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Salsa and Mambo Timing and Rhythm Lesson

Everyone knows that dancing is about music. Everyone except for many who take dance classes (!!) and lose themselves in turn patterns and crazy styling. Get in touch again with the real core of dancing, by understanding the music and its relation to your movement. Then, but only then, you can proceed to learning turn patterns

Why is it so important?

In this site we try to offer a music tuition purposely designed for salsa dancers.

Learning how to move in tune with the rhythm and how to execute basic dance movements in correct timing is by far the hardest challenge for most salsa students. Salsa instructors normally can not afford to spend enough time on this subject in their beginners classes. Students are often too eager and enthusiastic to learn cool moves and to progress speedily to focus enough attention to music, rhythm and timing. However, without this component dancing loses its meaning. In producing our timing CD, timing DVD and in setting up this very site, our aim is to provide you with tools which you can use at home, with or without other salsa friends, to complement your regular salsa course. It explains many basic concepts of music in a practical, informal way. It introduces you to more sophisticated musical ideas, like accents, syncopations and musical interpretation. Finally, it leads you through a number of exercises designed to improve your timing and your confidence with different kinds of salsa music. If there was a university degree in salsa dancing, this could provide the lecture notes for Salsa Music 101 :) !!

I have been a musician for many years, and turned to dancing only much later in life. Instinctively, dancing for me was just an extension of playing music, with my body as an instrument. I was surprised at first to notice how little music training is included in most social dance classes. In my dance trips around the world I noticed that professional salsa instructors in NY, and to a lesser extent in Cuba, in general have a deep music awareness. It is no surprise that NY and Cuba produce among the best salsa dancers worldwide. Understating the music does make a difference to your dancing.

At the core of our timing CD and timing DVD are 4 main concepts.

  1. first, dancing out of time is not merely bad dancing, it is no dancing at all !! Rather, it becomes a strange physical activity more akin to gymnastic or acting. You may have a bad posture, no style, or know only a few boring figures, and still be a dancer. Without good timing, you are not a dancer.
  2. Second, there is more to timing than just following the beat, and executing the basic steps correctly. The rhythm structure of different styles of music is responsible for the difference between different kinds of dances. Understanding this allows us to interpret and enjoy the music to a deeper level.
  3. Third, our culture has a long established tradition in music teaching which has proved successful in training generations of musicians. Social dancing teaching makes little use of this tradition, which is a pity and, even worse, a real waste. In this video we include some basic concepts which are used routinely by music teachers to train your musicality as a dancer.
  4. Finally, whether you want to learn nuclear physics, modern philosophy or social dancing, you can not succeed without serious exercising. It is a cruel reality rooted in the biology of our neural system. Having a full time job or endless exams to prepare unfortunately does not change our biology. If you have troubles with timing, the exercises in our timing CD and timing DVD are a must, a bitter medicine which you just have to swallow for a while to cure your timing problems.

This may not be fun. You will not learn exciting moves, nor tricks to impress your friends. What you will learn from this will not show overnight. But with time, I guarantee it will make you a better social dancer. Your dancing will be more enjoyable and creative. And, very important for a social dancer, dancing with you will be more enjoyable for your dance partners.

Ultimately, what we aim at is to become part of the music when we dance. And being part of the music when you dance means understanding rhythm and timing but also its variations and the accents. With the help of our timing CD and timing DVD, this is what we try to achieve. We show you how to listen to the music, how to recognize the different instruments, how to understand their accents and how to coordinate your dancing to all these components. We will also suggest some ideas of how to decorate your dancing, and show you how beautiful simple salsa can be when dancers and the music become one.

The magic of dancing 'in' the music

Our timing DVD starts with what is, by far, our favorite salsa clip. It is a piece of magic from Stacey and Lucy Lopez (in the photo). We have traveled most corners of the salsa world, seen thousands of dancers, but nothing in our opinion compares to this clip. It is simply the most beautiful piece of salsa dancing we have ever seen. It has it all, happiness, joy sparkling from every beat, perfect merging with the music, naturalness, everything...

Nevertheless the clip does not contain any salsa figure, nor any shine. There are no dips, no acrobatics, no rehearsed decoration, no long studied stylistic moves. In fact, this clip does not even contain a single double turn. There are only basic steps, spontaneous footwork, Cross-body leads and decorations fully improvised on the spur of the music. More importantly there is a beautiful, natural and un-choreographed coordination between the dancers. The dance explodes with joy. The smiles seem to scream out the enjoyment of salsa. We cannot avoid feeling a smile of pleasure blooming on our own faces every time we see this clip.

