Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tuning the Congas

Today I tuned my congas for the first time.

The main things I learnt were:
  • The quinto is tuned to a high-E
  • The conga is tuned to C
  • The tumba is tuned to G
Recall that the quinto is the smallest of the three, and the tumba is the largest (the bass drum).

If you are just starting out like me, chances are you bought just a pair of congas. If that's the case, you most likely purchased a quinto-conga set.

I own a couple of electronic tuners (from my old days of playing guitar - badly). So, I just used these to play the appropriate pitch per drum, and then tuned the drums in accordingly. If you own a metronome, there might also be a pitch feature that will do the trick.

In terms of performing the tuning, here's what I learnt:
  • Try to keep all the fasteners to approximately the same setting (i.e. don't purposely have one side of the drum way out of balance with the other).
  • Tighten/fasten all fasteners in a row... i.e. don't tighten one on one side of the drum, then move to a fastener on the other side.
  • It only takes a slight adjustment of each fastener to make a big difference... i.e. a 1/32nd of a turn on each fastener can raise the pitch of the drum by more than a note.
  • Make sure that all sections of the drum have the same pitch. Check this by placing your finger in the centre of the drum, then strike an open tone on the rim just above each fastener. Adjust as necessary.
Some people say that you should detune your drums each night to take the pressure of the skins... but I don't bother. Other's say to just detune the quinto (the one that is tightened the most)... again I don't bother... but maybe I would if I owned better congas with real skins.

Another bit of advice is that the weather can affect drum skins. I don't think this is too much of an issue for synthetic skins, but if the humidity changes greatly over the course of a day, and you are using natural skins, you might find that you have to tune up or down the skins. Also, if the humidity drops suddenly, I would consider detuning any natural quinto skin... as that could really contract... I think.

Here are some useful videos to watch:
Good luck, and remember... if it sounds way too high... it probably is... detune it before it breaks :)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Dance Shoes

Hi! Now I know that the title "Dance Shoes" isn't exactly what you would expect from a blog about Salsa Musicality, but I do get asked about shoes a lot, so here are a few thoughts. I hope they help!

Men's Dance Shoes

I find that light shoes are very important for me. Otherwise, when I spin, my feet fly out too far, and I am very late for the next move.

My idea type of "light shoe" is the jazz shoe:

These are basically like slippers/socks, that have a very soft light rubber on the heel and suede under the toes. While you lose some height (which is annoying for me because I am short anyway!), these shoes let you spin and spin and spin.

Other shoes that I have tried include the "sneaker type":

These are okay, but again, I find it hard to do shines, spins, etc in them because they are quite heavy (relative to jazz slippers and jazz shoes). They are good for doing hours of workshops in a row (i.e. your feet will not be as sore, but the tradeoff is you won't be as sharp).

Of course, there are standard jazz shoes as well. I used to dance in these shoes all the time. I felt a bit "stiff" dancing in these shoes, but the good side is that since they have heels on them, they force you to dance on your toes (a good thing, particularly if you have a tendency to put too much weight onto your back foot when doing a backstep). Here's an example of a normal jazz shoe:

The final option is to either strike it lucky by finding a good light pair of street shoes - here is my favourite type:

Be careful with non-dance shoes, however. The "grippier" the shoe, the harder it is to spin, and the more likely that it will cause knee damage. I notice that if I dance in normal shoes, often I will wake up the next day with sore knees. Ironically, I am nursing a very sore knee right now... I have been out of action for about two weeks due to an inflamed knee, caused by... you guessed it... dancing in street shoes that had too much grip.

If all else fails regarding finding dance shoes, consider taking a light, comfortable pair of street shoes to your local shoe repairer, and getting him/her to replace the sole with a "dance sole". Normally, you will get a choice of a synthetic sole (good for wearing outside as well as on the floor), or a leather/suede sole.

One note about leather soles: I have leather soled shoes for work shoes, and these get very very slippery once the leather has worn down a bit. These on slippery surfaces can be very dangerous - not just dancing, but walking too!

Women's Dance Shoes

Now what would I know about women's shoes? Don't ask, but let's just say that I know probably a bit more that I should. Here are a couple of pointers for anyone wanting to dance in women's shoes:
  • Don't use anything higher than a 2 inch heel. Particularly if you are a beginner, or are not used to walking in high heels.
  • Make sure you have very good ankle support. Make sure there is no chance that your foot could roll over the base of the shoe, causing a nasty sprain.
  • Look for what is known as a "salsa heel", which is a slightly wider heel than normal... this gives more stability.

The Dance Floor

One thing that will make a difference is the surface that you dance on. Marble and concrete is very hard on your calf muscles, while wooden floors are better. Dance halls, that have sprung floors, are the best... you can dance on them for hours and it's not that tiring.

Using talcum powder is a good trick if the floor is a bit too sticky (particularly if it is humid night). Putting a small pile of power in the corner of the room and then letting people stand in it to coat the bottom of their shoes works well, and prevents someone from having to pour powder out all over the floor (not all dancers want powder under their feet.


If you are into your salsa, sooner or later you will do performances in front of an audience. One thing that often catches people out is the surface of the stage, which often is not built for dancing, instead it might cater for musical performances (and be way too slippery), or could be designed for theatre performances where often the surface can be a kind of felt (for grip). If it is a felt surface there is nothing you can do about it really. However, if you find that the stage is way too slippery (make sure you test it out before doing your performance!), then here are a couple of (risky) tricks:
  • Pour some sticky fluids onto the stage and let it dry (Coca cola is good).
  • Dampen your shoes (if they are a leather/suede surface) with water about one minute or two before the performance starts.
Be warned, however, both approaches are very risky. Depending on the temperature, amount of lighting on the stage, you will only get a small window of time when the stage is good for dancing (as the fluid dries). When the fluid totally dries up, you will find that the floor/your shoes are even more slippery than before. So it's a risk.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Timing of Footwork (Quick Quick Slow)

I have had a few questions lately regarding my post about dancing on 2 (this post is here). One excellent question was about the timing of the footwork - in particular the the middle step - the step that transitions from the forward basic to the back basic (and then back again).

After doing a lot of thinking, dancing, trying out various footwork timings, and also asking my dance instructors and percussionist friends, I have come up with this new post. Let me know what you think! Again, these are just my thoughts (and the paraphrasing of comments made by others), but I think this makes good sense.

A Primer

Just as a primer, if you are not familiar with musical notation, have a quick read of this post. Also, please note that this post relates to linear/slot styles of dancing salsa - I don't think this timing applies to Casino/Cuban styles at all (Cuban timing is a lot more symmetrical/regular).

Notation of Dancing On1 vs On2

It the following diagram, the first staff represents salsa footwork when danced on one. The second staff represents footwork when danced on two. Note that the music is independent of this notation (e.g. the conga hits on all counts, the clave on some counts, etc).

Dancing on the 1st Beat

When I was taught linear salsa (on one), the instructor pointed out that the timing is "quick quick slow". She didn't really know why, but it just worked. So, forward on one, back on two, then a slower step back again on three. One justification I worked out for this is that the next step was back on five, which was two beats away, not one... hence the slower third step. If you look at the first staff in the diagram above, you should clearly be able to map the "quick quick slow" of each bar. The important thing to note here is that the slow doesn't start on three... it starts on three and a half.

Dancing on the 2nd Beat

As for on two dancing, my instructor on the first day of class taught us using the term "slow quick quick". So, a slow step on one going back on the left, then quick quick for the break steps (back on the right, forward again on the left). This ties in with on one dancing... the quick quick is on the break step then the step straight after this. The slow is the transition step - the step that moves from one end of the slot to the other.

