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Dance Floor Etiquette

(Below is an excellent article borrowed from about etiquette on the dance floor.) 

What is going on in the dance floors of every Latin club with all of this pushing, getting stepped on, getting "heeled",  tripped, or even having your nose broken!?  The salsero and salsera "wannabes", even as well as some of the good dancers, are going off on tangents that are endangering everyone else who is on the dance floor.

A Salsa-holic from Chicago, Adrienne, had her nose broken by a couple who invaded Adrienne's and her partner's space.  It truly was an accident and it came about only because the other couple are beginners and/or didn't understand the etiquette of the dance floor and of space: "you have your space and we have our space".  Adrienne had these things to say after the accident that required her to have her broken nose repaired by a plastic surgeon:

  • Beginners need to be aware of their space and of others' space. 
  • All dancers must learn control, through tight, clean footwork and controlled turns and spins. 
  • Practice, practice, practice.
  • Don't try things in a crowded club that you have not mastered through practice first in an un-crowded place.
  • Women should refuse to execute moves that they know the partner hasn't the skills to lead when it puts her (and others) at risk.
  • Same for the guys, some of the women are crazy - they want to show the latest style they picked up no matter how crowded the floor is - don't let them be.
  • The men are leading the women as though they are driving a car in traffic - so the men MUST be aware of the surroundings and know that when the partner finishes a move - will the space already be occupied by another moving couple? 
  • Small controlled steps will prevent all of those painful instep injuries that result when beginning dancers take big steps - especially on the back step - and step on other dancers.

Now, back to my thoughts on dance floor etiquette.  What is dance floor etiquette?  The art of dancing, whether good or bad, in your own space.  The art of not being all over the dance floor, unaware of or totally oblivious to the other people dancing around you.  The art of having consideration for other dancers and of not intruding into their space, just as you wouldn't want them to intrude into yours.

A problem today is that too many people want to show off, whether they have the ability or not, or if they do - whether or not they have space.  They want to turn, dip, flip, and spin and don't seem to care that there are others on the dance floor too.

Every dancer must adopt the philosophy of dancing in the "slot" or straight line, remaining in their own space, completely aware of who is around them and of how much space exists between them and the other couples.  If the dance floor is crowded, don't try to dip your partner or to do a fancy turn combination because it will put your partner in someone else's space and put your partner at risk.  Learn to dance in a "contained" manner.

If the floor is really open and empty, only then can you get fancy.  If the floor is crowded, contain yourself, stay in your space.

Guys, remember that you are the one who leads the lady into everything that she does.  You must be in control at all times and know where you are leading her, without invading another couple's space.

Ladies, if you are dancing with someone who is twirling you like a top, who has no control and who has you out of control - tell him to take it easy, there's too many dancer's on the floor!  You do not want to be at risk because he hasn't the control to lead you well.  If he does not listen, if he shows no consideration, then politely excuse yourself off the dance floor.  Do not embarrass yourself or the person you are dancing with.  It is preferable to being hurt yourself and preferable to hurting someone else.  If you desire to be considerate and not hurt their feelings, volunteer to move to a less crowded area.

Guys, if you are dancing with someone who does not know how to turn, who does not have the footwork, or who is herself wild, try to control her by dancing easy.  If she's a beginner, guide her and tell her that you are taking it easy because the floor is crowded and someone may get hurt.  If you know her very well, tell her to practice dancing in a 2 foot by 2 foot and volunteer to show her how.  If you are not a dance instructor yourself, then recommend someone that can help.

It is our mission to make Chicago, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and the Dance communities of the world safer by having ALL of dancers be more aware and considerate of each other.  We need to pass this message on to others.  Please cut and paste it into emails of your dancer friends.  Let's all be conscious leaders, followers and messengers of proper DANCE FLOOR ETIQUETTE.

*** Special thanks to
beat 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Tap/kick       *       *
foot L R L R R L R L
position ^ - - ^ _ _ - _

I hope you will realize that you can't bring this schedule to your club, because it would look rather silly.  To dance you need to feel the music.  This is merely to point out where to feel if you didn’t know already.

The Clave -   The clave is traditionally a wooden instrument consisting of 2 sticks which are struck together to make a clicking or tapping sound.  Nowadays, sometimes it is a plastic hollow rectangular "box" which may be hand-held or mounted on the drum set - the timbales, cowbell, cymbal, woodblock, etc.

