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An Explanation of Rhythms in Latin Dancing

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An Explanation of Rhythms in Latin Dancing

Post  meenakshi on Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:52 am

Author: Martin Blais ("El Matematico de la Salsa")

In the latin dance scene, one quickly discovers various misconceptions and unclear tentative explanations of the rhythms of salsa dancing. This document is an attempt at providing a clear, definitive description of the rhythms involved therein, limited to a dancer's context.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Notation
1.2 Learning to Count
2 The Clave and the Tumbao
2.1 Clave Son
2.2 Clave Rumba
2.3 Tumbao
3 Rhythm: "A Tiempo"
4 Rhythm: "A Contratiempo" (Son Style)
5 Rhythm: on-2, New-York style
5.1 Counting Variation
6 Rhythm: Anticipated A-Tiempo
7 Blending the Rhythms
8 Clave Awareness
9 Emphasizing the Tumbao
10 Rhythm: Dancing on-4
11 Rhythm: Cha-Cha-Chá
12 Assymetrical step: Cuban Casino step
13 Subtle Timing Issues: Tensed And Laidback
14 Indications For Music
15 Conclusion

1 Introduction
The popularity of salsa dancing has swept over the world over the past 30 years. Considerable interest in latin dancing has led to a variety of popular styles being developed and refined from different places, with a few stronger, distinctive styles being taught outside their birthplace (e.g. New York-style, Puerto-Rican/L.A. style, Cuban style). At the same time, the origin of the dance, and its closest original form of dancing--specifically, cuban són--is still a very popular dance in much of Cuba today.

The dancer's business is intimately intertwined with that of the musician. However, in general, dancers do not necessarily have a rigorous musical background. The lack of a deep understanding has led to the many vague, confused explanations of sorts one can find from dance teachers and on the internet. One who is to become proficient rhythmically must read between the lines and ultimately, learn from observation.

This document attempts to provide a complete, clearer explanation of the various principal rhythms used by advanced salsa dancers all over the world. Furthermore, to avoid confusion, we do so using standard musical notation 1.

Note that this document focuses specifically on information relevant to dancers, and will not bring much to an audience interested in music without relation to the dance.

This text aims at provideing a precise, technical description rather than to try to explain the concepts intuitively. Thus it may not be appropriate for the reader who is not interested in the minute details of those rhythms.

1.1 Notation
Salsa music is played in 4/4 time signature. Consider two measures of music:

We number 4 beats per measure (beats 1, 2, 3 and 4), and we will also want to refer to the individual 8 eight-notes of that measures, which we will dub: 1, 1&, 2, 2&, 3, 3&, 4 and 4&.

When we need to refer to both measures of the clave, we will make use of beats 5, 6, 7 and 8, but in general it suffices to use beats 1, 2, 3, 4, while being conscious that a full cycle of feet patterns lasts for two measures.

We refer to beats 1, 3, 5, 7 as the downbeats or the pulse, and to beats 2, 4, 6, 8 as the upbeats. If you draw the typical musician's 4/4 cross with a finger in the air in front of you, why so becomes moer obvious:

The downbeats have a "grounded", solid feel, while the upbeats have a "suspended", lighter characteristic.

Some musicians write the same patterns as a single measure, but half-time (i.e. the 8th notes become 16th notes). This makes it possible to write the entire clave in a single measure, and the "pulse" simply falls on the four beats of the measure, but this makes it harder to read the music.

Steps are annotated L for "left" and R for "right". The regular salsa dance pattern goes like this (on two measures): L-R-L, then R-L-R.

Additionally, we refer to the three steps of the salsa dance pattern as A, B and C, where:

"A" is the step that breaks away from the basic position;
"B" steps in-place with the other foot;
"C" steps back into the basic position.

1.2 Learning to Count
An essential part of understanding rhythm (...and the material discussed in this document) is being able to count with the music. Even an intermediate dancer must be able to count 1, 2, 3, 4 with the music, and to be able to identify, quickly, and with certainty, where beat 1 is located (or at least where the downbeats fall).

2 The Clave and the Tumbao
The matter of the role of clave in music is a deep subject which we won't delve into, and which we won't need for the purpose of our explanations of the simple patterns. We will however introduce the main types of claves you are likely to encounter in the music you'll hear over the dance floor.

Note that even though the clave is formed by two distinct bars, dancers in general, don't focus on a specific side (see section Clave Awareness), so in a general context it will not not make sense to speak about dancing on beats above 4, e.g. "dancing on 6". Most of your dancing (even advanced) can be performed without clave awareness (see section Clave Awareness).

