THE CLAVE THEORY
Notice that the clave pattern extends over two bars of the music (a measure) and that there are 5 accentuated beats over eight counts – three beats are accentuated in the first bar and two beats are accentuated in the next bar. This pattern is known as the Forward Son clave.
The slows, slows, quick of the first bar builds expectation that something is about to happen. The quick, quick surrounded by rests on the next bar climaxes the pattern.
The Son clave is the basis of Rumba Son Montuno, Mambo, Cha Cha and Salsa music. The name “Son clave” was coined because of its use in a Cuban dance/music style called “Son”.
The clave pattern can be traced to Native African Rumba. This is an exciting dance with exaggerated hip gyrations and staccato upper body moves. It is a completely different musical style and dance to the gentle and erotic dance that we generally refer to as Rumba. Our Rumba is related to a variation of the Son called Son Montuno.
There is a variation to the Forward clave called the Reverse clave. The difference between the two patterns relates to which accented beats occur in the first bar of the music. In the reverse clave two beats are accentuated in the first bar and three in the next bar.
The reverse clave is often referred to as the 2/3 clave and the forward clave is referred to as the 3/2 clave. This terminology has nothing to do with the music’s timing signature which is 4/4. The clave terminology merely describes which accented beats the 1 st and 2 nd bars of a movement have. For a musician this has significance in regards to the “groove” of the music but for a dancer the significance is reflected in the different “mood” each arrangement gives to the music. A good band will never mix the forward and reverse clave patterns. The music should always have either a 2, 3, 2, 3 feel or a 3, 2, 3, 2 feel all the way through the song. Warning though! One musician relates a story about an instrumental piece where the guitarist played in 3/2 clave while the rest of the band played 2/3 clave with the result that something didn’t sound right! The person who related this story got so annoyed by the strange sound that they went to find a band that played together. The moral of this story is that a dancer is dependent on the band playing the music consistently. If you can’t dance to the band or together, find one with whom you can dance! Irrespective of whether the forward or reverse clave pattern is being played, a dancer picks moves based on whether there are two or three clave beats in a bar. In bars with two clave beats, you either prepare for a move by doing a basic or perform a more staccato movement, such as a fifth position or cross over break. In bars with three beats you either perform a basic or spins or moves that require multiple steps. Generally, the man is too busy controlling the dance, so he usually just performs basics or basic variations throughout the dance. On the other hand, the woman performs the fancy moves and steps. So she is too busy moving to worry about much else and is dependent on the man to keep the timing and choreograph the dance. Remember the man is there to make the girl look good (nobody is watching him). He is simply the frame in which the girl is shown off.
Origins of Salsa
The Rumba, Mambo, Cha Cha and Salsa all dance with the clave and therefore use the same basic dance patterns. The variation that gives uniqueness to each dance occurs on the 4 th count and 8 th count. As discussed in part I, this reflects the adoption of Native African clave patterns, which were played in 12/8 time, into the Cuban clave pattern played in 4/4 time. Real dancers dance with the clave. What this means, is that they use the clave pattern to co-ordinate their movements. The word “clave” literally means key. It is a repetitive pattern in the music that keeps the band members in time and in the same pattern. As a dancer, it is that part of the music that locks you into a measure of music. A musical repetition that tells you, when to start or that you should have completed a sequence of moves and should start another.
As a dancer the key is the bar which has a musical emphasis on the 2 and 3 counts. From the first time you hear it, it will occur every second bar. Because the 2 and 3 clave beats have rests either side of them (like quotation marks) these beats are easier to hear than the 1, 2 & and 4beats of the next bar.
