Salsa — A Cultural Lens Between Black and White
How Salsa music and dance is a lens between black and white cultures, helping us understand, and appreciate more about one another.
“If you want to really get to know a culture, then you must dance a mile in its footsteps”
-Shamelessly ripped off and adapted from the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
This story is intended for anyone wishing to learn a little about the “Cultural lens” that is salsa.
It is presented in the form of a little of my own experience and conclusions, learned from around ten years studying and practising salsa.
As well as providing a cultural view of salsa, It should also help aspiring salsero/a(s), their instructors, and anyone else interested to avoid some of the learning pitfalls I experienced, which I now see were due to unacknowledged cultural differences.
It seems obvious to me now that salsa is actually a lens, a kind of bridge between two cultures; one which would describe itself as typically white, and the other which would describe itself as typically black.
The story focuses on Afro-Caribbean salsa, rather than “Cross-body”, or “LA style”, which I believe are Western offshoots of the former.
To those who might think it unfair that I chose to exclude these western variations on salsa, I invite to think about the following:
If you saw someone you found attractive dancing solo, in Afro-Caribbean style, at an Afro-Caribbean dancing social, would you see them as a potential partner, or would you feel that they were out of reach, as you might not know how to dance with them?
If your honest answer to that is the latter, then you would benefit by properly learning Afro-Caribbean style, in order that you would find no-one out of reach.
The same question just does not arise the other way round, in my experience.
There is no situation where a salsa dancer of any description can be out of reach of an experienced Afro-Caribbean style dancer.
Many Western salsero/a(s) insist it is impossible for someone who did not grow up with salsa, to dance like someone who did, especially in Afro-Caribbean style.
Sounds like a cringe-worthy challenge to prove them wrong there.
It is perfectly possible. I know of a few examples. But yes, they are few and far between.
I hope this story might inspire more of us to aim for that.
This doesn’t mean an aspiration to the lofty heights of professional standard salsa, but just to a level good enough to for us to blend into the background of a typical local Cuban or South American salsa dancing social scene.
The key is in understanding, and respecting, that there is a difference between how Western cultured minds, and Afro-Caribbean cultured minds think, when it comes to music and dancing.
I believe this is due to a deeply ingrained Western misunderstanding of the nature, origin, and culture of Rhumba, which is key to gaining a similar intuitive feel for salsa timing, as enjoyed by those who grew up with it.
My salsa spirit came along around ten years ago, filling a romantic void in my life, which had appeared following marriage that had ended abruptly and unexpectedly.
It came in the form of a partner, who, amongst other things was to me the spirit of salsa, embodied, though her preference was Merengue, it led me to salsa.
I fell in love with that spirit, enduringly, despite the partner and I soon parting ways.
The salsa spirit has been with me ever since, and I feel much richer for that, including especially now four dancing trips to Cuba to date.
We never stop learning, and salsa is no exception.
Being lucky enough to have a good dance space at home, I dance most days an hour or so solo freestyle, learning new moves, and how to improve things all of the time.
I am forever grateful to that partner of ten years ago, for enriching me with the spirit of Salsa.
Onwards and Upwards.
What Salsa is
- A form of Latin music and dance derived from Rhumba, related to many sub-genres and styles, including Merengue, Regaeton, Cubaton, Salsa-choke, Cali-flow, Zumba, Kizomba, Bachata, Cha-cha-cha, Son, and the Orishas,
- A vehicle of distractive, effortless physical exercise, both alone and with partners.
- A form of audio-visual, and physical communication between people.
- Ageless. All can do it, young and old. Discos in Latin countries often welcome children, who equally love to dance.
- The only subject with more folklore than that of having babies.
What Salsa does
- Promotes romance and understanding between genders, and across cultures, and ages.
- Encourages transcendental states and wellness of body and mind.
- Cheers us up! It is impossible to feel depressed when practising it, watching it, or listening to it.
