While being relatively new to the Toronto Dance Helping scene, one thing I keep getting asked about is timing. This makes total sense as being on beat is essential to all dance styles and couldn’t be more true for the highly syncopated rhythms of salsa. Trust me, learn to be on time and your dance card will fill up faster than the off-time person who knows a million moves.

If you count out a standard salsa phrase you’ll find that it’s based on 8 beats and it’s all started by the elusive 1 beat. While you think that since it’s the first beat that it would be quite apparent but for those who are just diving into salsa music it can be quite elusive. The good news is that you can train your ears (and hearts) to feel the beat, the bad news is that you have to work at it a little. I’ve come up with a few suggestions to help you improve your timing and if any of you have your own techniques, I’d love to add them to the list!
Timing tips:
-Can’t find the 1? Put on a salsa song, close your eyes and take a few deep breathes. Start listening to the song and you’ll notice that out of all the repeating 8 beats that the 1 will be the loudest. Start clapping out the 8 beats for the entire song and when you sound like you’re in sync with the band, pick another song and try it again.
-Still not hearing it? An easy way to tell where the 1 lies is by listening for the lead singer as they usually start singing the verse and choruses on the 1 beat.
-This one I call the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ Technique as I put a bunch of songs on the ol’ ipod and step in beat with the music ala John Travolta. Try to step with the beats, if you can’t quite get them, try to line up your steps to the instruments playing, such as the cowbell or clave hits. It sounds silly but when you’re in sync you’ll actually feel like the music is walking you down the street.
-Have you read the blog about the ‘Salsa beat machine?’ Basically this cool web app allows you to control salsa from the internet and the best part? One of the instruments featured is a voice who calls out the 1 and 5 beats. What I do is play the song with the voice calling out the beats and practice my basic (don’t worry, you can speed up and slow down the music if you’re not ready for the 120 bpms). Once I’m confident with stepping to the voice, I turn it off and start counting the beats out loud while I step. After a few sessions with this I no longer had to wait for my instructor to call out the beats at the beginning of class.
-Count out loud. Trust me, I still count out loud and anyone who dances with me knows that if we’re in a classroom, I count. It may sound silly but you’d be amazed at how in sync you’ll be with your partner when you’re both counting together. Another good thing about counting out loud is that if the music is too fast, you can count slower while you work on your new move and your partner will be in sync to you. Protip: While counting out loud in class is great, please refrain from doing it out at the clubs.
-Practice your basic to music that you love that isn’t salsa. Whether you love Lady Gaga, Nirvana or Wu-Tang, by dancing to music that you already are familiar with you will learn how to line up your foot movements to the beat. When I was learning timing, I would throw on some of Prince and Michael Jackson’s more upbeat songs and basic my brains out. Try switching up songs so first it’s Billie Jean then it’s Ran Juliana followed by Rock My World.
-If your problem seems to be more physical and that you can’t step quickly enough, try smaller steps. If you have to, practice your basics in tight spaces that limit you from taking anything but small steps.
-Listen. Seems simple but a lot of people who salsa don’t listen to salsa music when they’re away from class. Trust me, all of the good salseros have massive playlists at home and listen to salsa 24-7. By becoming familiar with the music you will start hearing not only the 1, but all of the instruments, what beats they come in, what beat the singer sings, you’ll hear the ‘call & respond’ of the horns and singers and even know the words to Me Libere even though you don’t speak Spanish.
-Watch other dancers. When you’re out in the clubs take a break for a few songs and watch the people out on the floor. Now while normally everyone watches what their torsos and hands are doing I want you to look down and check out their feet. See how they step to the beat and see how some step ahead of the beat, some on and some behind the beat. Some of my biggest timing related breakthroughs were spent looking at dancers’ feet on the floor (Just don’t try to give off a creepy vibe as you don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable).
Trust me, timing isn’t learned overnight but it is something that you can learn with practice. We all start out and have to overcome this issue as timing is something that will be with you forever. Try out some of these techniques and if you have any questions or tips of your own, let me know!
Till next time, keep shining salseros