all about rhythm

This page is divided into two sections. The first is a very good article (by "The dancing Irishman") on the all-important skill of finding the first beat of a musical measure. Dancers begin counting their dance pattern on beat one so feeling the pulse of the music to find that beat is essential.  I want to add to the points in the article that the method of following a particular instrument is tricky because no instrument is always played the same way in all pieces of music.  Learning to feel the pulse or rhythm of the music and see which beat is the heaviest is less mechanical and more intuitive, but also may be more reliable in the long run if it can be mastered.

And if you have trouble despite lots of practice in finding the one beat, don't worry.  Many perfectly capable dancers have that problem---or don't quite keep the tempo of the music perfectly.  You can still dance and have fun.  You just have to compensate by learning the moves well so you can watch others and match their timing.  This is another approach in addition to learning to "read the music" that enables you to dancing in synch with a partner or with a Rueda circle.

The second section on this page explains the beats on which percussion instruments typically play in Salsa music. That can help find the first beat, but has a beauty of its own.  All the percussion instruments taken together in a Salsa band create the intense rhythmic feeling that feeds the impulse to dance!


The truth is, when you’re starting out, finding the beat in salsa can be a bit of a nightmare. You listen to the music trying to hear that magical “1” so you can get your boogy on but somehow it seems to elude you.

Let me tell you friend, you are not alone! For many people not exposed to salsa music from a young age finding the appropriate beat to start on can be tough. At least initially.

There are two ways to find the beat in salsa:
There’s the
1:  dance, dance and dance some more until you finally pound the beat into your skull method.

and theres the
2: learn all about the instruments and intricacies of slasa music so you can specifically pinpoint that god damn “1” count…method (pretty catchy titles eh!!)

I’ll try and try and keep them short and sweet.

Method 1:
Get out there and dance song after song with someone who knows the rhythm until you finally “get it”.
This is the method that has been used for years by virtually 99.99% (disclaimer: may be a completely made up figure) of salsa dancers.

It is completely unscientific and this pisses a lot of people off because we all would love a more definite marker in the music. But it works.

The only caveat is that you have to dance with someone who already knows how to dance well. Otherwise it’s a true case of the blind leading the blind and you may end up with something reminiscent of my nightmare above.

Just give it time and practice...

Method 2:
For those of you who aren’t content with the wishy-washy, unscientific, new age, hippy, “natural” method above, there’s a more in-depth (read: complicated) method.

Salsa’s rhythm comes from two percussion instruments: the clave and the congas. The clave is basically 2 sticks struck together in either a 2/3 or 3/2 rhythm. Clave literally translates as key or code and is the original base beat of cuban son (the precursor of salsa).

The congas are the tall African style Cuban hand drums that you may have seen if you’ve ever seen live salsa music. Congas provide the back beat to salsa music.

If you can only hear the clave or the conga you can hear the beat and dance to salsa music.

In order to use these instruments to find the beat in salsa we need to understand a little more about salsa itself.

Salsa Beats 101
Salsa is danced to 2 measures of 4 beats each making a a total of 8 beats. Of these 8 beats we step (or transfer weight) on only 6 beats (1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…). The 4 and the 8 beats are used for a slower weight transfer (i.e. we don’t actually step on them but can transfer our weight more slowly between each measure). Salsa generally starts on the 1 count with the directional change (break) occurring “on 1” or “on 2” (depending on the type of salsa).

No with this knowledge we can use the instruments to help us find the beat i.e. to tell us when to start dancing.

With the clave
With the 3/2 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first three beats is the “1” count.

With the 2/3 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first two beats is the “2” count. The 3rd sound of the last three beats is the “8” thus you will start dancing immediately after that. Here’s a song with a nice clear 2/3 clave for reference:

Of course, often the clave can be difficult to hear, so….

With the congas
In my opinion it is far easier to hear the congas in a song and the truth is we (inadvertently) wait for the congas to start before we start dancing.

The basic salsa beat for congas can be seen in this video. It consists of three parts: gentle slapping with the left hand called “masacote”, a heavy slap with the right hand called “quemado”, and a hollow sounding double tap with the right hand called “abierto” (I’m sure there are terms in English for these but my conga teacher only speaks Spanish so we’ll have to make do).

It is the “abierto”, that double tap that is easiest sound to pick out in salsa music. It occurs on  the 4 and 8 beats which means you need to step immediately after it (the double tap) to hit your “1”.

Now, I said that it’s a double tap (and it usually is) but occasionally it may only be a single tap or it may be a combination of a single and a double tap (or sometimes something more complicated). The fact of the matter is: that prominent hollow beat in a salsa song is the conga and is perfect marker of the 4 and 8 beat. Here’s a nice song with a clear example of the conga beat (and a 2/3  clave):

Dissecting the music
All of this technical talk about claves and congas and beats, however, requires that you actually distinguish them form each other in the song. Salsa bands are usually huge meaning a great many instruments are used which makes picking out individual instruments tricky, especially to the untrained ear.

The best homework you can do for yourself is sitting down and consciously listening to salsa music. Pop on some headphones and try to pick out the different instruments in the song. Follow them all, especially the percussion instruments; the drums, the cow bell, the congas and the clave. All help you to maintain your timing during a dance. If you have trouble finding the beat then ask someone to give you a hand...

Practice makes perfect
As I’ve mentioned countless times before. this type of information is worthless unless you put it into practice. Practice with real salsa music (and an experienced friend) and I guarantee you, finding the beat in salsa will become as automatic for you...

Reference/Credit:  The above article was written by "The Dancing Irishman." Readers can google him for more information. Warning: His information is very good but know that he uses colorful language!  



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.