(Versión en español aquí.)
Some months ago, I wrote a quite extensive article explaining the differences between what people refer to as the “2:3 clave” and the “3:2 clave”. It really boiled down to this: there is really just one clave pattern, when you listen to it in a loop, the 3-side being the beginning; but most Cuban musicians nowadays choose to begin the musical phrase of the song on the 2-side, so that the 1 count of the dancer happens to be on the 2-side of the clave; therefore, if we were to dance to the clave where our 1 count is on the 3-side—that is, going with the normal clave pattern—we would be going against where the song is actually saying the 1 count is (in this case, the 2-side). If all of this is confusing to you, I strongly recommend that you read that piece first (click here) and then come back and read this one. If you feel that you understand the difference, then by all means keep reading.
Now, you might be wondering about the title. Indeed, clave is the instrument used by pretty much every Cuban dance instructor who incorporates musicality into their lessons. And they use the clave to essentially teach people how to keep a beat. That is, how to find where the 1-count (of the dancer) is in the clave pattern (depending on whether it is a 3:2 or 2:3 clave), so that they can keep a steady beat throughout the song, as the clave pattern itself remains equally steady.
So the instructor bangs the sticks together, and steps in time to the clave. The students follow.
Then the instructor plays a song (say it is “Me dicen Cuba” by Havana D’Primera) and…well, no one is playing the clave in the song. Students cannot hear the clave.
Essentially, students learned all this stuff about clave for nothing.
OK, OK. I take that back. It’s not really “for nothing.” Eventually, through more exposure to the music, some students will be able to distinguish where the clave is, even if it is not explicitly played in the song. But at the moment in which students are learning about clave, and then a song which does not have an explicit clave being played comes on as part of that lesson…well, it stands to reason that some students would be confused, even if they do not explicitly say so to their instructors.
In the instructor’s defense, there are not that many Cuban songs nowadays that have an explicit clave. (When I say “explicit” I mean you can hear it; inversely, “implicit” means you cannot. Whether it is one or the other, clave is always there, as it is the backbone of this type of music.) With this lack of explicit clave in most songs that we listen to nowadays, the question becomes, why, then, learn the clave in the first place—at least as a beginner being exposed to basic concepts such as “How to find and maintain a steady beat when you are dancing”?
Why, indeed? I personally find it rather unpractical—at least for those who are attempting to try and keep a beat.
So, if you are one of those people that still does not know how to keep a beat, you hit jackpot with this post. However, this post is also for those who want to know other ways in which one can keep a beat besides dancing on the 1—in this case, dancing on the 2 (what is known in Cuba as contratiempo). So, if you have been wanting to learn how to dance a contratiempo, this is the post for you. For what follows will be a series of videos which will show you how to do just that, not only by listening to the clave (if you’d rather use this instrument), but also by listening to another instrument which I consider to be essential for this task: the conga.
So let’s break down what dancing “on the 1” is. Remember, there are two different types of clave: 3-2 and 2-3, and the dancer’s 1-count changes according to which side musicians emphasize. For the purposes of these videos, I will be doing the leader’s step, which mean that the 1-count will always be at the beginning of my 3-step which starts with the left foot (which will be on the right side of your screen). Also, I will be doing the basic son (dance) step, in which the dancers sways to both sides as opposed to going in a forward-and-backward motion (salsa’s basic step, which is, too, another basic step of son, by the way).
So let’s get to it. This is what dancing on the 1, on a 3:2 clave, looks like. (A note: these are all my own personal videos. I am not a professional with the camera, so please excuse the quality, if you find it lacking.)
And this is what dancing on the 1, on a 2:3 clave, looks like:
(Again, if you are having trouble seeing the difference in these videos, please do read this piece I wrote on clave first.)
So, this is what most instructors teach you when they teach clave. But again, you get a song like the one below, and all of this “clave knowledge” goes pretty much nowhere for the time being. Indeed, in this video, for example, the clave comes and goes, making it rather difficult for those who are just being exposed to it to understand what is happening, much less find the 1-count.
What follows is what I will attempt to teach you with this post.
The first thing I want you to do is to try to forget the clave for a moment. We are going to talk about the conga. Why? Because, in the above song, that was the instrument that was explicit and consistent in the way that it played throughout most of the song. Therefore, it is the instrument which, lacking an explicit clave, is the one that you can turn to in order to find and keep a beat.