Folks who might not think Salsa has any influence on them, are probably affected by it anyway.
Besides recent surges in the popularity of Latin derived Music in the West, such as Reggaeton, Salsa appears subliminally in most of the Western popular music that we have listened to for a very long time.
So if you like music, you probably like Salsa, even if you don’t know it, yet.
Most popular musicians seem to write music instinctively with a salsa compatible structure.
If we can coherently dance salsa to a particular music track, then the track is salsa compatible.
Some might write that off as coincidence, or improvisation.
But when we dig deeper, we see it is way too complex to be any coincidence.
If the dance fits, then the salsa percussion “phrase” can be fitted to the track.
The phrase means the timing around each paragraph that might be sung vocally in the music, even if the track is just instrumental.
If the track has singing, and the salsa still fits, then it is even more surprising that it fits.
And it usually does.
The Salsa Musical “Phrase” Structure
A description of the most basic complete Salsa phrasing structure involves three percussion instruments; the Clave, the Cow-bell, and the Conga drum.
The Cow-bell and Conga each beat in a rhythm which repeats twice per phrase, four beats per phrase. Neither “steps on” the other. Between them, they define eight beats (or taps) per phrase.
Other techies, evidently similarly fascinated by Salsa, have come up with some useful tools which help analyse the rhythm.
I tried in a previous version of this story to describe the timing formally in a simple visual notation which gives the information I would like to communicate but found it almost impossible. Maybe will try again in the future, but for now, I will direct to another who knows how to write music.
(Ignore the reference to On1 and On2 there! That is part of Western thinking as I will explain in this story, it needs to be side-stepped)
The rhythm of the cow-bell, C above is periodic, like a marching beat, whereas the rhythm of B, the bongo (or Conga) is like a beating heart.
In the dance basic step, we make one footstep, at each tap of the Cow-bell.
In the gap between steps, every second step, we hear two beats of the Bongo.
The Clave sequence occurs over a period twice that of the Bongo period, and four times that of the Cow-bell period.
The first and the last Clave taps coincide with the first and last cowbell taps, whilst the second last Clave tap coincides with the last Bongo beat.
So the Clave effectively ties together the Cow-bell and Bongo, terminating the combined sequence with a double tap, like a full stop, at the end of a sentence.
Thus we get a clear idea of the “Phrase”, in terms of percussion, no vocals needed.
The salsa basic step always begins with the first footfall on the first tap of the Clave.
With the Clave removed, the rhythm repeats twice.
In order to identify where each of the five taps of the clave fit, relative to the four taps of each the cow-bell, and the bongo, by my Western thinking, I figure we must divide the time period of the phrase by a number divisible by both. The smallest is twenty.
That simplistic analysis neglects the complexity, richness, and sophistication added to the average salsa track by various embellishments and adjustments to the salsa structure, with different instruments and individual beats moved, added, or taken out, but the basic distinctive salsa timing remains the same.
It is crazy that such a complex structure fits so often to music tracks which would not be considered salsa.
The Cross-Cultural Lens
It is when we look at how the different cultures tend to dance differently to the beats of the different instruments that things start to get really interesting.
The classic Western approach to dancing salsa is to move always to the marching beat of the cow-bell, whereas the average native Afro-Caribbean dancer moves instinctively to the heartbeat of the drums.
Westerners dance with incisive logic.
Afro-Caribbeans dance with raw passion.
The Western Cow-bell Filter
Salsa newcomers will probably learn the basic step like I did, by memorising under instruction, where each foot should be, mentally repeating the step numbers, placing each foot in the appropriate corresponding position, following the footsteps of an instructor stepping out the steps, whilst calling out the numbers, where each step is timed on the cowbell.
It is worth noting that the average salsa song does not have a consistent cowbell throughout, so the dancer will often need to imagine the cowbell beating in their mind.