In Spanish, the word "clave" means a "key", like a "key word" or the "key to a code".  In Salsa music, the clave rhythm establishes the key or structure to the song.  Directly or indirectly, all the other instruments and the singers in the band are guided and structured by the clave rhythms.  While it cannot always be heard in some Salsa music, the clave's beat always underlies the rhythmic structure of good Salsa.

While there are various clave rhythm patterns, the "Son Clave" is the one used in the classic, mainstream New York Caribbean-style Salsa music preferred by New Yorkers for ON 2 dancing.

This clave is played within 2 measures of 4 beats each, a total of 8 beats.  But it is only tapped on certain of those 8 beats in the 2 measures.   There are two son clave rhythm patterns: the 3/2 clave and the 2/3 clave.  The 3/2 clave is struck on the following beats:  1, 2 1/2,  4, 6, 7.  The 2/3 clave is struck on the following beats:  2, 3,  5, 6 1/2, 8.

The clave creates a complex, syncopated, unevenness in the rhythmic structure that builds a tension in the group of 3 taps, and then releases or resolves that tension in the group of 2 taps, once in each of the 2 measures.

It does this by going against, and then rejoining, the regular 8 beats, a little like one instrument playing in 4/4 time, and another playing in 3/4 time simultaneously.  This syncopation fascinates and inspires those more experienced On 2 dancers who are particularly in tune to the music, and affects the way they feel and move when they have reached the level of the dance where they are truly "dancing in the music".   According to Washburne (1995), our contemporary New York clave beats originated in African bell and drum rhythms, journeyed to Cuba via slave ships in the 1700's, became blended in the Caribbean with Spanish music, jazz,  and island dances, and then traveled to New York to become further evolved as it was played in the New York City urban atmosphere of the 1950's and 1960's and adapted to the local dance styles, especially at clubs such as the Palladium.

In the 1960's, the word "Salsa" was developed by the Fania Record Company as a marketing term to promote the newest version of this music.  Please see Washburne's discussion of the evolution of New York Salsa music, and the role of the clave, at here.

You may have heard the expression "Dancing on Clave" to describe New York On 2 mambo.  This needs some clarification.  Actually, this is a loose expression to mean that the clave contributes to the 8 beat rhythmic structure of Salsa, and also effects how we feel and move to the music.  But we do not literally step to ALL the beats that the clave instrument taps out.

For example, the 2/3 clave instrument taps out 2, 3, 5, 6 1/2, 8, while we step on 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7.  So we are only stepping on the 2, 3 and 5 taps of the 2/3 clave.  And the 3/2 clave taps out 1, 2 1/2, 4, 6, 7, while we step on 1, 2, 3,  5, 6, 7.  So we only step on the 1, 6, and 7 of the 3/2 clave.  As an example of how the clave makes us feel and move, we break on 2 and 6, but the 6 break feels much more emphatic and part of the body than does the 2 break when we are dancing to a song with a 3/2 clave, because the 6 break is "On Clave", at least when it's audible in the music.  In contrast, when the song we are dancing to has a clear 2/3 clave structure, the 2 break feels stronger than the 6 break.  Many intermediate and advanced On 2 dancers feel this difference, particularly those who are closely attuned to the music.

The clave always has one measure with 2 beats, and one measure with 3 beats.  The 2/3 clave has 2 beats in the first measure, and 3 beats in the second measure.  The 3/2 clave has 3 beats in the first measure, and 2 beats in the second measure.  It is in the nature of the clave rhythmic structure that the 2 beats always stand out more emphatically than the 3 beats.  That is, they feel stronger in the rhythm.  Partly this is because the 2 beats resolve the syncopated unevenness or tension of the 3 beats.  When we are breaking on 2 and 6, we are actually changing our body direction in conjunction with the strongest rhythmic emphasis in the clave's beat.  So although we don't literally step on every clave beat, we do make a major body movement (a change of direction) on the major beat of the clave, the 2 beat which resolves the tension.  It is in this sense that we "dance on clave".  This style of dancing accents the clave's emphasis on the 2  in the way we move our bodies in the dance.  Other timings, such as breaking on 1 or 3, do not accent the clave's emphasis on the 2 in this way.

