How to Learn Salsa Rhythm

The way other rhythm guides read, you would think that only a rocket scientist could figure out salsa rhythm. Or that you need a music professor standing next to you on the dance floor guiding your every move. If all you want to do is dance, this is the guide for you. It is completely free of musical jargon and was written for dance students learning salsa, not musicians.

What you have to do to stay on the rhythm is simple: Count one-through-eight over and over. The hard part is starting in the right place and going at the right speed. The Salsa Rhythm Machine will take you most of the way, but you can’t bring your computer out onto the dance floor, right? So, in addition to using the software, you will want to use our learning method whenever you are listening to salsa music such as when you are in your car, a salsa class, or a club.

Step 1 – Make the Commitment

Learning rhythm takes time and effort just like learning turns/steps does. It is something that you have to do yourself. It won’t happen by magic, and no instructor can simply put it into you. Your first commitment should be to listen to salsa music whenever you are in your car and try to tap your finger to the rhythm. If you don’t drive, spend a half an hour a day listening to the music while not doing anything else.

Step 2 – Start With Easy Music

When it comes to being able to hear the rhythm, salsa music ranges from easy to insanely difficult. See our Easy Songs page for song ratings.

Step 3 – Stop Listening to the Melodies

Don’t sing along, and don’t hum along with the horn section. You don’t dance to the melody; you dance to the rhythm. The melody is the part of the song that you can whistle or hum in the shower. It is the part that gets stuck in your head and eventually makes you insane. You have to ignore the melody at first in order to isolate the rhythm. Popular music conditions you to focus on melodies, but it is a habit that you will have to break. Ignoring the melodies is no fun, and will, at first, reduce your enjoyment of listening to salsa. No pain, no gain, right? But once you can hear the rhythm, you will find that you can enjoy salsa much, much more. In order to enjoy melodies, you have to hear them over and over until you learn them. Usually when you first hear a pop song, such as Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca”, it takes a few times before you start to like it. Depending on how repetitious the song is, it might take five, six, seven or more times before you learn the melodies. The great thing about salsa is that when you can find the rhythm, you can immediately enjoy the song on the rhythmic level.

Step 4 – Crank it Up, and Bottoms Up

Turn the bass up all the way on your stereo. The more bass and volume you have, the easier it is to feel the music. You may also find that a little bit of alcohol will help you feel the music.

Step 5 – Count 1 through 8

There are always eight counts in salsa music. You dance three steps and pause, then three more and pause, for a total of eight counts. Different instructors count different ways. Some count, 1-2-3-pause-5-6-7-pause, or 1-2-3-pause-1-2-3-pause, etc. It doesn’t make any difference how you count while you are dancing or if you count at all. But when you are learning how to hear the rhythm, it is important to count one through eight because the musicians will be playing eight counts and you are trying to get in sync with them. We recommend counting one through eight in some fashion while dancing until you can stay on the rhythm well enough to not count at all. See Advanced Topics below for a more in-depth discussion of this.

Step 6 – Tap Your Finger as You Count

Tap your finger like a robot, or a mental patient, as you count one to eight. The taps should be equally spread apart. Think of a rowing team where there is a guy in the back of the boat beating the drum so that the rowers can all stay together. That’s the rhythm, and that’s you playing it. Now imagine that the rowers are singing a song to relieve the boredom. They will not row to the song they are singing, but will still follow the drummer. So as the drummer, you have to ignore whatever the rowers are singing and keep beating the drum steadily. You want your finger to move like a metronome, which is the thing you sometimes see in movies that makes ticking sounds during a piano-lesson scene. Musicians don’t practice enough with metronomes any more and consequently have to rely heavily on computers and lip-synching. But we can’t do that while we are dancing, right? We can’t have a computer stand in for us. Learning to tap your finger like this is, in addition to helping you hear the rhythm, the first step in learning to move your body to the rhythm.

