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A Quick Primer on Dancing Salsa

June 18, 2012 by Oren Pardes

Good dancers can dance on any timing. The best dancers dance to the music (including the rhythm of the clave, vocals, and individual instruments) – as should everyone else. It is also important to listen (and dance) to the singers and lyrics and not just to the beat. While it is helpful to be able to count, most songs have rhythm changes, “hits”, and “breaks” – and really matching the music means more than just counting and doing learned patterns. Really listen. Move to it and not through it.

Dancing is not about steps. The feet need not even move for the rest of the body to dance. When steps are taken, what matters most is when and how the weight changes. The body should never be vertical or its weight distributed equally on both feet – but balanced either leaning slightly toward or away from the partner and (more) on one foot or the other so it’s possible to step, kick, point, or otherwise move forward, back, or to the side. Don’t just walk through patterns. The idea is to move together (in rhythm and harmony) both with the music and with a partner.

How people typically dance (to the same or similar music) in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Havana, Cali, Lima, and many other places around the world often looks different. I live in San Diego and sometimes dance in LA. I now dance a blend of many different styles.

Whether people dance “salsa” “On 1” or “On 2” or “On 5” or as “Mambo” or “Son” or in a “track” or in a “circle” has more to do with where they learned, the song playing, or who their partner is than their “level”. These terms are also misleading. Salsa is actually an umbrella term for a wide variety of distinct rhythms and musical styles – often blended and danced to in a different ways.

The numbers “On 1” or “On 2” refer to the “beat” that the person moving forward “breaks” or “rocks” on – to change directions. The odd numbers (1,3,5,7) are the “downbeat” and the even numbers (2,4,6,8) are the “upbeat”. The “downbeat” is easier for many people to hear – which may be why dancing “On 1” is very popular and often taught first – except where it’s not….

In what is often called “LA Style”, the leader rocks forward on the 1 – and then steps back on the 2 and 3. The feet do not come (back) together – but pass each other. The second half of the “On 1 basic” is just the opposite. The leader rocks back on the 5 then starts moving forward again on the 6 and 7. There is usually no step on the 4 or 8 – but rather than just stop or hold, the body keeps moving as weight is transferred from one foot to the other. The follower typically mirrors the footwork (in reverse). True “LA style” is more than just dancing “On 1” – and refers more to the actual “styling” than the stepping – and even in Los Angeles, there are distinct (sub-)styles associated with different teachers, competing couples, and dance company performance teams.

In (Eddie Torres) “New York Style”, the leader steps back on the 1 rocks back on the 2 and then starts forward on the 3, 5, and 6 before moving back on the 7. Although the follower is dancing forward “On 2”, the leader is really dancing “On 6”. Other than the count, this style is actually often pretty similar to dancing “On 1” and all the same patterns can be down – but because the downbeat is emphasized “On 2” instead of the upbeat, and the 4 and 8 are passed through with the feet in different positions than when dancing “On 1” it will look and feel different. Dancing “On 2” also sometimes better matches the music (because of the clave), but not always. Some people call this style mambo; it’s not. Both Cuban and ballroom styles of mambo are different.

In both these dance styles, dancers tend to move in a linear “track”, The “count” of their steps to the beat of the music is usually 1-2-3, 5-6-7. Sometimes there is syncopation for variety, but dancers tend to always step on the 1 and 5 and not the 4 or 8. Most salsa music has a call and response pattern. The two main differences between dancing salsa “On 1” and “On 2” are when direction is changed (on 1-2 and 5-6 or on 2-3 and 6-7) and the direction the follower is moving. Dancing “On 1” is more male dominated and dancing “On 2” is more female/couple oriented.

Some Puerto Ricans and a few top dancers from San Francisco dance “On 5” – to emphasize the downbeat of the 1 with the leader rocking back to allow the follower to move forward first (to do more turns during the response phase of the music and better match the hits of many songs).

Cubans tend to dance mainly “On 1” but always move forward and in circular patterns. They also tap on the 4 and 8. Sometimes they also switch into “Son (On 2)” rhythm: 2-3-4, 6-7-8. Cuban salsa is sometimes referred to as Casino dancing (for the venue it was most common). Cubans are also known for many couples dancing intricate group patterns together in a “rueda”.

Pachanga often uses both timings – usually starting “On 2” but stepping, sliding, or tapping with an “On 1” upbeat emphasis and then returning to an “On 2” basic in between patterns.

Columbians from Cali are known for their fast feet – and even their basic step has syncopation. Columbia is also the home of cumbia – and various elements have been incorporated into salsa.

To really understand salsa, it helps to learn a little about the many African and European dances and rhythms that contributed to it. Salsa is a continually evolving musical and cultural “sauce”.

Many salsa songs refer to rumba. This is not (the American or International) ballroom rhumba, but an Afro-Cuban dance with 3 parts: yambu, guaguanco, and columbia. Many songs also refer to various “orishas” (like Yemaya, Chango, or Ochosi). A quick look at the culture, beliefs, and influence of Africans in the Americas (especially in Cuba) will reveal and explain the origins of many musical rhythms, movements, and characteristics still common in salsa all over the world.

In some ways, the most important count in salsa is neither 1 nor 2, but 4. The French brought the Danzon to Cuba. The Danzon has a 2/4 rhythm that emphasizes stepping of the 4 – and NOT stepping on the 1. The Cubans added hip movement and turned it into the Son – with a 2-3-4, 6-7-8 rhythm. Son Montuyo added syncopation that included stepping on the 1 and 5 – which evolved into the ChaChaCha 2-3-4&5-6-7-8&1. Some songs use all of these rhythms.

Mambo is a word that came from the Congo and literally means “conversation with the gods” and it originally referred to the (running) vocal chorus of a song – but later became associated with the instrumental section in the middle of songs. This is the part of songs that many salsa dancers do their solo footwork. In New York, mambo tends to refer to slower salsa music that is danced “On 2”. In Cuba, it is more lively and danced “On 1”. Cubans have no problem switching rhythms and will dance on either 1 or 2 depending on what best matches a particular section of a song and then switch back later (as do some Mexicans and Columbians when dancing cumbia).

Mambo is also one of three main rhythms in most Dominican bachata songs; it’s the part where the music sounds like a galloping horse. Bachata means party – and it is now often played and danced in the same places as salsa. Like salsa, bachata is evolving and has many different styles.

Dance however you like – as long as it is to the music and together with your partner. Think less about the steps, patterns, and the count of the timing and more about matching the mood of the music and the movements of your partner. It it is not necessary to turn at all. Try dancing more in place and emphasizing connected partner body movement more than stepping with the feet.

© 2012 – 2016, Oren Pardes. All rights reserved.

Oren Pardes

Oren Pardes has written 24 post in this blog.

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