If you were to attempt to trace the roots of the dance of casino, there are three main dances which you will hear mentioned time and again: danzón, chachachá, and son—though for the purposes of full disclosure, some people would argue that mambo (the Cuban one) and swing also played a role.
Now, out of these three main dances which compose casino’s genealogy, in Cuba danzón is seen as more of a “senior dance”—that is, a dance more suited for the older generation. And if you were to watch a video of danzón, you would quickly see why people would think that. Chachachá, on the other hand, while popular during its “fever” period—the 50s—has not really survived as a social dance. Most of the population does not know how to carry a chachachá dance throughout a whole song—though many do know the basic chachachá step. In fact, if you were to look for chachachá instructional videos (Cuban ones), what you would find is people teaching you how to do the basic step and some of its variations, followed by a number of individual shines that makes it really hard to think of partner dancing when looking at it.
Out of the three dances, it is son that has survived the most the test of time as a social dance. If you were to search for son videos on YouTube, you would find a good number of them, both danced in Cuba and taught outside of the island. We could argue that son’s current status can be attributed to the fact that, out of the three dances, son is the one which has a closer resemblance to casino, the most popular Cuba partner dance to date. (Let us not forget that casino is danced to son music, too.)
You may say, “Okay. So son and casino have some similarities. But what is it about having a basic understanding of son that could benefit my casino dancing? After all, they are not the same dance.”
No, they are not.
But there is certainly a lot to be learned from son that would definitely benefit your casino dancing, as well as the way you approach the music to which you dance casino.
Let us start with the dance first.
If you learned casino the way I know a lot of people are taught casino nowadays, all you probably know is a series of turn patterns. That’s mostly what they teach at academies—turn patterns. What ends up happening here is that with these turn patterns, when combined into the dance, much like it happens in salsa dancing, the dancers end up dancing in the same place the whole time. Yet one of the great things about casino—and this is due to son’s influence—is that you have the ability to move around the room with your partner while dancing. You could start on one end of the room when the song begins, and finish on the other, when it ends. The following video is a good example of that. You may have to watch it a couple of times—the first time just to appreciate the dancing, and the second to actually consciously look for what I’m saying. So take a look; at some point you’ll recover from the pure amazingness that is this video and you’ll start noticing that they are moving around a lot.
If this is son, what does this have to do with casino? Well, the good news is that these paseos—Spanish for “strolls”, which is what this moving around is called—are easily transferable to casino dancing, and at times transformed in novel ways, like in this video (notice how he also incorporates the son tornillo, the move where the man stays in the same place while the woman walks around him, rotating him (more on the tornillo here):
Pretty cool stuff, huh? I remember doing this during social dancing—the paseos, that is—back when I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, and the notion was so novel to the casino dancers there, that they started calling it my “signature move”—that, and the shoulder shimmy, which no one did, either. I remember hearing people saying this and thinking that it was sad, in a way, that they thought this was a novelty, when in Cuba moving around the room while dancing and shimming the shoulders was commonplace. But to be fair, how could they have known, if all they knew was straight out of the Salsa Lovers’ DVDs which only taught them one turn pattern after another? (I talk in more depth about these DVDs impact on casino here.) The following video, taken at a Salsa Lovers’ dance social, exemplifies this. Notice how nobody moves around the circle while dancing. It’s all about how many turn patterns they can get in in the twenty or so seconds they are allowed to shine in front of the others:
Now, you may be a casino dancer who is already doing these paseos, because you learned them from somewhere or someone, without really knowing that the paseos, conceptually, come from son dancing. If so, you may be saying, “Well, I was already doing that, and I didn’t have to know son.” Sure, you didn’t have to. But imagine now the many other things you could be incorporating into your casino dancing if you did know how to dance son.
The other great thing about adding son to your dance repertoire is that you will learn how to dance on contratiempo. Contratiempo means “against the beat.” The beat is the one count, so dancing on the beat is referred to as dancing a tiempo (on time). Therefore, when you dance against the one count (the beat), you’re dancing on the two (that’s right, folks, people were dancing on the two in Cuba long before such thing existed in New York). Son is traditionally danced on the two; in fact, I’d be surprised if you have attended in the past a son workshop where the instructor did not play the clave and taught you how your steps fit into the pattern of the clave, and then called it dancing “on contratiempo” (though he or she may have left out that that actually means “dancing on the two”).
So what makes it important to learn to dance on contratiempo? Well, besides it being the count on which you dance son, it also has to do with musicality reasons. In a previous post, I talked about the structure of a son song: it has a largo (a slower, introductory section), and a montuno section, which is more upbeat than the largo. Now, what I did not mention, because it wasn’t part of the main topic, was that most of the time, musicians dance the largo on contratiempo. Take the video below as an example. This Bamboleo song is what most people would call “timba” and not really associate with son music. But if you look closely at when on the beat the singers are dancing during the largo—in this song, until 1:09 or so– you will notice that they are dancing on the two. (Explaining how the counts work falls outside of the scope of this piece, so I won’t be going into that. However, I do explain it here.) After 1:09, you will see that they are doing their three-step on the one.
