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History of Salsa


Salsa! The wild, passionate Latin music born of the intoxicating blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms such as: Mambo, Cuban Son, Rumba, Guajira Son, Son Montuno, Plena and American Swing-era jazz, in New York City during the late '60s early '70s and the origin can be credited to the musicians who moved to New York from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Dominican Republic who incorporated all of these rhythms to create what we call today "Salsa".

When the Cuban Revolution ended in the late '50s and the susequent collapse of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, caused a powerfull stanglehold on the creative cross-pollination between the cultures that had nurtured this new art form.

Salsa Music

Music is arranged in bars. In its simplest form, bars are just grouping of beats. Salsa music is played in 4/4 time signature, and has 4 beats for every bar. Musicians think of the music in terms of single bars, which is why they count "1, 2, 3, 4 - 1, 2, 3, 4". As a dancer we dance within 2 bars, so we count 8 beats; and loosely say that we "dance to an 8 beat measure or bar", although technically it is two 4 beat measures. Many dances, not just salsa, are done within 2 measures, and therefore some people use the terms "musician's measure" and "dancer's measure". The "musician's measure" has 4 beats, while the "dancer's measure" has 8 beats and consists of 2 "musician's measures".Below you'll see a chart demonstrating the Musician's and Dancer's Measure/Timing.

Musician & Dancers Timing

The late Johnny Pacheco (co-founder of FANIA Records) explaining how FANIA combined all off the above mentioned rhythms under one name..."Salsa"

Salsa "On2" a.k.a. The NY Style Salsa

Salsa "On2" also known as the "Eddie Torres Technique" is taught to be step on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th beats of the song . While a few other dancers may step differently, while still calling it "dancing on 2", the definition used here follows what is taught exclusively by the majority of the New York City area independent salsa dance studios and instructors. This way of dancing salsa is often referred to as "New York", "Club", "Street" or "Latino" style. This method is different from "ballroom", "international" and "Cuban son montuno" styles, and also different from those who teach to step on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th beats of the song, and those which break on the 1st, 3rd or 4th beat, and those who do not dance in a line or "slot".



The Tumbao (Conga Drum Rhythm)
For the "On2" dancer, the Tumbao is the main connection to the music. The tumbao refers to the rhythms accented by the conga drum player in mainstream classic salsa music. Specifically, the conga is struck with 2 quick beats and then a 3rd "slap", usually on the outer edge or rim of the drum, in the pattern of quick-quick-slow. Most of the times this is audible in both 4 beat measures, and sometimes only in the first measure. The 2 quick beats are on "8 and..." (actually, 8 and 8 1/2), and on "4 and ..." (actually, 4 and 4 1/2). These 2 quick beats serve as a lead-in to the 1st and 5th beats of the measure, the 2 heavy downbeats that we step on when dancing On 2. When dancing On2, the slap tells you when to break forward or back. Finding the slap sound in any song provides you with the ultimate guide for dancing on-time. In fact, when the 2 quick beats of the tumbao are very clear, they have the effect of "rushing us" into the 1 and 5 steps, making us hit them more emphatically and, sometimes, slightly early, which gives our style of dancing a snap and quickness in the look and feel. 

Sometimes the "slap", or the "slow" hit of the tumbao is not audible. But when it can be heard, it is often the heavier and more emphatic sound coming from the conga drum. That sound comes on the 2nd beat of the measure. This means that if the tumbao sound can be heard during both 4 beat measures making up the 8 beats we dance to, then the strongest points of emphasis are on the 2nd and 6th beats, which is where we "break", or change our body movement direction, when we dance "On 2". Below you'll see a chart demonstrating the Tumbao. 

Tumbao Beats

The Clave - What is "Dancing On Clave"?
The clave is traditionally a wooden instrument consisting of 2 sticks which are struck together to make a clicking or tapping sound. Nowadays, sometimes it is a plastic hollow rectangular "box" which may be hand-held or mounted on the drum set - the timbales, cowbell, cymbal, woodblock, etc. And sometimes the clave rhythm sounds come from other sources, such as the drummer tapping the side of a drum, the conga or bongo player's beat, a clave rhythm from the singer, piano or other instrument, etc. In Spanish, the word "clave" means a "key", like a "key word" or the "key to a code". In salsa music, the clave rhythm establishes the key or structure of the song. Directly or indirectly, all the other instruments and the singers in the band are guided and structured by the clave rhythms. While it cannot always be heard in some salsa music, the clave's beat always underlies the rhythmic structure of good salsa. While there are various clave rhythm patterns, the "Son Clave" is the one used in the classic, mainstream New York Caribbean-style salsa music preferred by New Yorkers for On 2 dancing.

