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Dancing on Beat: Required or Optional?

by Darius Johnson

What is all this talk about dancing on beat? There are people who will tell you that dancing to the right beat is one of if not THE most important skill to master in salsa. I don't disagree with them. You'll also find people that say that when it comes the salsa, dancing on beat is in the eye of the beholder. I can go along with that too -- as long as we're clear on the fact that not every beholder beholds the right thing.

So how important is it to understand the beats in salsa? In my humble opinion, it really depends on how serious you are about dancing. If you're looking to sing along with Victor Manuelle and Frankie Ruiz in your car, you don't need to be contemplating the complexities of the beat. If your goal is to dance cumbia to an occasional salsa song that the DJ plays in the club, don't worry about the beat. However, if your goal is to progress past the "beginner" or "novice" level of salsa dancing, you really should consider learning how to count the beats and dance on them.

"Why?" you ask. What do you gain from dancing on beat? How does it improve your experience on the dance floor?

  1. Being able to dance with anyone.

    A person that dances on beat can dance with everyone from the person who has never taken a dance lesson to the professional dancer. There's only ONE way to truly be "on beat", so it makes for a universal code of dancing. Even as styles differ from one place to another, everyone hears the same beats. If we all count them the same way, we can all dance together without crashing into one another and stepping on each other's feet.

  2. Stronger appreciation for the music.

    Like it or not, as dancers, we are musicians. We create a visual interpretation of the music with our bodies. Understanding the beats of salsa (as well as being familiar with the song that we're dancing to) allows us to synchronize our bodies to the music. The piano player is not allowed to play his instrument off beat. The drummer is not allowed to play his instrument off beat. We, as the dancers, are not allowed to play our instruments (our bodies) off beat. When you hear a song 50 times, you begin to really hit the accents and do special moves that go along with certain things that are happening in the song. As you listen to more salsa music and understand the different beat patterns, you will begin to be able to anticipate accents and other elements in songs that you've never heard! As your body becomes trained, you won't have to even think about dancing on beat -- you'll FEEL it. I always hear people saying that certain dancers "flow" with the music. I can honestly say that I've never heard anyone say that about someone that was dancing off beat.

  3. Ability to do more intricate and advanced moves.

    Most of us have seen that couple in the dance club that is doing really cool moves. But something's missing. After each flashy turn pattern, you see the female cringe from pain. The song is a mellow, slow jam. They're dancing at warp 9. After the song is over, you swear that the female's left arm is about three inches longer than when the music started. Oh, and the male's biceps have experienced a 10% increase in mass. They are both drenched in sweat and sit down for 4 to 6 songs before attempting to dance again. Is this really necessary? You see dancers all the time that seem to be able to lead and follow the most complex moves almost effortlessly. Are they dance partners? Nope. Did they practice these moves together for hours before showing up the the club? Nope. What is their secret? THEY'RE DANCING ON BEAT. Dancing on beat is the most powerful contract that you can have with your partner on the dance floor. It creates a trust between you that opens all kinds of doors. Both of you have a good idea of where the other person's feet are going to be and when. You both know that you're hearing the music the same way. Under these circumstances, dancing no longer has to be a jerky tug of war. The lead does not have to push and pull the follow onto the "right beat". With that burden removed, the lead can actually lead MOVES and the follow can actually follow them. Less physical contact is required to execute turn patterns. You can completely let go of your partner, do whatever you want, and actually trust that you're not going to slam into each other. If you've ever been injured on the dance floor, you know how powerful that is. That being said, I can't make you any guarantees about what the other couples dancing around you might do. Keep your eyes open.

  4. Bragging rights.

    If I haven't convinced you yet that you need to learn to dance on beat, consider the following: if you continue to dance on the wrong beats, you're not breaking any laws. You can still have fun on the dance floor. Most people won't refuse to dance with you just because you're dancing to your own beat. But you'll be wrong and I'll be right. Can you really live with that? Aside from all of the benefits I listed above, dancing on beat lets you know that regardless of your skill level, you're doing it right. That goes a long way.

Now, after all of that, I'll still say that dancing on beat is not something to stress over. Take some time and learn about it, but don't stress over it. Never lose sight of the fact that dancing is supposed to be FUN. If dancing on beat takes the fun out of it for you, then by all means, dance off beat. You should use the beats to enhance your dancing experience. Hopefully understanding the music better will lead to even bigger smiles on the dance floor.

For more on how to find the right beats, check out my Salsa Beats Tutorial.