Want further proof? Take a look at this Klimax video. The exact same thing happens:
So the musicians understand that there is a difference in each of the two sections of the song, not only as it pertains to how each instrument gets played during each section, but also on what count to dance. This is something that I have incorporated in my own dancing. Notice that, in the following video, I dance on the two (and incorporate the paseos from son) during the largo, which ends at 1:28, then switch to dancing on the one when the montuno comes in, then back to the two at the end of the song, when it starts slowing down the tempo again as it comes to an end—in fact, the person recording points it out.
Dancing casino on the two, or contratiempo—a concept from son, not casino—allows you to better interpret the songs when you dance to them (again, the musicians who make this music know this). Once you learn contratiempo and begin trying to dance to the largo of the song on the two, you will see a very big difference on how it feels to dance it on that count, and how much more it goes with what the instruments are doing, or what sounds stand out—specially with the bass and the congas.
The third reason as to why you, as a casino dancer, should have a basic knowledge of son dancing, pertains to the music that you are not dancing because you don’t know how to dance son. Now, I’m not talking about traditional son music like that of Septeto Nacional, Sierra Maestra, Pancho Amat, or Septeto Santiaguero.
I’m talking about the music that they play at salsa socials.
As many casino dancers may know already, there is a real divide between the music that gets played at casino socials (timba, mostly) and salsa socials (salsa/mambo). That is, salsa DJs won’t play “that Cuban stuff.” And timba DJs won’t play “that salsa stuff.”
Over the years, I’ve heard the same thing said by many casino dancers: “I cannot dance casino to the music that they play for salsa dancers. It just doesn’t feel right to dance casino to that stuff.” Similarly, salsa dancers will say the same thing about dancing to timba. Back in the day, this used to happen to me, too. It did indeed feel different to dance casino—the way I was dancing it to more current Cuban music—to music from the 70s (or that it had a 70s “feel”). It just didn’t feel like the dance went with the music. In retrospect, it made sense: all the music I had gotten used to dancing and listening to up to that point, to an untrained ear like mine was at the time, had nothing to do with what was played at salsa socials. So the music sounded different, foreign to me.
At some point during this “back in the day” period, I started listening to traditional son, which I had not been a big fan of up until then. (When I refer to traditional son, I’m referring to the septet format—examples above—or anything played by fewer musicians.) But I wanted to give it a try, since that music was also part of Cuba’s musical heritage. Soon enough, I found myself falling in love with the music—in love enough to pursue son dancing instruction so that I could learn how to dance to that music. So I learned my basics, learned my contratiempo, and eventually I learned how to dance son.
But here is what happened, at the end of it all: I realized that I had been training myself to dance to music from only two time periods: pre 1950s and pre-conjunto format style of music—in other words, music from traditional septets. And post 1990 music (what people call timba). There was one huge musical gap in between. Forty years’ worth of it, actually.
Thinking of how to bridge it, I remembered about my first experience at a salsa congress, which I have written about in this blog, and how I felt that the music I was listening to sounded like the music my grandparents had listened to and danced when they were young adults.
So I decided to start going to salsa socials, which is where most of the music with this sort of “feel” was played. I had gone to them before, and I would, more often than not, leave from them frustrated, not only because I couldn’t dance casino—why would I, right? These were salsa socials, filled with salsa dancers—but also because I could not stand the music. It was too mellow. I was too used to the aggressive sound of Charanga Habanera, Paulito FG, Bamboleo, Klimax.
But this time I went in with a new mentality: I went in because I wanted to really try to dance to this music, because I believed that this music was the missing link. After all, people in the 1960s in Cuba had to be dancing casino to something, right? (Remember that casino was developed in 1957.)
So I went in and tried dancing casino to this music and, once again, it just felt weird executing the turn patterns. It was as if the music was explicitly telling me, “What the heck are you doing?”
That night I left the social, not frustrated, but thoughtful. I still had not figured out a way of dancing to this music, just like I knew people in Cuba had done it, fifty or so years ago.
And then it hit me: I had not done anything differently. I had gone in there, and I had danced casino, just like every other time, and expected different results. According to Einstein, that’s the very definition of crazy. So the next time I went to the social I tried something radical. I gave up dancing casino, but not to dance salsa.
I gave up casino for son.
The change in the feel of the dance, with this music, was so sudden, so drastic, and so…right that throughout that first song I experienced both simultaneously a state of disbelief and utter exhilaration. (I can only marvel at what my dance partner saw when she looked at my face as we danced. Maybe the look of a kid who has wandered inside a candy store where everything is free?)