Amazing salsa clip

I was once told (by Delille Thomas, from NY, another of my heroes) that a good dancer is one who makes you see the music. Surely Stacey and Lucy make us see the music. This arises, at least partly, from being fully one with the music. Some people, like Stacey and Lucy, have talent, they dance with their heart and with their stomach. Others, us included, have to rely on the brain. Our timing CD and timing DVD aim at the people who need to use their brain to understand the music better, and hopefully push it down into their heart and stomach, one day.

Music Timing

Each one of us instinctively understands that there is 'fast music' and 'slow music'. The use of terms like 'fast' or 'slow' naturally implies that there is a concept of 'speed' associated with the music. Strictly speaking, we could say that there is a regular 'clock' ticking under the music score of most popular forms of music. This 'clock' marks the regular beats, which represent the basic units of musical rhythm. These beats are the ones we would normally count when we clap in time to the music. The number of beats per minute determines the speed of the music, properly called 'tempo'.

Musical beats and bars of music. In music the unit of time is called a 'bar'. In the context of this our discussion, each bar of music is made of 4 beats. In salsa, most phrases (both in music and in dancing) cover blocks of 2 bars, which means 8 beats. In our timing DVD we have a session in which you can see the beats ticking in front of you, for both salsa and other styles of music, in order to help you understand this concept. Also, a salsa beat counter is used throughout each of our salsa videos (both timing DVD and our figure-based salsa videos). This is important to both train your ear to follow the music time and to synchronize your movements to the salsa rhythm.

In our timing CD instead we employ the most intuitive visual aid taken from an everyday example: the clock. As we said, in salsa, the basic pattern of time involves 8 beats. The steps are synchronised with these beats. Imagine the clock as illustrated in this figure. The hand of the clock moves a full circle in exactly 8 beats. We can imagine the 8 beats to be equally spaced around the clock. When the hand moves past a tick it marks a beat. Each beat takes the same amount of time. This is the basic element of musical timing.

Clave rhythm

Strong and weak beats

In musical terminology the odd beats (n1 n3 n5 n7) are called strong beats. The even beats are called weak beats. This distinction is important as you will soon see.

Music Accents

The accents are notes (or beats) which are louder than the others. The distribution of the accents is one of the factors which determines the rhythm of a piece of music. Here we introduce the most important difference between 'western' pop music and Cuban music (from which salsa originates.)

In most pop music strong beats and accents coincide. Imagine clapping your hands to mark the accents in the music (this is shown in our timing DVD). The hands would fall on the 'odd' beats. This is why it easy to 'find the beat' in western pop music.

In many styles of music with African roots the rhythm structure is more complicated. In swing for example, the accents coincide with the 'even' beats and this is even clearer in reggae, one of the many forms of Caribbean music (we show the hands clapping to both swing and reggae in our timing DVD). In musical terms this is called syncopation. In Cuba the rhythm structure is even more complicated. It is based on the clave, and on other percussion instruments which interleave with one another marking both the odd and the even beats. This generates the 'Cuban' feel, and is one of the factors which makes it challenging for a 'westerner's ear' to 'find the beat' in salsa. But before we explain in details all these instruments and how they are combined let's have a look at the basic salsa steps.

Salsa Instruments and the Salsa Band

Since the advent of Rock'n'Roll, western pop bands have increasingly experimented with reducing the number of band members. Some top rock bands have counted as few as three musicians. Latin music has followed the opposite trend. Traditional Cuban music from Santiago de Cuba was often performed by very small bands, but when it reached the night clubs of Havana in the 50's it was deeply influenced by the big American Swing bands of that era. Latin bands started to expand in size. Even today, bands composed of eleven to thirteen musicians are common. Latin bands often need a music director in order to perform.
The soul of a Latin band is represented by four instruments: clave, conga, piano and double bass, with the last two also playing a strong rhythmic role. Here we analyse each instrument, including the guiro and cowbell, which are also common ingredients of salsa music. We will see:

Distinguishing the "1" from the "5"

As we explained before, in salsa each bar of music is made of 4 beats and salsa music phrases cover blocks of 2 bars, which means 8 beats. It thus becomes important to understand when the first bar of the 2 bar sequence starts. In other words how to distinguish the 1 from the 5. Salseros who like to dance 'On 1' or on the 'clave 2' normally are not too concerned about this difference, but dancers on the NY2 can be very picky about this! We give three hints on how to distinguish between the 1 and the 5, of decreasing levels of sophistication.