More importantly, we should understand that this method of instruction, of numbered stepping on the cow-bell, is maybe a necessary “Filter”, for the average Western mind to grasp just enough of the basics to get moving in Salsa.
My main point with this story is that It soon has to be removed again, in order to free the dancer up to the full, seemingly infinite spectrum of moves which are possible.
Googling Rhumba quickly reveals it is a highly polysemic term, meaning many things to many people.
And that is part of the problem.
It is necessary to eliminate that confusion to get even close to an understanding, so I will define it very simply as “Moving on the drum” (As opposed to moving on the cow-bell or clave).
Hopefully it will become clear that with that definition, Rhumba is the key that unlocks Afro-Caribbean salsa.
The moves I mean seem to be carried out most naturally by folks who grew up in cultures where infants are encouraged to dance Rhumba as soon as they can walk.
To my knowledge, no-one ever talks them through the numbered stepping on the cowbell, as learned by adult Westerners.
The Western Cow-bell filter, as described above, I personally found actually prevented a real understanding of Rhumba, as no information is given on how to dance on the drums. Without that, we have no concept that movements can be on the drums, in addition to the Cowbell and Clave, or even completely on the drums.
Lessons on Cha-cha-cha, and Son can help with that, as those variations of salsa have explicit characteristic moves which are on the drum, (Thus are Rhumba moves), but many people will never opt for, or get the opportunity to take those.
A basic test of whether one has a firm grip of the concept of Rhumba, as far as is necessary for universally dancing salsa, is whether or not we can correctly identify how to jump into a pure drums track with the distinctive basic forward and back salsa step. Both partners need to be able to do this consistently to be able to dance salsa to pretty much any Music which is compatible with salsa.
An example of the kind of music I mean is Cuban Guaguanco (See the Guaguanco music video later), which can consist almost entirely of drums, or vocals and drums, yet to the experienced ear, it clearly contains and fully defines the timing needed for a pair of partners to dance salsa.
Notice in addition to the infant instinctively reacting to the drums in the Cuban salsa music video below, a couple are also dancing salsa.
The “On1”, “On2” Trap
Failure to remove the cow-bell filter, by introducing a useful concept of Rhumba when appropriate, leads down a rabbit-hole of what now seem to me to be inane academic considerations and discussions over whether a dancer might be (or should be) dancing “On1”, or “On2”.
Being somewhat academically inclined myself, I admit I was distracted by those seeming complexities for a large, wasted portion of my own journey to learning.
That was until I visited Cuba.
I suspect the “On1 or On2” concept might be a convenient red-herring, from the point of view of some instructors, who can probably keep many eternal learners indefinitely.
Like in all trades, we get good and bad in Salsa instruction.
The best in my experience are those folks who have been immersed in, and stayed immersed in Cuban dance culture for many years.
But in general, it is best to get a mix from as many Afro-Caribbean backgrounds as possible.
If they ever mention On1 and On2 in the same sentence, red flag!
The Salsa Vocal Phrase
The vocal phrase is that of the singer, as distinct from the musical phrase of the instruments.
Some salsa sequences might feature the singer starting to sing (i.e. beginning their vocal phrase), on the first cow-bell tap in each musical phrase, as is popular in Cuba, or on the second, as might be more popular in Colombia or Venezuela.
In the case that the singer will start out singing “On2”, the vocal phrase is accordingly different from “On1”.
Hence the confusion that sets in for newcomers with no instinct for moving to the Conga, attempting to learn the basic step.
With no requirement or knowledge how to move on the conga or bongo, the only landmark the dancer has on getting the timing right, is when the singer starts singing. This can be very confusing, if not near impossible in some songs. Dancers relying completely on the cowbell, voice, and clave for timing can become reluctant to dance with partners to music from areas other than that which they were taught to, for fear of the risk of embarrassment on not getting the timing right, which really narrows down the range of music they can dance to.