Finally, I had found a way to dance to the music that they played at salsa socials. And the answer was son.
And it works, folks. Here’s a video of me dancing son to “salsa” music. Tell me if that doesn’t look and feel right.
Learning to dance son will not only help you when dancing to “that mambo” or “that salsa” music that you may not like because of all the timba you have been primed to listen to and made to believe that that is the only music the Cuban dance community dances to, it will also help you realize that there is a lot stuff you’re missing out on.
“Timba” is just one part of the picture, not the picture itself.
The other day I made a post that consisted simply of a list of ten songs made by Cubans but that do not really “make the cut” at Cuban dance socials and or events because they sound too much like the stuff they play in the salsa scene. This is one of them (You can check the entire list here):
The reason that happens is not because these songs borrowed from salsa, but rather the other way around, as these songs were all composed and performed prior to the 1970s, the decade attributed to the emergence of salsa. And yet, to someone who has been trained to just think in this binary of salsa and timba, where salsa is non Cuban music, and timba is, and both have very specific sounds, this song, as well as the songs in that post, would not “sound” Cuban (I strongly encourage you to listen to them, so you’ll see what I’m talking about).
But these songs are Cuban. And if you were to try to dance to them, without incorporating son into the dancing, I assure you, it will feel very awkward. The only difference is that, now, if you try to dance casino to them and fail, you cannot say that it was because it felt strange or uncomfortable to dance to this type of music because it was “not Cuban.”
So, learn to dance son, not only because it will help your casino, by giving you new moves you can incorporate into the dance, or allow you to better interpret, musically, the songs to which you are dancing. Do it, too, because, without son, there is a ton of great music, also made in Cuba, to which you will never get to dance.
Agreed. Adding the newcomer perspective again. Although you touch on it, I’ll make it explicit. Son intensives or just periods of learning son in casino class turned out to be to the only place where I had/have space to think about musicality. This is part of the pedagogy for trained dancers esp. when they begin as children. But in the emphasis on “learning” a specific dance like casino, new students like me w/out that training (or innate musicality) can get overly focused on executing the moves or memorizing that night’s choreography. There are some nights when I walk out of class or a social and I can’t remember the name of a single song that was played — let alone the lyrical content — because I was overly focused on just trying to stay on count. It wasn’t until son class that I actually started listening to the music more deeply and thinking about matching movement to rhythm, melody AND mood. So, now I listen to a song like Descemer Bueno’s “Taxista”, which I first heard in a son class at SalsAtlanta, and all I can think about is how I would dance son to it and more importantly why/when I would do things. That may seem obvious to more experienced dancers but it isn’t for us. And it is also complicated by the fact that the song lyrics are in Spanish and contain references I don’t have. Again, the “slower’ pace of son gives me more space to work through translation issues and really deeply process the music.
Great article once again!
Ever since I’ve started to get a hand on dancing on the clave (took me a few years and a good teacher to get my head rapped around it). I’ve tried to squeeze some son whenever the song is telling you to, at the surprise of many partners.
It always brings great satisfaction when your steps are exactly in phase with what you hear. The smile on my face will show that!
After a few years of casino/son classes I’ve started to realize that dancing isn’t so much about showing off your crazy moves. But more about sticking to what the music is telling you. This is something, that is hard to grasp as a beginner. I remember how I wasn’t at all thinking that way. I was too worried of boring my partner. So I was always trying to perform some turn patterns. How wrong was I.
The next step, is to dance to some orishas when they’re being called out in the songs, but that is much harder to achieve!
It truly is something, being able to dance to the same music to which you have always danced, but now with a bit more of an understanding of what is happening in the song. It totally changes the way you approach dancing, starting with what you have already mentioned: that the dance does not have to be turn pattern-centered. I am glad you feel that way. We certainly need more casineros like you.
In regards to the Orishas, I’ll be honest: I don’t do it, even when they are being called out in the song. But that’s more out of respect for those who believe in them. As an atheist, I would not want to disrespect those who actually believe in the religious sanctity of these dances by me doing a Changó for dancing’s sake. But that’s just me.
Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. It is really appreciated!
You are totally right. It is never about how many moves you know, it is about how well you execute / lead even the small amount of moves that you have learnt in dance class. Also dancing to the music really helps, which I feel takes time to incorporate and cannot be learnt in a day.
Once while talking to a follower, she said that it is all about the connection and timing, rather than complex moves. Dancing with a smile on your face and doing moves depending on the followers experience level makes the dance more enjoyable for both the lean and the follow.
Wow! just discovered this wordpress site yesterday but can’t seem to find it through my free wordpress account. I have been learning cuban style salsa on and off for several years having to start from scratch everytime. This time I have been learning and dancing continually for over two years now and have reached advanced 2 level primarily learning all our moves in casino style formation. If I will ever make it to the “master class” then we will learn rumba and as well.
