Timing is Everything – Mastering Dance Timing in Salsa and Other Dances

Timing is Everything

Mastering dance timing in Salsa and other dances.

Written by Peter Rolls  


Lost in music.  This can be a good thing, but in the context of this article, let’s assume you’re really lost!

Have you ever been on the dance-floor with a partner when all of a sudden you don’t know whether you should be going forwards, backwards, left or right?

Remember that feeling of panic as you try to find the beat before you get stepped on, or step on your partner? 

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could learn to keep time with the music and avoid all the embarrassment?

Then read this.

  In this article, we are going to help you sort out your timing once and for all.  No more getting lost in the music, so you can enjoy being lost in music and, finally, relax and enjoy your dancing.  


If you had musical training at school, or are inherently musical, you have a distinct advantage when learning to dance.  You know what the instructor means when they say “1,2,3…5,6,7…”, right from the outset.  You know that it’s more than just a sequence of numbers to help you to learn a long routine, that it tells you where you are in the music. But not everyone has this kind of musical knowledge, training or inclination.  If you don’t, mastering a new hobby like salsa dancing can not only be physically challenging, but sometimes you’ll actually want to give up entirely because finding the rhythm and timing in the music seems impossible.  A lot of salsa classes (in Europe at least) also focus mainly on moves, routines and styling, but many don’t teach you about the rhythm and why you dance on 1,2,3…5,6,7. Let’s fix that right away.  It’s not impossible, and you can master timing in salsa and other dances.  Once you understand the principles of the music behind the dancing you’ll have timing sorted in, well, no time! OK, let’s start at the beginning.  

Ten Minutes of Music Theory for Salsa


Music, by its very nature is dependent on time.  I’m not going to delve much deeper than that since I don’t have Professor Hawking here to help answer any of the more difficult questions!  For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that time flows like a river, doesn’t speed up or slow down, and is not affected by gravity… So we have time.  A long line that stretches from the past, through the present, out into the future. How do you know when a piece of music is fast? Lots of music stuff happening with not much time in between?  How quickly after the last thump the next thump arrives?  Because it raises our blood pressure? The speed of a piece of music is known as the  “tempo” of the music.  Tempo is Italian for “time”.  The faster the music, the higher the tempo and the faster you need to dance to keep up.  The slower the tempo, the easier the music is to dance to. Hip hop and R&B music have a relatively slow tempo.  The strolling speed of the music makes it possible to say, or sing, quite a lot in the duration of a song.  Compare this to a drum and bass MC, who has to rattle his toasts off very quickly to deliver anywhere near the same number of words.  Drum and Bass is a lot faster (around double) the tempo of R&B.  In other words, a lot more musical ‘things’ happening in the same amount of time.  It makes the music seem more energetic and can often cause people to find it raises their heart rate.  Dads are a prime example of this…  

Bars and Beats

Right, so we understand tempo.  Let’s talk a little bit about bars and beats.  Anyone who has ever been clubbing or listens to dance music will have heard the phrase “4 to the floor” when referring to a piece of house music.  In traditional music theory, a ‘bar’ or ‘measure’ is a number of beats which are repeated over and over to form the main rhythm of the music.  In house music, each bar or “measure” is made up of four beats, each one the same length -each a quarter of the bar.  To look at it another way, every four beats (in this case each beat is marked by the bassdrum) denote a bar of music.  Four beats to the bar – four to the floor, also known as 4/4 (four-four) time.

What’s the alternative to four-to-the-floor? Well, there are actually a lot of alternatives, but in western music, particularly pop music, the four-to-the-floor or four-four time (4/4) rhythm is the predominant form.  When you see this written in musical form it will look like a fraction.  The top number is the number of beats in the bar, and the bottom number tells you how long each of these notes are.  In general, you’ll be looking at quarter notes (where each note takes up a quarter of the bar – as in house, r&b, salsa, kizomba, bachata etc) and so the bottom number will almost always be 4.  An obvious alternative would be the rhythm of the Waltz.  In the Waltz there are 3 beats in every bar, and the musical phrases are built around these 3 note patterns.  Waltz is in 3/4 time since each bar is made up of 3 notes and each note is the same length as the quarter notes in the 4/4 example above. Stay with me – we’re getting there! Don’t worry if you’re finding it difficult.  Not being able to hear the rhythm in the music is something that affects even professional dancers sometimes.  When you’re learning a dance it really helps to find music where the rhythm track is very clear.  Over time you will absorb this knowledge and you won’t have to think about the timing anymore.  In the meantime, there are some excellent learning materials out there to tune your ears, brain and limbs into the timing in the music.  More on these later. Now, back to the four-four rhythm.  Remember, that’s four beats in every measure, or “4/4” time.  