There are two main types of binary clave patterns around which modern salsa music is based today, which both stem originally from a ternary west-african bell pattern, or bembé clave.

The son and rumba clave can be thought of having a "3-side" and a "2-side". They can both be played either starting from the 3-side or the 2-side. But once the clave starts, it rarely changes direction. One of the factors that make latin music so rich, is the divine games played by musicians with odd measure counts, which effectively reverse the clave feel: for example, they will make a 5 bar break, and move into another musical section, the clave feel has been reversed (but the clave has never stopped).

2.1 Clave Son
By far the most common type of clave you'll encounter is the son clave:

Even though the clave can sometimes be heard in the music (incidentally played on the clave instrument, a pair of wooden blocks which produce a sharp high-pitched sound), in general you won't hear it. Rather, it is a musical pattern "around which" all the other instruments play. Although the instruments don't necessarily play the clave pattern directly, they are very much influenced by it and the musicians are constantly conscious of the clave when interpreting the music.

2.2 Clave Rumba
The second most common clave in popular music is the rumba clave, or clave guaguancó:

This pattern is the main driver for the cuban rumba 2, a folkloric music whose influence can be found in much of salsa music, especially cuban salsa music. In fact, much of the cuban "timba" is governed by the rumba clave rather than the son clave.

2.3 Tumbao
The other important pattern for the dancer to be aware of is the "tumbao", or the pattern formed by the conga player:

Note that there is a sharp "slap" on beat 2, and two open tones on beats 4 and 4&. When dancing, you should always be conscious of.

contd......
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Re: An Explanation of Rhythms in Latin Dancing

Post  meenakshi on Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:55 am

Note that there is a sharp "slap" on beat 2, and two open tones on beats 4 and 4&. When dancing, you should always be conscious of.

3 Rhythm: "A Tiempo"
This is the simplest and most common rhythm the dancers use. It is also the one you'll encounter the most often if you travel and dance around the world:

This quickly becomes boring to dance to as you progress to a more advanced level. Most dancers add a little kick on beat 4, generally with the foot that is about to step next on the 1.

Note that you start the first step on the 3 side of the 3-2 clave. Also, on the 2-side, your last two steps conclude the clave. Your 1st and 3rd steps are on the downboats, which give a grounded feel to the dance pattern.

Also, it is very important to notice that since the downbeats are very strong, starting the dance pattern on beat 3 bear almost no effect to the feel of this dance pattern. For all practical purposes, dancing on 1 is equivalent to dancing on 3. This is why we prefer the "a tiempo" denomination for this pattern, because it emphasizes the fact that we're dancing on the downbeats, which is what it's all about, really.

4 Rhythm: "A Contratiempo" (Son Style)
This is the simple, original form of "dancing on 2". Although it doesn't feel terribly wrong to dance on 1 (unless you know it well), this is the one and only correct way to dance to cuban son music:

In addition, to achieve a proper "son" dancing feel, you must put a greater emphasis on beat 4, and let it linger until you start again on 2 of the next measure (i.e. you should not kick on 1). This is very important for appropriate feel, the timing of the feet is not sufficient to dance son properly.

Your feet sequence starts (or "breaks") on the 2, which is why people call it "dancing on 2". This is the same beat where the conga plays a slap tone. Also note that you're starting and stopping on the upbeats, and that last upbeat is lingering in the air for what appears to be a long time.

In contrast with dancing "a tiempo", in general you will not be able to have the pattern beginning on beat 4 (the other upbeat) without a discernible effect. People who dance "a contratiempo" almost begin the pattern on beat 2 (see section Rhythm: Dancing on-4 for a digression).

[clarify that it is not interchangeable]
Note that on the 2-side, you start your first two beats stepping on the clave on, and that on the 3-side, your last step concludes with the clave.

The challenge in dancing son is to get your partner entertained by subtle games and motion across the floor while in closed position. There should not be any fancy fast turns and you should not get too excited (except maybe a little when dancing a guaracha. Cubans say you should dance "as if her father was watching".

5 Rhythm: on-2, New-York style
When people discuss of "dancing on 2", this is the feel they generally refer to, rather than the simpler "a contratiempo" described in the previous section:

Notice that rhythmically, the pattern is the same as dancing "a tiempo. Also, the only difference with the son-style "a contratiempo" is that the last beat is danced on 1 instead of on the preceding 4. NY-style dancers also dance the following pattern (I have observed both equally):

Here, the only difference with the son-style "a contratiempo" is that the last beat is danced on 4& (in-between beat 4 and beat 1). Also, rather than putting emphasis on the third step, it is more or less "blended" in-between the two other steps, resulting in a dynamic shift of the partners without a strong pause nor a kick.

