Cuban Salsa: Should we dance contra-tiempo for the first part of a dance?

Definitely not, speaking in general. And there are absolutely no objective benefits from dancing the first part of a dance on “two” instead of on “one”. The only argument for doing it: that it happens to be your personal preference, or that you like to do it for a change.

The OBJECTIVE disadvandtages, on the other hand, are legio for the wast majority of dancers. Dancing contra-tiempo in Casino is only a serious option for accomplished Son dancers that can’t get enough of contra-tiempo.

Why is Cuban Salsa mostly on “1”?

It is easy to speculate why a sub-style of the social dance Son changed from contra-tiempo (“2”) to “1” more than 50 years ago, and fast became the dominant way of social dancing with a huge following, many, many times bigger than classic Son: because it is much easier to dance on “1”, it is much more natural for most people.

Dancing contra-tiempo or on “2” can obviously give some of us a great feeling since some of us prefer it, or at least do it some of the time for a change, but it is much more difficult than dancing on “1”. Dancing contra-tiempo or on “2” tends to be exclusive, for the few. It will never become a people’s dance for obvious reasons. Also in “Cross Body Lead” Salsa, dancing on “1” is many times bigger than dancing on “2”.

Why is dancing on “1” easier?

For most people all our dance figures and dance movements are based on counting “1-2-3, 5-6-7”, and that works well when we dance on “1” because we then also step on beat “1-2-3, 5-6-7” in the music. Also, most people find it much more easy and natural to find the “1” in the music, because all music phrases (distinct groups of bars) change without exception on “1”. That is, in almost any piece of dance music, we can always locate at least a handful of “ones” with certainty. To find “2” or “4” and “8” is always a more indirect process much more difficult to keep track of during a social dance with a lot of distractions unless you are an experienced or talented dancer.

In a lot of traditional Son-Salsa music, but relatively rare in contemporary salsa music, it is relatively easy to find “8” and “4”, especially if there is a loud Tumbao rhythm from the Conga drums. But the Tumbao rhythm makes it even easier to dance on “1”, because it is easier to step “1” and “5” after the fact than “8” and “4” at exactly the same time as the fact!

Dancing contra-tiempo, or on “2”, requires that our brain can keep track of two different counting systems simultaneously, one for figures and moves another for what beat in the music to step on. But in the long run it is of cause mostly a matter of practice. One method is simply to start counting “234-678” also for figures and moves, and to do it long enough to get used to it.

Why the difficult part of a dance?

In the first part of a dance, we need time to connect, we need time to establish synchronised stepping, time to establish a common look and feel for the dance. It also takes time to get up “flying” in a good flow not just stepping.

At the beginning of a dance, the intro is likely to be a little tricky, and it is always much more difficult to find the beat and the “1” in the first part of a dance, and we need to pay attention to the music, how it is organised, if there are things in it we can make use of later. The music might be unknown to us, or we have only listened or danced to it a few times before. Even the Lead’s partner might be new or relatively “unknown”.

One thing is certain: For the first part of a dance, unless the couple has contra-tiempo as their second nature, one should choose to dance on “1”, on what is the easiest and most natural, because there are plenty of challenges ahead. By far the wast majority of salsa dancers are much better of dancing on “1” because they are so much more used to it, that they don’t even have to think about it, and that is exactly what we often need especially at the beginning of a dance.

But even contra-tiempo beginners can of cause use contra-tiempo in the first part of a Casino dance, if they feel it is worth it, or just to try it out, or if they know the music well, and especially if they have already trained dancing contra-tiempo to that piece of music. There is no right or wrong for how to step in Cuban Salsa. As long as it works well for you and your partner, it is only a question of personal choice.

It is a fallacy to believe that just because contra-tiempo is more difficult, it is also more advanced and that dancing on “1” is mostly for beginners or to play it safe. On the contrary.

By dancing on what we are most comfortable with, by dancing on the beats we find the most easy, the more time we have to connect and enjoy the dance, the more we can be music driven and improvise to the music.

The easier our “basic steps”, the more we can venture into unknown territory and the Mother of all Complicados, the more we can go completely wild and crazy with a fair chance of success.

2 comments

  • For pure Timba, Songo type music I agree 100% -> on-1 just seems right.

