Cuban Salsa: How counting matters

In Cuban Salsa we count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 to the beat of the music. Since we don’t step on 4 and 8, we normally count “1-2-3-…, 5-6-7-…”. Since we can tap on 4 and 8, as an optional feature, many of us count 1-2-3-tap, 5-6-7-tap. So far so good.

The full eight count

In Cuban Salsa, and this is important to understand because it is not the case in X-Body Salsa, a move, a figure, a combination (they are all the same), comprises of 1 or more counts of eight. A move starts on 1, it can continue for several counts of eight but the move always ends on 5-6-7, and every count of eight is a sub-move with a start, 1-2-3, and an ending, 5-6-7.

Most moves in Cuban Salsa are made not just for social partner dancing but also for use in Rueda de Casino. For that reason most moves will consist of any number of eight-counts that will bring the dancer around the partner circle 1 or more times and back to Guapea position or ready to do Dame Una or Dile Que No. Almost all moves follow that recipe.

We have nothing like that in X-Body Salsa except that combinations are likely to also start on 1 and end on 8 as in Cuban Salsa. But in X-Body Salsa, inside a combination, moves as we know them in Cuban Salsa or sub-moves, can easily start on 5 instead of on 1, and for that reason it is common in X-Body Salsa to count 1-2-3, 1-2-3 or simply “quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-slow”. In X-Body, the concept of 5-6-7 to end something, is not that important.

Sombrero and barrel turn

How to end the Sombrero figure, putting the hat on, is a good example. In X-Body Salsa it ends on the 1-2-3 beat of the music. In Cuban Salsa it simply can only end on 5-6-7. In X-Body Salsa a swing motion on 5-6-7 can act as preparation for e.g. a barrel turn on 1-2-3.

That the 5-6-7 of a previous move can act as prep for the next move, is inconceivable in Cuban Salsa. The closest we get to that is to use the 8 count to open up and tap as a prep for the next move. In Cuban Salsa the flow of the dance means that the energy and direction of 5-6-7 of a previous move, can continue over and indirectly prepare for what comes next but not in the explicit prepping way that is common in X-Body Salsa.

In Cuban Salsa moves are tightly connected with any number of eight-counts. And the movements of the hands often follow the counting. On 1-3-5-7 the hands are low or high, on 2 and 6 they are often in the middle. A lot of exceptions exist like in Siete and Vacilala but it is a good rule of thumb.

In X-Body Salsa combinations are a sequence of walking and turns, quick, quick, slow. In Cuban Salsa combinations are a sets of basic figures, each demanding to start on 1-2-3 and to end on 5-6-7 with a few exceptions.

Confusing ways to count

In some old Cuban Salsa videos, they have a terrible way of counting. They count to the music but they number the counts disregarding the pauses. Instead of saying “1-2-3, 5-6-7”, they say “1-2-3, 4-5-6”. This is so confusing that I can’t recommend those DVD courses for beginners. It is the most helpful that the counting follows the beat number in the music.

In this video, Siete Loco Complicado, from the “Quick and Dirty Guide to Cuban Salsa” DVD course, we have an example of the confusing way of counting 4-5-6 instead of 5-6-7:

Same Video on YouTube

Another confusing way to count in some old videos, stem from the fact that many Cubans like to start the dance right a way. When instructors outside Cuba, including Cubans (they have adapted to the non Cuban way to get accepted), start Rueda de Casino or dance exercise in class, they find the beat in the music, and as preparation to start on 1, they count 5-6-7 without moving, and then we all move on one.

But many Cubans in Cuba simply can’t wait, they must start to dance as soon as they recognize the beat. They start moving their feet already on 5-6-7. No problem. But the Cubans don’t say 5-6-7 but 1-2-3. The 1-2-3 is an alias for 5-6-7 in the music, when you start a dance. They count: 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 5-6-7, 1-2-3, 5-6-7. Some even say 4-5-6 instead of 5-6-7 as we learned above.

The classic “Salsa Racing” DVD course has both bad habits, making the videos confusing for most beginners. They start on 5 and they count 1-2-3, back-2-3, 4-5-6. Watch the full video. The strange way of counting becomes more obvious for non-Spanish speaking dancers, when the Follow starts instructions in English:

In the above video, we have all sorts of weird counting making it extremely annoying to learn from. The count 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 4-5-6 et cetera in all sorts of far out combinations. Why not count 1-2-3, 5-6-7?Keep tings as simple and easy to learn form, don’t confuse us. In my opinion, old “Salsa Racing” videos are useless to learn from unless you are already an experienced dancer. They are too confusing.

You can dance on any beat but…

In Cuban Salsa most dancers dance on One. That is, we start stepping on the One beat for all our moves. But in the Cuban dance called Son, most dancers dancer on Two. Since Cuban Salsa (Casino), started out as a sub-style of Son, and since we often dance Cuban Salsa to Son music, we can easily have a situation where some of the dancers on the dance floor dance on One and some dance on Two.

Some dancers are so cool that they like to dance the slow first part of Salsa songs on Two, and the faster part, when the Chorus starts, on One! We also have some of the very best dancers that prefer to dance some of the songs on count Five because they feel it is more natural for that song.

From the above we can learn, that strictly speaking it is almost impossible for a Cuban Salsa dancer to dance on the wrong beat. No matter what beat you dance on, you are right! Listen to the music, and it is up to you to decide, what instrument to follow, what rhythm , what melody line, etc and etc. You can not do it wrong strictly speaking, you decide how to interpret the music, and how to dance to it.

But one big problem remains. You don’t dance alone but with a partner. The partner probably wants to dance on One because she doesn’t know better, and that is what she is used to, and that is what she is trying hard to do. So if you, the Lead, don’t dance on One you confuse and irritate your Follow. You might even ruin her dance experience. For that reason a Lead should always dance on One, unless he is dancing with a super Follow that just loves to dance on any count the Lead throws at her.

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