Thursday, April 9, 2009

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.


  1. Awesome video! Still trying to figure out this on-2 thing though.

  2. Hi Takeshi. Yes, on-2 seems very complicated at first. I think it is one of those things where you just have to get out there on the floor, and just keep on doing it until one day it just "clicks". I hope the above article helps though!

  3. Great article. This is the clearest explanation that I have seen. Thanks!

  4. Hi, trying to undestand what the beat is I refer you to this article in Wikipedia which say the opposite of what you say about UpBeat

    Is that an error of yours?

  5. Hi... yes that was a mistake! Sorry! I have correct this article (and another one where I mixed the terms up as well). Well spotted!

  6. I think there is no ONE nor FIVE when dancing On2. You count ONE and FIVE yes, but its not actually ONE but 8 1/2 (the second open from the conga pattern), and FIVE is not FIVE but 4 and a half as well. Am I right ? (i´ve been dancing only for 2 years but I played congas)

  7. Hi! Regarding 1 vs 8 1/2 and 5 vs 4 1/2, this is a great question!

    I think you are right, if that's the way that you hear the music, and have the ability to control your footwork and weight down to an eight of a bar. For others though, dancing on the one and the five seems natural and is easier too (particularly if you don't have a musical/percussion background).

    Here are a couple of useful links that discuss the breakdown of on 1 vs on 2:


    I have heard of the sort of timing that you suggest (I know that some New York styled dancers play around with the timing in a similar manner too), but I can't find anything right now when doing a google search. I do, however, understand that you could "lock into" the tumbao "4 and" and "eight and" open notes when dancing if you have a percussion background and you can hear the tumbao in the music.

    If you choose to dance on-2 half a beat earlier for the "break beat" (i.e. the beat where you step to start the measure, either forward or backwards), this does introduce a couple of subtleties:
    * The timing is difficult - many people will struggle to hear the half beat. However, this can make the dance more fun/challenging too!
    * The style of the dance changes. Dancing 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (on one or on two) produces a "light and shade" effect, where it is very "flowing" as both dancers move from one end of the slot to the other. However, if you move the timing to 8 1/2-2-3, 4 1/2-6,7, it tends to introduce more of a pause/stagger in the middle of the song, which gives it a Cuban/grounded feel (in my opinon).
    * You are also no longer dancing on the downbeat, so this de-emphasises the strongest beats of the music. This (I imagine) has an effect where the dance looks less dramatic - which I guess fits with the style/feel of on2.

    I will ask Oliver Pineda (a very good on-2 dancer next week about this) and I am also doing an on2 workshop next weekend... I will ask the instructor of this too. This is a great question... it will be interesting to see what others think too.

  8. The big advantage to damce on 2 is to dance only on 6 steps not 8 because the 1 and 5 are longer.
    It makes the dance soomether and on the music. Congas and clave musician who damces understand perfectly this concept and it is not difficult to dance on 2 it is just a matter of learning.

  9. Best explanation I've read so far - thanks! Any further thoughts on this topic since 2009?

  10. Great article, thank you :) I am just starting to learn on2 and am finding that it is counterproductive to count the 1 -- better to just feel the music.

  11. This is my take on 1 and on 2 dancing. If you could truly hear the conga, (because thats what on 2 dancers dance too) without using the downbeat to guide yourself then all power to you. There is some music where you cant hear the conga at all so 2 doesnt really work specially with these new commercial salsa songs. If you are using the downbeat for on 2 then you are cheating yourself because you are still dancing on 1

  12. i m an intermediate student in salsa on 2, congats for the beautiful article man, it has helped me beyond axpectations to realize better what is the difference so i will help you too.
    footwork is done with the female steps right goes on 1 bust as you dance you will have to be in 1 with your left foot to change foot there is a simple trick.
    please do this: as you dannce and you leave your partner to do footwork make this simple step directly:
    123 567
    12 (three): hold your left foot with weight on it and place right foot for five with no weight on it then place back right foot for 6 and step on it at the same time lift slightly the left 6 7 foot,
    you have changed foot now you are dancing on the female step to get back your steps repeat the process,
    i m still trying to do this but it needs a lot of repetition to master

    have a nice on 2 dance

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  14. I have been dancing on 1 for a long time, and have only dabbled in on two dancing, but am going to start dancing on two more seriously. I can keep time on 2 when I concentrate on it, however there is one thing that is causing me difficulties, that is when does the lead come. I think most leads, (I am thinking follwers turns here), come on beat five. (Yes, you may prepare the lead before beat five, but it is beat five that starts the movement.) When dancing on two when does the lead come? Joining the dots, maybe, if the leads still come on the one this might explain why followers " feel they have after executing a spin"?

  15. I have been dancing (as a leader) on 1 for a long time, and have only dabbled in on two dancing, but am going to start dancing on two more seriously. I can keep time on 2 when I concentrate on it, however there is one thing that is causing me difficulties, that is when does the lead come. I think most leads when dancing on 1, (I am thinking follwers turns here), come on beat five. (Yes, you may prepare the lead before beat five, but it is beat five that starts the movement.) When dancing on two when does the lead come? Joining the dots, maybe, if the leads still come on the one this might explain why followers " feel they have after executing a spin"?