But your articles confirm what I always thought, there is much more to cuban salsa that just rueda and turns. I have seen dancers just staying in cuban open position and moving around the dance floor. I was also fascinated by the breaks when the partners dance seperately but I realised that comes after years of training and practice. But these videos about strolling are relatively easy to learn early on. I totally agree that this is a shame that it viewed as a novelty. I personally think that all these little alternative moves are like fine herbs and spices that you can add to your dance. Its great to find a place where we can share our thoughts and experiences with learning to dance Cuban salsa. I wanted to write about my own personal experiences on this subject but I think I will just post your link on my site. Thanks
Thank you for reading! Though I will like to clarify one thing: it’s not “Cuban salsa”; it’s “casino”. 😉
I live in Belgium and been introduced to salsa from dutoh speaking teachers with my last one strictly using spanish terminology and keeping to international standards of cuban dance. So sometimes I det confused with the english terminolgy even though I am British born. Terms like rueda, Casino, cuban salsa, havana style, miami style, start to get intermingled because all I mainly what to do is dance.
Anyway just to clear up this one point I thought that rueda, cuban and miami style salsa where we d-nge in a circle exucuting the same figures on call was synomin with the term casino circle
I feel very lucky to have come across this blog and read through Daybert’s post. Somehow I can relate my experiences on the dance floor with the ones mentioned in this post.
I have started to train my ear to listen to the Conga sound in a song after reading a post from Daybert. It seriously helps and makes it more easier to dance SON than before. Also recently when I visited a dance social where they were playing ‘salsa’ music, I was able to hear the Conga sound so clearly, that my feet started moving by itself on the conga beats and it felt so good to dance ON2 / SON to that salsa music. Sadly not many dancers dance Son where I stay (Seattle,WA). But now I know what to dance when I’m in a salsa social. 🙂
Thank you Daybert for this post. Keep up the good work 🙂
Wow. Thanks for those kind words! That made my day. 😀
Again, very well written my friend, a pleasure to read.
Dancing Son if one of the most important things a casino dancer can and should do in order to advance, especially if they learned from non Cubans or from people who haven’t learned from teachers that are from Cuba.
Most such folks are what I call “pattern monkeys” or “figure robots” – the “salsa lovers” social video demonstrates this so well.
Also, not only that they don’t move from one spot even thought they have the whole circle for themselves (BTW, why would anybody form such a circle in a social in the first place?!), they also dance in a very non-casino manner, not moving much in the circular way you dance Casino, and also doing lots of sharp, rather than fluid, motions.
It looks like these are people who learned to dance “LA style” and then started trying to copy Casino dancers.
I also noticed that they do some linear and non Casino moves, and the whole “styling” the ladies do is very sharp, flashy and has nothing to do with Casino dancing (it looks very much like some variant of American swing dancing…) .
Oh, and at one point the guy (Rene?) even shouts “salsa” in the mike!
Regarding what you said about dancing contratiempo – you nailed in!
I can say that personally, I started learning to dance contratiempo on my own about 5 yeras ago, but the real leap was in 2011, when I visited Cuba and took some Son lessons (the teacher was kind of surprised that I could follow the bass without any problems 🙂 ) .
My dancing has never been the same since then!
But this raises an interesting question.
Nowadays, even in Cuba, one sees Casino being danced both a-tiempo and a-contratiempo, with those dancing a-tiempo doing that both “on3” and “on1” (and some also “on5” or “on7”).
Also, from what I know, Casino was originally danced both a-tiempo “on3” and a-contratiempo.
If the music to which it was danced was mostly Son and Chachacha, and both of the dances associated with these genres are danced a-contratiempo, why is Casino danced using both forms?
Why would you dance Casino a-tiempo?
I makes some sense if the song is in 3:2 Clave, though.
I can really empathize with what you wrote about dancing Son to older Cuban music and to Cuban music made outside of Cuba.
I even remember telling a friend some time ago “dancing Son is the secret of dancing something Cuban to music made outside of Cuba that you hear in salsa parties”.
But I’m curious – did you find enough partners in salsa socials to dance a-contratiempo with?
Most salseros, both those dancing “on1” and even those dancing “on2” are really incapable of that, and I find it quite frustrating.
Hi its me again. Could you just delete everything I wrote today. It was an overly excited fanatical middle aged salsa student (trying to catch up on the previous 30 years of salsa that he had missed out on) texting on his new smartphone with one thumb. From now on I will endeavor to read, digest mentally and apply the advice and suggestions given in these great articles ………….without commenting
Please! Feel free to comment with anything at any time. That is exactly why I have this blog: so that people can get new information they wouldn’t get anywhere else. And because this is the only blog of its kind, comments on its content are ALWAYS welcomed. They don’t have to be 100% politically-correct. That’s the whole point of starting the discussion in the first place. 😉