Have you ever wondered what the difference is between the timing of the steps of salsa on 2 (also known as “mambo” or “New York style salsa”) and Cuban son? Some people would argue that the timing for both dances is not exactly the same. That the basic steps in both dances are done using different timing. Perfunctorily, that seems to be the case. The majority of on2 salsa dancers count 1,2,3 and 5,6,7 while people who dance son count 2,3,4 and 6,7,8.

But is there really a difference in the timing of the steps, given that both dances are danced on the 2?

If this is a question you’ve been having, sit forward and pay attention. I’m about to drop that knowledge.

First, let’s examine son dancing. Son is danced on contratiempo timing, which literally means “against time,” but what it really means in musical terms is “on the off-beat”. In music, off-beats are the 2nd and 4th beats. (For a more detailed explanation click here and go to the “On-beat and off-beat” section.) Dancing “on the off-beat” means emphasizing the 2 and 4 counts. Therefore, if we were to dance “on the off-beat”, we would start our three-step on the 2 and finish it on the 4. That’s why in son people count 2,3,4 and 6,7,8. (A lot of people in Cuba, however, count 2,3,4 and 2,3,4 again because in a four-beat measure music like son/salsa/timba, musicians do not count past 4. When it gets to 4, the count loops back to 1.)

When people dance son, they usually use the clave pattern for their timing. I much better prefer the conga pattern, as I have argued for in this post. At any rate, dancing using contratiempo (son) timing looks like this:

I strongly suggest that you read the piece linked above because it clearly explains where the count in the music falls with your step.

What I really want you to get out of the video above is to notice that when each three-step is completed, the last step falls on the open tone—or the tun-tun sound—of the conga. That is, it falls on the four count. That makes total sense, if the three-step begins on the 2nd count because it’d be step (2), step (3), step (4). Remember this because that is going to be important for later.

Now let’s turn to salsa on 2. This is where things get trickier and a bit complicated because the way that it is often counted when dancing.

The first thing I want to do is show this video of Eddie Torres demonstrating the basic on 2 step. This method of teaching to dance on 2, I’m given to understand, is somewhat discontinued and not popular anymore. However, it does point out something very important: the on2 that Torres is teaching is exactly the same as the son contratiempo (which is also on 2, as we say). The short video is worth watching in its entirety because it explains a bit of music theory that everybody needs to know, but the really important part comes in at 2:16, when he explains how the footwork corresponds to the pattern of the conga. If you pay attention, you will notice that, just like son, the three-step ends with the open tone—the tun-tun—of the conga:

The timing that Eddie Torres is teaching to dance salsa on 2 and the timing of son are exactly the same.

Bu now let’s look at how on 2 salsa timing is taught today.

The explanation begins in the following video at 0:19. For now, watch it until 1:21.

Before I break down what is happening here, I want to remind you of something very basic. In your basic going forward and back on 1, if you’re a leader, your basic step is the following:

Forward with the left (1), then in place with the right (2), then back with the left (3). Pause on 4. Then back with the right (5), in place with the left (6), and forward with the right (7). Pause on 8. Please keep in mind for the reminder of the post that when I say “three-step”, this is what I mean.

Now let us break down what is happening in the video.

In the video, the instructor tells the leader to begin by stepping back with the left, and calls that the 1 count.

But here is the thing: stepping back with the left corresponds, in a basic forward and back step, to the three (3) count. That means that he is beginning to dance with the final step of the three-step which starts with the left foot.

Then count two is a break back with the right foot on the second count. This break with the right foot on the second count is why the dance receives the label of “on2.”

But count two is really the first step of the three-step that begins with the right. In other words, count 2 in on2 salsa would be count 5 in on1 salsa.

Count 3 is a step in place with the left, which in on1 would be count 6

So you see how the difference with the counting can mess with your head and confuse the hell out of you.

But that’s not all. Here is where it gets tricky.

