better, but it ensures they are different.
By versatile, we mean that our timing products can be useful whether you dance On1, On2, Cuban style, Colombian style or anything else. It also means that we provide instruction which suits different learning habits: some people learn by doing, others by watching, others by both, and we cater for all these needs.
Our Timing DVDs are not just for beginners. They are also for students whose timing is ‘ok’ but who want to make sure they are confident dancing even to complex rhythms, as well as those who struggle with the very basic issues of timing.
Finally, by exhaustive, we mean that we cover as many rhythms and instruments as possible. Check out how many combinations are available in our ‘Timing Exercises’ DVDs!
Of course, when faced with all this material you may feel overwhelmed and not sure where to start or how to best plan your learning. This page is designed to help you overcome the impasse by providing you with a program to follow. This may be useful at the beginning, to discover what material is available and what learning style works better for you.
Where do I start?
We suggest you start by watching the entire Salsa on the Spur of the Music
Salsa on the Spur of the Music DVD.This is a DVD to watch, not to practice with. Watch it once, possibly in one go, while you are relaxed or in no mood to practice. This will give you a general picture of all the important concepts which are related to timing and rhythm in Salsa and what you need to understand to improve your dancing. It will also open your eyes to a new world of salsa dancing, a world which is beyond merely executing turn patterns. Many of our customers find this DVD particularly inspiring, which is probably why it is our best seller! You will find an explanation of the basic concepts of timing. What is a beat? What is a bar of music? What are the strong and weak beats? How does Latin music differ from western music? How do the basic steps differ when I dance On1 or On2? How does dancing On2 NY style (or modern mambo) differ from On2 Puerto Rican style (or classic mambo)? How has salsa inherited elements of rumba? How does the speed of the music differ from the instinctive feeling of energy that certain songs communicate to us (very important!)? How do I distinguish beat n 1 from beat n 5 and much more.
You will see several clips, filmed in salsa clubs all over the world, giving examples which will help you visualise and memorise the information provided in the DVD. Among these clips, we collected some common timing mistakes you can see on every dance floor. We have isolated them and highlighted them for you by superimposing the correct timing over the clip. This will enable you to detect these mistakes when you see them and hopefully when you make them too.
Besides this information, most of which cannot be found in any other salsa DVDs, you will also see three full demos. The first one, from Stacey and Lucy Lopez, is still today my very favourite salsa clip. It was shot by a friend at a Puerto Rican congress with no plan to ever end up in a DVD. When I saw it I was stunned and still today, after watching it hundreds of times (literally) it still spark a smile on my face. Stacey and Lucy dance a full, long, song without doing a single turn pattern, not even a single double turn. Still their dancing is engaging, fun to watch and inspiring. You can ‘see’ the music take shape in front of your eyes via their interpretation and their perfect connection while they both improvise. It shows not only that dancing goes beyond executing turn patterns, but also that there is where it reaches its nirvana.
The second demo shows you that you do not need to dance any basic steps during an entire song and you can still perform turn patterns and coordinate with your partner while you free up your basic footwork. The third demo is a beautiful solo rumba dance.
If you are a person who learns by watching, you may want to watch this DVD a few times since it contains a lot of material, some of which may escape a first view. If you are a person who learns by doing, you may want to go to the next step.
Before proceeding, perform a simple test: clapping to basic 4 beat rhythm
When you learn to dance, whatever dance, it is usually taken for granted that you hear the basic 4 beats which make up a bar of music (you have just learnt in the Salsa on the Spur of the Music DVD what a beat and a bar of music are). These are the beats you would dance to in a ‘western’ night club and would blast your ears in techno music, for example. If timing in salsa is a problem for you, it is usually assumed that it is so because you cannot recognise these beats in salsa music (which is far more complex that western pop music). This assumption is correct for most people. However, there are people whose problems can be tracked further back. These people do not recognise the basic 4 beats even in western music, possibly because they have never been told how to recognise them and what to do with them. If you are one of those people, you do not have the foundation (yet) to even start using a Salsa rhythm CD. You may not even know this; or you may know it but be too embarrassed to admit this is an issue for you.