But first things first. Let’s learn the basic conga pattern—also referred to as marcha. In the following video, I want you to pay close attention to two things: the “slap” and the “open tone” (or what the instructor in this videos calls, for learning purposes, “open, open” or “tone, tone”). It is important that you learn to recognize the particular sounds of the “slap” and the “open tone.” (You can forward to 2:53 if you want to skip the explanations. I’d say watch until around 4:20)
While the marcha pattern that you hear may not be as straightforward in modern Cuban music as the video I have just shown you, I have found, by listening to a lot of songs, that you will hear some version of the slap and open tone (2nd and 4th count, respectively) in more songs than you won’t. The following video is a very good example of this.
So, it still works with a lot of songs, even if the marcha is different—and it definitely still works more than the clave, which in most songs nowadays is implicit.
If you now go back to the song above, “Chiquita”, and play it again, you’ll start hearing the “open tone” sound from the tutorial I just showed you. You’ll hear it consistently throughout the song now, a “tuck-tuck” every four counts. (The open tone is much more noticeable than the slap.)
So, if we established that, lacking explicit clave, the conga does provide an explicit sound which can help us keep a beat, then all we need to find out is in what beat the slap and open tone are occurring. The following video is of tremendous help in that regard.
So, according to this video, the slap happens on second beat, and the open tone on the fourth. As a dancer, you’d logically want to “hit” (step on) the beat that these sounds (slap and open tone) happen, because that is what we hear. So, if we were to transfer this concept to our footwork when we dance casino or salsa, you will find that your counting, instead of 1,2,3-5,6,7, now has become 2-3-4, 6-7-8. The following video shows how to do the basic step following the conga pattern. Notice how the beginning of my 3-count hits during the “slap” part, while the end of the 3-count happens during the “open tone.”
Because your first step is on the two count, you are now officially dancing on the 2. This is not anything new, actually. Eddie Torres, who allegedly began the On2 movement (and I say “allegedly” because people in Cuba were dancing on the 2 for a long time before Eddie Torres did), teaches to dance on the 2 following the exact same formula with the conga. Start watching at 1:47:
Torres is going in a forward-and-backward motion, instead of swaying to the sides, like you would in son or casino while in closed-position. Yet the beginning of his 3-count still hits during the “slap” part, and likewise the end of the 3-count happens during the “open tone.”
For those wondering what dancing on 2 following the clave pattern looks like, here is another one of my videos:
This, my readers, is what is known in Cuba as dancing a contratiempo. And contratiempo, in turn, is the preferred count for dancing son. This is of course not confined to son dancing, as I have made the case about dancing contratiempo in casino as well, in other related posts (click here).
The best proof as to why contratiempo and dancing on 2 are the exact same thing, besides you seeing how the count matches the footwork in the above video, is best represented when we overlap the conga’s marcha with the clave pattern. Let us take a look:
So, by dancing to the conga’s marcha, you can certainly keep a beat, and the cool thing about it is that you will be dancing on the 2—or the 6, depending on what side of the clave you start on. Personally, I do not care about being on the “right side” as long as I am keeping a steady beat.
And for steadiness on the beat, following the pattern of the congas does the trick just fine.
So let’s look at some videos to see how this all fits with actuals songs. In the following video, the 1-count is on the 2-side of the clave, which makes the song have a 2:3 clave. (If you do not know how to find the clave, on the one hand, trust me that this is a 2-3 clave, and on the other, well, you just made my point as to why we need to listen to other instruments to keep the beat when dancing.) What I want to point out about this video is that although it is a 2-3 clave, I am dancing where my 2 (the beginning of my 3-step) is on the 3-side. I do this because that is the most common way of dancing contratiempo—that is, we begin dancing on the 3-side, even if the clave is 2:3 and therefore the melody of the song begins on the 2-side.
To me, this makes little sense. If, when we are dancing on one, we can switch where we step the 1-count based on the type of clave of the song, then so should we be able to do the same thing when we are dancing on the two. At any rate, here is a video, dancing typical contratiempo (beginning on 3-side). Again, pay attention at how my 3-step ends on the open tone of the conga.
And here is a video that, to me, make a bit more sense: dancing contratiempo beginning on the 2-side, given that the song has a 2:3 clave.
At the end of the day, these distinctions will always be for those who care about those things. Like I said, for me, it is all about keeping a steady beat. As long as I am hitting the conga’s open tone at the end of my three step, no matter the side of the clave I am on, my beat remains steady:
Before finishing this blog post, I do have to make some disclaimers. The first one being that, though I have found dancing on the conga to be most helpful, you will run into problems every now and then when the conga’s marcha happens to be different, or the conga’s sound, at times, gets overpowered by the sound of the cowbell during the montuno. Or when the conga is not playing. Regardless of this, the chances of this happening are much, much smaller than a song not having an explicit clave.
