How to find that goddamn “1” beat in salsa.

9 Aug

With a few tips and a little practice you can find the beat and you won’t have to worry about these signs anymore!

You’re getting better.

You’ve nailed the basic step and you can even lead a basic turn and a cross body lead.

You’re confidence is up (a little).

Then your big moment comes: time to dance with someone.. to real music.

The song starts. You get a little nervous. This is all up to you. You listen carefully, desperately trying to hear that elusive “1” count.
Was that it? Just there? The milliseconds feel like minutes. You break into a sweat.

You’re not sure if you’re right but you decide to go for it. You do it, you step forward praying that your partner is going to follow the same beat as you, pleading with all the gods above you can think of that you’ll both be in time together, wishing that this will be your moment to shine!

It’s not!

You move forward on a random beat and take her by surprise; she reacts too slowly. You start together but it’s far from synchronized and you both know it. Her eyes meet yours and you can see the look of pure terror that has taken her over. You know what that look is saying: “Why have you done this to me? Why did you dance on the wrong beat? Whyyyyyyy?”

You look around and see everyone in the club looking at you, some staring in horror, some shaking their heads in shocked disapproval, the rest laughing. Laughing at you! Laughing so hard that your unborn children will have to go to therapy to get over it. All because you can’t find the beat.

The laughing gets louder and louder and finally….
… You wake up screaming, breathing like you’ve just run a 100m sprint, drenched in a cold sweat.

If you’re anything like me you’ve had this dream at least once (or maybe I just have mental issues, I’ll have to discuss it with my shrink).

That damn “1”
The truth is, when you’re starting out, finding the beat in salsa can be a bit of a nightmare. You listen to the music trying to hear that magical “1” so you can get your boogy on but somehow it seems to elude you.

Let me tell you friend, you are not alone! For many people not exposed to salsa music from a young age finding the appropriate beat to start on can be tough. At least initially.

But just remember: if that bloody bearded Irishman can do it, then so can you!

There are two ways to find the beat in salsa:
There’s the
1:  dance, dance and dance some more until you finally pound the beat into your skull method.

and theres the
2: learn all about the instruments and intricacies of slasa music so you can specifically pinpoint that god damn “1” count…method (pretty catchy titles eh!!)

I’ll try and try and keep them short and sweet.

Method 1:
Get out there and dance song after song with someone who knows the rhythm until you finally “get it”.
This is the method that has been used for years by virtually 99.99% (disclaimer: may be a completely made up figure) of salsa dancers.

It is completely unscientific and this pisses a lot of people off because we all would love a more definite marker in the music. But it works.

The only caveat is that you have to dance with someone who already knows how to dance well. Otherwise it’s a true case of the blind leading the blind and you may end up with something reminiscent of my nightmare above.

Just give it time and practice and you’ll get it. I promise.

Method 2:
For those of you who aren’t content with the wishy-washy, unscientific, new age, hippy, “natural” method above, there’s a more in-depth (read: complicated) method.

Salsa’s rhythm comes from two percussion instruments: the clave and the congas. The clave is basically 2 sticks struck together in either a 2/3 or 3/2 rhythm. Clave literally translates as key or code and is the original base beat of cuban son (the precursor of salsa).

The congas are the tall African style Cuban hand drums that you may have seen if you’ve ever seen live salsa music. Congas provide the back beat to salsa music.

If you can only hear the clave or the conga you can hear the beat and dance to salsa music.

In order to use these instruments to find the beat in salsa we need to understand a little more about salsa itself.

Salsa Beats 101
Salsa is danced to 2 measures of 4 beats each making a a total of 8 beats. Of these 8 beats we step (or transfer weight) on only 6 beats (1, 2, 3…5, 6, 7…). The 4 and the 8 beats are used for a slower weight transfer (i.e. we don’t actually step on them but can transfer our weight more slowly between each measure). Salsa generally starts on the 1 count with the directional change (break) occurring “on 1” or “on 2” (depending on the type of salsa).