We have addressed this in the very first exercises in Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 1 (Disk A). In the section The Very Basic of Music Timing, there is a simple 4 beat rhythm track as you may find it in western pop music and you can see and hear hand clapping to these beats. Different tracks show you clapping to different beats, such as beats 1 & 3, beats 2 & 4 etc. Importantly, there are also tracks in which the hand clapping fades in and out; you can use these tracks to test whether you are comfortable with this very basic, but absolutely crucial, rhythm understanding. If you are, skip the remainder of this section and proceed to the next one. If you are not, use these clips over and over to train your brain to recognise the beats (in all combinations). This may appear boring but it is crucial! Without this foundation it is unlikely you will progress any further. Note that this is true whether you dance salsa, ballroom, rock’n’roll or tarantella. These clips will make sure that the fundamentals are there and that you can reliably build on them.
Getting accustomed to ‘easy’ salsa rhythms
So far, we made sure you can:
- Understand the basic idea of rhythm, and why it is so important. You learnt this from watching Salsa on the Spur of the Music
- Hear and follow the basic 4 beats in music. You have tested yourself in The Very Basic of Music Timing in Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 1
Now let’s start to deal with salsa. The instruments which can ease your exploration of salsa rhythms are the cowbell, guiro and maracas, in this very order. To start with, go to the section Easy Individual Salsa Instruments in Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 1 and choose Cowbell (how to navigate through the DVD menus is explained in details here).
You will see hand clapping to different combinations of basic beats of a standard cowbell rhythm. This is exactly the same idea as we saw in the previous section, but to a cowbell salsa rhythm rather than to a western simple rhythm. This cowbell rhythm is ‘easy’ because the strong beats are clearly accented (you have learnt what the strong and weak beats are in Salsa on the Spur of the Music). The rest of the rhythm pattern played by the cowbell will help your ears getting accustomed to simple syncopations. Try to follow the clapping in the different clips. Some of you will find this very easy and can quickly proceed to the next section. Others may struggle initially. If so, don’t rush, just take your time here. Becoming confident in these early steps will speed up your learning later on.
Once you are done with the Cowbell, do the same with Guiro & Maracas.
Let’s start moving the feet
Now that you:
- Understand the basic ideas of rhythm
- Hear and follow the basic 4 beats in pop music
- Hear and follow the basic 4 beats in simple salsa instruments
you can try to dance the basic salsa steps to the ‘easy’ salsa instruments you are familiar with.
Take the Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 2 Disk A and go to the Section Exercise with individual Salsa instruments; then choose Cowbell, or Guiro & Maracas. You will see clips called Cowbell – standard basic; (same for Guiro & Maracas). When you play them you will see the salsa basic steps executed to the same rhythm you just learnt to clap to. All you need to do now is to transfer your ability to mark the beats with your clapping, to mark the beats with the feet in your basic steps. Watching the instructor marking the basic steps will help you to do just that. Currently, the instructor is dancing On1 (in Salsa on the Spur of the Music you have learnt what dancing On1 and On2 mean); by using the ‘angle’ button on your remote control you can toggle views and see the instructor dancing On2 Modern Mambo and On2 Classic Mambo (remember to read the How to use Timing Exercises document to understand all the available options to navigate the DVDs).
It’s time to understand the Conga…
The ‘core’ of salsa music (as you now know from Salsa on the Spur of the Music) are 4 instruments: conga, clave, piano and bass. In other words, with these 4 instruments a salsa song will really ‘feel’ like salsa: all other instruments are decorations, nice decorations, but still peripheral to the core of the music. Here is where we start to deal with what makes salsa be ‘salsa’. In other words what makes salsa different not only from western music but also from other types of Latin music. Let’s start from the conga.
Take the CD Salsa on the Beat and play Track 2. Listen to the vocal explanation carefully. It explains how to recognise the different beats (the ones you learnt how to clap and dance to in simpler instruments) in a standard conga pattern. You have seen this already in the Salsa on the Spur of the Music DVD, but you will need to listen to it a few times, which is why it is contained in the CD as well. You may, for example, listen to it when you drive or on your iPod in the bus or train. Listen to it until you ‘understand’ it; then, keep on listening to it until it becomes instinctive, that is until it is fully ‘wired’ in your brain, until it sinks deeply into your unconsious.
Then, go back to Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 1 Disk A , section Exercise with individual Salsa Instruments and choose Conga. Make sure you learn to clap to the basic beats rhythm as you did before with cowbell, guiro & maracas. By using the ‘audio’ button on your remote control you can toggle between different conga patterns of increasing complexity. Whichever pattern you choose, you will recognise which part of the Conga pattern stays the same and which changes. Keep very focussed throughout these exercises.