4/4 Rhythm

Have a listen to this simple dance music / house music rhythm pattern. We’ll engage the counting and so you will begin to hear the bars and beats in this, a more familiar form of music. [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=liOkBAjXpGM[/tube] Now listen with the metronome switched on. [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woLjzApY2fo[/tube]

OK, so we know about tempo, bars and beats, and we are left with, well, the same questions we had when we started… How do we apply this to our Salsa dancing? What’s with the whole “1,2,3…5,6,7..” thing? What happened to 4 and 8? How am I supposed to find the “1”? If we have the same questions as when we started reading, what was the point in all of that preamble?  all will be revealed…  

Back to Salsa

We’ve strayed quite far from salsa, so let’s bring it right back to latin music and have a listen to a salsa practice track.  We’re using the DanceTime Deluxe app on the iPhone to demonstrate this. This app is a great learning/teaching aid for anyone learning to dance. No big kick drums or obvious four beats there.  Or is there? [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek7cXLYI6P4[/tube] Salsa music is one of the faster forms of music to dance to.  There are faster, but if you knew that ‘salsa is generally faster than even Drum and Bass you’ll suddenly realise how well you’re doing just keeping up with it at all! Let’s bring in a metronome.  A metronome makes a small pip sound on every beat, and at the beginning of each bar it makes a higher pitched pip.  Now we begin to hear how the salsa rhythm is broken down into bars and beats… [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNP1vn-Eoro[/tube] On the display of the app, you’ll notice the tempo/speed of the music is displayed in both bars-per-minute and beats-per-minute (BPM).  Apps like this are really useful when you’re learning to dance as they not only provide the backing track to practice to, but can also help you learn about rhythm and timing as well. Let’s look at some examples of different music and tempos – these are rough guides, and the magic of music is that someone always comes along and breaks the rules. R&B 80-120 BPM House Music 120-135 BPM Techno/Trance 130-150 BPM Drum and Bass 170-200BPM Salsa 180-240 BPM! So Salsa is one of the fastest forms of music that people enjoy social dancing to.  Just by keeping up with the rhythm of salsa you’re already dancing to one of the fastest social dances! Let’s dive into the salsa rhythm a bit more…  

The Salsa Rhythm

Salsa is danced over two bars of music.  There are four beats to the bar in salsa, as with house, r and b and drum and bass.  Because salsa is a partner dance and the emphasis os on the courtship, of interplay between the man and the woman, the dance is executed over two bars, or 8 beats of music. First bar: Man goes forward, lady goes back and then we return to the centre. Second bar: Lady comes forward and the man goes back and then we return to the starting position You’ll probably already be familiar with this simple step – the mambo break.  It’s this “conversational” style that makes salsa such a popular dance, and such a fun dance.  Each time the man asks the question of the lady she replies.  Think of the single turn for the lady.  The man says “please turn”, and the lady replies with a turn. So what about the beats?  Well, the rhythm of salsa, whilst danced on a ‘four-to-the-floor’ or 4/4 rhythm is actually danced as quick-quick-slow.  What we mean by this is that the first two steps are danced one-per-beat, and then the third step is twice as long.  That is, we dance on one, again on two, and then three and four we take both beats to do the third step.  Another way of looking at this is that we dance on one,two,three then nothing on four. So four is not gone, it’s just that we don’t, as a rule, dance on the four in Salsa.  We dance only on one, two and three. We actually dance salsa over two bars of music, which is 8 beats, so we count the dance all the way from one to eight, missing out the 4 and 8 – we dance one,two,three…nothing on four…..five,six,seven…..nothing on eight. Listen to the metronome again, and we’ll bring in the counting. [tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNP1vn-Eoro[/tube] Salsa music, and dancing is generally based on a call and response structure.  In the music, the vocalist will call and the horns respond or vice versa.  In the dancing, the man leads, then the lady responds.  Guy turns, girl turns etc.  Salsa moves are therefore built on patterns of 2 measures (8 beats).  If we only counted to 4, we would not have enough information to tell us where we should be in relation to our partner.  i.e. we need to know whether we should be going forwards or backwards to avoid the inevitable standing-on-feet moments!  That’s why we count over two measures, so in salsa you’ll always hear the instructors calling 1,2,3…5,6,7….1,2,3,…5,6,7….   It’s like sat-nav for Salsa! Make sense?  Awesome. The final thing to cover here is finding out where you are in a piece of music when the rhythm is not clearly marked with beats or events in the music.  If you’re having trouble with this, don’t panic, and don’t give up!  It does take time to adjust to dancing on 3 beats out of every four.  We’re all used to stepping from side to side to a piece of pop or dance music or bobbing up and down.  You can be anywhere you want at any time in the music and still be on time.  Partner dancing is a challenge in itself since you have to co-ordinate your steps with those of your partner, but when you’re learning the stop-start steps of the latin dances like mambo, rumba and the other elements of a modern Salsa dance it can be even more difficult. Have a listen to this salsa practice track and see if you can find the one in the music.