One slight catch with on-two dancing is that of starting the very first basic of the dance. Since it is a bit tricky to feel the "slow quick quick" on the first bar of the song (and that the "slow" beat, technically, starts half a beat before the first bar), it helps to count it as just "quick quick quick" or "one two three" for the first bar. From there, you can then go into the normal count of "slow quick quick". I have shown this "one two three" lead-in on the first bar of the on-2 staff. Incidentally, this is the same issue that percussionists face when starting a song with complex cowbell patterns (etc). So, they use the same trick... they will insert regular beats into the first bar of the song and then switch to the "real" syncopated pattern on the second bar.

The Subtleties of Timing

The "quick quick" steps are easy... for on one that is the "one two", and for one two, that is the "two three". However, the remaining step in the basic is a bit trickier. The "slow" step (both for on one and one two) is equidistant between each pair of quick-quick steps. Again, just look at the notation in the diagram above and you will see what I mean.

For on one, this means that your third step isn't really on the third beat, it is on 3 and a half (this extra half beat is just an equal share of the one extra beat between beat three and five). Same goes for the sixth and final step in an on-one basic... this isn't on the seven, it is on seven and a half (then followed by one two).

For on two, this means that your first step (the travelling step before beats two and three) is actually on eight and a half, not one (again, equidistant between each pair of "quick quick" steps, sharing the "extra time" of the slow step evenly). Same goes for the forward basic... the travelling step is really on four and a half, not five (then followed by six seven).

Please note (and this is important!): I am not actually recommending listening for the half beat and trying to step exactly then, but if you have the mentality of "quick quick slow" for on one or "slow quick quick" for on two, I think your feet will naturally hit this timing.

Other Observations

The second beat on each bar is interesting (have a look at the diagram again for this)... regardless of on one or on two, the second beat is always hit by footwork (despite being a downbeat), and there will always be a conga slap on this beat too (per bar). On a 2/3 clave, the clave will hit too.

I hope this helps clear things up a little bit. Personally, I have found this a really interesting topic to dig into, and I was surprised just how easily it was to figure out by using musical notation. I hope the diagram helps you too!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Questions and Answers

This post is for questions that I have answered. Feel free to email questions to me (related to my blog), and I will do my best to quickly give you an answer (or be honest if I don't know and have no way of finding out!).

To reiterate the point of my blog... I created this blog to share what I have learnt from percussion - and how this has helped me with my salsa. I am not an expert, but am here to help!

Question: Dancing on the Clave

I'm an avid Casino style salsa dancer and needed some further explanation as to which feet strike the ground on which hit of the clave. I dance on1. Assuming the clave is a 2/3, does the counting go like this... 1,2 [pause] 3,4,5. has some good instructional videos where they dance only to the clave rhythm and I appreciate the simplicity.

My thoughts:

In terms of footwork and the clave, it's actually a very easy formula, regardless of whether you dance a Cuban style (Casino for example) or a more linear style (LA, for example).

For a 2/3 clave, if you are dancing on one or on two, your feet and clave will always come together on the two, the three and the five (of an eight beat basic - i.e. two bars of 4/4 time). This is regardless of whether you go forward or backwards as a lead in the first bar. Easy huh? :)

For a 2/3 clave, if you are going forward on one or backwards on two, the feet to "hit the clave" will be your right foot, then your left, then your right again. The final two strikes of the clave (six and half, then eight of a full basic) will not match up with your footwork (although they will come close). If you are going backwards on one or forward on two, the feet to hit the clave will be your left foot, then your right, then your left again.

For a 3/2 clave, it is just a simple. Your feet will hit on the one, the six and the seven. If you are going forward on one or backwards on two, the feet to "hit the clave" will be your left foot, your left again, then your right. The middle two strikes of the clave (two and half, and four) will not match up with your footwork. If you are going backwards on one or forward on two, the feet to hit the clave will swap (it will now be your right foot, your right foot again, then your left).

I love focusing on the clave when dancing. The two times I do this the most are for slow songs (the clave is more obvious due to less crowding of the music), and when dancing on the two (where I am focusing on the percussion more so than the lyrics or melody). Accentuating the clave when dancing to slow songs makes you feel (and look) like you are "in the dance" more, whereas if you just step out each beat, it feels and looks far too "mechanical" (a great guy by the name of Gino GianCarlos Mayaute showed me this).

As for dancing purely on the clave, I have never seen this done (I only go as far as to accentuate the footwork which lands on the clave). I have, however, seen leaders lead moves (with their upper body) in time with the clave, for example they will delay a hand flick or a turn until the next clave beat (so they are technically "out of time" by half a beat or so), or perhaps they will spin a girl multiple times, but in time with the clave instead of exactly every second beat. When done well, that looks really cool!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to be a Good DJ

Being a good salsa DJ isn't as easy as it seems! Here is my take on it... hope this helps!

Before you Start

Here are few a questions ask yourself before you begin:
  • Who is your audience (beginners, advanced, mixed levels)
  • What do they want to dance (salsa, cha, zouk, bachata, ...)
  • For salsa, is it cuban salsa, or more linear/western styles, or are both cool?
  • Do you want to play known "good old favourites", or do you want to play progressive music to help dancers grow and appreciate newer sounds and flavours
  • Are you open to "requests" on the night
  • How long is the set for
  • Are you the only one DJing for the night (if not, you need to ensure that you have no double-ups, and that the tempo of both DJs is consistent for the night)
  • Which media are you going to use? I prefer using iTunes from a PC, but I also like iPods too. MP3 CDs are okay, and if need be, I sometimes use good old CDs, but basically these are just a straight continuous playlist burnt to sequential disks.
  • Do you want a pause between songs (for social interaction on the floor), or do you want it to be "hard and fast", where songs come one after another with no break at all.
Along these lines, here is a great article about whether or not to mix songs.

A few tips for the night

Here is some advice that I learnt the hard way!
  • Have a backup of everything: your music (burn it to CD as well as having a copy on your harddrive). Carry your backup with you!
  • Don't ever let anyone walk up to you when DJing and let them play a song off an iPod, CD, etc. It could be a shite song, it could jump, it could last for 20 minutes, and it could totally wreck the continuity of the line up.
  • I never allow requests unless it lines up with what I am doing. If I am playing hard mambo and someone requests a samba, it's a no from me. But if it is a song that will fit, then sure, as long as it won't cause too much of an effort in terms of squeezing the song in.
  • Playing directly from an iPod is sometimes a great idea. The playlist is fixed, there is no changing it, and it saves any arguments by patrons who want a song requested. You can just set it and forget it.
  • Build up the intensity of the music as the night goes on. I always start with slower songs, and then every song is the same or faster than the last. To see why to do this, try putting on a slow song near the end of the night. That will be the last song you will play that night... the dancefloor will be dead. Everyone's energy will be shot, and it will be time to go home.
  • In terms of equipment, make sure that you have enough spare batteries, power supplies, replacement cables, and noice filters (especially for laptops that run off power supplies). Also, if you are playing from a laptop, make sure that you turn off all the desktop sounds, and make sure that the laptop is set to not switch off after 2 hours of inactivity, and that the lid shutting doesn't turn the laptop into standby either (I accidentally depressed the button that the lid presses down on once, and that was the longest two minutes of my life!).
What is the right mix of salsa?