There is another use of the word "clave" you may hear.  "Finding the clave" - referring to when we take our first step, on the 1:  "finding the clave" in this usage means finding the first beat of the 8 beat measure.  Also, you may hear someone describe a DJ "mixing the songs on the clave" - This usage means going from one Salsa song to the next keeping the tempo/timing of the 8 beats.  Both of these uses of the "the clave" have to do with the regular 8 beats, and do not literally refer to the rhythms created by the tapping of the clave instrument.

Here's how we learn:

  • First of all, find the beginning of the measure, the 1st beat.

    • Almost all music has measures (Salsa, cha cha, disco, R & B, soul, rock, hip hop, reggae, classical, jazz, etc.), and one must learn to find the 1st beat of the measure.

    • It is difficult to explain in writing how to find the 1st beat, since songs start their measures differently, sometimes even changing from verse to verse.

    • Sometimes it's signaled by the singer, but other times it's the chorus, the clave, the congas or the bass, and it may keep changing.

    • My best advice is to find someone who knows how to find the 1 in the music, whether it's a teacher, friend, relative, fellow dancer or musician;  some people just know the 1 and can show it to you.

    • Put on some Salsa music and have them show you the 1, and explain how they found it.

    • Then have them help you learn to feel it, count it and tap your feet all the way through entire songs.

    • A good exercise is to stop and then restart the song to see how quickly you can find the 1 and get on the beat again.

  • Second of all, when you have learned to find, feel and tap your foot to the 1st and the 7 other beats in the Salsa measure, then begin your count and step as spelled out above:  1,2,3 and 5,6,7.

    • Ladies always step on the 1st beat with their right foot, and on the 5th beat with their left foot.

    • Men always step on the 1st beat with their left foot, and on the 5th beat with their right foot  (the only exception to this is during  more advanced syncopated open shines).

    • Now drill this for hours, weeks and months:  in classes, clubs, at home, anywhere.

    • Whether you are doing the basic forward and back step, a side basic, back charges, partner turns or open shines, you must get to the point where the sound of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th, 6th,and 7th beats in the Salsa music makes the proper foot go down in the right place, and this must all happen entirely automatically, instinctively, naturally from your gut.  No thinking is involved.

    • The man's left foot, and the woman's right foot, must feel the 1st beat, and hit the floor with it.

    • And that goes for all the other beats in the count.

    • You should be able to maintain that timing when listening to the music and dancing with your partner, brushing your teeth, beating an egg, carrying on a conversation, or clapping out a 2/3 or 3/2 clave.

    • In other words, you shouldn't have to think about your feet at all.

Why is this important?  Because when you are dancing to a great song with your partner, doing cross body leads, complicated turns, shines, and interacting with your partner and moving to the phrasing of the music, there is no time to be thinking about what beat and what foot you should be on.  The count and the feet must be so much a natural part of your relationship to the music, that it just feels right.

For example, if you are a man leading a double touch-and-go turn, followed by your own single left turn, it must be automatic to start your partner's turn on the 1, while stepping with your left foot, and your own turn on the 5, while stepping on your right foot.  And for the woman, it must be automatic to be stepping on your right foot on the 1 at the beginning of that double turn, and be stepping back on 6 with your right foot when you come out of it.  There is no time to be thinking, or to be confused, about what timing one is on.  You must have drilled it until it has become automatic and natural.

When you have achieved this level of mastery of dancing ON 2, it now begins to be possible to feel and understand the complex relationship of the dance to the rhythms in the music.  Notice that one can become an intermediate or advanced ON 2 dancer without any specific discussion or focus on the clave, cowbells, congas/tumbao, etc.

That is how we are taught here in New York, including our finest performers who tour internationally representing the New York ON 2 timing and style.   The reason this is possible is that the 1, 2, 3,  5, 6, 7 timing, and breaks on 2 and 6, are designed around the clave and conga-tumbao sounds and rhythms, so without mentioning them, you are already dancing to them.  And that is why I say above:   "Skip the academic discussions, just learn to dance ON 2" first, then let's discuss the rhythms and instruments we dance with.  Which is what we'll do now.

