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Rhythm Sense

A Break in Movement
Son Phrasing (Part 1):
Son and Mambo
Son Phrasing (Part 2):
Starting Son, and Clave
Son Phrasing (Part 3):
Son Montuno
Zarabanda: A Context for
Rhythmic Anticipation
Merengue to Salsa
Back To Dance Online
Son Phrasing (Part 1): Son and Mambo

"What could a salsa person learn from son?"

From a rhythmic perspective, the most important thing would be knowing that the same piece of music could be danced to in a multitude of ways. Songs that you once thought you knew; especially those based on sones, changüi and son montunos, reveal themselves to you in a completely different light.


Practice Tracks
You should begin with the conga tumbao moderno only tracks and then to those including piano, just to prevent the exercises from getting dry. These can be found in the Index of Tracks page of the Ear Training tutorial series.

For real world music,Trio Matamoros, Compay Segundo, Septeto Nacional and artists from the Golden Age of Son provide the best learning context. Your favourite mid-tempo salsa pieces would be nice too.

1 – Son basic step
The son's basic dance step will form the framework basic for this tutorial. It is similar to the back basic, with three minor alterations:

  1. the back step (step 1) is very small, only half your foot-length;
  2. the replace step (step 2) has a slightly more pronounced foot turn-out; and
  3. the final step (step 3) is a step to the side, smaller than the width of your hips.

The first and third modifications create more unison movement between dancers of a son partnership, as compared to a couple executing a standard back basic. The foot turn-out sets up the lower body for a better-controlled and stronger side-step, at the same time angling the pelvis to accept smoothly the change in direction of movement.

2 Dance the son basic complementing tumbao moderno
Naturalise this form in the context of the Ear Training - Conga tutorials, and it will look rhythmically like this:


Figure 2.1 Dance rhythm complementing tumbao moderno (unrectified)

3 Dance the son basic in agreement with tumbao moderno
To make your dance step rhythm agree with the conga pattern, take your first step on the slap stroke and your last on the first or the open tones. This is in essence a one beat delay to the complementary dance rhythm and looks rhythmically like this:


Figure 2.2 Dance rhythm in agreement with tumbao moderno

Dancing in agreement with the tumbao moderno means that you can no longer think of the open tones as a cue. Instead, you should think of your steps as voicing the relevant conga strokes.

4 Practice, Practice, Practice
It is absolutely essential that you become comfortable with the timing of this new dance rhythm. Make no mistake, this is a new rhythm and must be treated as such. You will need to achieve real-world competency, dancing to actual son and salsa tracks before you can appreciate fully the significance of the following content.

A note on definitions:
Expressing a step rhythm that is in agreement with the tumbao moderno is sometimes referred to as dancing on "Palladium 2", "Ballroom 2" or "Power2" which are semantically loaded terms. I will use the term "agreement" instead.

5 Phrasing

It is natural for learners subconsciously to accent the perceived beginning of a rhythm cycle. This tendency has an enormous impact on phrasing. In the instance of the agreement step rhythm, this would be the step that coincides with the slap stroke and results in a compact cluster of steps that are phrased entirely within a bar (to a count of "two-three-four"). This is the European-perceived start-point and gives rise to the transnational mambo phrasing.


Figure 2.3 Dance step rhythm in agreement with tumbao moderno, "mambo" phrasing

Son or contratiempo
As you may have guessed, the African-perceived start-point of the agreement step rhythm would be the step beat that coincides with the double-open tones
of the tumbao moderno (to a count of "two-three-four"). This creates is an expanded cluster of steps incorporating a nul-step beat, whose phrasing stretches over the boundary of a bar.

Cuban son dancers refer to it as dancing contratiempo [literally 'against the beat'] but since the term can also mean 'up-beat accentuation', I will call it 'son phrasing' instead.


Figure 2.4 Dance step rhythm in agreement with tumbao moderno, son phrasing

Stressing the first step of the phrase
The significance of the difference in phrasing becomes apparent when you recall that a step is defined as a foot placement followed by a weight transfer. In both instances the foot placement occurs on a backbeat, but in the case of the mambo, the weight transfer must be completed over the period of one beat (i.e. 2 to 2+, and 6 to 6+) for the second step to be taken in time. This results in a short sharp accent marking the beginning of the mambo phrase.

In contrast, the weight transfer associated with the first step of son can take place over twice the rhythmic space (i.e. 4 to 5+, and 8 to 1+). This gives rise to a long smooth accent at the beginning of the son phrase.

Semantics and the count
Probably the greatest weakness of using a count such as "one-two-three, five-six-seven" or "two-three-four, six-seven-eight" is that it can, in the absence of any stresses, prejudice the learner into assuming that the first step of the sequence is more important than any other. This constrains students learning on a count system to the rhythmic interpretation of the educator.

We can develop this idea more clearly by asking a few simple questions:

  • Do you think you would have phrased differently if we used a count and designated the slap stroke as beat one?
  • What about if we designated the first open tone as beat one?
  • What about if we designated the second open tone as beat one?
  • Would you have developed a weight transfer interpretation of "quick-quick-slow" or "slow-quick-quick"?

Learning to rhythmic markers like the slap and open tones negates the count prejudice. However the count, like any other tool, has its place. Since it is deployed by dance educators universally, it is important to understand its properties, so that we may avoid its weaknesses.

6 Practice, Practice, and More Practice
In Son Phrasing Part 2, we will study the aspects of dancing to clave, and how to initiate the dance cycle from the African start-point. To prepare yourself, you should dance both phrasings to a range of son and salsa musics so that you can clearly distinguish between them in terms of feel.

But most of all, you must listen to how your body feels when moving to either phrasing, listen to the music is saying, and determine whether they are both in harmony.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society