I have a magic formula. It is: 4 salsa songs, then something else. Repeat until done (with each 4-set faster than the last).

As for the "something else", this is normally whatever happens to be the next big thing in latin dance at the time (Zouk, Bachata, Reggaeton, just whatever). However, I am a bit of an oldie (really), so I always put a few oldschool cha chas in the mix too.

For my personal taste, I really really enjoy listening to cuban salsa. However, I don't dance to it, don't even like dancing to it, and hate it when it is played in dance clubs. So, at my nights, I make it clear that it is a linear/mambo night, and that it is for good social dancers, not beginners (there are other nights for them, such as dance school socials, etc). Harsh, maybe. Appreciated, yes!

Sound Quality

Never let an old musician set up the PA system! Why? They are usually deaf, which means that they set the treble up waaaaay too much. Instead... give them a high-treble (and loud) foldback speaker, and they will be happy playing from this.

In terms of music quality, do not compress your music files, in particular when the PA system is of poor quality. It will magnify the reduced quality of the music.

I always go for moderation when setting up PA systems... no massive differences between bass, midrange and treble, and always have the input levels just occasionally touching the top end of the scale. Once set up, I always go down and have a dance, just to get a feel for how the sound is actually playing out on the dance floor (and to check that all the speakers, subs, etc are going).

To Mix or Not to Mix

This is a hard one. I love messing with music... particularly live music. You know the deal... reverb on one channel, a slight delay, putting in a wee bit of an echo, ahh... I just love it!

As for salsa... I say no! As dancers, we rely on the beat, half beats, syncopations, and all sorts of other subtlties. In a rave when everyone is already smacked on ecstacy, it's cool to do basically whatever you like (probably due to the fact that you yourself are currently on an eight hour buzz too). As for salsa, dancers know the songs intimately, they know the breaks, they know the vocals, and they use this. If you flatten this out with an echo or a bit of reverb, it will really thrown them. And if you even think of layering in other beats or samples... well... you will soon be told where to go!

The Age Old "Am I a Good DJ Test"

This one surprises me big time. A DJ plays a new styled song, or changes from salsa to a riggaeton (or something else). The dancefloor clears immediately. Tumbleweed rolls across the floor. Oh well, a good time to go to the bar, except that everyone else has the same idea. So, the rule here is "if dancefloor clears out, don't do the same thing again". However, the number of (bad) DJs out there that either don't know this rule (or ignore it) really freaks me out... too often I see floor-clearing song after song being played. People tell you what works by getting out there on the floor (people want to dance and will dance to nearly anything). If the floor is empty, you are doing something really really wrong.

Running the Entire Night Yourself

Running the night by yourself can be fun. Just one word of advice: tell all staff that are in a position to turn PAs up or down, turn lights up or down, turn airconditioning up or down (basically anyone who knows where the switchroom is), to always, always go through you and only you everytime a request is made by a patron for something to be changed. Some people want the music up, the music down, the heating up, the heating down, etc. This is your call... as one person's bad call (particulary heating requests) can take a long time to fix, and annoy a whole room full of people in the process.

DJing Before, During and After Dance Performances

During salsa nights, there are often performances. Here are a few tips regarding these:
  • Performances, to hold an audiences attention, should not really be more than two minutes (or so) long. For amazing performances, a little longer is normally fine, but not all performances are amazing :-)
  • Try to only have a couple of performances each night, no more than four.
  • For me, I try to get all performances done in one go... otherwise it interrupts the flow of the dancers too much.
  • Having varied performances is a good thing... four salsa performances all in a row can be a bit too much.
  • Have the introductory material for each performance ready ahead of time, and make sure that this has been double checked by the person doing each performance (there is nothing worse than a performer trying to correct a DJ/MC right at the start of the performance).
  • Test each track for each performance ahead of time. Label each CD or track as "track 1", "track 2", etc, so you know which one to play next.
  • Verify how each performance group wants to start the performance. Do they want to be out on the stage, then the music is queued, or do they want the music to play as they are walking out (having a clear protocol for when to restart the music, pull the music, turning it up, etc is important too - keep any eye on the main performer and see if they are trying to tell you something. If they are not looking at you, you are doing well).
  • Make sure the music is loud enough. It might sound fine to you and the crowd, but if the music is too quiet on the stage, it can make a performance terrible. My advice: turn up the music loud... the crowd will tell you when it is too loud (by a few quick glances in your direction). The performers won't mind if it is too loud... they will be too nervous most of the time to register the loudness anyway!
  • Check the music onstage beforehand. Often there can be soundwaves which bounce off the back walls from the main front of house speakers, which will overpower any foldbacks, but unfortunately with a one or two second delay. This is impossible to dance to, but undetectable from the sound booth and the audience seats.

Percussionists: How to Keep Salsa Dancers Happy


Watch the clave: make sure you keep the Tumbao pattern and the clave "in sync" with each other. If the song is using a 2/3 clave, play the basic Tumbao pattern (HandTap-SlapTap-HandTap-OpenOpen, HandTap-Slap-OpenOpen-Hand-OpenOpen), but if the song using a 3/2 clave pattern, play the Tumbao pattern in reverse order (HandTap-Slap-OpenOpen-Hand-OpenOpen, HandTap-SlapTap-HandTap-OpenOpen).

If you are not sure, try both (quickly). Also monitor the song... listen throughout the song... see if it is still feeling right. If a whole bunch of dancers are beginning to struggle finding the beat... stop playing! Play gentler, turn the mics down, move onto the cowbell or bongos, etc.

Too often non-salsa dancing congo percussionists miss this important aspect of matching the Tumbao to the clave. The net result is a sound that seems fine but just doens't feel right to the dancers. Particularly beginners... they will really struggle to find the starting beat (due to the overlapping rhythms).


"More cowbell" might be a great skit, but match the cowbell in salsa to when it is needed. In the mambo section, go nuts. But in a salsa romantica, the start of a slowly building song, etc, yeah... just go easy on that bad boy! There is nothing wrong with ceasing with the cowbell for a bar or two, having a listen, and then going again if you feel like it and it still suits the song.


I can't get enough of the bongos, and I have a great respect for those of you out there who can jam on them and get the crowd going. Personally, I like playing the bongos as much as I can in a salsa song... since it is a fairly subtle instrument, it complements most songs. And yeah, when the time is right, letting rip with a freestyle jam is all good. The one word of caution I have is that in Bachata, I would tone the jamming down a bit... a lot of dancers (even if they don't know it themselves yet) really listen to the bongos for the timing... and when you take that away from them (to jam), it can cause a few dance floor disasters!


Again, you really need to be a good percussionist to use shakers well. Unless you can hold your timing and keep shakers really tight, I say leave this for your own practice sessions.

Letting Others "have a go"

One of the biggest problems I have when playing at salsa clubs is that a lot of people (about one per night usually) will come and ask me if they can have a go. If I ask them closed questions such as "have you played before" or "do you know what this instrument is called" they normally reply with a simple yes or no. So, I now ask more open questions, but normally don't let anyone play. There are two reasons for this: one, they normally can't play at all, and it really annoys all the dancers (making me look bad in the process!), and two, I kind of like my instruments and don't like watching them get violated by people who just have no idea (but who do wear rather spiky jewellery on their hands).

Yes, it's tough love, but I just say no :(

The Mambo Cowbell

The first percussion instrument I ever bought was a cowbell. Damn I love those things!

It is actually surprisingly hard to play a cowbell right... in fact, about the only thing harder is the shaker I reckon. With congas, you can make a lot of varied and big sound very easily, but with cowbells, everyone can tell straight away if you are in time or not.