1) If you have developed your musical skills, you can recognize whether the song is on the 2-3 clave or on the 3-2 clave, and the job is done! In our rhythm CD you can find the difference between 2-3 and 3-2 clave clearly explained.

2) In a slightly simpler approach, you may recognize that most salsa music is based on a 'call' and 'response' structure, which also originates from African traditions. The first bar of music makes the call, and the second one responds. In our timing DVD we show a typical example in African music, and an example in salsa.. The clave itself can be interpreted as a call and response between the 2 and the 3 hits. We also show an example of a simple 2 bar piano phrase. The first bar of music sounds 'unresolved', 'unfinished', as if you have to hold your breath for the second bar which resolves it. if you learn to pay attention to this, you will find it in most popular salsas.

3) Finally, the simplest, but also least accurate method.. most vocal parts start on the first bar.. so pay attention to where the lead singer or the choir starts and in most cases that gives you the first bar.. but be careful, this is a rough approach and it does not always work. music is too creative for such a simple rule to always apply.

Common errors. 3 ways of being 'out of time'

Now we have an understanding of what music timing is, how to listen to the salsa beat and how to follow each individual salsa percussion instrument. Learning often requires the knowledge of where typical mistakes are made. Here we describe the three most common ways of being 'out of time', in decreasing order of 'seriousness'. In our timing DVD we also shows some examples for each of these mistakes, taken from real salsa clubs. Pay attention to these and see whether you recognize which stage you are at.

Dancing completely out of phase with the music. This happens when the dancer is totally disconnected with the music. He or she can not hear the beat, can not find the 1 or the 2, and constantly guesses the rhythm. Coordination with the partner becomes impossible. This is what we call 'not dancing', movements and music have nothing in common.

If you fall into this class, it is probably wise for you to go back one step. Concentrate on the music without dancing, until the basic understanding of the rhythm is clear. Take a timing CD, possibly a one-to-one private music class. Then go back to practice your basic step.

Dancing too fast - faster than the music. catching up all the time. The dancer has a vague perception of the music, but fails to recognize the proper timing. The richness of the salsa percussion confuses the dancer who is not able to 'abstract' the underlying beat. Many percussion instruments playing at the same time create the general impression of 'speed'. He or she dances too fast. occasionally he/she realizes it and catches up with the closest beat.

Go back to your timing CD, and make the effort to isolate the fundamental beat. Use the timing CD to learn how to count. Don't be ashamed to count when you dance, you are at the stage at which you probably need to. Soon the counting will become automatic and you will not need to think about it anymore. Going through this stage, although frustrating, will considerably shorten your learning process. You may feel this slows down your learning unnecessarily, but if you fix this problem now your progress will be so much faster afterwards. You will more than compensate for this time investment.

Dancing at the proper speed, but just ahead of time. This is the most common mistake and affects also non-beginner dancers. Occasionally, you can find this in advanced dancers as well. It is the least serious and most subtle mistake. Because of this, it is the hardest to recognize and to correct.

The dancer recognizes the music and fundamentally dances at the correct speed. However his or her steps are just a fraction ahead of time. That is, he or she steps just a bit too early. How much too early? Our experience in studying salsa videos frame by frame has taught us that being ahead of time of as little as 1/10th of a second is enough to be noticeable. Our body is very sensitive to timing.

How does it feel? Probably perfectly normal to you. But to your partner it gives a sense of rush to the dance. it gives the feel that he or she is not given the time to execute figures properly. The dance does not feel relaxed. Somehow your partner feels you he/she can not enjoy each beat of the dance and each figure to its full extent.

This is a hard mistake to fix, because the dancer fundamentally understands the music. You need to relax. You need to take your time. You need to try to force yourself to dance as slow as the music allows you too. You need to force yourself to move after you hear the beat, rather than anticipate it. Try to dance in response to the beat, rather than 'on it'. If you are afraid you may end up dancing too slow or late, you should not worry. dancing too slow happens very rarely, it is by far the exception to the rule.