No with this knowledge we can use the instruments to help us find the beat i.e. to tell us when to start dancing.

With the clave
With the 3/2 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first three beats is the “1” count.

With the 2/3 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first two beats is the “2” count. The 3rd sound of the last three beats is the “8” thus you will start dancing immediately after that. Here’s a song with a nice clear 2/3 clave for reference:

Of course, often the clave can be difficult to hear, so….

With the congas
In my opinion it is far easier to hear the congas in a song and the truth is we (inadvertently) wait for the congas to start before we start dancing.

The basic salsa beat for congas can be seen in this video. It consists of three parts: gentle slapping with the left hand called “masacote”, a heavy slap with the right hand called “quemado”, and a hollow sounding double tap with the right hand called “abierto” (I’m sure there are terms in English for these but my conga teacher only speaks Spanish so we’ll have to make do).

It is the “abierto”, that double tap that is easiest sound to pick out in salsa music. It occurs on  the 4 and 8 beats which means you need to step immediately after it (the double tap) to hit your “1”.

Now, I said that it’s a double tap (and it usually is) but occasionally it may only be a single tap or it may be a combination of a single and a double tap (or sometimes something more complicated). The fact of the matter is: that prominent hollow beat in a salsa song is the conga and is perfect marker of the 4 and 8 beat. Here’s a nice song with a clear example of the conga beat (and a 2/3  clave):

Disecting the music
All of this technical talk about claves and congas and beats, however, requires that you actually distinguish them form each other in the song. Salsa bands are usually huge meaning a great many instruments are used which makes picking out individual instruments tricky, especially to the untrained ear.

The best homework you can do for yourself is sitting down and consciously listening to salsa music. Pop on some headphones and try to pick out the different instruments in the song. Follow them all, especially the percussion instruments; the drums, the cow bell, the congas and the clave. All help you to maintain your timing during a dance. If you have trouble finding the beat then ask someone to give you a hand.

Technology: the final frontier
Luckily, other people, who are far more tech-savvy than me, have thought of different ways to find the elusive “1”.

Some have even created these great videos that mark the “1” for you in a specific song you can practice with it and never have to worry about losing your place. Here’s one featuring one of my favourite songs “La Pantera Mambo”:

You should be able to find plenty more such videos on YouTube.

Practice makes perfect
As I’ve mentioned countless times before. this type of information is worthless unless you put it into practice. Practice with real salsa music (and an experienced friend) and I guarantee you, finding the beat in salsa will become as automatic for you as walking…or your money back (can’t beat that now, can ya?)

Oh, and if you have any other tips of finding the beat that have worked for you then let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about them.

Keep dancing folks.

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28 Responses to “How to find that goddamn “1” beat in salsa.”

  1. TheCubanFoodBlog August 13, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    You’re a fully paid up member of Salsa-holics I see. And we’re all the better for it. These technical points are just the kind of nerdy things that get discussed at 4am after a few too many rums at a congress that no-one remembers the next day. So thank you for a) staying sober enough to remember and b) putting the effort into writing them down and sharing them. And extra bonus brownie points for using Fragilidad – one of my all time favourite songs. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening to music. My first lesson in Cuba with Erodys (great name huh!) my dance teacher, we didn’t dance. We listened to music and he taught me to be able to pick up and tune into different instruments. It was the best “dance” class i’ve ever had. I’m looking forward to reading more blog posts, keep up the good work.

    • The Dancing Irishman August 14, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Thank you for such a lovely comment. I know people talk about the beat in salsa a lot so this was my chance to put my own spin on things. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m also looking forward to reading what you have to say about food in Cuba especially since it’s one of my planned destinations while I live here in Colombia.
      Keep dancing!