Using the Cowbell in Dance

Most of you will know that the cowbell is played on the "on beat", that is, every odd beat, so in salsa, that's 1, 3, 5 and 7. This is great to know as a leader... for example, if each spin of your partner takes two beats (which it usually does), then after four spins, you can go back into a basic, because you have just "consumed" two bars or one salsa basic. Too easy!

Playing the Cowbell

Well, the basic pattern is pretty easy. Hit it on every odd beat (1, 3, 5 and 7). However, you need to hit it with some flavour/passion, and sometimes even slightly earlier than the exact beat - otherwise it can give a very slow/laboured type of feel.

The cowbell (when played by the timbalero) can be used to speed up the tempo of the band... the cowbell is used to "drive" the song forward and faster. Have a listen to a mambo section... it is often lead by a fast-driven (and speeding up) cowbell.

For the musically challenged out there... here is the musical notation for the on beat (I hope you don't need it!):

Cowbell Variation #1

The first (and most common) variation to the basic cowbell is the following pattern:

This in effect is just the use of a slight "fill" between each main strike. The first fill is a single strike, whereas the remaining three fills are double hits.

A couple of things to note here: the emphasis is still on the main onbeat strikes - 1, 3, 5 and 7. The filler strikes are half notes... so just quick hits. Also, the pitch is different too... you should be hitting the side of bell for the filler hits, not the main body. You should be getting a noticeable difference in sound between the offbeat and onbeat/filler hits.

The Mambo Cowbell Pattern

After playing around for a bit with the cowbell, I quickly found myself playing the following pattern... particularly in the mambo section of salsa songs:

Again, note the difference between the short and long notes or hits. Some notes (such as on the 1 and 2) are long, whereas others are syncopated and fast, and should be played as such. This particular pattern kind of feels like a woodpecker or morse code (if you know what I mean), but just feels right! Try it out! Just don't screw it up in front of the band, or even worse, a few hundred angry salsa dancers!

How the Mambo Cowbell Pattern and the Clave Work Together

Here is a transcript of the 2/3 clave in time with the mambo cowbell pattern. Note how they tie in with each other quite nicely:

If we look at the 2/3 clave, the strikes on all but the "5" of the clave tie in with strikes (at the same time) within the mambo cowbell. So, when both are played at the same time, it works well.

Please note that if the song is a 3/2 clave, change the two bars of the mambo cowbell around (the same rule applies to conga patterns such as the Tumbao).

When starting patterns such as the Mambo cowbell on the 3/2 clave, it's pretty hard to hit the first note with perfect timing, as the first note is syncopated... it is on the "1 and". So, a good trick is to add an extra note when starting on the 3/2... so you will hit the cowbell five times in a row, just for the first bar, just to start at the same time as the rest of the band.

The Clave and Footwork

Another quick thing to mention at this point: notice that how on 2, 3 and 5 of the clave, I have mentioned that the salsa dancer's foot also strikes the ground? Interestingly enough, it doesn't matter if you dance on 1 or on 2, your foot and clave will always line up on beats 2, 3 and 5. And, it will always be in the sequence right foot (2), left foot (3), right foot (5). This is just from the followers perspective, but if you flip these numbers and feet around, you should get a similar result for followers' foot steps. And of course, if you use a 3/2 clave, then you get the same results again, just on different feet.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What is Musicality?

Musicality, to me, means feeling, interpreting, and expressing yourself in your dance.

Why is this important?

I spent years learning move after move, but I never really felt good or looked good on the dance floor. Finally, I figured out that the good dancers (leaders) look good because they feel the music, hit the breaks, let the follower do her thing at just the right time, etc. Sure, good dancers will still have really flash, fast, complicated turn patterns that they will use, but the point is that they don't rely on them to make them look good. It's just a bit of extra wow factor.

An Example of Great Musicality, Choreographed

This clip shows the Tropical Gem troupe doing some great stuff. Listen to the music, and watch how they hit the high points, and pause on the breaks.

An Example of Great Musicality, Unchoreographed

And here is Jhonny Vazquez just doing his thing on the social dancefloor. Sure, he can spin better than anyone else on earth, but watch how he really feels the music, and matches what he does to the music. This isn't a big song, so his moves are not big. When there are musical breaks, he breaks.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Musical Notation

A basic understanding of musical notation is really useful for learning percussion. It is also really handy for understanding salsa timing better... even as a dancer.

Time Signatures

A time signature dictates the beat throughout a staff (a musical score). Salsa is a 4/4 signature, which means that there are four evenly spaced beats per bar (one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four).

Waltz (which has a "one-two-three, one-two-three" feel) is known as having a 3/4 time signature, because it has three evenly spaced beats per bar.

Reggae is an interesting one. In Reggae, the timing is 4/4, but the notes are only played on the one-two-three. The fourth beat per bar is normally a rest, which gives a feel of "swing". It is still 4/4 timing though.

There is plenty more to learn about time signatures if you are interested. Here is a really good starting point.


The clef above indicates that this music is for percussion. There are other cleffs, such as melody and bass, but these are not important to us when focussing on percussion. What this does indicate, however, is that you don't have to worry about the pitch (or the duration) of the notes within the musical score (if you are a pianist on the other hand... you do have to worry).


A bar is just a grouping of notes within a piece of music, and the number of notes within the bar maps directly to the time signature. For a 3/4 time signature, there will be three notes per bar, evenly spaced. Each full note's duration will be a quarter of a bar.


There are two things to be concerned with regarding notes. The first thing is pitch (i.e. is this a C, a D, an F#, ...). Luckily, for percussion, we are not too worried. The next thing to worry about is the duration of the note. Again, luckily we are not too worried about this either (we can't really controll how long a drum strike or clave strike lasts for really). However, the notation for notes within a bar is useful for telling us how long a note should last for... which gives us a clearer idea of when the next note in the bar is to be played.

The above note (using my example) is a crotchet. This represents a quarter of a bar. So, for 4/4 timing, four evenly spaced crotchets represents the four basic beats of a salsa bar.

The note above is a quaver. It represents a note that lasts half as long as a crotchet, or in the case of 4/4 timing, an eight of a bar. Why would this be important to us as percussionists? Well, it isn't really, but it does help us keep our timing (two quavers in a row should take the same time to play as one crotchet).


Rests indicate that no note is to be played. This is useful, as it keeps one nicely in time. In merengue, for example, a 2/4 signature is used. In this case, one bar would consist of a crotchet, then a rest, then a crotchet, then a rest.

The rest above is a crotchet rest. It indicates a 1 beat rest in a 4/4 bar (i.e. the same duration as a crotchet note).

The rest above indicates a quaver rest. It indicates a 1/2 beat rest in a 4/4 bar (i..e the same duration at a quaver note).

Armed with the above information, you should have enough knowledge to pick up the timing of most percussion transcripts (describing congas, the cowbell, the clave, etc). Enjoy!

Different Types of Latin Music

There are plenty of different types of latin music out there. Here are samples of the ones that I run into the most. Of course, of all the styles below, you can get mixes/fusions as well, such as Samba-Reggae and Cha-Pop (*shudder*)...

Here are a few of the pages that helped me compile this list:
Click the links below to hear a sample of each. Over time I will add more song types (as I learn what they are), and also add titles, etc.


Note the 3/2 rumba clave, which can easily be confused for a 2/3 son clave. Rumba has three flavours: yambo (slow), guaguanco (meduim), and columbia (fast).