In Part II of this article we discussed that the pulse beats of the music occur on the 1 st and 3 rd counts. These strong down beats can make it a bit hard to hear the clave pattern. However, there is a clue in the bar where the 2 and 3 clave beats occur. Often the clave beat won’t be played on the second pulse beat (count 3). What you might hear is a strong down beat on count 1, the clave beat on count 2 and a stronger down beat on count 3 which resonates into count 4. Search for the 2 and 3 clave beats. They really are readily identifiable and are the key to finding the clave rhythm. The clave is what makes Afro-Cuban rhythms different to European/American pop music and dance styles where the dancers step to the downbeats. The Salsa/Mambo/Rumba dancer steps between the pulse beats that occur in Afro-Cuban music on counts 1 and 3 – this is why the music and dance are classified as syncopated rhythms! In Part III, we discussed that there is a forward clave and a reverse clave pattern. For a drummer there is a technical difference in regards to the “groove” that these patterns create but apart from the mood that the different patterns inspire – from a dancer’s perspective both patterns are basically the same. The “key” determines when we start to move and when we should finish a dance pattern. As a dancer we listen for when the 2 and 3 clave beats do or do not occur. If they are absent in the first bar (forward clave), you start on count 2 of the second bar or next time they occur. If they are present in the first bar (reverse clave). Oops! You have been so busy listening for the pattern you missed the start. Don’t rush into starting the dance! Be patient and start on count 2 of the third bar or next time they occur. Not a particularly complicated fact but it takes practice to co-ordinate dance moves with the music. Turn off the light, put on your headphones, lie on the floor and listen to some Salsa music. Listen for the clave pattern and dream you are the greatest dancer that has ever lived. You just might be! If you have decided to try and find the clave and are about to turn off the light, put on your headphones, lie on the floor and listen to some music then first press Cntrl-D to bookmark this page. If you have a copy of Lou Bega’s 1999 remake of Mambo No 5 listen to the four tracks of the single. In the Radio Edit and Extended Mix (what I call the line dance versions) the 2/3 clave pattern to me is really evident. Also listen to the Havanna Club Mix (Salsa version), listen to the trumpets, then the drums and then the base where the clave pattern is carried. Have fun! When you have finished come back and read on! If as a dancer you lose the rhythm, just feel the music. Every two bars, the 2 and 3 beat of the clave will be there for you to fix your timing!
You could find the clave by simply waiting for the first strike of the pulse beat that occurs on count one.
Then start your steps on the next count (two), that would put you on clave, but might put you out of “feel” with the music. So I recommend finding the 2 and 3 counts and base your choreography around the bars where they occur. Rumba (Son Montuno), Mambo, Cha Cha and Salsa are all dance styles based on the Son clave. Salsa is the grandchild of Rumba. Dancing with the clave means to “break on 2”, starting your steps with a change in direction on the 2 nd beat of the music, that contains the bar, which has the emphasis on the 2 and 3 counts. The creative innovations that gave birth to the Rumba based dances largely reflect the development of the music. While the clave pattern remains unchanged, it has been complimented with new instruments, like electric guitar, keyboard and horns, and the music has been given a new sound and a new feel. The question dancers now have to ask themselves is whether to abandon the clave based patterns and surrender the syncopated dance styling of the Cubans to European march patterns.
In short! Should we dance on the music’s down beats or between them? Or do we compromise as the New York Mambo/Salsa dancers seem to have – use European march footwork controlled by the downbeats and express the syncopated rhythm through upper body movement? I guess it’s a matter of tradition versus innovation but that is what street dance is all about – take what you know and modify it to match the music!
Emergence of the Clave based dances
The following discussion attempts to provide a visual demonstration of the reinvention of Rumba into Mambo, Mambo into Cha Cha and later Mambo into Salsa. The illustrations are provided to assist you in understanding the relationship between the dances and to assist you in becoming an accomplished dancer.
There is a difference between the way the dances are started in American ballroom and street styling and International styling. In the American styling the man starts by stepping back. In International styling (which is closer to the Cuban method) the man starts stepping forward for the simple reason that it establishes who is leading – preferably the man! Apart from the start sequence there is little difference between the two methods. This article uses the International method for describing the man’s steps. In the basics the woman always mirrors the man. If he steps forward, she follows his lead and steps back.
For most of the Rumba based dances there isn’t much difference between street styling and ballroom styling – at least in the stepping action. However, street styling is not as rigid as some other disciplines and so when I describe hip movements in this article, I do not encourage the contrived hip and body movements performed by more formal dancers (which the Latinos generally ridicule). What I do promote is the natural rhythmic movements which occurs from moving to the music and changing weight at the end of a step.
One final remark before we begin. Preparation steps are not notated in this article. Most beginners are taught to make a preparation step on the first count to ease themselves into breaking on two. In the American method this means the man will take a small step back left or step side left on the first count. In the International method the man would take a small step back right or step side right on the first count. Outside of dance classes, this has to be very confusing for the woman whenever she dances with someone for the first time! She has to second guess which foot and which direction the man is going to start. Her best alternative is to skip the first step and follow his lead on the break. More advanced male dancers simply wait for the clave and start by stepping forward breaking on two.
