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Timing, rhythm & music interpretation in Salsa

Timing Training Set$120

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Salsa Basic Steps

Before going into more details of salsa rhythm, let's say a few words about salsa basic steps. This instructions complement, but can not replace, an introductory salsa course. Consequently, we assume that you have taken, or you are taking, a salsa beginner's course, and consequently you know or you are learning to execute the basic salsa steps.

Salsa basic steps involve 3 steps over a 4 beat count. Three beats are marked by a step while the 4th one is a pause (that is, a beat which is not marked by a step). Ballroom dancers may be more familiar with interpreting this as 2 quick steps followed by a slow one, as quick, quick, slow. quick, quick, slow.

At times the pause is replaces by a 'tap'. This is merely a decoration, though, and does not affect any of the concepts we are going to explain. For the sake of clarity we have decided to avoid tapping in the rest of the video.

Your basic steps can be synchronized with the music in different ways and we describe here the most common variations. In our timing DVD we show the basic steps danced in all variations, side to side, in order to highlight the differences. Our students have found this way of visualising the basic steps very useful.


On1. Dancing 'On 1', the man steps forward on the beat n1 and back on the beat n 5. This is reversed for the lady. The action of stepping forward or backward is often called 'breaking', so you may hear the expression 'breaking on 1'. The pause happens on beat n 4 and 8. Dancing 'On 1' is probably the most widespread worldwide. It is characteristic of Colombian style, LA style, and contemporary Cuban style (especially with Timba music).

On2. There are 2 ways of dancing 'On 2'. One is mostly used in Puerto Rico where it is called 'on clave', and in Cuba, where it is often called 'contra tiempo' and is typically used to dance Son. The other '2 style' is typical of New York and originated in the Eddie Torres school. For clarity, in this video we will call these two ways of dancing 'On 2', 'on clave' and 'NY 2', respectively.

'On clave'. Dancing 'on clave' the man steps forward on the beat n2 and back on the beat n 6. Again, this is reversed for the lady. Basically we execute the same sequence as if we were dancing 'On 1', but we 'break on 2'. This may seem a mere formality but, musically, it makes a considerable difference. Now the breaks move from the strong musical beats (which carry no accent in salsa) to the weak beats (which carry the accents). As we explained before, this changes the 'feel' of the dance. Also, now the pauses fall on beat n1 and n5, which are the strong beats. This puts more emphasis on the pauses, compared to dancing 'On 1'. The resulting feeling is of stronger syncopation, and of needing to 'catch up' with the beat. It explains why some 'On 2' dancers say that dancing on 2 feels 'slower'. Clearly the speed of the music is the same, and the movements are the same, so 'physically speaking' nothing in reality happens more slowly. This is a feeling which is simply the result of tuning in differently to the musical accents. This will become clearer after we explain the individual salsa percussions.

On2 NY style. Technically this can be seen as a hybrid between dancing 'On 1' and 'On 2'. In our timing DVD we show the basic steps as if we were dancing 'On 1', on the spot (that is, without breaking). We mark the first 3 beats of the music and we pause on 4 and 8. This is the '1' component of dancing on 'NY 2'. The '2' component comes from breaking on 2 and 6.

Differently from dancing 'on clave' the man steps back on 2 and forward on 6 (as usual, this is opposite for the lady). Why this is reversed has to do with the different underlying philosophy of the relationship between male and female partners in the dance, and is only indirectly related to music rhythm.

Although, technically, dancing 'on NY2' can be seen as an hybrid between dancing 'On 1' and dancing 'on clave', musically, dancing 'on NY2' belongs to the '2' feeling, and should be considered as dancing 'On 2'. Also dancers 'on clave' and dancers 'on NY 2' can dance with one another while keeping their basic step, which is not possible with dancers 'On 1'. If you try, you will soon find yourself kicking your partner. and being kicked in return.

On3. Some dancers like to dance 'On 3'. We found this in Cuba and in particular in some central American countries. Most often though, dancing 'On 3' happens to inexperienced 'On 1' dancers who confuse the strong beat n3 for the beat n1. This, for example, may happen when dancers make a mistake in executing a figure, and catch up with the next strong beat. While this is not necessarily a terrible mistake, it is important to become aware of it, since this is the only way to correct it.

Tapping and pausing. Certain dancers prefer to avoid pausing on beats 4 and 8 (when dancing on1), or beats 5 and 1 (when dancing on 2) and replace these movements by a simple tap with the foot (the foot which has just performed the last step). Some 'salseros' believe that resting adds more feeling to the music and lends to a more elegant style. Others feel that tapping adds 'energy' to theri dance and allows to maintain a regular movement of the feet. However, whether to "tap" or not is simply a personal choice. In the best scenario this should be dictated by whatever the music communicates to you during the dance.

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