Son is a more traditional style of music, of which salsa is derived from. Note the emphasis on the 1 and the 4 (across each two bars)... very characteristic of Son.

Cha Cha (Volver A Verte, Oscar De Leon)

No clave, and when the cowbell comes in, it usually hits all four beats in the bar. There is often a half beat on the 'cha cha cha' bit as well. Note how clear the guiro is when it comes to cha cha.

Guajira-Son (Amor Verdadero, Afro Cuban All-Stars)

Guajira is a syncopated country/folk style of music, which fuses 6/8 and 4/4 time signatures. It is often played by a single vocalist accompanied by a guitarist. When mixed with Son and played in slow 4/4 time, it is known as Guajira-Son. I personally have trouble distinguishing between some guajiras and cha cha, and happily dance cha to both styles :)

Son-Montuno (Dundunbanza, Sierra Maestra)... thanks to Andrei for this sample!

Not everyone agrees on what Montuno ('comes from the mountain') actually means in terms of music, or what Son-Montuno is. Montuno could mean the fast, semi-improvised section of the music near the end of the song (what musicians sometimes refer to as the mambo section), but it can also mean an accompanying piano melody as well. Either way, Son-Montuno is a fairly fast version of Son, and I can personally feel a slight cha-cha influence as well. Again, I find a cha cha feel in many son-montunos, and some people will even dance on-2 to son-montunos as well.

Cuban Salsa

Nice to listen to, damn hard to dance linear salsa to!

Linear Salsa (La La La, Direct Latin Influence)

Note how simple linear salsa is... everything is constructed over a two bar phrase, with simple baselines, melodies and lyrics. Very well suited to slot-styled dancing (a quick-quick-slow or light-and-shade dance pattern, as opposed to the circular pattern of Cuban styled salsa).

Salsa with English Lyrics

Note how even though this song is sung in english, it still has been constructed/played with the clave at the heart of the music. That's why it works!

A Latin Pop Song

This is a nice song to listen to, to dance to, just don't dance salsa to it, as it doesn't have the clave as its heartbeat!


Reggaeton is a fusion of west-indian/jamacan reggae and dancehall with latin american styles such as salsa, bachata, cumbia and the like. It also has a strong rapping/hip hop influence as well. You can hear the bongos slightly in most reggaeton songs, and there is a faint implication of a clave at times too.

Salsaton (Sueltame, DLG - Deep Latin Grooves)

This is a fusion between Reggaeton and salsa. In some cases, Reggaeton will switch out for Salsa (so, less rapping, more montuno, clave, etc), and then back again (back to stronger beats, more of a hip hop feel, etc), yet in other salsaton songs, there will be a complete fusion of reggaeton and salsa throughout the entire song. Other flavours similar to Salsaton include Cumbiaton and Bachaton.

Salsa Romantica (Herida, by Brenda K Starr, from the album Te Sigo Esperando)

Salsa romantica is just a style of salsa. It tends to be quite light, with a lot of bongos and not so much jazz. The lyrics are always romantic!


Samba has a 2/4 signature, but the syncopated beats make it feel more like a 1-2-3 sort of a song (there are three steps in the samba basic). I love the big drumming in the background... it is intoxicating if you ever catch samba being played live.

Mambo - 40s/50s Style

Mambo of this style is a groovy kind of dance/music (done in the 40s, 50s, ...) which marginally resembles the salsa/mambo that is done today. However, it is slower, more centered, and can quite easily be danced entirely as a solo or as a group of individuals, as opposed to salsa which is usually a partner dance (shines excluded).

Mambo 1970s onwards

Mambo of the "new" style is a contentious issue (see this article from wikipedia). There are quite a few different terms for mambo, but when the music is referred to today, I define it as salsa music that is jazzy (New York influenced), and is fast paced from beginning to end - as if the entire song is one big mambo section of a salsa song (i.e. the section after the chorus where everyone is playing louder and faster). As for Mambo the dance (the modern version that is), well, I just classify that as salsa being danced on 2 in a linear style (so the use of "light and shade" instead of round Cuban circular turn patterns). Simple really! :)


Zouk is a fairly new kind of dance style, with music to match. However, it looks very much like a laid-back version of Lambada, which I am sure it gets its roots from. To me, zouk has roughly the same 1-2-3 feel as Reggaeton, Samba, etc.

Another dance/musical style closely related to Zouk is Kizomba. There is far too much hip movement in this dance for me to tell you anything about it. Sorry!


Note how Bachata has the same bongo pattern as salsa... it is just slowed down (and of course the congas, clave, etc are not played).


A 2/4 timing signature. What your grandparents danced to before getting married. Enough said.


To me, cumbia feels jumpy, as if we were riding a horse. I have heard that cumbia might have been named after the Andes, which themselves are very "up and down". Makes sense to me! Interestingly enough, one particular type of basic conga pattern is called "Caballo" which translates to "horse" in English. If the caballo pattern is used in Cumbia, then it is all starting to make sense as to why it feels like a jumpy style of music.


Lambada (in its modern form) grew in popularity along side salsa in the 1980s and early 90s. The dance style is similar to salsa in terms of leading and following, but the footwork is a three-step (a bit like slow samba) as opposed to a forward and back basic that salsa employs. Lambada music, in the 80s and 90s, however was bit more up-and-down compared to salsa... perhaps a little closer to cumbia. Again, anything with 2/4 or 4/4 timing works though, although in the early 80s, lambada was only really being played with 2/4 time signatures (a bit closer to merengue).

How do different types of music affect you?

A great guy by the name of Alfonso Rios showed me this...

Listen to these three different types of music? Close your eyes and focus on feeling the music. Which part of your body do you feel it the most?

Type 1: Piano solo

Type 2: Orchestra/symphony/harmony

Type 3: Bad-ass percussion

Once you have tried these out for yourself, compare your results to mine. I figure that for elegant solo piano, my brain gets excited and I am try to work the patterns out in my head. For orchestral music, I feel this more in my heart... it is emotional music. For drumming, I feel this more in my stomach... it is a really primative sort of feeling. What are your thoughts? The same as mine, or different?

So... to relate this to musicality, when dancing to the percussion, it should be earthy and meaningful. When dancing to the melody, it can be more interpretive and styled. Just match how you dance to what you feel in the music :)

How to Follow in Salsa

Hi there!

In this post, I have given all the notes that I wrote up to help a couple of girls who were learning salsa but were having trouble following. Sure, they could have spent heaps of money on private lessons (my preferred approach!), but I thought I would share some advice with them as well (being the geek that I am!).

I hope these tips help you out!!

Basic step

Focus on doing your basic over and over - to slow groovy music, where there is no pause in the middle, only a smooth transition from moving forwards to moving backwards. From there, also practice cross body lead footwork all by yourself, and if you can, then build up to pivot turns all by yourself, and keeping your legs together during the pivot. Also focus on remaining on the line at all times, and small steps. Also focus on the foot placement... i.e. from inside foot to outside foot - rolling the foot to get a smooth placement and nice hip movement (it comes from the feet and knees, not hips directly).

Oh, and make sure that you don't lift your feet up like you are marching... they should just glide. Remember that on 2 and 6, it is just a weight transfer, not a step. So yeah, you are just gradually moving weight from one foot to the other, then back again. Six times in a full basic step. From there - i.e. once that is sorted - you can work on making the hips move in a figure eight, moving the ribcage, adding in the arms, and rolling the shoulders. But first of all, get the very basic sorted.

