Salsa music is counted in 8 beat phrases. These 8 beats constitute two "musical measures" of 4 beats each.  A clave is a simple but important percussion instrument---that is basically two sticks of wood that are hit together.


In the clave patterns below, the clave is struck on the beats that are bolded.

3-2 Clave Rhythm
(strike on 1, the and of 2, 4, 6, 7)

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

2-3 Clave Rhythm (also called "Reverse Clave")
(strike on 2, 3, 5, the and of 6, 8)

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

Note the difference between the above two clave patterns. In the 3-2 clave rhythm, there are 3 clave hits in the first measure and two in the second measure. In the 2-3 clave rhythm it is the reverse.  We just reverse the first and second measures to get from one clave rhythm to the other. The nature of the music determines which clave rhythm is most suitable.  All other instruments have to be consistent or coordinated with the clave. The clave is (literally) the "key" or foundation of the Salsa rhythm.

There is a distinctive feel to each of the clave measures. The one in which 3 beats are struck creates a syncopation or tension. (The timing on these three notes is somewhat similar to the timing of playing three notes of even length in four beats of music---which is called "triplets" in American music. Triplets create rhythmic tension that is similar to the clave rhythm.) By contrast, the clave measure with 2 beats is less syncopated and resolves the tension. Interestingly, the two beats that provide the resolution tend to be louder and more emphatic-sounding by their nature


Drums such as congas or bongos generally hit all of the beats explained below.

Note that the way a drummer hits each stroke is not identical. Drums can be hit in different spots, creating a rich and textured sound---something more interesting than just the even marking of beats.

A. The pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what a single conga drum might play. The bolded beats are accented (louder). The conga rhythm is called "tumbao." (strike on 2, 4, the and of 4, 6, 8, the and of 8)

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

B. The pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what the bongos play during a Salsa piece. (The name of the bongos' rhythm is "martillo" (which literally means hammer).
(strike on 1, 3, 5, 7)

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and


There are a number of rhythm patterns that can be struck on a cowbell. If a percussionist had one cowbell, he might strike it on the beats listed below.

1 2 and 3 4 and 5 6 7 8 and (for songs in 3-2 clave)

1 2 3 4 and 5 6 and 7 8 and (for songs in 2-3 clave)

Where and how the bell is struck determines whether the sound is high or low, strong or weak etc.---adding texture to the pattern. If the bell is held so that the opening is the lower part, then hitting the bell at the lower end produces a low tone. The top of the bell does not vibrate much and when hit there, the bell makes a high sound.


Salsa/Mambo dancing is done by taking three steps during four beats of music. The steps are most often taken on beats one, two, three, five, six, and seven, or on beats two, three, four, six, seven, and eight. Sometimes the timing is described as follows: "quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow" with the "quick" step representing one beat and the "slow" step representing two beats.

In an eight beat phrase, dancers generally change direction twice when doing the basic step. That is, they change from going forward to backwards and vice versa. This change of direction is referred to as the "break step."

If a dancer steps on one, two, three, five, six, and seven, and does the break steps on one and five, this is referred to as "dancing on one."

If the dancer steps on two, three, four, six, seven, and eight, while doing the break steps on two and six, then this is referred to as "dancing on two."

If the dancer steps on one, two, three, five, six, and seven while breaking on two and six, that is also a form of "dancing on two." Eddie Torres is credited with the idea of having people start on beat one while doing the break step on beat two. Many people find it easier to begin dancing on beat one. This clever maneuver preserves the dancer's ability to start on the first beat, while still putting the break step, which has special importance, on beat two.  This is a far more common way to dance on two than stepping on beats two, three four, six, seven and eight.

Because the break step is when the dancer changes direction, it is the body movement that is the "strongest" or most emphasized. In a sense, you might call that the dancer's accent. When this accent comes on the downbeat (one and five), the feeling is very different from having that "body accent" occur on two and six. Accenting the two and six creates a greater feeling of rhythmic tension and syncopation. Hence some people say that dancing "on one" is dancing "to the music" while dancing "on two" is dancing "in the music." Mike Bello describes dancing on two as dancing "in the fabric of the music." 

Edie, the Salsa Freak, (a famous Salsa dancer) had some interesting things to say about "on one" and "on two" dancing. She said that what is important is dancing to the music by responding to the hits and breaks in a song, rather than whether the dance is structured "on one or two." In her opinion, the best and most musically rich experience is to respond to the accents of a particular piece of music by altering where your break steps are to match those accents. Then afterwards you can resume whichever pattern ("on one or two") you were doing for the bulk of the dance. In short, she felt that flexibility in responding to the music is more important that being wedded to a particular style or break pattern.

The fact is that it is perfectly fine to dance on one or on two. It is up to what the dancer prefers. In both cases, the dancer is stepping on three of the five clave strokes. What is essential for a Salsa dancer is to keep the tempo of the music by consistently taking three steps in four beats of music---whether dancing on one or on two. This is really the most fundamental and important dimension of rhythm and timing as it applies to dance.