The important thing to remember is that the dancer should always respect the true beginning of the rhythm phrase, with the primary footfall in their basic step.
The rhythm phrase is clearly identifiable when the clave is present, as this repeats only once per phrase.
However, when the clave is absent (Often!), the dancer might only have the vocal phrase left to work with, to coordinate with the musical phrase.
In that case, the dancer needs to time their primary footfall in the basic step to land on the nearest cowbell tap to the beginning of the vocal phrase, which is also preceded by a Conga beat.
If neither voice nor Clave is present, then it is easily possible for dancers starting to dance at that moment, or perhaps finishing solo routines, to mistakenly orient their step to the wrong half of the musical phrase, i.e. to the wrong Conga beat double tap. A good following partner will fall in with the lead partner’s step, even when the step is wrong like this. As long as neither voice nor clave is present, neither dancer nor anyone else will notice, but as soon as the Clave and/or voice returns, it becomes obvious, and the lead dancer then needs to carry out a trick such as a clever half-turn, or feint into a deliberately off-timed casino or dile qe no movement, to re-orient their step to the musical phrase.
An new dancer attempting to apply “On1” basic dance training to an “On2” sequence however, will find themselves consistently a quarter phrase off-time, with their primary basic step footfalls landing on those cow-bell beats which are not preceded by a Conga beat.
And that always looks wrong, no matter which way we cut it.
I know, because I was that soldier.
But, after we begin to move instinctively to the Conga (i.e. when we start to Rhumba), then we automatically always fall into step on a cow-bell which is immediately preceded by a Conga double tap. So worst case we can only get the step wrong by a half-phrase, which as explained above is not a problem as it is easily correctable.
As evidence of the fallacy of On1, On2, try asking anyone, no matter how experienced, to identify whether a particular expert couple dancing Afro-Caribbean salsa are dancing On1 or On2. The truth is they won’t be able to, because expert dancers switch back and forth between On1 and On2 seemingly at random, throughout every dance. In most cases, those dancers will never have given On1 or On2 a passing thought.
I met no-one in Cuba who mentioned such terms.
I still see many long term Western Salseros / Salseras obviously still saddled with this restriction. Many will not dance to anything but Cuban timba music.
Subsequently, often, the only salsa music we hear in many Western social salsa dancing venues is just Cuban timba.
Which is a shame, because much as I love Cuban timba, there is a whole world of other great Salsa dance music out there, as well as other great Cuban salsa music which is not Timba!
The video below shows an unknown girl doing some nice Rhumba movements to a truly classic Colombian salsa song. Watch her toe taps, whilst listening for the drum beats.
-if anyone knows who the girl is, let me know and I will add her into the credits here!
After gaining familiarity with, and learning how to acknowledge the bongo or conga drum with at least a foot-tap, or shake of the shoulders or hips, the concept of “On1” or “On2” becomes redundant. With that, the dancer automatically moves their timing to fit the conga acknowledgement to the correct position in the basic step, and need never give a further thought towards “On1” or “On2”, except perhaps an occasional shiver at the recollection of not knowing.
At that point, the dancer has started to Rhumba.
Another popular, (and to my mind confusing) misconception, perpetuated by some instructors, is to label only a particular salsa step as Rhumba. The one I mean is where, during a basic step, instead of stepping forward, and back to the cow-bell, we simply step to the side and back, to the cow-bell.
Unless this is done as part of a “Son” routine, where the steps are all on the bongo or conga, I would argue it is not Rhumba, and to say otherwise causes restrictive confusion.
Rhumba is danced to the repeating irregular beats of the Conga, whilst the Salsa basic step is danced to the metronomically tapping cow-bell.
After we get that clear, we see it seems to be the fundamental difference between how the Western Cultured mind, and the Afro-Caribbean cultured mind, each approach Salsa.