Above is some European dance notation but many people do not know what it means. So in Part III of this article we discussed how the music is constructed and attempted to visualize the music by inventing a musical notation for dancers. We also defined some rules for how to read it. Just in case you have already forgotten them, here they are again. Our bar is divided into the eight counts of a measure (16 half beats). Accent positions (where the sound is loudest) are shown on the half beat where they occur. Resonance show the duration of a sound. Adjacent resonance are shown in different colors just to differentiate them. Gaps in resonance, indicate no sound.
The first three diagrams indicate how the music started to emerge. The diagrams that follow them illustrate how the dances changed to match the patterns of the new sounds.
Okay! We should now be ready to examine Salsa’s ancestor, the Rumba Guaguanco.
Pre-dating the Son clave, there is another clave pattern that uses 4/4 timing called the Rumba clave. In the reverse clave the difference between the two occurs in the eighth count.
As I have remarked throughout this article, the clave pattern has origins in the Native African Rumba which is a style of music that uses a 12/8 feel in the music. It has origins in West African bell and drum patterns, brought to Cuba by the slaves. Variations of these traditional Rumbas occurred in the small towns of Cuba’s interior throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Possibly due to the influence of marching bands and the traditional (North African influenced) Spanish music, a Rumba style called the Guaguanco emerged which put the music into 4/4 time. It took the five accentuated beats that had occurred in one bar, and extended them over two bars of the music. This had the effect of slowing down the music, making it less complex and less syncopated and easier to dance.
The slowing down of the Native African Rumba gave rise to an increase in the popularity of the music amongst Cuba’s urban classes. To accommodate this new audience the music was simplified again through playing the last beat of the 2/3 clave directly on count 8. By the end of the nineteen century this led to the birth of the “Son”.
At the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, the US found itself regularly intervening in Caribbean affairs. This in turn led to a greater awareness of Latin music and dance throughout the USA and with the advent of phonographs, radio, movies and TV – the world! However, this new audience, while they loved the music, found it hard to dance to it! So dance patterns, which fitted the music, and which were easy to perform were created.
OK! We have had a look at the music, it is time to examine the dances.
Lets take the notation for the music and use it to define the Rumba based dances. First we need to slightly modify how the notation should be read. A dance phrase is divided into the eight counts of a measure (16 half beats). Accents (steps) are shown on the half beat where they occur. Adjacent resonance (duration of movement) are shown in different colors just to differentiate them. Gaps in resonance, indicate no movement.
Just in case you are not familiar with the basic steps for each dance – below each diagram is a brief explanation of the dance pattern. Also to make the notation more relevant to a dancer I have relabeled the Accent and Resonance lines. The Accent line has been relabeled “Steps” and the Resonance Line has been relabeled “Change of weight” – in this context the Resonance line indicates the half beat duration from when a step is taken to when it is completed with a change of weight. Also, so you can relate to which foot or leg the man is using, I have labeled where on the count an action occurs (L=Left, R=Right).
I use the man’s steps as it is his role to maintain the timing and initiate moves. So most of the time he simply performs basic movements or variants of them. However, the woman often performs more complicated step patterns; which means the man has to pay attention to the music so he can lead her into moves, where her stepping action will match the music. Between the fancy moves, the woman simply mirrors the man’s steps.
In Cuban Rumba the dance steps commence with the man stepping forward on the 2 nd beat of the bar in which the 2 and 3 beats of the clave occur (1 st bar of the reverse clave, 2 nd bar of the forward clave).
In the first movement the man steps forward left and changes weight onto the left foot on the next half beat. In the next movement, he commences to rock back right on the 3 count (there is no foot movement) and waits for the next half beat before changing weight. On count 4, he steps side left with an interval of two half beats before he completes a change of weight on the next half beat.
On count 6 he repeats the sequence but stepping back, rocking forward and completing with step side right. His partner mirrors his moves. Having completed the measure the dancers are back to where they started and to continue simply repeat the two patterns or perform variants of them.