    For older Son, and modern music done in a Son style for example: Tu Son Risa Mixael Cabrera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEXq9WLq8ho you can certainly try on-1 with that music, but given it is heavily Son based it just feels plain wrong. I feel like dancing on-1 with that music is doing an injustice to the musical and dance heritage of that genre of music -> no offense meant to anyone, but Son was traditionally danced on-2 and I see no reason to change that. Are we then going to start dancing Guaguancó on 2-4-6-8 and not 1-3-5-7 🙂 Try stepping Rumba incorrectly in Cuba and I am sure you’ll get feedback quickly!

    Lot of the times we are forced to dance to mainstream salsa music, I waver on that one regarding on-1 or on-2. If its heavy in reference to its original Son roots and structure, I’ll end up dancing Casino on 2. No hard or fast rule though, most often its Casino on-1 I do, and just hope the next song is Timba 🙂

    There are a few rare modern songs that mix a bit of old style Son styled music with Timba: Manana Club La Mulata is one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vumvGWLQVOg, most of the song is done in an old style ‘Son’ style. Given the musical structural references to the past that song just feels better on 2 to me, lots of closed position, skipping the arm-pretzel moves and doing classic Son like moves. But about 1 minute before the end there is a gear change and it is most definitely Timba and on-1 / full Casino is called for -> thats just what I feel, others may different, it just seems appropriate given the music.

    Think musicality is what matters the most here, doing something that you feel is appropriate to the music, allowing you to express yourself. I like to include references to the dances that were the roots of Casino (Son, Mamba, Cha, Rumba), so its less about forcing on-1 or on-2, but doing what is appropriate given what the song is doing musically, and what you are trying to express. Obviously to move between these timings you need a partner that is able to switch, so for most social dancing with different partners you wouldn’t have the freedom to switch easily.

    A.

    • Thanks. I like good view points even when I partly disagree.

      I think you pretty much reflect the opinion of many contra-tiempo aficionados and that is ok with me. My main point is exactly that we are talking about personal preferences mostly and priorities.

      I don’t believe that one SHOULD dance in one and the same way or that it is more correct to dance on this or on that for this or that piece or part of music, when we are talking about Cuban Salsa in general.

      We might have dance styles and music we can only interpret in one way but they are rare and I even doubt that they exist. As a provocation I would rather say, that if a piece of music can only be interpreted in one may, it must be mediocre and a dance style that can not interpret music with a wide range of variation is not worth pursuing.

      I have been told that relatively simple music like Dominican Bachata are likely to be danced by better local dancers on almost any beat and half beat. Son music, Salsa and Timba are much more complex. You are likely to have sub-groups in love with dancing on anything as long as some partner wants to go along.

      People’s levels of tolerance when it comes to music and dancing are surprisingly different. I know of people that literally hates Bachata music or classic Son, or they find Merengue, Cuban Afro or body rolls to be such a joke that they don’t even want to give it a try, or they MUST dance contra-tiempo to music where they feel it fits in.

      I have no problems and feel no “pain” having to dance on “1” at a social to music I use for my Son, contra tiempo, training like Toda Una Vida or Venenosa, just to mention a couple of songs many of us are familiar with.

      Also, I am opposed to tendencies making Cuban Salsa more exclusive and for the few. I like to focus on what can make more people dance Cuban Salsa, on realistic social dancing, and SOCIAL dancing means a lot to me, not just dancing with a partner.

      To me contra-tiempo in Casino is mostly a diversion, a luxury that makes the dance much more difficult (even to find someone to dance it with) without adding anything of real importance to my dance.

      I would rather focus more on connection, positioning, musicality, leading and following, on how to optimize my steps, on how to organize the dance, on how to make my Follow buy the full package of my dance, it’s look and feel, on how I can make her step forward by default. And on learning also to dance as a Follow in order to become even better as a Lead.

      We all have our preferences and our priorities. Dancing a little Son is high on my list: nice to know more about the origins of Casino and sometimes I like to integrate the elegance of Son, it’s look and feel (as I interpret it) and some classic Son moves into my Cuban Salsa.

      Dancing Casino with Son timing for parts of the dance is far below on my todo list.

      Dance and let dance.

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