Switching between dancing 'On 1' and 'On 3', or between 'On 1' and 'On 2'. A very bad habit which may result from dancing out of time, especially if you dance too fast, is to try to catch up with the music by jumping on the closer beat without paying proper attention to the music. Switching between dancing 'On 1' and 'On 3' or, even worse, between dancing 'On 1' and 'On 2' is a typical consequence. In out timing DVD we included two clips which show this very clearly. Watch them carefully and see if you notice when the dancers mistakenly change beat.. learning to notice this will help you to prevent making the same mistake.

Another common mistake: confusing power with speed. Beginner dancers at time confuse the tempo of a song, that is its speed, with the energy of the song. In salsa, powerful music not always means fast tempo. In our timing DVD we show a popular powerful, but slow salsa. .and a popular romantic, but fast one..

in the timing DVD we also show a clip, in which I dance to a rhythm track which changes intensity, but not speed. Watch this clip carefully. The rhythm track has a constant tempo. During the track, the arrangement changes and the music becomes more powerful.. this is simply the result of adding more instruments and playing different patters. But notice that the speed does not change. Rewind the clip and try to dance to it, paying attention to the constant tempo and the change of intensity of the music.

The 'right' way: being on time

Roughly speaking, if you avoid the mistakes we listed before, that is, if you do not dance too slow or too fast and you do not anticipate the beat, your basic steps are probably correct. Reaching this point should be priority number one for each salsa dancer, even before venturing into learning figures or shines.

Basic steps are just what the word suggests.. basic steps.. the first level of salsa steps. Once you understand the salsa timing completely, and you are able to follow it instinctively without counting, then you can free yourself from the constraint of having to follow the basic steps mechanically and you can experiment with improvising with your footwork, while you dance with your partner

Once you get here, with time, you can proceed further. Basic steps are just what the word suggests.. basic steps.. the first level of salsa steps. Once you understand the salsa timing completely, and you are able to follow it instinctively without counting, then you can free yourself from the constraint of having to follow the basic steps mechanically and you can experiment with improvising with your footwork, while you dance with your partner. In timing DVD we show a simple but beautiful example of it. Pay attention to how the dancers, especially the male dancer, rarely execute the standard basic step, but how they are always perfectly on time and perfectly synchronized. Despite the fact that the basic steps are rarely performed you should recognize that they are dancing on the clave 2, Puerto Rican style.

Basically you improvise simple shines while executing your partner-work. This is not easy to achieve and the first attempts may be frustrating, but if you learn to listen to the music properly, one day it will click. The crucial component is to always know where the beat number 1 or n2 are, so that, independently of what you do with your feet, you will always be synchronized with both the music and your partner. You may want to watch this clip a few times to notice all the details of the footwork.

How can you understand if your free footwork now matches the music? Imagine your steps can generate a sound. Would the sound of your steps match the music? If so, your footwork is right!

The importance of timing 'in the hands'. If you get to the level of completely freeing your footwork, your awareness of the salsa timing needs to be even more developed. You need to coordinate your actions with your partner in order to execute the figures, and, if you are a guy, you need to lead properly. Now you do not have your regular footwork to rely on for such coordination. Here is where you need to always be aware of what beat you are on. For example, right turns are often lead on beat n5, if you dance 'On 1'. Your lead needs to start on beat n3 or 4 to make it smooth. XBLs are initiated on beat n2, if you dance 'On clave'; the woman walks in front of the guy on beat n6. In order to lead these actions you always need to know what beat you are on. Your brain needs to know this automatically, because you may be fully immersed in executing a figure. This is where timing needs to become second nature to you. But not only in your feet, in your hands too!!

Decorations, marking the break and accents, spontaneity...

Imagine a piece of music that repeats the same phrase over and over again. It would be boring. Similarly imagine the basic steps repeated over and over. They are boring too. Music gets interesting when variations are used. Similarly you can free your basic step and make it interesting as we just saw. But music goes from interesting to exciting when breaks and rich arrangements are used. You can add the same excitement to your dance too by learning how to decorate and interpret the breaks and the accents.

We saw that an accent is a note or a beat which is louder than others. Breaks are music accents which are emphasized by several instruments together, by generating a sudden release of energy. In our timing DVD we show a few examples..

