A Clarification About the Dance of Son: The Beat on Which We Dance Doesn’t Make It Son; Its Structure Does

son cubano

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This post will be short (kind of) and to the point (hopefully). The following comments stem from my experience teaching the dance of son at different places and the questions that people have asked me during these lessons, and the overall misconceptions that I perceive as existing when it comes to son dancing.

Here is hoping this post helps clarify some of these (mis)conceptions about son once and for all, especially when it comes to timing.

The first major misconception about son that I have encountered is that of the apparent interchangeability of the terms contratiempo and son. In short, some people seem to believe that these two terms mean the same thing.

They don’t.

Contratiempo 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.) Contratiempo, then, is a way to say that we are dancing on the off-beat; that is, that we are starting our three-step on the second beat. 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.

Son refers to the dance which is danced to the corresponding music of that same name.

So, while son refers to the dance itself, contratiempo is, first and foremost, a musical term, not a dance one. But people who dance use it to refer to the timing on which one can dance (emphasizing the off-beats), which does not necessarily have to apply to the dance of son. Indeed, casino or salsa can be danced on contratiempo timing.

The reason that some people may confuse the two terms is not unfounded, however. Indeed, when son dancing is taught, it is almost always taught to be danced on contratiempo timing.

Precisely because of the way son is typically taught, there seems to be a second major misconception about son dancing. And said misconception essentially posits that son has to be danced on contratiempo timing.

To clarify this misconception, I’d first like you to take a look at this video of this couple dancing casino. Watch it for about forty seconds, and try to figure out on what count they are dancing. Then come back to reading this.

Assuming that you watched the video as I suggested, you will have noticed something. If you know how to “find the one” in the song, you will have noticed that they were most certainly not dancing on the one here. Now, casino is typically taught to be danced on the one. But these people were dancing casino not on the one.

Did the dance stop being casino because of this?

Of course not. And that’s the point that I am trying to make. To those who argue or think that son has to be danced on contratiempo timing, I’ve got news: that is simply not true.

We just saw it with casino. They were dancing casino on a beat that is not typically taught at academies, where the first beat of the music is emphasized, and yet no one can argue that they are not dancing casino, or that it isn’t casino because they are not dancing on the one.

As the title of this post states: “Timing does not make a dance. Its structure does.”

In other words—and to bring it back to son dancing—, if it looks like son, then it is son, regardless of the timing in which it is being danced.

You can dance son on contratiempo. You can dance it on tiempo timing (on the one). If you are, structurally speaking, dancing son, then you are dancing son.

Now, what can be argued is that contratiempo timing is the preferred timing for dancing son. And it is. Son, specially the traditional kind—and even in parts of its most modern renditions—are better danced on contratiempo timing. They feel better with the music because musicians are emphasizing the off-beats.

But to go from having a preference to dancing on the off-beat to then suggest that someone who is dancing son on a timing other than the off-beat is not really dancing son…well, that is simply preposterous and ultimately misinformed.

If you can dance casino on any beat you want, then son, a predecessor of casino, is no different. Now, it does feel different to dance on different beats, when it comes to connecting to the music. But structurally speaking, the dance does not change because of the timing used.

Ultimately, I believe that these misconceptions, specially the last one, stem from the fact that son is not really a popular dance in Cuba. Sure, there are pockets in the island, like Santiago de Cuba, which have kept this dance alive. But overall, son dancing is not that popular. Most people of Cuba moved on to casino. This lack of…let’s call it “touch” with the dance, the way I see it, has made knowledge about son dancing remain “stuck” on certain principles that used to be the norm back in the day (such as using contratiempo timing), but which remained unchanged or unquestioned as the music progressed and evolved and moved away from emphasizing the off-beats, and casino gained popularity over son.

Then there is also the fact that son was incorporated into the syllabi of government institutions such as ENA (National School of Arts) to the point that much of the populace nowadays sees son dancing—when they do see it—as a time-reverting spectacle, for one’s eyes only—rather than a current social dance to be “touched” and interacted with. (Again, this is not to say that there are not regular people who dance son. I’m simply stating that the majority does not.) Ultimately , this means that there are very few people controlling  knowledge about son and because said knowledge is coming from a higher place of authority, which controls the extent of the information given, very few question the information (because they do not have enough knowledge about the dance to do so), while most take it at face value. This has ramified to what happens at workshops, where most people just take in the information but rarely question what is being taught.

I hope these clarifications have helped. If there is anything else that is not clear to you about son dancing, feel free to ask it on the comment section and I’ll make sure to address it.

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