Step 7 – Say Out Load the Numbers One Through Eight

As you tap your finger, say out loud the numbers one through eight. Pretend like they are the song lyrics. That will help you to ignore the melodies. Make sure to say the numbers robotically just as your finger taps.

Step 8 – Don’t Focus on any Particular Instrument

Don’t listen to any one instrument. Try to just feel the music in general. There will not be one instrument playing a steady eight counts throughout the song. Sometimes there will be nothing to listen to at all like when the band is silent for a few seconds and then starts back up. You have to keep up a steady count just like they do. (That’s how they can all suddenly resume playing at the exact right time.) The first mistake you will make is to tap your finger to the rhythm of an individual instrument. That will usually have you going too fast or too slow, so watch out for it. However, the musicians and singers will all play within the rhythm. So if there is a piano solo going on, the rhythm will be there and you should try to look for it.

Step 9 – Listen for “The One”

Usually, but not always, the singers and musicians will emphasize The One – that is, they will bang the drum a little harder, blow the trumpet a little louder, raise their voices, etc. They will also usually, but not always, “come in” on the one. So if there is a trumpet solo, the trumpet player will often start playing on The One, or the background singers will join in on the one. Often, there will be a BAM! where the whole band emphasizes The One in a serious manner. Listen for those. While you should not be following the melodies, you can often use the melodies to find The One. Suppose that a piano is playing a melody. Often it will begin on The One, finish in eight counts, and then repeat the melody starting on the next One. Or if the background singers are singing the same thing over and over, they will usually start on The One and then repeat the lyrics on the next One, and the next, etc. But not always. Sometimes they will come in on the 7 and then repeat their lyrics on subsequent 7’s. So you should only use this method when you can’t find The One by other means. And you should definitely not use the melodies while dancing.

Step 10 – Adjust the Speed of Your Tapping

Speed up or slow down your tapping to try and match it to the music. When you think you hear The One, start counting and see if you can rotate around in time to the next One.

Step 11 – Keep Your Body Still

Don’t move any other parts of your body such as tapping your foot. You are learning to play an instrument here: the rhythm finger. So, you want to stay focused on that.

Step 12 – Repeat the Simplest Turn Over and Over

Once you can follow along by tapping your finger, try dancing with the simplest turn you know. You should take your first step on The One, and of course, pause on the 4 and 8. Repeat that one turn over and over for the whole song.

Step 13 – Feel the Difference

The way to tell that you are on the rhythm is that you will be able to feel the difference. You will experience a noticeable increase in fun, joyful, exhilarating feelings because you are in harmony with the band.

Step 14 – Validate With an Instructor

Take a private lesson with a dance instructor and have them test you. Bring your CD and have the instructor put on the song you find easiest. If the instructor counts out loud one through eight, or makes sound affects like: “bop, bop, bop, pause, bop, bop, bop, pause,” to emphasize the rhythm, ask them to remain silent and only correct you when you get off the rhythm. Instructors will also usually help you to find The One at the beginning of the song by starting to move or lean as it approaches. Ask them to remain still and then tell you whether or not you started on The One. Instructors are used to giving commands and are often headstrong, so be prepared to assert yourself on these points.

Step 15 – Stop Advancing Through Rueda Levels

If you are going to rueda classes, remain at your current level until you get your rhythm working. Learning rhythm is easiest when you are doing turns you already know thoroughly. You can tell you are improving when you become able to distinguish which of your partners have better or worse rhythm than you do. As you improve, stop looking at the instructor or other students and see if you can stay on the rhythm by just listening to the music. So when the instructor calls: “Suena!” you can stomp your foot at the right time without looking at anybody else’s foot.

Advanced Topics

On The One or On The Five

The Five is usually emphasized like The One, though to a lesser degree. This is a good thing because you can check your timing twice during the count. But this confuses many dancers who have been trained to count one-through-four instead of one-through-eight. They can’t tell the difference between The One and The Five. While they can stay on the rhythm, they never know if they are dancing on The One or The Five. That’s better than being off the rhythm, but it feels very, very wrong once you know how to stay on The One.