Once you mastered clapping to the conga, play the Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 2 Disk A and learn to dance the basic steps to the basic conga pattern. By using the ‘audio’ button you can add a vocal counting to help you recognise the beats if you get confused at any stage. Remember to choose between On1 and On2 with the ‘angle’ button on your remote control.
Here you can start to venture into some more interesting, but still simple, footwork while following the conga switching rhythmic patterns, by choosing the All Conga Rhythms clips, which come at two different speeds, slow and fast. The option to toggle between On1 and On2 as well as to add or remove the vocal counting is available on all clips in the DVDs.
… and the Clave
For the clave you can follow exactly the same path you took for the conga: Track 12 in the CD Salsa on the Beat provides the vocal explanation of how to recognise the basic beats in the clave pattern. This is where things start to become challenging: the clave pattern is not trivial. But it is fundamental in order to understand salsa and mambo, so we recommend you take all the time you need on this instrument.
Once you have understood this vocal explanation, use the Timing Exercises Vol 1 disk B and Vol 2 disk A, as you did for the conga, to learn to clap and dance the basic steps to the clave rhythm. We present the clave in 4 variations, 2-3 and 3-2 in both Son Clave and Rumba Clave. Make sure you familiarise yourself with all these variations.
Let’s start to deal with some Salsa
By now you:
- Understand the basic ideas of rhythm
- Hear and follow the basic 4 beats in pop music
- Hear and follow the basic 4 beats in cowbell, guiro, maracas, conga and clave
- Dance the basic steps to those 5 instruments
You should be now ready to try clapping first and dancing then to some simple salsa rhythms in which several instruments are combined. In the Salsa Timing Exercises Volume 1Disk A choose the section Simple Salsa Rhythms. Here you can learn to clap to the basic beats with a number of simple salsa clips which contain the instruments you learnt so far plus the piano and bass; when a clip is playing, use the ‘audio’ button to toggle between different salsa tracks. For now focus on the percussions, since these are the instruments you have learnt; try to recognise each of them without being distracted by the piano and the bass.
Once you learn to clap to these instruments, switch to Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 2 Disk B and choose the section Salsa Rhythms and Rumba. Here you will find the same salsa clips and you can follow the instructor dancing the basic steps (as usual use the 'angle’ and ‘audio’ button to toggle dancing On1 or On2 as well as the different salsa tracks). Most importantly, you can now start to test your learning in the dance! The Test yourself clips will show you the instructor, as well as the beat counter, fading in and out. When they fade out, keep on dancing and check that you are synchronised with the instructor when he fades in again; this way you can verify whether your timing is improving.
Once this is done, start using the CD Salsa on the Beat again. You can do this in two different ways. When you drive or you have spare time but you can’t dance, listen to Tracks 27-34; these contain the percussive instruments you learnt so far in different combinations, at different speeds, with and without counting. Hearing the counting over and over will train your ears to making it instinctive; using the tracks without the counting may allow you to train yourself to supply the counting in your head, which may be useful occasionally when you dance. You can also use those tracks when you practise your turn patterns, maybe with a partner or in a group, so you start to get used to coordinating all your movements (arms included) to the correct beat.
Of course you can do the same with tracks 3-11 and 13 -21 for clave, conga and guiro in isolation.
There are at least two reasons why it is important to understand and learn to dance to the piano. First, the piano (or the tres in Cuban Son) is an essential part of all salsa music and it has both a harmonic and rhythmic function in a salsa song (you have learnt this is Chapter 4 of Salsa on the Spur of the Music). You can follow the very same procedure used for clave and conga to learn to clap and dance to a few different piano patterns by using the Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 1 and Vol 2; also, use the CD Salsa on the Beat Tracks 22-23 to listen to piano music with and without vocal counting when you cannot dance or when you practice.
Second, the piano is the most useful instrument to learn to distinguish the beat 1 from beat 5 in a typical salsa phrase which covers two bars of music (you learn what this mean in the DVD Salsa on the Spur of the Music). Distinguishing the 1 from the 5 is even more important when you dance On2, since it is one of the features which differentiate Classic from Modern Mambo. Go back to Chapter 5 in Salsa on the Spur of the Music to fully understand that explanation and then use again the piano tracks in the Salsa Timing Exercises to practice to distinguish beats 1 and 5 when you clap and dance. This is not an easy task; several short-cuts are taught in salsa classes or in blogs on the net. Some of these, like listening to when the singer starts singing, work in many cases but not always; unfortunately the ‘only’ fool-proof way to distinguish 1 from 5 is by understanding this phrasing in the music structure, and the piano is the greatest help.