  2. David Garcia May 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Thank you for posting such a detailed, technical and clear explanation on the topic, i think this is just what i needed. I’m just starting to get interested on dancing salsa and I know that finding the beat or the “1” count is essential and pretty much the first thing one needs to learn. My wife is a great salsa dancer, she is able to teach me the different steps and rules and postures and what not, but as far as finding the beat, all she can say is: “feel it”, “it’s right there, don’t you hear it?”, to which i answer, NO. it’s a bit frustrating. But I will keep practicing to get better.

    by the way, I’m from Medellin, Colombia, i hope you had nice experience while living there.

    • The Dancing Irishman May 20, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

      I’m glad you liked the post David. I learned how to find the one by the trial and error method but that didn’t sit well with me at all so that’s why I wanted a little more tangible and understandable than someone just saying “just listen to the music” hahaha. I’m glad you found the post useful.

      And as for Medellin. I love that city. I’ve got to get back there soon for some paisa hospitality.

  3. Skreet February 11, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    I am one of those people who can’t feel it. I try to use the instruments to determine the beat. The cowbell(the thing that plays on 1, 3, 5,7 sometimes. Atleast that’s what I think its called) and try to rely on markers from the song. The sad thing is the markers aren’t always there. The cowbell thing is only there half the time. The congos tend to go wild in some songs.
    Its also hard initially to lead, do your footwork and follow the music all at the same time.
    I sometimes follow other couples on the dance floor and try to time my steps along with them. If my partner is new to it too, she doesn’t mind since she doesn’t know any better. So I fake it till I make it. I wonder if this app will be useful:

    • The Dancing Irishman February 18, 2014 at 9:26 am #

      Well if the “fake it till you make it” strategy works, go with it.
      To be honest, I got the hang of salsa timing after a while without knowing this much about the music and instruments. I just danced a lot with people who already had timing mastered and I guess I learned by osmosis.
      Whatever works for ya. Best of luck and let me know how it goes.

  4. al June 19, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    sorry if this post is a bit old but I had a few questions :
    Do clave and conga always use these rhythms ?
    I mean if I hear a conga in any song it will always be on 4 and on 8 ?

    Are they also in every salsa music ? Sometimes it’s like I can’t hear them.

    Also you wrote : “The 4 and the 8 beats are used for a slower weight transfer (i.e. we don’t actually step on them but can transfer our weight more slowly between each measure).”
    I had a question as I’m a beginner. What do you mean by a slower transfer ? I read something about the quick-quick-slow but I thought that it meant quick on 1 quick on 2 and then I move slower so that my left foot tap the floor on 4. Because when I see people dancing, they don’t seem to make a pause. I mean, if I put my left foot back on 3 and pause on 4 it’s like I’m breaking the dance when I look at myself in the mirror, it’s not smooth, the pause seems “too long”.

    Thanks for your help.
    Have a nice day.

    • The Dancing Irishman June 24, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

      Hi Al
      Clave will always be a 2/3 or 3/2 rhythm but the conga beat varies significantly. Also you can’t be guaranteed to always hear these instruments in the music (just to make things more difficult).

      What I mean by the slower transfer is the same as the quick quick slow you mentioned. There is no pause you just transfer weight to your left leg (if dancing On1) slower than the first two steps. You’re movement should be fluid throughout without a noticeable pause. To achieve this, try to avoid stepping back into the center like a lot of teachers teach (for simplicity’s sake). Instead, step behind the center when stepping back and step beyond the center when stepping forward. This way your basic step will look like one fluid motion. You can get a good salsa instructor to explain that better to you if you still have any trouble.
      Best of luck with your salsa.

  5. Anh July 6, 2014 at 3:05 am #

    The two songs you posted, one emphasizing the clave while the other emphasizing the conga, sound absolutely amazing.

    Both have this deep feeling to it that i cant quite explain how it makes me feel but I love it. Wanted to ask you if you had any recommendations for similar salsa songs or if you have a favorite Playlist you wouldn’t mind sharing. Thanks!

    • The Dancing Irishman July 23, 2014 at 9:31 am #

      Hi Anh
      Those two songs are something pretty special, I’d almost go as far as to say “without equal” for their particular style/feeling.

