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.