Disclaimer two: the conga helps, but ultimately you should still learn to find the clave in a song (I already gave you a big hint on a previous post: most Cuban music today is played in 2:3 clave, so once you find the one, you’ll know that you are on the 2-side). Even if the clave is not explicit, it is always implicit for musicians when they are playing this type of music. Always. So what you ideally want is for the clave pattern to be playing in your head when you listen to this music. But that only happens when you listen to a lot of this music.
Disclaimer three: following the conga pattern works best during the largo/introduction than in the montuno, as the cowbell often overpowers the sound of the conga in the latter. In fact, the three videos with actual songs I dance to, I am dancing during the largo section. If you do not know what I am talking about when I say “largo/montuno”, click here.) I personally solve this by switching my count to the 1 during the montuno, as that count is what the cowbell is emphasizing (there will be a blog post about this, too). Regardless, there is some version of the marcha playing even in the montuno. You just have to train your ear to hear it, and you can do that by listening to a lot of the largo sections, in which the sound of the conga is clearer.
For a beginner or anyone who is starting to learn how to keep a beat, the concept of clave is hard to grasp. On the other hand, I have found the conga to be the most helpful of all, mostly because you can actually hear it in most songs! Eddie Torre’s method became popular for a reason, folks.
As with the previous blog post that dealt with clave, this one about conga is one of those things that you may not get in just one read or one try. Keep coming back to this, keep re-reading, keep practicing.
I assure you: once you get a good grasp of this, the results will be pretty awesome.
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Great post Daybert. I really identify with this–listening to the conga was the key for me when I was learning timing in salsa and casino.
I’m curious what you make of the difference between dancing on-1 and on-2 as far as the conga open tones (4-and, 8-and) The open tones are the most obvious and dependable sound for me to identify, yet it comes between steps, which has an interesting floating feel. Timing for Contra-tiempo Cuban (and ballroom mambo apparently ), i.e. 234-678 feels more grounded, because you’re stepping on four and eight. Eddie Torres on-2 floats, because it’s also 123-567.
The open tones may be less prominent as an accent than the slap on 2, but it seems to me that they are an even more dependable feature of the music, so I gravitated to it early.
By the way, I may be wrong, but I thought Eddie Torres’ on-2 “innovation” was specifically about going from 234-678 to 123-567 while still “breaking” on 2. I think that’s useful for people who like spinning, although to me it doesn’t seem too important musically.
Hi Allan, thank you for the time you took the read the post and share some of your thoughts! You are right in that contratiempo timing feels more grounded if we listen to the accents of the conga, and dance on them. In regards to your Eddie Torres comments, I really do not know why instructors keep emphasizing the 123-567 count, because when they dance they do not follow that. Indeed, when you see them dancing in real time, you see them dancing to the conga’s open accents, just like Eddie Torres does in the video I provided for the blog. So they are dancing on counts 234-678. The following video, for instance, shows how disparate this mode of teaching on 2 (emphasizing the 123-567 count) is vs. on what counts they dance when they actually do dance. Even though the lady says “There is no step on four” (0:48) and instead a shift of weight, this makes little sense to the feet, because what you’d be doing would be “quick step, quick step, traveling (pause), quickstep.” In other words, there would be an unnatural pause in the middle of your three-step. So when they actually dance (4:27), if you know your conga and you know what accents fall on what counts, you instantly realize that what they said you had to do has nothing to do with what they are actually doing, because the beginning of their 3-step hits on the slap and the end on the open tone; therefore, even if they are counting 123-567, they are most certainly hitting 234-678 (so, contratiempo timing). I hope that helped, and again, thanks for reading!
From what I know (and this is something Eddie said off record to the person who told me this), what Eddie was trying to achieve (and did achieve) is “giving on1 dancers some of the on2 flavour”.
So his target audience is those who don’t dance a-contratiempo, buy would like to be more musical.
I think a point of confusion, and a piece that a lot of people might be missing, is that clave is a 4 pulse rhythm:
From my experience, basically every dance teacher teaches to count 1,2,3,4;5,6,7,8 (probably because it’s easy for beginners to understand), but it might be clearer to teach 1,&,2,&;3,&,4,& (or maybe ‘ee’ instead of ‘&’).
So for me, the term ‘contratiempo’ makes a lot more sense than ‘on2’ because you are literally stepping against the time or pulse. This is why you get a different, syncopated feel when you dance contratiempo: the pulse stays the same but you’re stepping in between it, and it changes the relationship between your body weight and your steps once you’ve internalized the pulse. On top of that, clave adds its unique feel or swing and direction (hence 3-2 vs 2-3 arguments) that you also eventually internalize.
It makes sense to listen to the conga pattern as a tool to learn to dance contratiempo because it’s syncopated similarly to the way you are stepping with accents in between the pulse. I think a lot of people get stuck there, though, and never relate it back to clave, and never find the groove that gives Son and Casino a lot of their distinct look and feel. When you compare that with how NY style on2 looks, it’s clear that they have same timing but a totally different groove.