Body position

Slightly bent knees. Always leaning forward slightly. Well balanced. Dance on your toes more than anything else… i.e. never have your weight fully on your heels… ever. Keep the posture straight, and always have the chin up (very important) and chest out. This confident stance will make the single biggest difference to the appearance of your dancing.

Less is more. Styling needs to be sharp and short. Never style for more than one or two beats, and only style with a hand that you are certain will not be needed for those two beats. And only style if you are certain that your hand can return to a reachable position after the styling has taken place.

With arm movement… again, small circles. Don’t do anything that affects your basic or your ability to follow.

Hand position

Forearms fairly level with the floor. Wrists bent, with palm facing partner. Fingers from first to second knuckle level with the floor, rest of finger joints parallel with palm, allowing leader to slot in fingers between palm and fingertips. Thumbs free and facing inwards.

When dancing with one or both hands free, always have hands very close to side of ribcage, ready to catch the guys hand again. Also, always have hand in hooked position so that connection can be re-established. Never attempt to grab for the guys hand with your thumb…. Always connection through connection pressure, not grasping for a hand. That won’t work.


Active hands: The follower’s hands react to changes in direction (forward vs back). So, they must switch on when the leader applies pressure… i.e. resist the pressure, and then allow the pressure to direct your whole body in the given direction. In other words, do not let the leader pull your arm out of the “W” formation, or push your arm so that your elbow goes beyond the back of your torso. Just follow the direction of pressure, keeping your arms in a neutral position.

Do not allow hands to move (i.e. fingers to get pulled out of position). If pressure is applied to the palm of your hands, apply same pressure back. Same for fingers. The shape of the hand position never changes.

Never change your hand position during a move. Changing from hooked to flat will effectively release the guys hand, which will destroy the move. This is effectively the same as leading the move. If the guy wants the hand released for the next bit of the move, he will release the connection at the right time.

Try leaning forward (slightly) at all times (with slightly bent knees). This means that your energy is always forward, and you are able to react quickly to moves/signals that come. This means that at the end of a move, you need to be well balanced in order to remain in the forward-leaning position.


Always dance on the main track

Never finish a bar (4 beats) at a 45 angle (unless forced to by a leader’s pressure)… always stop facing the line or exactly perpendicular to it

For any move… stay on the line. After a free spin, after a crossbody lead, after a turn, anything. Always stay on that line.


When the arm runs out of length, stop. Don’t over rotate.

Never let your elbows go beyond your torso in either direction. Always keep the “W” form of the arms between partners.

When your arms are moved upwards, power your arms yourself. In other words, don’t let the leader move your arms/hands up with his own strength. Instead, as soon as you feel your arms being signalled to go upwards, move them upwards until the leader has reached the desired arm height. Not doing this is often referred to as “having heavy arms”, or arms that are not relaxed.

Try following “on the way in” (or on the second beat). So, for a copa, don’t read the copa on beat one (by detecting pressure on your hand towards your right hip). This might not be a copa at all… it could be a 360, a send-back… or many other moves. A copa is best detected on the second beat… i.e. the pull in (as here you can figure out if it is a copa – the lead in will be diagonally across the line, whereas for other moves – on the second beat the guy might walk behind you, etc).

For the cross body lead, don’t wait for pressure on the back to complete the move. Just stick to your own timing. Travel on 5, turn on 6, back on 7. Resist the temptation to pause on 4, waiting for the guy to push you through the move.

As soon as the move is complete, get the body and hands back into a position where connection can be re-established and a new move can be started. This means getting your body weight correct, not being off-balance, not being off the main line, etc.

Never be a heavy follower. Always be ready to stop, change direction. In other words, be light on your feet, and very very responsive to changes in signals. For example, you might be doing a wrap, and be thinking that you will just get wrapped up for an eight count before being unwrapped. However, the guy might be wanting to quickly give you a grasp on the shoulder and check turn out of the wrap. This will only work if you are ready to change direction at any point in the move (within reason).

The key to following (and leading) is to be exceptionally light. Regardless of the move, there should be basically no pressure or forcefulness. It should just be about holding your own weight, and taking responsibility for your own movement. Do not rely on the guy to move you around, spin you, keep you on the track, etc. It is dancing – by yourself – but lead/signalled by a second person who is connected to you. And you can from time to time take the liberty of not following a signal – i.e. hijacking or blocking… just to prove the point.


This is lead as:

Single turn prep – only ever a single turn. Don’t pivot… step the turn through

Check turn prep – prepare for at least two spins

If the spins start early (say on 3), expect at least three spins

If the spins start late (say on 5), expect no more than two spins

The final spin is lead by zero power… i.e. the final spin is done on previous momentum alone. If the current spin is not powered by the guy, expect that to be the final spin, with the arm closed down at the end of the spin. Some guys also signal with a quick hand grasp on the final spin.

Don’t spin the second the check turn signal is given (i.e. the hand is raised). Wait for the pressure to come on before spinning, and only spin at the tempo given… after all, it could be only two spins that span slowly (beats 3,4,5,6,7 and 8).

Use a cup grip… a loose cup grip… no grabbing on to fingers.

Keep your forearm straight up, your bicep parallel to the ground. Keep your body stiff and your arm in place… i.e. do not let your arm be spun first, followed by your rotated body. Your arm and body turn at the same time. Do not let your forearm rotate from your elbow (i.e. your wrist gets pulled in the direction of the spin). Keep your arm straight up… parallel with the walls and your body.

For moves that require spinning while travelling (pivot turns, outside turns, etc), keep the arm very rigid and active… i.e. be ready for potentially three or four spins, not just one. Again, this comes down to being responsive to signals, and using your own momentum to turn/spin, and not letting your hand/arm/upper body spin ahead of your upper body/lower body. If you allow this to happen, you will start to corkscrew, and end up getting “left behind”… i.e. the guy will have to stop the spinning as you will be spinning too slowly for the move to complete in time.

Dancing Salsa On 2

What is "Dancing on the 2"

Most salsa, particularly at the beginners and intermediate level, is taught "on 1". On 1 means "on the first beat", so for salsa, that means moving forward (as the lead) on beat one, or moving back (as the follower) on beat one. Sure, some styles of salsa have the follower breaking back instead of forwards at the start of the basic (the first bar), but that doesn't affect the timing or this discussion.

Dancing on two is dancing on the "off" beat instead of the "on" beat.
Since the "on" beat in salsa is the odd beat (1, 3, 5 and 7), then dancing on two means starting the dance on the second beat, not the first.

So, to keep things very simple, dancing "on 2" is just the act of delaying your first step by one beat. That's it. That's dancing on two.

So What's the Difference?

To sum up the difference in one line, you need to hear the music to dance on 1, whereas to dance on 2, you need to feel the music.

The "on" beat in salsa is the predominant beat. One, three, five, seven. The cowbell hits this beat. The bass and lyrics normally start on (or very near) the first beat too. Regarding the clave, two beats of the clave fall on the "on" beat (a 2/3 clave will hit the "on beat" on beats 3 and 5). So, if you can hear individual instruments in the music, you can normally find the one (I only struggle when a lot of overlaid percussion comes in over the top, such as bongo fills or a different percussion pattern, such as the Caballo). Incidentally, of the three remaining clave beats, two of these fall on the "off" beat (a 2/3 clave will hit the "off beat" on beats 2 and 8), and the other strike is between the on and the off beat (for a 2/3 clave, this beat will be on 6 1/2).

