The Rhythm Is Everywhere! A Quick Guide to Common Salsa Rhythms

Live salsa band plays clave, congas, piano
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Nothing beats the feeling of being part of the organized chaos that we know as salsa dancing. As you step, twirl, join hands, separate and meet again, you become a part of the greater movement around you. The rapid footsteps of the dancers defy the blaring horns, while multiple different percussion instruments fight for attention. It’s tumultuous, whirling, and expressive. 

But as a beginner or improver, you might look at more experienced salsa dancers and wonder how they manage to dance with so much musicality. They move as if they’re part of the music—and yet to your ear, there may seem to be hundreds of different things happening at once.

The complexity of the salsa beat is undeniable. Yet coordinating dance moves to it isn’t as complicated as it seems. You just need a working understanding of the different rhythms, and how the instruments, rhythms, tempo, and tension all builds and blends to create a highly danceable type of music. 

Let’s take a deeper look at the anatomy of salsa rhythm, and how each piece of the music and the dance fit together to create a gorgeous harmony.

Couple do a dip in a salsa party

Credit: Vasyl Rohan / Shutterstock.com

What Is a Salsa Rhythm?

Salsa music is fast, it’s loud, it’s tense, and you can’t help but move to it. But as you move to it, you may feel as though you’re not on the beat. In fact, the beat may seem to move around on you.  

This is actually true. In salsa music, you’ll hear many rhythmic patterns at once. These polyrhythmic patterns mix, blend, overlap, and frequently change. In fact, the rhythm defines the song, with percussion instruments creating a tension that dance experts liken to an “expand and contract” type of energy within each song.

Other types of dance tend to have a set rhythm. The phrase “four to the floor” is a way to describe many popular dance songs, because the rhythm is easy to follow: four beats per measure, with all beats the same length and weight. It’s easy to feel in the bass and the percussion, and once they get the hang of a four-four rhythm, dancers have little trouble following it.

On the other hand, salsa has a variable tempo. The word “tempo” defines the speed of the beat.  An R&B song generally has a slower tempo, which is why this type of music is chosen for “slow dancing.” Salsa has a very high tempo, which means dancers move faster to keep up.

Another key difference between salsa and popular music is the melody. Both types of music have a tune and melody, but while popular music requires the melody to move the song, with verses, choruses, and bridges, salsa music relies on the rhythm. Anyone listening to salsa music is emotionally moved not necessarily by the words—though they can be poignant and beautiful—but by the charge of the rhythm.

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How Does Salsa Dancing Incorporate All of These Rhythms?

Having learned the differences between salsa and popular music, it may seem surprising that salsa music still involves counting four beats over two measures. The same “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight” that you might dance to on any club floor is still there; however, there are a few major differences.

Most notably, the four and eight beats are rest beats. This is why, in the salsa studio or class, the teacher counts “one, two, three, five, six, seven.”

At the same time, the tempo of salsa music is very fast. Therefore, the steps of a salsa dance are often expressed as “fast, fast, slow,” with the first two steps of each movement occurring as one step per beat while the third beat and step is drawn out across the pause.

Couple dance salsa

Credit: Lena Nester / Shutterstock.com

Some Common Salsa Rhythms

Counting beats to steps is pretty straightforward… until the music starts. The overarching salsa rhythm is created by a variety of instruments, and many of them truly are stressing different beats.

The most common band formation in salsa is the conjunto. Traditionally this consists of bongos and congas, a single headed drum, piano, bass, a horn section and hand held percussion instruments such as maracas that are often played by the singer. And each of them has their characteristic rhythms. 

Let’s take a look at some of them.

First is the clave (pronounced klah-vey). The clave is often the foundation of the salsa beat, and typically follows a 2:3 direction. This means you’ll hear it tap out a “slow, slow, fast-fast-fast” pattern. The clave sometimes follows a 3:2 direction as well, but this is not as common.

Many experienced dancers try to find the clave beat first, because it is the most consistent and rarely changes. In fact, it is the implicit rhythm of salsa music, meaning that it is the core beat around which all other instruments are arranged. At the same time, the clave is often the least loud or expressed beat, which can make it hard to hear as a beginner.

You will, however, quickly be able to identify the congas and the tumbao rhythm. Listen out for a double deep beat, followed by a slap beat that might sound more like a click. The double beats will land one beat and one-half beat before the 1 and the 5, which provides a level of anticipation for the dancers.

The montuno is a syncopated rhythm that is usually played on the piano. If you listen very carefully to a salsa song, you’ll notice that the piano often repeats the same pattern of chords. This repetition builds its own rhythm, and while there are several types of montuno, being able to identify this rhythm helps dancers stay on beat.

There are also different types of bells or campanas used in salsa music. The bongo bell is usually a cowbell that is played by the bong player or bongocero, while the timbal or mambo bell is mounted and played by the drummer. These may be used to embellish the beat of the clave, mark the offbeats, or create a heavy, driving beat at the beginning of the song—which can help dancers find the rhythm right away.  

There are many more salsa rhythms, but the clave, congas, montuno, and campanas/bells are some of easiest ones to spot as a new salsa dancer.

Pair of congas

Learning to Dance to the Salsa Rhythms

Now that you’re more familiar with the many rhythms and styles of salsa, it’s time to explore!

Take the opportunity to watch salsa in action, and see if you can decide which style of salsa the dancers are most influenced by. As you listen to the music swell and recede, try to find the different instruments and their rhythms. Exercises such as these can help broaden your understanding of what you already know about salsa. It also serves as a method of creating a strong foundation in those who are just learning.  

With practice, the “one-two-three (pause), five-six-seven (pause)” beat of salsa music will start to feel more natural and more easily identifiable. Don’t give up if it seems very confusing at first—everyone feels this way! 

Even after the rhythm becomes second nature, there is always more to learn when it comes to salsa. If you have mastered the basics of one rhythm, there are many others in the wonderful mix of instruments that make up a salsa band.

Just give salsa some time, and soon, the rhythm will have you moving along to the beat just as easily as if it were popular music.

Feature photo credit: ProkeinMedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Jason is a freelance writer and Hip Hop dancer who fell in love with Salsa through pure happenstance. He has always been a dancer but never learned how to truly groove until he started incorporating Salsa into his repertoire. Salsa and Rumba are the two styles he never gets tired of watching and dancing.