Great points there, Alex! Thanks for your comments.
When dancing Son \ Casino, you listen to instruments and syncopation.
You don’t do that when trying to dance by a count, regardless of what dance you are dancing.
Something interesting about the Congas and Campana during the montuno part (for newer people who don’t know this yet. I suppose that the author and more experienced dancer are aware of what I’m gonna write).
The Campana basic pattern, the full pattern, which can be easily heard during the montuno part of the song, is clave oriented;
There’s a noticeable accent on beats “2” and “3”, and it coincides with the 2-part of the clave.
The full Tumbao \ Marcha pattern of the Congas is also clave oriented.
The open tone during the 3-part of the clave is a single, rather than double, stroke, and also on the 3-side we have another double stroke which coincides with the syncopated hit of the clave (the 2nd hit during the 3-part).
After you train your ear enough these 2 instruments will allow you to recognize the clave much more easily in most songs.
What you mention with the congas is true, but does not always work. A lot of people simply don’t do it.
As for the cowbell…https://sonycasino.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/how-to-find-the-clave-by-using-the-cowbell-pattern/
You covered every important subject out there – bravo!
this blog is one of best things I read about the dance. it is really great that you are trying to analyze and explain some of the things a lot of us non-cuban find hard to understand or to see some practical examples of it. All of us who do not have the chance to learn about the cuban way or to be there will be left alone with either show dancers or wrong explanation or commercial driven dvd’s. keep up the great work and please add more videos that explain and not only show how it should be done pointing out at the same time how it is done wrong. cheers from Berlin
Thank you for the kind words! I am glad that you are finding these pieces helpful. Cheers!
Hi, my admirations about all the topics and your blogs g.. really nicely, deeply, academicly and with a lot of examples.. I ve been dancing for 5 years salsa en línea, cuban, chachacha, merengue.. but until recently i started as ng myself about the on 2 and the son amd really trying to wholly understand diffetences, patterns and different styles as is in my nature to perfect and do there ngs tbe best way i can and as i am really crazy about these styles.. just recently i gave as a present myself a bongo and cincero, now the next purchase is la clave of course.. thank you again, I would like to be sharing with you info and knolwedge about latin music, how i can get in touch with you via internet of course.. regards
Hi. Thank you for reading the blog. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am dancing on the two. I’m taking my first steps with the slap and finishing in the open tone.
Great post! Personally, I think things would be a lot easier and more straightforward if all “on 2” dancers used the unmodified “contratiempo” timing instead of the “Eddie Torres” version.
In the video Eddie Torres begins (at 2:18) stepping on 1-2-3 and 5-6-7, but halfway through he shifts (by 2:35) to stepping on 2-3-4 and 6-7-8.
No, he doesn’t. Listen to the pattern of the congas. He is stepping on the slap at the beginning of his three count and the open tone at the end of the three count. That’s dancing on 2. He may mention 1 when he counts, but he’s musically dancing on the 2.
Argggh, the timing I’m seeing seems to depend on the device I’m watching on. On my desktop (but not on my phone) the beginning of his three count step appears to come just after the second open tone. So maybe it’s a hardware issue. But as you have noted On2 NY style instructors do teach students to step on 1-2-3 and 5-6-7 with breaks on the slaps (2 and 6). Many professionals also teach that the weight shifts come after the actual steps. The foot touches the floor on the downbeats 1-2-3 but the weight shifts are delayed to 1e-2e-4. I don’t think that they are teaching one thing and doing another. Dancing contratiempo (2-3-4 6-7-8) feels more natural to me but maybe that’s because I’ve danced a lot more cuban son than NY style.
Love your blog. I teach salsa in the Netherlands, although I think I should say casino and not salsa… I have started to learn to play the conga`s to understand the music and I love the fact that I recognise everything you say. All percussion owes to the clave. I also did some timbales, and also there you have to follow 2-3 clave or 3-2 clave.
That said: I do teach on which count you start in son, because a lot of songs will keep their music steady in bi-partite, which means that you always have to count till eight. If you do a routine (and I do count basic steps as routines) most routines will be done in eight counts, sixteen counts and so on and so forth. We always start son on the count of eight with a slow step (so 8-2-3-4, 6-7-8), also because if you have a 2-3 clave, you can hear the accent on 8. And a song will switch after 8, not after 4.
For us, musicality is number one in our lessons. You hav to follow the beat and listen to the story the music tells you. I have read your articles on turnpatternitis and it pains me to see so many people thinking that`s the real dancing.
So thank you for your blog.