Like that track?
How did you get on?  Here’s the same piece with some counting

Like that track?  

Mastering Dance Timing in Salsa

Finding the one in salsa music

Here are some deluxe golden rules for finding the one in a piece of music. Musical phrases tend to begin on or around the one.  Listen to the bass.  Can you hear a repeating pattern in the bass-line?  Often the bass will overlap the bars of music but you should get a sense that a new chunk of music is beginning every 8 beats.  Try counting in your head – can you hear anything in the music that starts at the same time as something else?  Lets examine some of the elements in a track more closely… Listen to the vocals.  If you’re lost, vocals tend to start on the first beat (the one).  If they don’t start on the one, they generally have something in them that punctuates the one in the music.  In the example track, the “Rumba, Rumberos!” vocal begins on one, as do the piano, and the brass melodies, although the brass does continue over more than 8 beats.

Like that track?
Listen to the same track one more time, but with the counting. Did you find the one? Use the vocals…

Like that track?  
The conga!  This is the big drums that re played by the hand and sound like this
You’ll hear there are two styles of conga sound.  The low conga open sound, and the louder, sharper slap sound.  The slap is played on the 2 and the 6 in salsa music.  If you get lost, this will help you find your way back in.
Listen to the piano.  If you can hear it, the piano plays a rhythm called Montuno which repeats over two bars (8 beats).  This is like the heartbeat of the music.  The piano will help you find the one in the music, especially when combined with the cowbell, guiro and vocals.
and again with counting…
The gui-what?!  Right, let’s have a listen to some of that latin percussion… Cowbell.  The cowbell tends to play a pattern like dum-teedee-dum-teedee-dum-teedee-dum-tee or even simpler just dum—dum—dum—dum.  The lower (or lone) cowbell is playing 1…3…5…7…1…3…5…7…
Now listen with the counting so you can hear the syncopation between the counting and the cowbell
Guiro.  This is the scraping noise.  The long scrape sound is generally played on 1…3…5…7…1…3…5…7… often with a ‘chicka’ between each scrape.
and again with counting
Listen for any cymbal crashes.  This is used all the time in pop and house music at the beginning of a section of music.  Not so much in salsa, but its still there, especially in our practice track here. Listen to the melody of the trumpets.  If it’s playing a tune it will often start on the 1.  If it’s just little parps and peeps it will generally be punctuating the vocals like commas in a sentence.  Don’t rely on these for your timing until you know what you’re listening for. Listen for a change in the music.  Just as with pop music, a lot of salsa will be broken down into verse/chorus or verse/bridge/chorus.  This change will generally happen on the one. Listen to other types of music.  By applying the principles I’ve talked about in this post, you should be able to find the one in types of music that are more familiar to you.  Try to pick out the rhythm in a pop record.  It should be much easier as the rhythms are usually a lot simpler.  You can count to 4 or 8 but bear in mind that pop music isn’t structured around 8 beats like salsa is, so you might get a few surprises!  