Finding the two is harder. It requires a feel for the music. While you can normally hear the one and the three, sometimes you just need to feel for where the two will fall (i.e. between the two loud adjacent on beats). Or, if there is a loud clave present, listening to that will help you find the two (for a 2/3 clave), or the six (for a 3/2 clave). The conga slap (on two and six) is also a big help if it is clear from the music.

Why Dance on the Two?

I can't explain the difference in feel when dancing on two through a blog article. All I can say is try it! Once you do, and you go with it, you will be hooked. That's why dancing on 2 is called "The Dancers Dance". Here are some of my thoughts about dancing on 2:
  • It feels like you are dancing "in" the music, rather than "with it".
  • It feels like you have more time to execute moves, or in other words, the same song feels slower when dancing on 2.
  • It feels like you are locked in a "groove" when dancing on 2. After dancing on 2, dancing on 1 (to me) feels quite robotic and "clunky". It sometimes feels too obvious/simple/overstated dancing on one after dancing on 2.
Now don't get me wrong... I have been dancing for years, and in my first few years there was simply no way that I could dance "on 2" to salsa... I struggled to hear any beat, let alone the subtleties of the on beat vs the off beat. But, when you do get to a more advanced level, on 2 dancing is great!

The "on beat" is more obvious in the song, so good for performing. Dancing on the two is more of a feel than a look (“the dancers’ dance”). On1 dancers dance “to the music”. On2 dancers dance “with the music”.

Do I Break Forward or Backwards when Dancing On 2?

New york styled on2 salsa (aka mambo) tends to have the leader breaking back on 2, so the girl/follower is moving forward. This is very very cool in a way, as it emphasises the girl more so than when dancing on 1. Why? Well, the big sounds in a salsa song tend to come at the start of each phrase (two bar pairs)... so on the 1,2,3 or thereabouts. With the girl moving forward on the first bar, she gets to execute her "big" part of the salsa basic with the "big" beats of the music (e.g. the girl turns, spins, arm flicks etc). For the rest of the phrase (i.e. the second bar of the 8-beat salsa basic), the girl gets to rest as she being set up/prepared for the next move. This is really different from dancing with the lead going forward on the first bar. Add dancing on the "off beat" to the mix, and you have the mambo dance style, which really looks and feels different than the more conventional "on 1, lead moves forward on 1" style of salsa.

The trick for me as a leader is that I am used to moving forwards at the start of each phrase (i.e. the 1 or the 2 per 8 count/2 bars), but when dancing new york style on2, I have to go back on 2. It's fine starting the dance like that, but after doing shines or holding for a musical break, or just after blocking the girl for a bar, I still get confused because I am so used to moving forward again on the left foot, not the right. But I will get there!

On 1 vs On 2 for Performances

If you are looking for general crowd-pleasing routines, I say go for big, on-1 LA styled routines. Crowds can hear the main beats of the music, associate the beats with the big moves, and so it works well. For a more educated crowd who would appreciate something different or more subtle, I would say go for on-2 if you can find the right song.

Subtleties of Timing

One main comment I hear from followers when they start dancing on 2 is how much time they feel they have after executing a spin - before they have to go back into their next basic step.

To be honest, I can't completely explain this yet... I need to do some more work on it! But, here are my thoughts so far:
  • With on 1, there can be quite a noticeable pause between the preparation for the spin and the execution of the spin.
  • With on 2, there is not so much of a pause, the leader tends to execute the spin (or whatever the move is) fairly quickly after the prep. In fact, I would go as far as to say that when dancing on 2, leads are slightly earlier... so pretty close to the first beat really.
  • With on 2, the clave emphasises the 2/3, which can tempt the leader into executing moves in that short 2/3 space, hence finishing moves earlier too.
What About Shines?

Shines are for showing off! Can you show off to the subtle on-beat? No way! So do your shines on 1. How? Your dance teacher will show you, but there are plenty of different ways of going from dancing on 2 to dancing on 1 and then back again. Have a look at a good on-2 performance (any of Oliver Pineda's videos will do the trick!). You will see that while he dances on 2 (usually), his shines will be on 1. Does it work? I think so!

So, the cool thing about this is that when dancing on two, you can also incorporate dancing on one a little bit as well... which is great... the best of both worlds!

Here's a quick clip of Oliver just to demonstrate... watch for the shine break at 0:46 and 1:22 (yes, this is an on2 routine, but it's so fast it's hard to tell!).

What Sort of Music Works Best for On2?

To be honest, just whatever sort of music you feel like. For me, some songs are clearly on-1 songs (a strong off-beat, "big" sounds, etc), and I dance on-1 to them. For other songs, they are clearly on-2 for me (a clear clave, clean congas, jazzy, simple). But hey, whatever works for you.

As for followers, this is difficult, as you might feel like dancing to the opposite beat as your partner, but this is also a true test of how well you can follow (don't forget... leading is a hard job, so respect whatever your partner feels he can lead to the best... arguing won't make the dance any better!).

Counting the Beat

In my opinion, a lot of people tend to complicate on-2 salsa with all sorts of variations on counting the beat. For me, I find the best approach is to just count on-2 salsa the same as you would with on-1 salsa (Oliver Pineda showed me this, and it really works!). So, for on-1 and on-2 salsa, I always just count the beat as 1,2,3 [pause] 5,6,7.

For on-1 salsa, I focus on the count as follows: 1,2,3 [pause] 5,6,7. For on-2, I focus on the count like this instead: 1,2,3 [pause] 5,6,7. Please note that for on-2, I still count the 1 and the 5, and make sure that I place my feet on the 1 and the 5... but these two counts are for the step immediately preceding the main "2" and "6" steps.

I find this is by far the biggest help to me keeping in time on the social dance floor when dancing on 2.

What is Mambo?

The term "Mambo" is really overloaded from a salsa dancing point of view. Here are the three main meanings that I come across on a fairly regular basis:

Meaning #1 (From a salsa musicians point of view)

Mambo is the "jamming"instrumental section of the song, usually near the end of the song, where improvisation may also take place. The tempo of the music increases (thanks usually to the timbalero increasing the tempo or "drive" of the cowbell on each "on beat"), and the music tends to be louder (known as "forte" within a musical score).

Please note that this is a term used by latin percussionists, it is not a universal musical term.

Even "pop" songs often have a “mambo” section… listen for it next time your CD player breaks and you have to listen to the radio!

You will see how this "meaning of mambo" ties into meaning number #3... keep reading!

Meaning #2 (From a modern salsa dancers point of view)

In dancing terms, salsa danced on two, in a linear (or "slot") style, particularly when the lead breaks back on two, is often referred to as "dancing mambo style".

In terms of "mambo music" for this dance style, to me, I classify this as salsa music that well-suited to dancing on-2 to. The difference between linear-styled salsa music and more traditional cuban styled is the simplicity of the melody and bass lines, the conformance to very structured two-bar phrases (essential for a "light and shade" dance style), a resistance to incorporate any Cumbia or other "jumpy" percussion patterns (such as the Caballo), and a fairly jazzy influence. Mambo salsa music I perceive as being very jazzy, often quite fast, a clear clave, and conga "slaps" on the 2 and the 6.

Some types of music popular within the mambo scene today, however, appear to have very little conga or clave at all - reminiscent of 1930s New York jazz bands prior to the Cuban/Son influence.

Meaning #3 (From an old-timers point of view!)

Now this is where it all starts to get confusing...

Traditional mambo is akin to cha cha, just without the double step/chasse.

Here is a good article discussing the evolution of mambo, however, to keep things simple, I will give a quick summary here.