Some instructors don’t care whether or not they are starting on The One or The Five. Being able to distinguish what count your instructor is starting on is another milestone for you. Also, if you are following, you may notice that your partner is starting on The Five. If you are leading, you may sometimes experience trouble getting in sync with your partner at the beginning of the song. You may be trying to start on The One while she is trying to start on The Five. Tell her that it is easier if she waits for you to start.

Five-to-One Shifts

Once you can tap your finger to the rhythm, you will often find yourself mysteriously off the count, starting on The Five instead of The One. This happens because sometimes the band will only play four counts instead of eight. What would normally be The Five, becomes the The One and then the song continues on for the normal cycles of eight. So, the count will go 1-2-3-4-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8… instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-1-2-3-4… The Salsa Rhythm Machine will show you examples of this. In Rocket Baby’s Bumble Bee Salsa!, included with The Salsa Rhythm Machine, there is such a shift 15 seconds into the song. To spot one on your own, pay attention to the beginning of the song when the vocals begin. You will find that pretty much all dancers ignore these shifts. While it feels funny to break on The Five instead of The One, (or The Six instead of The Two), it works out okay in practice. Eddie Torres is said to teach a “hot step” half-turn to handle these shifts. Other instructors who teach the Torres style may also teach the hot step. One such school is D.Vice Latin Dance Studio in North Miami. If you know of a description or video of the hot step on the web, please send me the link.

However, we feel there should be some sort of “half turn” you can do to get back onto The One. If you know of such a technique, please email us.

Speed Shifts

Speed shifts are relatively easy to handle. Songs don’t normally drastically increase or decrease their speed. Usually they only change by a few beats per minute. While dancing to an unfamiliar song, just be alert and ready to speed up or slow down. A good place to look for speed changes is when instruments start, or stop playing. For example, when the horns come in, the song will often speed up to increase the feeling of excitement created by the horns. Also, songs will often start out slow, then speed up, then slow down a little at the end.

Rhythm Pauses

Rhythm pauses happen when the part of the band that is playing the rhythm pauses while the part that is playing the melody continues. There is a one-beat pause 62 seconds into Salsa #5, which The Salsa Rhythm Machine will point out for you. These pauses are hard to detect, and normally you must learn where they are in each song to pause at the correct time. So, just like speed changes, you have to be alert to the fact that a pause can throw you off. Check yourself on each One count, and if you feel you are early, slow down a bit until you feel like you are back on track.

Intros and Outros

That’s the beginning and ending of songs. Quite often, there is no salsa rhythm during these phases, so don’t be concerned. At the beginning of a song, you usually have to wait for the rhythm to kick in. Near the end, you often have to stop dancing before the song ends because the rhythm has disappeared. That will happen a lot with live bands. DJ’s will usually “blend beats” and speed up or slow down the next song so that it matches the previous one in order to “keep the party going.” So, if all of a sudden you hear some weird, distorted music, that is the DJ doing one of his “cool” DJ moves.

Distorted and Obscure Music

DJ’s, and some bands, will often turn up the volume until the music is horribly distorted. You would think that such people would have an ear for such things, but maybe some people simply cannot hear distortion. So a song that you have practiced with a lot at home, may sound totally different in a club, but usually you can follow the rhythm since the bass is almost always turned up very high. But if you go to a school where the music is always very loud and distorted, you will often have trouble following music played at home on a stereo. In that case, it is important to practice an equal amount of time with non-distorted music so that you don’t become conditioned to it.

DJ’s like to prove how cool they are by playing music that most people don’t know. In fact, this is how MTV management used to know when they needed to reign-in their VJ’s. When the VJ’s started talking about how hip the station was, MTV would know that they needed to change the play-list. If they let the VJ’s make the station “too hip for the room”, they would lose their mainstream audiance. So, often a DJ will play something that sounds completely bizarre to you. Sit these songs out until the DJ gets it out of his system and gets back to playing something danceable. Don’t be the victim of an egotistical DJ!