The Western mind seems more used to stationary rhythms, finding it natural to move the body (at least the feet) in simple mechanical synchronicity, whereas Afro-Caribbean people seem to have an inbuilt instinct, and a desire to punctuate irregular, complicated rhythms, not only with the feet, but with the whole body.
Probably, the more entrenched a person might be in Western Cultured dancing, the more alien that person will feel towards dancing Rhumba. I found myself it could only be overcome very gradually.
As an avid dancer in UK discos most of my life previously, there was no quick fix. It involves a lot of work.
At first, the body feels like it is always in mid-motion, one foot in the air, often moving in the wrong direction, when it has to do something completely contradictory to mark a drum beat. It feels almost impossible to interrupt our basic instinctive movement mid-flow, to do that one little thing that is really different, just at the moment when needed.
It stands to reason that a child growing up with rhumba will spending many hours practicing it, getting a feel for it.
As adults, un-learning our movements made habitual over many years of life, we need to spend many more hours practicing it.
I didn’t know about the Rhumba key to salsa until I’d learned a little about the origin and culture of Rhumba. It goes back to African folklore, in which it is believed the Conga, Bongo, and other drums speak messages to the dancers from the Orishas (spirits), and those spirits are what is actually controlling the bodies of the dancers. Hence my reasoning, this is the true basis of Rhumba.
I found this out on first travelling to Cuba. But the information that most Cubans follow a Yoruba (Africa) derived religion that they call “Santeria”. Is available on the internet, once we know what and how to search for.
It helps also for us to learn a little Spanish, in order to be able to communicate with the more culturally embedded local people, who may have very little English language, as well as to understand the lyrics in the songs, which can be quite raunchy, and hilarious.
To the uninitiated, pure Rhumba can look random, not to any particular timing, but behind those beats that the dancer marks, is the same familiar salsa structure. We just need to know how to recognise it.
In traditional Cuban “Bembes”, (House parties), I would often ask dancers what they were doing when I could see the steps were clearly not on the cow-bell. In every case, the answer was “Rhumba”!
By no means would I claim to be an expert. I have only scratched the surface. Rhumba dancing in all of its forms is a huge field.
By culture, us Westerners appear to prefer to dance as a kind of disciplined march, whilst Afro-Caribbean people love to dance more passionately, on seemingly irregular impulse like a beating heart.
The most skilled Salsa is a mixture of those two things.
In the video below, we see the dancing of lead partner Terry SalsAlianza going from high quality routine, to spectacular, after his creativity leaps into orbit following a prolonged solo body popping sequence.
He appears to obtain an enhanced state of mind from that solo rhumba activity of body popping.
Cuban salsa, arguably the most accomplished and widely recognised, has further advanced variations; “Son”, which is danced almost exclusively on the Conga beat, “Cha-cha-cha”, which has extra steps on the Conga beat, and “Guaguanco”, a mating dance, danced on the drums. I would say every time a movement is made off the cow-bell, on a drumbeat, real or imagined, it was a Rhumba movement, because it was the drum beat that moved the body at that moment, not the cow-bell (unless the cow-bell is being used to tap out the timing of the drum beat, but that would be highly unusual).
We often use the word “Latin” to identify the cultural characteristics of many of the peoples traditionally associated with salsa.
We also use it to describe a formal Language, upon which most Western European languages are based.
Rhumba is to dance, what the Latin language is to Language.
With a basic knowledge of it, one is far better equipped to learn the dances based on it.
Salsa is heavily based on it, with a Western metronomic framework.
To do Salsa well, we need to know about Rhumba.
Knowing anything about Rhumba is feeling it.
To be able to feel it, we have to practice, a lot.
You know it when you start to feel the spirits moving your muscles to the drums.
May the spirits always smile and come to you.
This story is a labour of love, something I’ve felt driven to write about for a long time, something that might be of help to those aspiring to learn or improve their salsa timing. It might be updated now and then. All efforts will be made to address any constructive comments in the updates.
Re-published Valentine’s day, 2020