Yes! ‘Real’ Salsa music…
If you have been a good student, you have followed the program carefully and you have tested your learning at each step before proceeding to the next, you are now at the well-deserved stage to work with some real music. First, take the CD Salsa on the Beat Tracks 35-38. They contain a full salsa song written specifically for this CD. In this song, all instruments play exactly the same part as in the rest of the CD. Spend some time not only to recognise the beat in the song with the help of the vocal counting, (Tracks 35 and 37) but also to recognise each individual instrument within the full Salsa band. This is going to be very useful when you listen to any salsa song. If you recognise what the conga, the piano or other instruments do, then you can use what you learnt so far to ‘find the beat’ in any song.
Now, use the Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 1 and 2 (disks B). There you will find some loops taken from real (and famous) salsa songs; these are the same songs you may dance in your own salsa club; they come in different styles (Salsa, Son, Timba, Mambo) and different speeds. Learn to clap to them (Vol 1) and to dance to them (Vol 2) and make sure you use the Test yourself clips to check how your learning has progressed. Needless to say, if you succeed in all these tracks, you should be able to do the same in your salsa club to whatever salsa music is played!
If you tested yourself with the ‘real’ salsa loops and you verified that you can clap and dance in good timing to all those songs, you have reached your initial goal: you should be able to dance comfortably to any (or at least the vast majority) of salsa music. You may decide to stop here and celebrate.
If however you enjoyed the process, you may decide to go further, since salsa rhythm has many more subtleties to discover, which can enrich your dancing and your full enjoinment. One place to start, for example is the bass. This is a difficult instrument to get used to but, because of its syncopation, learning to hear it and ‘feel’ it may really enhance the ‘groove’ in your dancing. In the Salsa on the Spur of the Music DVD, go back to Chapter 4 and listen to the explanation in the bass section and similarly use track 24 in the CD Salsa on the Beat to hear the explanation of how to find the beat when listening to the bass. Tracks 25 and 26 will help you to get used to this as well as practice to its music; it will be challenging, but a useful challenge to take.
Salsa on the Spur of the Music also has a section dedicated to rumba; watch it again and then use the rumba tracks in the Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 2 to get used to mark the basic steps to it. Often salsa songs have rumba sections and you need to know what to do with them.
Of course, you may also want to be able to dance both On1 and On2 (or On2 to both Classic and Modern Mambo); use Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 2 to learn to do so by following the instructor not only on the basic steps but also on the basic footwork, which includes variations on the basic step and a simple SuzyQ (remember to use the ‘angle’ button on the remote control to toggle between these styles). If the difference between them is not clear to you, you can use the clips on Salsa on the Spur of the Music Chapters 2 and 3, which show the basic steps in the different styles in the same screen, which makes it easy to compare. The Transition section in the Salsa Timing Exercises Vol 2 disk B, also teaches you to transition between the styles. You will rarely need to do so in real dancing but, as an exercise, it is useful to make sure you understand the different styles.
… and explore!
You may find it hard to believe, but so far we have covered probably less than a third (!) of the content of the Salsa Timing Exercises. More instruments are covered (like timbales and cascara) and for each instrument several rhythmic patterns are available. Some are challenging, some are very ‘nice’. With time, you may want to explore them, to know how they sound, to learn to clap to them and even dance to them. They are useful when you need to dance to some challenging music, like Salsa with Jazz influence or Cuban Timba. In general, they will also enhance your understanding of salsa music and with it, of course your enjoinment.
Let's put all together
The Timing Exercises Vol 3 allows you to put together all you have learnt so far. We include exercises of different types: syncopations, speed, agility, common and unusual rhythm phrasing. First you need to understand the rhythm and verify that you have learnt it by clapping to it. Then you repeat the same pattern but this time with your feet. The results are a set of footwork sequences, which not only further improve your rhythm and style, but also you can include in your actual dancing.
If you are diligent and want to progress slowly, you can start from the first exercises (1-4) which address strong, weak and syncopated beats. Otherwise you can go directly to the second set of exercises which focuses on moving your feet to the beat of 3 salsa instruments. Watch out however.. this may sound very simple, but believe us, some advanced dancers would already be challenged but some of these excises. The third set of exercises allows you to develop speed and agility.. very important to look fluid and smooth. But if you want to go straight to footwork which you can use on the dance floor, you can jump to the last section, which includes several exercises which further develop your rhythm and are designed into sequences which you can use in solo dancing but also intersperse in your partnerwork