In a basic three-step, we do three steps in quick succession, and then there is a pause. Those would be the four and eight counts. That’s the way we dance casino, son, or salsa. Step, step, step, pause. Step, step, step, pause. The pause always happens at the end of the three-step, either when we have finished stepping forward with the right (7) or back with the left (3).

In on 2 salsa, however, the pause happens in the middle of the three-step! You see, the 3 count in on2 salsa is the step in place with the left foot that would correspond to count 6 when danced on 1. On2 salsa dancers are finishing their three-step in a position in which the three step is not usually finished. And so the fourth count becomes this travelling step that really makes the third step of the what usually is the three-step take a longer time it usually takes. In other words, starting from the moment the right foot breaks on 2 and the three-step naturally begins, it becomes step (with the right), step (with the left), (longer) pause, and step (with the right).

The following video shows what I am explaining. As you watch it, here is what I want you to do. First, forget the count. Try not to listen to it. It will only confuse you. Instead, listen to the sound of the conga. When you step to the conga, the slap of the conga corresponds, musically, to count 2. The open tone to count 4. When you watch the video, you’ll see that the beginning of his three-step that starts with the right foot (forget how he is beginning, remember the bolded paragraph above) corresponds with the slap of the conga. So, in that sense, both son and salsa on 2 begin their basic right foot three-step on the slap of the conga (beat 2 in the music).

However, whereas the final step of a three-step in son happens on the open tone, the final step of the three-step in salsa on 2 happens right after the open tone. And this happens because of that pause in the middle of the three-step, which has dragged out the final step so that, instead of it falling on the open tone—as it should mathematically, because if you start your three-step on the slap (2), you will finish the three-step on open tone (4)—it falls after the open tone—that is, on the first beat.

Let’s go to the video. Start it at 3:58:

So, yes, theoretically, the timing of son and salsa on 2 are different. And we just saw why. That dragged-out third step—that final step back with the left or step forward with the right that ends the three-step—makes all the difference.

You can see the difference more clearly when you take the basic three-step that begins with the right foot and count using the musician’s count (starting on 1, and once you get to four, loop back to 1):

On 1 (casino or salsa) timing: Back (1), in place (2), forward (3) pause on (4), though it’s not really a “pause,” but mroe of a shift of weight.

Son timing: Back (2), in place (3), forward (4), pause on (1), though it’s not really a “pause,” but mroe of a shift of weight..

Salsa on2 timing: Back (2), in place (3), pause on (4) with a travelling step, forward (1).

However, in practice this difference is not so clear-cut.

Because on 2 salsa stops in the middle of the basic three-step and drags out the third step for longer than it usually requires, what ends up happening is that this, sometimes and for different reasons which fall outside of the scope of this post, becomes unsustainable and people end finishing the three-step on the open tone of the conga (4), resembling son timing, instead of after the open tone (1), which is what is theoriteically supposed to happen in on2 salsa.

The best way to tell that this is happening is, again, by listening to the music. The good thing about the following video is that no one is counting, so you won’t get confused. Now, as you watch the video, notice how the end of their three-step many times falls on the open tone of the conga—that is, it falls on the 4 beat, like in son’s contratiempo:

And so there you have it, folks. There is a difference in the timing of the steps between the two dances. But this difference works more in theory. In practice,  what ends up happening sometimes is that the timing of salsa on2 overlaps with that of son. The overlap can happen often or seldom. Or it cannot. It really depends on the dancers. I’m sure that, if you look, you can find a totally pure on2 dancing video. But that is not the point. The point is that the overlap does happen. And when it does, it tends to confuse the people who dance son and make them ask themselves if there really is a difference.

Again: there is a difference. I don’t want people reading this and saying, “The timing of salsa on2 is really the son timing.” No.

But let’s also acknowledge that, at times, there is an overlap.

P.S. Special thanks to Zaid, a faithful reader of this blog whose inquisitive mind sparked the writing of this post.

P.S.S. Also a special thanks to Robert Rice, who pointed me to this video, which outlines the nuances between Power 2 and New York 2, etc. I would highly recommend watching it if you are still confused.