Salsa On 2 and the Beat that Goes On

In the world of Latin dance, specifically the world-wild Salsa, how you hit the beat is often influenced by the one you start with, as agreed by the panel of dancers/instructors interviewed in this article.  

Salsa On 2 (also known as Mambo) is a style of Salsa that has maintained a dedicated following since its heyday back in the 50’s & 60's. Despite the strength of Los Angeles (On 1) and Cumbia styles that dominate most international Salsa outposts, most Salsa communities that cultivate some budding love for Salsa On 2, like yin into yang.

Norberto 'Betto' Herrera of Mambo Dinamico (North Carolina, USA) explains, "It (On 2) keeps the roots of the dance since it matches very well with the percussion (clave and tumbao) and also has room for improvisation." 

Natalie Reis of AusLatin Productions (Sydney, Australia) agrees, "I’ve found to my great joy that its connection to Cuban rumba is close and tangible.  Not just the basic 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 but the parts of the music; the brass, the vocals, the ebb and flow of each bar of music. I never even thought about those things before – dancing Salsa On 2 has literally opened the world of Salsa music and dance." 

Caryl Cuizon of (Toronto, Canada) explains, "When you dance On 2 you can elongate the pauses.  This might help explain why people feel like they’re dancing inside or within the music. It’s not a break right on the first beat of the measure, which is what happens when you’re dancing On 1 (LA style Salsa). It can feel more subtle because you’re not hitting the downbeat on your first step." 

Her company partner Angus Dirnbeck adds, "Salsa is a music that inspires people to move their bodies and I really appreciate the many ways that different people interpret the music. I’ve even seen some plain off-beat dancers that are entertaining and inspiring nonetheless! Having said that, the style that feels most comfortable to me is when I am dancing On 2. Metaphorically, I think dancing styles can be likened to fashion. When I go out shopping for clothes, I don’t try to figure out/debate which designer 'got it right.' Instead, I look around at what is available and I try some stuff on. Ultimately, I come to prefer the outfits that suit me best." 

Edie, The Salsa FREAK (USA, Europe), notes that On 2 dancing is also determined by the music available. "I like dancing On 2 to On 2 music like many Tito Puente and Celia Cruz songs. It is difficult to dance On 2 to most types of Cuban and Colombian Salsa music, for example."  

Alexandra Sell of Mambo Productions (Calgary, Canada) adds, "I always enjoyed listening to the more classic musical styles of Salsa. It was a natural progression to start looking for the 2/3 beats in the music. Salsa On 2 is very fluid, leaves more time for partnering and, for the ladies, allocates more time for styling." 

"I love the music that the On 2 dancers like to groove to," Ashley 'Angel' McKenna of Cosalda Dance Company (New York, USA) agrees. "Great jazzy instrumentals, medium tempo music that you can play with, and you don’t feel like you've run a 4 minute race."

Many LA or Cumbia style Salsa communities are often resistant to engage Salsa On 2. This resistance has been thoroughly debated over the Internet, however, most importantly and obviously, according to Arthur Ga of Salsa Picante Dance Company (Toronto, Canada), this is resistance to change. 

"As a Salsa teacher, I have to fight hard to introduce dancing On 2 to my classes and the same goes for Cuban style Salsa," Arthur Ga explains. "When you visit other dance communities or regions, try dancing their way and find the beauty in what they see. The style you choose is your personal preference but trying each style might add to that personal preference."  

Variety in Salsa styles is not only influenced by the music available but the variety of Salsa partners. Learning and truly experiencing On 2 dancing is difficult when everybody else is dancing On 1. "Whatever your preference, you must connect with your immediate partner," Arthur Ga says. "However, this connection does not have to be limited as long as you are inviting to new partners and styles. On the social floor, dancers should be versatile as well as flexible, physically and mentally. People tend to dance with people that they know and avoid others that do not dance their way. People get tunnel vision when one can only dance one way. I say try dancing with at least one stranger on the dance floor."  

Despite our natural resistance to change, over the past few years Salsa On 2 is slowly spreading in our international salsa communities.

"When I started dancing in North Carolina there wasn’t any Salsa On 2 scene," Betto describes. “When my partner (Joy Manning) and I started teaching Salsa On 2, lots of people didn’t believe that it would catch people’s attention. Now everyone teaches and learns Salsa On 2."  

Natalie Reis recalls similar resistance to Salsa On 2 with her dance community in Sydney, Australia. "I was frustrated with what I perceived as a constant changing tide of styles. It was becoming impossible to keep my teaching syllabus up to date without frustrating my students and dancing in my community became a bit of a war zone of styles." 

"There are now a significant number of Salsa On 2 dancers at a fairly advanced level in my community," she continues. "There is however a shortage of new students learning Salsa On 2 from the start. Most are still taught On 1 / LA style or Cuban style, and later make the choice to learn On 2, as if it is something that only advanced dancers can handle." 