      Take a listen to these two:

      Also you can check out my salsa playlists here:

      It is however, in dire need of updating.
      I hope you enjoy

      • Anh July 30, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

        Thank you for the playlist. I greatly appreciate your site and glad I found it on my conquest to become a better leader. It is very helpful.

  6. Conor Zorba Rafferty December 3, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    Great post as ever Richie. I was searching for a salsa song with a clear clave beat and your article came up on the first page and was the most relevent result 😉

    • The Dancing Irishman December 3, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

      Awesome, good to know some people are reading the blog. Glad you found the article useful Conor!

  7. Matt December 12, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    Hello ! Do you have any tips to find the beats with bachata, please ? Your article helped me a lot to get salsa rhythm, at least how it works (I still have to practice listening).
    But I don’t know where and what to listen for bachata.
    Thanks in advance 🙂

    • The Dancing Irishman December 12, 2015 at 9:39 am #

      I never had to look for it Matt. I find that once you train your ear I find specific beats in music, it works for lots of other music styles. I really recommend dancing with someone who is able to find the beat and listening well as you dance with them on time

  8. AnthonyB January 27, 2016 at 5:05 am #

    Good and fun reading. Early times, what I’d do to find the 1 is as I’d walk onto the floor I’d watch a couple dancing. If I could clearly see where the 1 was in their step, I’d not take my eyes off them until I/we were ready to start. It’s a bit of cheat approach, but it saved me often from those blank stares from a partner waiting for me to find the “illusive 1”. (The more she stares, the less likely you’ll find it). It’s a good way to get you out there more often with less terror until the 1 just appears almost magically. WARNING, this approach will not generally help if you lose the beat mid-dance, however. Craning your neck around trying to find “the couple” again makes you look like a bit of an idiot. It will at least get you rolling though.

  9. practicalhypnosis September 11, 2016 at 6:05 am #

    Fantastic post! Quick question – since the Conga plays on both the 4 and the 8 count, do you have any tips for differentiating the two?

    Basically if there was a way for me to say “there’s the 1!” instead of “hmm, that’s either an 8 or a 4 …” that would be awesome 😛

    • Andy January 26, 2018 at 4:12 am #

      Hi, great post.
      I’d also like to know how to differentiate between the “1”and “5” with your congas method. I find I can usually pickup the beat, but I often get the “1” and “5” switched. Is the trick just to use the other instruments for clues ?.

      • The Dancing Irishman January 29, 2018 at 5:51 pm #

        Hey Andy,
        Great to hear you liked the post. To know which count is the five or the one, use the clave in conjunction with the conga beat. With the 3/2 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first three beats is the “1” count. With the 2/3 clave rhythm the 1st sound of the first two beats is the “2” count. The 3rd sound of the last three beats is the “8” thus you will start dancing immediately after that. There’s a few songs linked in the article that will give you examples to practice with.
        Good luck and keep dancing.

  10. Adrien February 13, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    Great post, and really useful examples. Thank you!

  11. Johnny April 25, 2018 at 8:43 am #

    The “one” is emphasized, so if you listen carefully you will hear the difference between the “one” and the “five” beat. The most common mistake in salsa is starting on the “five” beat, which is called “cruzado” or “crossed” in English. You can dance to it but it’s awkward.

    Also, the singing usually starts on the “one” beat. That’s a good hint.

    When it comes to clave, that’s a bit tricky because sometimes salsa has a “silent” clave, meaning that the musicians build the music around the clave but actually don’t play it.

    You also need to understand that clave is based on “son” and have its beats on 1 – 2 1/2 – 4 & 6 – 7. So dancing salsa to the clave beat will set you completely off. You can, however, use it to identify the “one”, but that’s it 🙂

    Best way to learn salsa rythm is to listen to loads of salsa songs and tap along 1-2-3 — 5-6-7.
    Happy dancing!


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