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.
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.
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.