An Advanced Salsa Secret Revealed – Dancing Behind the Beat
Advanced salsa dancers practice a key but subtle timing habit that significantly enhances their smoothness, creativity, and connection to their partner. The skill is so subtle, in fact, that many great dancers don’t even know they’re doing it! But with practice, anybody can master this invaluable technique…
For many beginners, learning to dance on the beat is a major challenge. This is because the salsa percussion is busy, complicated, and fluid. Like jazz, salsa demands a rhythmically practiced ear – as well as muscle memory – in order to maintain the beat throughout an entire song.
But while dancing on the beat is a key stepping stone in the road to becoming a truly advanced salsa dancer, we’d like to suggest that it not be your ultimate goal. Instead, the real challenge is this: once you’ve mastered dancing on the beat, start learning to dance behind it!
Why? Simply put, because good dancers move their feet and bodies on the music, while great dancers move their feet and bodies to the music. There is a difference – a big one, actually! And understanding this difference can help elevate your salsa dance experience to higher levels.
Music / Dancer Dynamic – “React to the Rhythm!”
The art of salsa dancing is commonly passed on by inspiration. You see someone who inspires you to emulate their style, or at least a certain aspect of it. You respect something about the way he or she expresses the music in artistic motion, and you want to be able to do it too.
But whatever you admire about another dancer – maybe it’s his/her footwork, body movement, posture, move repertoire, or just overall style – there’s usually one obvious characteristic that all great salsa dancers have in common: a confident and relaxed presence on the dance floor. Well, believe it or not, an advanced salsero’s confidence is often rooted in his or her ability to “react” to the rhythm by dancing slightly behind it.
So instead of intentionally making your steps and body movements “arrive” at the exact moment of each beat, start letting your feet and body react to the sounds you are listening to. Allow the music to “pull” your feet into their steps, and “pull” your body into its Latin contra-body motion. If you’re doing it right – if you are really reacting to the rhythm – then you have to delay your timing, because it is not possible to truly react to anything “instantaneously.” Otherwise, it isn’t reacting, it’s anticipating!
Of course, we’re not advocating that you do this just for kicks. Delaying your timing by just a small fraction of a beat can really enhance your acoustic sensation, artistic creativity, and connection to the music. In other words, dancing behind the beat is much more than a “cool trick;” to us, it’s a defining characteristic of truly advanced salsa dancing.
Dancing on the Beat – “Just What Does that Mean, Anyway?”
It is somewhat understandable for those who have never heard this concept before to dismiss it as imprecise or even unnatural. Indeed, we’re telling you not to dance exactly on the beat! And isn’t dancing on the beat one of the few non-negotiable “rules” of salsa?
Well, yes – kind of. We just advocate dancing “to” the beat, as opposed to dancing “on” it. What’s the difference? Consider this: while the beat structure of the music is itself mathematically precise, you actually have substantial leeway in deciding how you want to express that beat structure in artistic motion. Dancing “on” the beat connotes a level of precision that we feel is too restrictive, too amorphous, too hard to define. After all, what is dancing “on” the beat, anyway? Is it when you first start moving your foot towards its destined meeting with the floor? Is it when your foot first touches the floor? Or is it the moment you maximize your weight transfer to the floor?
From this perspective, perhaps you can see how the beat itself is exact, but the way you dance to it need not be so. In fact, when we say “dance behind the beat,” we mean: “delay your weight transfer until very slightly after the beat passes.” We leave it to you to decipher the phrase “very slightly after” – this could mean one-tenth of a beat, or slightly more, slightly less. Perhaps you should time your foot to touch the floor right on the beat, which would mean your weight transfer occurs slightly thereafter. This is all a matter of interpretation, and frankly, developing the skill requires more a change in “mindset” than a conscious change in timing.
But there is one thing we do know for certain: if you master this concept you will not look like you’re dancing off-beat! Quite the contrary: to us, people who transfer their weight exactly on the beat appear to be dancing ahead of it – they look rushed! And hurried dancing is hardly the ideal way to express yourself to music rooted in a culture that’s known for “taking its time!”
For a more detailed and thorough explanation of dancing
behind the beat, please see:
Practice Makes Permanent
If we’ve convinced you to at least try this idea on for size, how should you start practicing the technique? First, check out other dancers next time you go to a club. But don’t just watch their moves, focus on their timing. Notice that beginners and intermediates tend to transfer their weight either exactly on the beat, or even slightly ahead of it. They often appear awkward, like they’re rushing through the dance. If you then watch these dancers execute complicated turn patterns, you’ll likely note that they often “lose the rhythm.” Usually, one or both of the dancers actually speeds up their tempo during the move, which ruins the flowing, reactive partner connection so critical for smooth execution. You may be surprised to see just how ahead of the “1” or “5” some people finish fancy turn combinations, and even simple spins, as well. By contrast, the smoother, more advanced dancers will probably be the ones that react to the music by holding their timing behind the rhythm.
But to really appreciate what we are talking about, you’ll have to actually do it! This will require you to actively re-train yourself to dance behind the beat. Start by forcing yourself to slow down your weight transfers, especially when doing the basic step. It’s probably easiest to concentrate on delaying your forward and back-steps (the typical “1” and “5” beats). But you can also try holding your pauses (i.e., the “3-4” and “7-8” beats) a bit longer, which will provide the same effect. The nice thing about the pauses is that they allow you to “draw out” your “3” and “7” weight transfers even later than you can for the other beats. You can draw your pauses out a full half-beat by landing on the “3˝” or “7˝,” or even all the way to the “4” and “8” if you like.