5.1 Counting Variation
Perhaps what makes it more confusing to most dancers is the fact that most instructors who are proficient in dancing this rhythm simultaneously consider the feet pattern to "start" on what is considered the 3rd step of dancing "a tiempo", AND count one time ahead, pronouncing the "one" count on beat 4& (like for anticipated-1 timing) or the next 1. This only makes sense, as it is much closer to the counting of the music itself.

I believe that this practice is the main reason why it makes it difficult for people to quickly have a quick grasp of the difference between the two rhythms. In the end, practice is what it's really all about and if that's how those people count it, that's how it should be counted. Here is the same rhythmic pattern, with the modified counts:

The important thing to notice here is that the A, B, C steps are shifted with respect to the "a tiempo" rhythm.

6 Rhythm: Anticipated A-Tiempo
Let's face it, most people dance on "a tiempo", and unless you're living in a very large city (or you are in Cuba or Puerto Rico...), there aren't many dancers who will lead or follow on 2. A natural and interesting way to dance on 1 and interpret the music feel a bit more is to anticipate beat 1 to the preceding eight-note (4&):

Most intermediate followers will not be thrown off by the leader dancing in this rhythm, and you can enjoy accentuating the second open tone of the tumbao rhythm. The bass sometimes accentuates that beat too.

Note that the timing is exactly the same as for the NY-style "on-2", except that the foot pattern starts in a different place (i.e. on 4& instead of on 2).

(The matter can be taken further, I know someone who steps with both feet on beats 4 and 4&, and then proceeds to 2, 3, but he only does this on one side. It's a pretty cool looking step which tickles the mind the viewer when well executed.)

Note that you can equally apply this anticipated step on-3, which falls on the bass line (see section Clave Awareness).

7 Blending the Rhythms
When I had the chance, I carefully observed one of the few non-cuban dancers that really impressed me at a workshop: Felipe Polanco (from Puerto Rico) and noticed that he was actually blending the three forms of dancing on-2.

Apart from executing with style and precision, he was changing which pattern he was using almost every bar which made the dancing very interesting (incidentally it made it quite tricky for the people following the workshop to follow anything though). Even with the variations, he was definitely dancing in the feel of the 2. Here is an example rhythm combination (with modified counts as described in section Counting Variation):

8 Clave Awareness
In listening to advanced dancers, you will hear a lot about dancing on clave. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what really means amongst the dancers. In fact, I have found that very few have any way to explain what they mean with certitude.

The clave has 5 beats. Regular salsa dancing patterns, although they are sometimes modified temporarily either to fit a non-regular move or just from improvisation from an advanced dancer, are of 6 steps, following this pattern: L-R-L, R-L-R. So technically, without changing the regular pattern, you cannot step on all the beats of the clave--and besides, there would be no point in doing that: the music doesn't either.

There is a loose consensus that dancing on-2 interlocks better with the clave than dancing "a tiempo" (I definitely agree). Thus, some people that talk about "dancing on clave" actually mean "dancing on 2".

What actually makes sense, is for some of the steps to land on the beats of the clave. Just like musicians shape their rhythmic patterns "around" the clave (and do not simply execute it), an advanced dancer can modify his foot patterns to better fit one side or the other of the clave. This requires that at any moment you be aware of which side the clave is played on. This is actually not always obvious to execute, because the music is sometimes not explicit about which side the clave is on--i.e. you might end up dancing with the clave on the wrong side if you cannot hear the music clearly (e.g. 3-2 instead of 2-3).

An example of shaping the feet to the clave is to shift one eight-note the first step of the on-2 dance pattern, but on the 3-side of the clave only. Dancing on-2:

R. Moreno from L.A. has an interesting explanation for it: "if you remove the music (the sound), dancing on-1 and dancing on-2 look the same; it's not the case for dancing ''on clave''". I think he means the same that I do above: you accentuate certain beats of the clave, you're aware of the clave while dancing.

contd.....
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Re: An Explanation of Rhythms in Latin Dancing

Post  meenakshi on Thu Mar 19, 2009 2:56 am

9 Emphasizing the Tumbao
When dancing on-2 (a contratiempo), another really interesting change to the foot pattern is to accentuate the tumbao's open tones by adding a light extra step on beat 4&:

10 Rhythm: Dancing on-4
An interesting exercise is to dance "a contratiempo", that is, on the upbeats, but starting on beat 4 instead of starting on beat 2. This is not the usual way to dance a-contratiempo. What happens is that you start the sequence directly with the open tones of the tumbao.