The Clave is the foundation of this Afro-Cuban based music. It is because of the Clave Rhythm, which is played within 2 measures of 4 beats each, a total of 8 beats that the dancers count 8 beats. However, it is only tapped on certain of those 8 beats in the 2 measures. The 2/3 Son clave is struck on the following beats: 2, 3 - 5, 6 1/2, 8, and the 3/2 Son clave is struck on: 1,2 1/2, 4 - 6,7. The clave creates a complex, syncopated, unevenness in the rhythmic structure that builds a tension in the group of 3 taps, and then releases or resolves that tension in the group of 2 taps, once in each of the 2 measures. It does this by going against, and then rejoining, the regular 8 beats, a little like one instrument playing in 4/4 time, and another playing in 3/4 time simultaneously. This syncopation fascinates and inspires those more experienced On2 dancers who are particularly in tune to the music, and affects the way they feel and move when they have reached the level of the dance where they are truly "dancing in the music".

You may have heard the expression "Dancing on Clave" to describe New York "On2" mambo. This needs some clarification. Actually, this is a loose expression to mean that the clave contributes to the 8 beat rhythmic structure of salsa, and also affects how we feel and move to the music. But we do not literally step to ALL the beats that the clave instrument taps out. For example, the 2/3 clave instrument taps out 2, 3, 5, 6 1/2, 8, while we step on 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. So we are only stepping on the 2, 3 and 5 taps of the 2/3 Clave. As an example of how the clave makes us feel and move, we break on 2 and 6, the 2 break feels much more emphatic and part of the body than does the 6 break when we are dancing to a song with a 2/3 Clave, because the 2 break is "On Clave" at least when it's audible in the music. Many intermediate and advanced On 2 dancers feel this difference, particularly those who are closely attuned to the music.

The clave always has one measure with 2 beats, and one measure with 3 beats. The 2/3 Clave has 2 beats in the first bar, and 3 beats in the second bar of the measure; or on the 3/2 Clave has 3 beats in the first bar, and 2 beats in the second bar of the measure. It is in the nature of the clave rhythmic structure that the 2 beats always stand out more emphatically than the 3 beats. That is, they feel stronger in the rhythm. Partly this is because the 2 beats resolve the syncopated unevenness or tension of the 3 beats. When we are breaking on 2 and 6, we are actually changing our body direction in conjunction with the strongest rhythmic emphasis in the clave's beat.

Although we don't literally step on every clave beat, we do make a major body movement (a change of direction) on the major beat of the clave, the 2 beat which resolves the tension. It is in this sense that we "dance on clave". This style of dancing accents the clave's emphasis on the 2 in the way we move our bodies in the dance. Other timings, such as breaking on 1 or 3, do not accent the clave's emphasis on the 2 in this way.

Below you'll see a chart demonstrating the 2-3 Son Clave and 3-2 Son Clave.

Son Clave Beats
3-2 clave.jpg

The Downbeats

An important feature of New York "On 2" mambo is that we begin most of our moves, turns and shines on the 1st and 5th beats of the measure, the downbeats. For example, the cross body lead begins on 1 when the lady is already stepping forward with her right foot. The ladies' turns are usually begun on 1, and the man's turns are often begun on 5. Shines also usually begin on 1. The 1 is the beginning of the 8 beats of the salsa measure (as noted above, it's actually 2 measures of 4 beats each). There is a strong "downbeat" or "emphasis" in most kinds of music on the 1, including salsa. It is the strongest feeling beat of the measure. That is when a dancer feels the "thrust" or "power" of the rhythm. There is another downbeat, somewhat less strong, on the 5th beat of the measure (the beginning of the 2nd 4 beat measure), when the man often begins his turns. The 1 and the 5 are the strongest rhythmic points in the salsa music, and that is where we begin most of our moves when we dance On 2.Below you'll see a chart demonstrating the downbeats highlighted.


The Upbeats aka Syncopation

Salsa music is syncopated by nature. As a dancer you should understand syncopation since it will improve your timing. A beat is syncopated when it doesn't fall on the "downbeat" of a count. When counting bars, the "downbeats" fall on the beats 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. An upbeat is anything in between those counts. One way to think about it is to imagine that you are tapping your foot, everytime your foot hits the floor that's a downbeat (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), but as you lift your foot in between those counts you have an "upbeat". One can say that upbeats are quarter note subdivisions called "eight notes", therefore we count the upbeats as "AND".  Below you'll see a chart demonstrating the upbeats in between each downbeat.

Upbeats (a.k.a) Syncopations
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