How to practice timing

As I mentioned earlier, R&B is around half the speed of salsa music (salsa is often misquoted as half the BPM) so you can dance salsa to R&B and a lot of current pop music.  This will help you to hear the timing in music in general. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t pick it up straight away.  It really isn’t easy getting to grips with a new skill like dancing, and if the music is also new to you it can be even harder.  Just keep practicing and the timing will come.  Set aside a little bit of time each week to just listen to salsa music.  As it becomes more familiar and the instruments become less exotic to your ears, your brain will start recognizing patterns just as it does in music you already know. The moves you learn in class have a timing to them.  Your teacher should tell you how long each move should take in beats or steps.  A step-turn for the ladies, for instance, is danced over the 5-6-7, or quick-quick-slow.  If you remember that, and the man prepares you properly on the 1-2-3….nothing on four…. you can step out your 5-6-7….(turn, turn, stop) with nothing on 8 and be ready for next move (generally stepping back) on one. Guys, your step-turn is on one-two-three.  Again this is quick-quick-slow so we’re taking four beats to do the turn, it’s just that we’re only stepping on 3 of them.  Step,step,close on 1,2,3. Then pause on 4. This is crucial. Don’t rush, you’ve almost always got more time than you think you have! Always remember to allow for the quick-quick-slow timing of salsa – each move is always multiples of four beats long.  Pause on the four (and eight) and this will really help your timing.  It’s ok to be singing 1,2,3…5,6,7… along with your teacher.  It’ll help you learn. If you’re spinning rather than stepping, remember to still keep count of the beats in your head.  The most common mistake when spinning is to finish the spin and start off again straight away as if you’re on the one without waiting for the music to get to the one.  Keep the counting in your head.  If you spin on 5,6 and you’re already done, remember you’ve still got two beats (7..8..) or the ‘slow’ before you need to step back on the one.  A good trick for this is to remember phrases with rhythmic words.  For a single spin, something like “1,2,3,and,prepare,spin,stop,and” will give you the timing you need and keep you on beat in the music.  Until you have your timing mastered, use step-turns rather than spins.  That will at least ensure that you are in the right place on 7. Finally, remember that a lot of salsa music these days has jazz influences, or is even classed as latin-jazz.  Jazz is one of the hardest and most musically challenging forms of music to master, so when you’re learning salsa try to find the simple salsa tracks, or tracks aimed at beginners.  I’ve compiled a list of some of the best of these on our website. Hopefully this will give you some food for thought.  

Dance Practice Tools

To help you practice, we have created a suite of Dance Practice apps for the iPhone, iPod and iPad.  If you;re learning just one dance, such as salsa, then DanceTime Salsa would be the perfect app for you.  It has fully adjustable tempo, so you can decide how fast you want to practice.  There’s also counting if required to help you keep track of those beats and bars, as well as the metronome.  Practice with this app regularly and your timing will improve very quickly.

If you’d like to practice dancing to different rhythms, try DanceTime Deluxe

DanceTime Deluxe – Complete Dance Practice App


This is the complete dance practice app and an excellent tool for practicing your timing, wherever you are.  It has over 23 different dance rhythms with counting in bars and beats, adjustable tempo and a metronome.  This app includes dances such as the waltz (with 3 beats per bar) and samba (with just 2 beats per bar).  Just by listening and moving yourself around to the different rhythms you’ll get the hang of bars, beats and musical timing so that when you’re on the dance floor the rhythm section in your mind is already switched on to the groove of the dance.

Salsa Practice Music

Finally I’ve made a salsa practice track “Rumba Rumberos”.  The Level 3 version of this track teaches you about timing track by not having the counting all the way through.  That way you can make mistakes and rectify them when the counting comes back in   It is designed specifically to push you into hearing the music do the counting for you.  Vocals mostly begin on the 1 and there are clear musical elements to help you pick out the timing of the track.  The musical phrases of the trumpets all start on one.  Not on every bar, but you’ll soon start to hear the patterns in the music.
There are cowbells and a guiro playing 1…3…5…7… (with the ‘chicka’ in between) and even claps playing the cuban clave pattern for those of you becoming more comfortable with rhythm and timing.  The claps play 3:2 clave, or 3 claps in the first bar and 2 in the second.  Again, these can all be used to work out where you are in the music. Like that track?  

Remember, practice makes perfect.

  A mistake is just that. A mis-take. Just like an actor in a film taking as many takes as they need to create the perfect performance, you’re doing the same. You will make mistakes, but that is a good thing because every mis-take brings you one step closer to your goal – mastering your salsa timing.  

So don’t give up, keep dancing and enjoy yourself.