Danzon, a once very popular dance in Cuba, is the root of Mambo. Danzon was of English origin, bought to Cuba by the French (Danzon sounds like a folk song akin to a Waltz - here is an example sound file from wikipedia). Danzon was then influenced by African rhythms, and in the 1930s, the influence of Cuban Son increased, leading to a new sub-genre called danzon-mambo. A key part of the danzon-mambo is the mambo/finale section of the song (which incorporated the clave, congas and strong montuno melodies - very simple melodic rifts that are repeated with increasing intensity).

From here, based on the influence of dancers (in particular their struggle to keep in time with the complex syncopations of danzon-mambo), a simpler version evolved, which formed the basis of mainstream Mambo - the music and the dance. This first style of Mambo subsequently became hugely popular in the US (due to influences of large volumes of immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rica, etc). Mambo was most popular in the 40s and early 50s, but then became superseded by Cha Cha in the late 50s. Of course, from Mambo and Cha, we get the Salsa of today (however, please note that while related, there are real differences in the footwork, partnering and music between Mambo of the 50s and the salsa-based Mambo of today!).

Here is a wikipedia link to an interesting article about Mambo-Confusion! I guess the real issue around the confusion is that Mambo refers to two styles of dance... one of which is the traditional basis of the other. And then the third term for mambo refers to the final/fast/forte section of a danzon... the root of both mambo styles of music...!

Cha Cha Cha

History of Cha Cha

The music of cha cha cha was created in Cuba in the early 1950s, derived from Mambo. The difference is that it had a syncopation between the fourth and first beat of the next bar, and that dancers typically started on the second beat, not the first.

A visiting dance teacher named
Pierre Zurcher Margolie noticed this new style of dance, and took it back to London with him, creating ballroom cha cha. The dance also continued to develop in Cuba. Fundamental to the dance is the starting (or break) on two (not one), and the chasse on the four-and-one. The name Cha Cha Cha is an onomatopoeia for the sound of the feet when dancing the chasse part of the basic step, and the sound of the guiro as well (the down-up-down action on the four-and-one).

Differences between Salsa and Cha

Here are the key differences between the two dances (as I see it):
  • Cha cha (the music) is very similar to slow salsa, but differences include the cowbell being hit on all beats (not just the "on beat"), and no clave (normally).
  • The guiro also has a different pattern between salsa and cha (in salsa, there are two half-rests per bar, whereas in cha, it is a continual pattern).
  • The cowbell can sometimes to a syncopation across the 4-and-1 as well.

Here is a link to a cha cha that I have sped up. Note that it sounds rather like salsa, except for the cowbell hitting every beat, not just the off beat.

On the other hand, here is a salsa song that I have slowed down to show just how similar it is to cha. Note, I purposely picked a section of the song which had no clave or cowbell, to align it fairly closely to cha.

Timing of the Cha Cha Basic

Cha is danced (normally) as: 2,3,4-and-1, 2,3,4-and-1. Don't dance cha on the on-beat (1,2,3-and-4), as this will mean that you miss the cha cha cha percussion of the song (provided by the only three major strikes of the congas in the entire bar - open,open,hand a.k.a. 4-and-1).

I feel that you can start the cha (as a lead) on either the 2 or the 6. To me, since cha doesn't have the clave, and does have a prominent 4-and-1 (due to the slowness, "uncrowdedness" of the song), I feel comfortable dancing on either the 2 or the 6... I really only count char as a one bar beat (where I identify salsa as a two bar song/dance).

The cha cha cha chasse is danced is on both the downbeat and the upbeat, which makes a nice bridge across the music.

Other Song Types

Note that there are other types of music than you can dance Cha Cha to (depending on how you feel the music). Many pop/rock songs have a cha beat to them (ranging from "Smooth Operator" by Sade through to "I hate everything about you" by Ugly Kid Joe). Of course, you can also dance cha cha to some other Latin types of music, including Guajira.

Musicality and Dancing with the Percussion

Here are some general pointers that I use when dancing to the music:

Dancing to Slow Songs
  • For a slow intro, dance to it... sway to it, step side to side to it. Don't just stand their waiting! Start with a sway/slow merengue (one-two) step, then go easy until music builds up. Go back to swaying on slow breaks, then maybe do rumba side step on any caballo bits, then go back into main bit with matching of moves to tempo.
  • Focus on the 2-3-5 beats of the 2/3 clave, emphasise these steps and ignore the others as much as you can. Put body movement into it too. This makes it appear more romantic.
Finding the "One"

  • Practice this by yourself (so you can't take clues from other students in the room), or shut your eyes if you are in a class. It makes it really hard!
  • Listening to music will help. But also listen for key instruments, bass lines, lyrics... whatever helps you identify the one.
Finding Breaks
  • Slow songs are more likely to break from one to the five. This is always a trap when teaching a beginners class with slow music (all of a sudden the entire class ends up dancing on the five - even if only the teacher notices it!).
  • Slow songs are more likely to break from one to the five. This is always a trap when teaching a beginners class with slow music (all of a sudden the entire class ends up dancing on the five - even if only the teacher notices it!).
  • Watch out for one bar breaks... this throws out the salsa timing (i.e. two bars per basic). Solution: listen for the break... sometimes you can hear it coming. Otherwise, count the number of bars until the next break, and you will probably find the same thing happens the same number of bars again (e.g. 16 bars later for example). Also, the musical lead into the break is often identical each time.
Different Percussion Patterns in Salsa
  • When either a rumba or a caballo rhythm kicks in, I do either shines or a rumba step.
Muscle Memory (Dancing Without Thinking)
  • You can't think about percussion beat by beat when playing... same for dancing, even for shaking your hand (try this... shake your hand from side to side. Now do the same again, but by mentally instructing each movement - i.e. tilt left, tilt right, tilt left, tilt right. Notice how slow and difficult it is to "think" through the movement? Dance is just the same!)
  • Focus on key beats in the basic when dancing... so just the one and the five, or maybe the on beat or the off beat. But... do not listen for each and every beat and step... it will make you chase the music... making the music feel faster than what it is.
  • If you are still "chasing the music", try counting a full salsa basic (i.e. two bars of 4/4 time) on just the on-beat, but use the counting system of 1,2,3,4 in half time... i.e. 1=1st beat, 2=3rd beat, 3=5th beat, 4=7th beat. This tends to help you slow down.
General Musicality
  • Interpretation and styling comes from within... by recognising and moving to the music, and then just letting your energy flow.
  • Some people recommend listening to heaps of salsa to get the feel and understanding of it. For me that didn't work... I had to break it down and understand how it worked, then it just came naturally after that.
  • Light and shade is super-important for a linear style dance... holding off until the last moment then quickly going past each other and back into each other's respective places on the slot.
  • Following the lead with musicality is difficult: you need to hit the breaks, do body rolls, etc, but also in time with the breaks that your partner hits. You shouldn't just do something because you hear it... particularly if your partner is half way through a move, etc.
  • Good looking combos look good because they are done with musicality. Learning the move won't make you look good... dancing it with style and timing will.
  • Combination after combination does not look good and doesn't really impress anyone either... particularly the poor girl who spent ages getting all dressed up, only to look like she has been dragged through a wet hedge half way through the song. What really works is well-timed and selected combos, mixed in with smooth body movement and a connection with the music.
  • I always practice being able to recall moves when away from dancing. If I can, for example, think of four different combos at the lights when driving my car, I know that I should be able to "pull these out" on the dance floor. It's a really good mental exercise!