Unlike the march patterns of European dance, which would require the dancer to start on the first beat, the clave based dances start on the second beat. Also, where the march pattern requires whoever is stepping forward, to step heel first, the Latin dances require you to step toe first. This puts the emphasis on the completion of the step, where the weight is placed onto the foot.
Although Cuban music was influenced by European march patterns, the dancers resisted them. Look again at the stepping actions.
Notice that the first bar has a one beat rest, a step and thereafter, an interval of three half beats occurs between each step. Also notice, only one foot (the same foot) actually steps in each bar. All action and excitement comes from the change of weight. This matches the music’s pattern where the pulse beats are ignored and the musical emphasis is placed on the next count. In the Cuban dances the steps are there simply to frame the lower body movement caused from changing weight onto a foot.
What differentiates Afro-Cuban dance from European dance is the incorporation of African drum rhythms and an emphasis on hip movement (change of weight) rather than the stepping action. If we examine the duration between foot and hip movements of the Rumba Son Montuno, the half beat intervals for each change of weight are incremental (0,1,2) throughout the progression of four beats.
For Europeans/Americans this arrangement takes the emphasis away from performing the hip action, making the call of the dance – step, rock, extend side or more commonly quick, quick, slow. Using this call the lower body movements occurring from a change of weight become a natural consequence of the stepping action.
At an elementary level, Mambo is just a fast Rumba and Salsa is just a fast Mambo. Through the influence of North American jazz, the tempo of Rumba music became faster and the dance steps were modified to give us Mambo. Rumba’s long step on count 4 (and count 8) with its characteristic completion with a change of weight half way through count 5 (and count 1), was replaced by a shorter step on count 4 (and count 8). This caused dancers to change weight earlier – on the next count. To keep the dancer in time with the music, a half beat pause was needed. As the tempo of the music became faster still, the last step had to be shortened again. This caused the dancers to change weight on the half beat after stepping, and pausing for one beat to keep in time with the music.
As the tempo of Mambo music became even faster, it’s dance steps had to be modified again and so we have Salsa. To stop the dancer moving off the beat, the Mambo’s one beat step on count 4 (and count 8) was replaced by a half beat step, with a placing of weight on the next half beat. Because the music is screaming for you to move on the next beat, an additional step, a tap followed by a half beat pause, was introduced on count 5 (and count 1) to act as a brake, to stop the dancer moving. Salsa music seems to scream for you to start moving and keep moving, so many dancers start with the tap on the first beat of the music. Notice that when performing the tap, there is no change of weight. This allows you to stay in clave, by allowing you to use the same foot to break on two.
“The Origins of Salsa the Puerto Rican Influence”
We discussed that between 1915 and 1930 around 50,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the USA. However, between 1940 and 1969 an additional 800,000 Puerto Ricans also migrated to the USA (especially to New York City). It can’t be a coincidence that, this is the period that popular Latin music went through a dramatic change and influences outside of the Cuban traditions changed the music and the dance, leading to the development of first the Cha Cha and then Salsa. The music rhythm for the Cha Cha was a section of the Mambo and has origins in Cuba. However, it has been suggested that the dance originated in New York. As the story goes, NY club audiences liked the particular shuffling sound in the music and encouraged the bands to play more of it! It has also been said that the Puerto Ricans found Mambo too slow and to spice it up, incorporated a touch of their home grown dance, Plena y Bomba. Thus from the Mambo was born Cha Cha Cha. The Puerto Ricans took the basic Mambo pattern and excited the 4th and 8th beats causing the dancer to step side and on the next half beat simultaneously change weight onto that foot while stepping side on the other. The same occurred on the next beat until on the 5& (1&) count the dancer changed weight again before restarting the pattern. The Shuffling sound produced by the side steps gave the dance it’s name – the Cha Cha Cha. Cha Cha’s popularity in the nightclubs didn’t last long. Puerto Rican influenced Bomba, Boogaloo and other dances took control throughout the 1960s. Until in the 1970s Mambo was reborn as Salsa!