I find it interesting to play with this by shifting the second step of the dance pattern ahead to dance it on the tumbao, creating an apparently large delay until the third step occurs:

11 Rhythm: Cha-Cha-Chá
There is only one true way to dance the real cuban cha-cha-chá: it is akin to dancing on 2, filling in with extra steps on beats 4& and 1:

Musically, the "cha-cha-chá" is always on beats 4, 4& and 1.

I'm still puzzled as to why so many dancers (including advanced dancers) get this wrong. Many people dance the "cha-cha-chá" on beats 3, 3&, and 4. The only explanation I can come up with is that it probably comes from social or ballroom dancing. This is incorrect: cha-cha-chá is still very close to its cuban origins and should be danced accordinly. Moreover, doing cha-cha-chá accents on beats 3, 3& and 4 is simply against the music. Plus, in all cha-cha-chá music the open tones on the 4 and 4& and always very loud and clear.

12 Assymetrical step: Cuban Casino step
One interesting regular step modification of note is the way a large number of cubans dance the casino rueda. In rueda, the man steps behind with the left foot and forward with the right foot 3. Rueda is danced "a tiempo". The men kick on both sides of the pattern, but kick at different moments: when stepping back and away, they step: "1, 2, kick, 4", but when stepping in front and closer to their partner, they step: "1, 2, 3, kick":

The women don't tend to do the same.

13 Subtle Timing Issues: Tensed And Laidback
Perhaps of greater importance than all the preceding discussion is the matter of smaller-scale precision of the steps with respect to the music. As a trained jazz musician, I cannot forego noticing someone who dances consistently just-a-little slightly ahead of the beat. This is a very subtle point, which requires great attention, because ultimately it has a the greatest effect on how your style comes out.

The analogy with music applies perfectly here: there is a very useful lesson to be learned from musical interpretation. When a soloist plays just slightly ahead of the accompanying music--and I really mean just slightly, not on different beats--it creates musical tension:

Conversely, when a soloist plays behind the music, which is generally referred to as playing "laid-back", it creates a relaxed, groovy feeling. So much, that our minds will easily be dragged along by a solo that can be as much as nearly a full beat behind the rhythm section, and we will still perceive it as being "on the beat":

Listen to any of the classic jazz ballads and slower standards for ample examples of this musical effect.

The tension created by playing or dancing ahead is not pleasant for a long duration of time. It's like someone who's singing off key: you can use it for effect, but you can't abuse it for very long.

The same trick of the mind is in effect for someone watching the dancers: if you dance ahead of the music, you look like you're not "on the beat", so-to-speak, even if you're dancing at the same general "pace" as the music. If you dance behind the music, you can even afford to be lazy and behind and it won't show too much, plus you'll appear to be "in the groove".

Now, once you realize that, the real problem is that to be able to create a relaxed, groovy feeling, you yourself must be at ease. Conversely, if you're tense, you will tend to accelerate and create tension yourself. There is only one solution: practice and practice and practice until you are in control of your emotions (and your feet).

There is an important lesson out of this, even for beginners: when you feel that you are getting confused by the music and you start "losing the beat", at that very moment, you are ALWAYS accelerating. Relax, slow down, take a deep breath, and you will very often fall back right into it and will be home-free!

14 Indications For Music
Now, you are free to dance on any beat to any music. However, proper interpretation requires attention to style and applicability--in the same way that you won't dance salsa to merengue music, you'll want to dance to the beat that is the most appropriate for the music. Here is a table of guidelines for choosing an appropriate beat to dance to, which summarizes some of the material in this document:

Modern salsa on-1 or on-2, depending on music (listen to bass)
Cumbia on-1, always
Cuban Timba generally on-1, sometimes on-2, rumba-clave
Són on-2, always
Cha-cha-chá on-2 + cha-cha-cha step on 4& and 1

15 Conclusion
Hopefully, this will clear up some confusion amongst the dancers who like to analyze and understand what their doing (the nit-pickers like me).

Should you find any section unclear, missing information, or information that you firmly believe to be incorrect in this document, comments are welcome (make sure you mention this document).

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Footnotes:

[1] If you do not know how to read music, we recommend you find a musician to give you a quick introduction; the level of knowledge you need to understand this document is pretty basic, and this will also help your understanding of dancing rhythms.

[2] Note that the "rumba" we're referring to in this document has nothing to do with the "rhumba" that people refer to in the context of social dancing, which really is, the cuban bolero.
[3] In reality, it's a little bit more subtle than that as the man and woman form small circles while stepping away and towards each other, there is some sideways motion going on.
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