Once you’ve worked on your basic weight transfers, you can then practice delaying your turns. Beginners and intermediates tend to finish turns exactly on “3” and “7,” which can make their dancing appear rushed or even robotic. It’s actually better from a smoothness standpoint to finish turns some time after the “3” and “7.” In addition, pay particular attention to your timing after completing the turn. Don’t rush it! Step back into the basic slightly behind the beat (the “5” for the man, the “1” for the woman). You will experience the sensation of having much more time for spins; which in turn, will help to you relax and more smoothly execute the more complex patterns as well!
Leader / Follower Dynamic – “Lead Early, Follow Late!”
There’s an additional aspect to this timing concept, and learning it will likely make an even bigger difference in your dancing. If slightly delayed dancing can help enhance your connection to the music, then this concept can also be applied to enhance your connection with your partner. This is because the music-dancer dynamic is analogous to the leader-follower dynamic – both relationships are characterized by guidance and reaction. So what we advocate is this: in addition to the man dancing slightly behind the rhythm of the music, it is even more important that the woman dance slightly behind the tempo of the man!
Dancing in this way allows the man to truly lead the woman. If the woman is dancing exactly on the same beat as her leader, it will be more difficult for her to properly interpret the lead. Instead, she needs to delay her timing very slightly such that she can truly react to the lead, and then step accordingly. Otherwise, she’s not really following, but is just guessing where to step next.
To put this another way, it is virtually impossible for a man to effectively lead a woman who is dancing ahead of him. In fact, even if the woman is dancing on the man’s exact same rhythm, it’s still very difficult for him to lead her (especially if he fails to provide an early lead – see below). This is because the woman is trying to arrive at her next step at the same time that she is receiving the signal of where that step should be. Thus, much of what she does is actually anticipating, not following. However, if the woman first waits for the lead and then reacts to it, she will know exactly where to go.
So the key to maintaining a smooth, reactive connection is to “lead early” and “follow late.” But how is this concept actually applied when partner dancing? Let’s consider a simple example. After a cross-body lead, the woman normally steps back with her right foot on the “1” in order to return to the basic. (Let’s assume dancing on “1.”) And because the basic step tends to serve as a “default” pattern, the woman will allow her momentum to take her right foot back if she doesn’t wait for the man’s lead. Knowing this, the man must provide an early indication if he wants to lead his partner into something other than the basic, i.e. if he wants her to step in place, or even step forward. In fact, an advanced leader would indicate that he wants his partner to step anywhere other than back on “1” as early as the previous “7,” because he knows that his follower has to be given ample notice to avoid that default basic step. Advanced leaders almost always “lead early,” and for just this reason.
But there’s more: as the man leads early to help ensure a smooth partner connection, the woman really enhances the connection by “following late.” In other words, an advanced follower, whether she realizes it or not, dances very slightly behind the rhythm of her partner. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics that makes her an advanced follower! Ever wonder why some women are easier to lead than others? One big reason is that a good follower delays her timing, which removes the “urgency” with which she must respond to a given lead. Thus, to an advanced follower, there’s actually no such thing as a default step! There’s nothing for her to anticipate, because she’s always purely reacting. By dancing behind her partner’s rhythm, she more astutely senses his lead, which makes it far less likely that she will ever step or move in a manner that interrupts the partner connection. The result? A more relaxed “feel;” a more confident presence; smoother moves; tighter turn patterns; and more creative and dynamic styling when you partner dance – all thanks to a rhythmic “trick” that essentially allows both of you to extract more “time” from the music itself.
Summing It All Up
In many ways, salsa dancing is really just physics, and this concept of dancing behind the beat has many “natural” analogies. Take water-skiing, for example. Imagine an engine (the music) driving a boat (the dancer), which is in turn pulling a water-skier (the follower). When the engine is throttled, there’s always a slight delay before the boat actually moves. The same is true when a dancer gets “pulled” by the music. In effect, the dancer is not truly dancing to the music unless he’s dancing behind it!
This dynamic also holds for the woman. Just as the water-skier (the woman) is towed behind the boat (the man), the follower allows the leader to pull or guide her toward her next step. Until there is some tension on the rope (the lead), there simply isn’t anywhere for the skier to go. Therefore, just as the man is dancing slightly behind the beat of the music, the woman is dancing slightly behind the lead of the man. First, the engine, then the boat, then the water-skier – all moving at the same speed, but staggered slightly behind one another’s timing.
Hey, there are lots of interesting analogies, but the real challenge is to make all this come together for you on the dance floor. One final word of advice: be prepared that it will take some practice. Remember, your objective is to eventually “re-train” your entire muscle memory to delay everything just enough so that, as a leader, you are purely reacting to the beat, and as a follower, you are reacting to the beat and to the lead! At this point, you will have come to appreciate what the world’s best salsa dancers already know, either consciously or subconsciously: that dancing “to” salsa music is far more empowering than dancing “on” it!
Eric Freeman, Jason Spellberg, and Thomas Stadler contributed to this article.
- Eric Freeman, a world-renowned salsa instructor based in Boulder, Colorado, produces extremely popular salsa instructional videos and DVD’s (www.salsaville.com).
- Jason Spellberg is an avid salsa dancer living in Washington D.C.; he has studied and danced salsa the world over.
- Thomas Stadler, of Zurich, Switzerland, is the head promoter of the hugely successful Zurich Salsa Congress.