New York Mambo/Salsa
A new style is gradually gaining popularity in America, Europe and Asia. Loosely it is referred to as New York Mambo/Salsa. Even in New York there are style differences between dance teachers. Most notably between American ballroom teachers and exponents such of divergent styles such as Angel Rodrigeuz, Eddie Torres, Jimmy Anton and Nelson Flores
The above notation for New York Salsa/Mambo is based on Stephen Shaw’s description of the basic steps as provided at his website Stephen mentions that although many New York dancers simply start with the basic movements (the ones I have notated) there is a technically proper way to start. The man starts by stepping forward on count 6, on the next beat he rocks back onto his right foot and pauses, then on the first count of the next measure he starts the basic step pattern…
The man takes a small step back with his left foot, then takes a larger step back with his right foot and changes direction. He then steps in place with his left foot and pauses. In the next bar he steps forward right, forward left, steps in place with his right foot and pauses. The lady mirrors the man’s moves. This sequence is then repeated in the following measures. The clave action takes place in the 2 and 3 counts and is expressed through a change of direction, with upper body movement. It has been suggested that these dance patterns are more reminiscent of the evolution of New York Hustle than the evolution of the Rumba (clave) based dances.
Examining the notations for the other dances (provided in Part V – Emergence of the Clave based dances) and comparing them with the notation of NY Salsa/Mambo and considering Stephan Shaw describes it as a slot dance, this could be true! Mike Bello in his article “Mambo: Cuba Created It, New York Perfected It!” suggests a special evolution of Mambo in New York, with the style migrating from the hips to the shoulders and back again. He goes on to say that the Hustle arrived in NY about 1972 and ” interestingly, a great many dancers were either dancing Mambo, the Hustle or both.
What transpired then was an intermingling of the styles.” James Religa in his notes on NY Hustle says that the Hustle originally was a type of West Coast Swing but has greatly evolved since its origins in the 1970s. He also says that until about 1982 the dance had a rock-step in it but that was changed to a forward together. NY Hustle’s evolution possibly accounts for the three step pattern that NY Mabonics now use! I noted earlier in this article that the Rumba (clave) based dances were developed by dancers who took the familiar “Son” as a basis and modified the steps to fit the new sounds.
In New York it seems that history has repeated itself, with the dancers taking the Mambo, merging it with the Hustle and creating a new dance style that keeps to the clave rhythm. Well! That is why Mambo and Salsa are called street dances. They are not meant to be stagnant. The dancers are meant to take the familiar, modify it and make the dance and with it the music, something to which everyone can relate!
In correspondence with Marla Friedler (Salsa Web) she explained to me that in the Eddie Torres method the pause on 4 and small step on 1, is actually a single continuous step. In her article on “How to dance New York Style Mambo”, she describes it as “Holding the 4 and 8 counts instead of the 1 and 5, which makes for a really interesting style, because although you don’t step on the 4 and 8, you are not really holding in place on the counts you don’t step on…this is because on the 4 and 8 you are in motion moving your foot all the way from the front to the back or the back to the front, getting ready to step on 1 or 5.” What Marla is actually saying is you start to step on count 4 and complete it on count 1. Except for the fact that the step is forward or back instead of side, Eddie Torres’ stepping pattern is a minor variation on the stepping patterns for a Rumba.
Check out this ( On line Salsa Mambo Free Salsa Dance Lesson Steps on the step patterns notes that “in the clubs in New York, rarely did we observe this way of breaking on two. Instead most were dancing the (regular) two. The way Eddie Torres teaches is the way they danced during the Mambo craze of the 50s and 60s. We believe Eddie is helping to bring this way of breaking on two back in vogue.” To find out how people danced in the 50s, have a read of Arthur Greenburg’s (article on the History of Rumba, Mambo & Cha Cha).
I believe much of the mystery and debate in the USA about the dance patterns and when to “break”, is the creation of the people who write about Mambo/Salsa. If writers related their experience in terms of musical patterns and used less ambiguous terminology, the average person might relate to the dances more readily. With this aim, I suggest the following rules for all future discussion: A “pause” should mean do nothing! Not “step dragging the foot over two beats”. The ambiguous, “in place step” used by a lot of USA writers, should be changed to articulate the foot motion that occurs – “rock back/side/forward changing weight onto the other foot” or “tap/kick without changing weight onto the foot, ready to step forward/side/back on the next step”. The term “step” should only be used where the foot moves and a change of weight occurs at the end of a specified beat interval – it would be helpful if writers specified on what beat the step began and the duration (in half beats) that the step is completed with the change of weight. If you have further suggestions please email Street Dance.
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