Natalie Reis does not believe Salsa On 2 is more difficult than On 1. "What IS difficult is un-learning and re-learning all while in plain view of one’s students, colleagues and competitors! Now, I teach this style exclusively to beginners and they have no more or less trouble than any other beginner students of any other style.  In fact, for some unknown reason, they tend to be able to transpose to On 1 with limited fuss, whereas the reverse is not common in On 1 students." 

Edie, The Salsa FREAK has, by far, the best initiation story from Salsa On 1 to Salsa On 2: 

"I was dancing with Tito Puente in Los Angeles one time. I had only been dancing about six months. I had just won a competition, and felt kind of cocky. He placed me into an On 2 lead, and the entire song, I kept thinking he was off-time. I thought to myself, how can this guy possibly play the drums, if he can’t even keep time while dancing? Boy, was I naïve! About two years later, I learned there was such a thing as On 2 dancing after visiting New York with the Salsa Brava Dance Company. I realized what an idiot I was to have second thoughts about Tito Puente’s TIMING. I was actually trying to back-lead him on the 1, trying to help HIM out.  Oh brother. How embarassing! Come to think of it, he was probably wondering how on earth I won that competition dancing On 1!   We all live and learn, I guess!" 

"Back in 1998, it was the first time any New Yorker had ever seen a performance danced On 1. The performance was done by The Salsa Brava Dance Company. They (the New York Descarga Latina Dance Company) also performed for us at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Los Angeles that same year. It was the first time anyone from Los Angeles had seen On 2 dancing. It was truly history-in-the-making.  The New Yorkers flew to LA to do a show for us, and we flew to New York to do a show for them.  Johnny Vazquez, Ramon Morales, Luis and Francisco Vazquez, Joby Martinez, Janette Valenzuela, Nelson Flores, Addie Diaz, Stacey Diaz … everyone on the Descarga Latina Dance Company of New York were there … It was fabulous. This was before there was such a thing as a 'Salsa Congress'."  

Latin dances such as Mambo and Salsa were made by people who loved variety and weren’t afraid to experiment with style. These dances also have long histories that don’t want to be forgotten when new styles come in.  In fact, the history of Salsa On 2 / Mambo is as twisting and turning as the dance itself. Traditional Mambo is a fusion of European ballroom and Afro-Cuban tradition.  New York and Puerto Rico are considered the major safe havens for Salsa On 2 / Mambo enthusiasts. In New York, Mambo legends such as Eddie Torres cultivated this living art form, so much so that he had a style named after him. In’s interview with Eddie Torres, he described the evolution of traditional Mambo as a melting pot of styles such as flamenco, jazz, swing, tango and hustle. Today, there appear to be even more variation of this variation of Salsa, floating under names like Power2, Puerto Rican style, Cuban Son style, etc.  

Natalie Reis believes there are actually only 2, possibly 3 main variations of Salsa On 2. She names Classic Mambo, NY/Eddie Torres Style and possibly Puerto Rican Style Salsa. "There are as many opinions as there are dancers, I suppose. I consider New York and Puerto Rican style to be one and the same, given that the connection between the two places is so strong." 

"There was a gentleman that calculated 24 different ways of dancing Mambo On 2," Edie, The Salsa FREAK reports. "It’s pretty fascinating what you can do with the 2. Keeps people constantly trying new things. Prevents boredom, I guess!"  

Arthur Ga speculates, "the Cubans did this On 2 thing first and was kept alive by the Puerto Ricans.  After the revolution, Salsa in Cuba became more street style, as it is now. But who knows who can verify this opinion, maybe other Cubans and Puerto Ricans of that era."

In the tradition of Tito Puente, Betto stops to reminds us, "First of all I disagree with the use of the term 'Salsa' for the dance. Salsa is a marketing term used by Fania Records to promote traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms. Salsa is not a dance. A lot of people relate salsa to dancing On 1 when it's guaracha that used to be breaking on the 1 & 5. Each rhythm has a particular way that can be danced to."

"I prefer the Eddie Torres Style," he continued.  "It has adapted from its original form to the music that is played today and it has elements from all the traditional rhythms/dances like pachanga, son, Cuban rumba, Afro-Cuban, traditional Mambo, cha-cha-cha, guajira, etc. It also has some new elements and influences like jazz, hip hop, flamenco, tap, etc. Its elasticity is what makes it so interesting." 

According to Edie, The Salsa FREAK, the way you dance Salsa On 2 depends on the instructor or dancer you take to the most. "For example, the typical tilting of the head by the guy while looking into the girl’s eyes is a typical NY signature created by a famous instructors over there. The flicking of the fingers to get the girl’s attention is also from New York.  I was told that this tilting of the head is a “softer approach” to leading.  Personally, I like a tad more masculine type of lead. The last thing I want is for my leader to give me any trace of female essence. I want a REAL MAN behind my On 2 lead. I hate it when the guys tilt their head. I just can’t stand it. Don’t ask me why, it just bugs me. Sorry. Bugs a lot of other women as well."  