The most obvious way to mark a clear break in dancing is by performing a dip. or a drop. several other stylistic moves are taught in standard LA and NY salsa, especially in lady's styling videos. In our timing DVD we show you plenty of example of more natural way to mark breaks, taken from dancer fro all over the world. Observe them but do not learn them by memory, find inspiration from them so that you can develop your own and make them happen naturally in the spur of the music!

Decorations inherited from rumba...

Many elements of salsa expressivity are inherited from Cuban rumba. Some have been maintained in forms very close to their origins, other have been modified to the point of making them hard to recognize. In our timing DVD we show some nice rumba interpretations to highlight some of these decorations.

Probably the most typical is the 'drop' which happens with the off beat notes of the bass. we show some examples in rumba.. and then Stacey shows the same in salsa.

But the most common is surely the hand flip used by ladies either to mark their back breaks or to finish their XBL. We show it in salsa. and then in its rumba origin.

And obviously one of the trademarks of latin dancing.. the shoulder shaking. we show thsi one as well, first is salsa. and then in rumba..

It is great to see a renewed interest in the rumba tradition. we hope you enjoy the clip from our timing DVD and find inspiration for your salsa

How to improve your timing...

Now that you understand the concepts and the theory behind music, rhythm and dancing on time, all you are left to do is to put this into practice. Ultimately this relies on your determination, persistence and will to put in the effort and practice a lot. Instructors can teach you but you are the one who has to learn.

Here we give you 8 hints on how to 'make happen' all you have learned so far.

1) Listen to salsa all the time. There are two reasons why pop music comes so naturally to you. First its beat is easier. Second, you grew up with it; you spent thousands of hours listening to it. And there is one reason salsa is so natural to Caribbean people, they grew up with it and they spent thousands of hours listening to it. You need to catch up. Listen to salsa whenever and wherever you can: in your shower, in your car, when you do your housework. Day by day, you need to let it sediment on your brain. Initially you will not notice the difference, but one day it will suddenly 'click'.

2) Dance to slow music. All beginner dancers find it easier to be on time with fast music. The reason is simple, at fast speed mistakes are less noticeable. Pauses are shorter; not emphasizing them can be easily 'covered up'. Since beginner dancers tend to dance faster than the music, they find it easier to tune into fast music. To improve your timing you need to do the opposite. Practice to slow music. Very slow music if possible. Try to dance salsa to Cha Cha Cha. You will have to control your movements to be able to discriminate the subtleties of the accents. Learn to enjoy taking your time on the beats. Only when you are fully comfortable with this, then proceed to fast music. This is the rule music students have to follow when they learn to play an instrument, there is no reason it should be any different in dancing.

3) Count the beats. Don't be ashamed to count when you practice or dance. Everyone has to learn from the beginning by doing this. This is essential for you to learn to discriminate the fundamental salsa beat from the rest of the percussion. Count even when you listen to music and you are not dancing.

4) Play or vocalize the percussions. This is the next step after counting is under control. Try to dance while you play some percussion music, the clave being the best choice (as in this example.). Try to vocalize, that is to sing, the conga or the clave or the piano when you practice your basic steps or when you are listening to salsa. This will teach you how to isolate the instrument and how to 'find' it within the full salsa band. Then you will be able to listen to it and dance to it in a club.

5) Never, never, never practice any salsa figure out of time! At times you may find yourself practicing a figure that you have just learned and you may feel temped to execute your movement without marking the salsa beats. maybe because you just want to make sure you remember the figure. Train yourself to NEVER execute a dance movement out of time, whether at home, at a salsa class or in a club. If you need to try a figure slowly, do it at half speed. If you do not have music with you, count the beat. Train your brain to always associate dance with music, movements with rhythm.

6) Dance with people with good timing. This may sound a bit cruel to beginner dancers, but nothing helps your timing as much as dancing with advanced, confident dancers; and nothing damages it as much as dancing with other dancers with poor timing. Mistakes just get reinforced and harder to erase. Be nice to good dancers and try to practice a lot with them. When you become good, remember this, and be nice to beginner dancers by offering them a few dances.

7) Exercise. And don't even hope you will learn salsa without exercising- it just won't happen. Whether you want to learn nuclear physics, playing a piano or dancing salsa, exercise and practice is essential!

8) And the very final suggestion. what ever salsa figure or shine you execute don't forget to dance!!


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