Why Every Casino Dancer Should Learn to Dance Son, Too
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.