The Downbeats - An important feature of New York "ON 2" mambo is that we begin most of our moves, turns and shines on the 1st and 5th beats of the measure, the downbeats.  For example, the cross body lead begins on 1 when the lady is already stepping forward with her right foot.  The ladies' turns are usually begun on 1, and the man's turns are often begun on 5. Shines also usually begin on 1.

The 1 is the beginning of the 8 beats of the Salsa measure (as noted above, it's actually 2 measures of 4 beats each).  There is a strong "downbeat" or "emphasis" in most kinds of music on the 1, including Salsa.  It is the strongest feeling beat of the measure.  That is when a dancer feels the "thrust" or "power" of the rhythm.  There is another downbeat, somewhat less strong, on the 5th beat of the measure (the beginning of the 2nd 4 beat measure), when the man often begins his turns.  The 1 and the 5 are the strongest rhythmic points in the Salsa music, and that is where we begin most of our moves when we dance ON 2.

The Tumbao - The tumbao refers to the rhythms accented by the conga drum player in mainstream Salsa music.  Specifically, the conga is struck with 2 quick beats and then a 3rd "slap", usually on the outer edge or rim of the drum, in the pattern of quick slow.  Sometimes this is audible in both 4 beat measures, and sometimes only in the first measure.  The 2 quick beats are on "8 and..."  (actually, 8 and 8 1/2), and on "4 and ..."  (actually, 4 and 4 1/2).  These 2 quick beats serve as a lead-in to the 1st and 5th beats of the measure, the 2 heavy downbeats that we step on when dancing ON 2.  In fact, when the 2 quick beats of the tumbao are very clear, they have the effect of rushing us into the 1 and 5 steps, making us hit them more emphatically and, sometimes, slightly early, which gives our style of dancing a snap and quickness in the look and feel.

Sometimes the "slap", or the "slow" hit of the tumbao is not audible.  But when it can be heard, it is often the heavier and more emphatic sound coming from the conga drum.  That sound comes on the 2nd beat of the measure.  This means that if the tumbao sound can be heard during both 4 beat measures making up the 8 beats we dance to, then the strongest points of emphasis are on the 2nd and 6th beats, which is where we "break", or change our body movement direction, when we dance ON 2.

We Start On The Major Downbeat, And We Break On The Clave And The Tumbao - When Eddie Torres says that this ON 2 timing and style of mambo dancing "logically fits the rhythm of Salsa music", he is referring to the fact that the strongest beats in the rhythm, the 1st and 5th beats, are where we begin our moves: we begin our basic step, our cross-body-lead, our turn patterns, our shines.  In other words, the beats with the greatest rhythmic thrust (1 and 5) are what power the "ON 2" dancer's moves.  The greatest "push" or "action" in the music's rhythm (the 1 and 5 downbeats) empower the greatest "action" in the dancer's body (the initiation of a move).

In addition, as noted above, we do our 2 strong body motions, the 2 and 6 breaks (change of body direction),  on the major rhythmic beats of the clave, and the strongest sounds of the conga drum, the 2 and 6.  So in all three ways (the strongest downbeats, the clave and the tumbao),  this particular mambo dance style and timing expresses in its strongest body movements what the structure of Salsa music expresses in its strongest rhythms.

We start on 1, we break on 2:  This distinguishes standard New York ON 2 timing from those which break on 1, 3, etc., and those which don't begin their moves on the 1st beat, such as timings where the dancers step on 2, 3, 4, and 6, 7, 8, for example Razz M' Tazz and some Palladium and ballroom styles.  And quoting Fernando Lamadrid, host of , "Cuban Pete, one of the greatest dancers of the Palladium era once explained it  like this:  Dancing "ON 1" is dancing "TO" the music.  Dancing "ON 2" is dancing "IN" the music...Dancing "ON 1" is like dancing to the melody of the music, while dancing "ON 2" is like dancing in the rhythm of the music."  It would actually be more precise to say "....dancing "ON 2" is like dancing in the rhythm of the clave's tension-resolving and dominant 2 beat".

See directly below for more information on learning to dance Salsa, and articles about the clave, timing, steps, and finding the first beat of the measure to begin the basic step.

on1-on2(1)-on2(2)-on3-on4-steps explained-on2 defined-tumbao-etiquette-clave

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