"In terms of adding other urban and North American dance elements such as Hip hop and breakdancing," Natalie Reis says, "If you’re going to do Hip Hop, please do great Hip Hop. Also, within choreography, try to weave the other style into your theme and cut the music seamlessly. Don’t just cut the music, stick in a sound effect of a screeching car and jump into something else. To me that is just artistic brutality!"  
According to Betto, "Break Dance and Hip Hop are both dance forms that have the same roots as Mambo does. If you have a B-Boy battle in NY and then witness a Rumba-Columbia Battle in Havana you will notice the similarities. Two branches on different sides of a tree still have the same roots."  

Alexandra Sell adds, "It is precisely this fusion which contributed significantly to the development of what today’s Salsa and Mambo look like, making it popular throughout the world.  It is also the influences of modern day music and dance that add to the development, training and the advancement of Salsa. I don’t think all On 2 dancers should look alike and it is great to see a variety of dance backgrounds influencing it."  

"I like entertainment," Angel says. "It may not be my style, but if that is the way the dancer interprets the music who am I to tell them they are wrong.  It's dancing!" 
Many Salsa aficionados balance the old with the new. They acknowledge the paradoxical rule that Latin dance’s most basic tradition is to try new things. As remote as certain influences may seem, we see clearly how Latin dance and music has little exclusion. 

"The main thing that, as a dancer and instructor, I try to keep in mind is that the dance is supposed to be playful and fun,” Betto says, "It doesn't matter if you dance to socialize as the Europeans did or dance to worship the Orizas (Lucumi) gods as the Africans did, you still can have fun with it no matter which approach you take." 

"I used to participate in BMX freestyle (tricks on a bike) which inspires me to do things in a creative, entertaining way,” Angus Dirnbeck offers, “It also fostered in me an appreciation of the technique and precision involved in doing things that just look cool. My experience with martial arts helped with many things including balance and control. And so the list goes on. And perhaps more than most other activities, dance allows you the freedom to be who you are or at least who you want to be for the duration of the song."  

Cheerleading is Caryl Cuizon most unusual influence in her dancing. "The biggest influences in my social dancing have been Hip Hop and classical music training in piano. In terms of choreography and performances, definitely my many years of cheerleading influence my desire to 'fly' or be in the air. Cheerleading movements are quite different from the elegant and fluid movements of Salsa. I had to unlearn many habits (i.e. toning down explosive movements. In choreographies, I still use what I learned in cheerleading to create formations, transitions, precision and synchroni-city. We even did a cheerleading Salsa routine once.  When it comes to upholding traditions I try to stay true to timing (for technique as well as for communication with my partner), good basics, partnering and letting the music move you."  

"To me the music is the tradition," Angel says. "Certain instructors create signature styles that are copied, and that is a wonderful thing.  It's a great compliment to a dancer that someone wants to move the way they do." 

Natalie Reis is a former Flamenco dancer. "I am told that I often have the flavour through my arm and hand movements. I don’t do it deliberately.  In addition I was born and bred in the Caribbean between Trinidad, St Lucia and Barbados, so my body tends to move that way. I feel music in the centre of my body and most movements are generated there." 

Betto offers, "I was a soccer player so I do a lot of fast footwork. I'm also fascinated w/ Afro-Cuban dances so I try to use a lot of body movement as well." 

Betto grew up dancing Latin. He was born in Ecuador and was raised on various Latin American styles from Cuban, Columbian, Puerto Rican to Dominican. It wasn’t until 1998, that he saw a couple dancing On 2 in a New Jersey nightclub. "It was different than any other style I knew. I love the chemistry and connection you get with the music and with your partner, especially with partner-work since all the leads start and finish with the musical bar." 

"I am trained as a Ballroom Instructor," Angel says. "Though I started as a street dancer because I'm trained I use my feet differently.  My leg action is sharp and I play with the inner tempos of the music. I started Salsa On 2 about 3 years ago. I love to do new and different things. I also wanted to understand the difference between Ballroom Mambo and N.Y. Club Style Salsa/ Mambo/ Salsa On 2." 

Edie, The Salsa FREAK started dancing when she was 30. "I was overweight, asthmatic, and allergic to EVERYTHING. My husband was cheating on me, and I was a miserable wreck. It was either Salsa or suicide."

We picked Edie, The Salsa FREAK's reply for our last quote as it reflects the Salsa spirit nicely on whichever beat you choose to step to:

"I am a creation of all my instructors. I’ve had over 30 different instructors teach me a myriad of tricks and tips, and have simply combined every inch of my being as a compilation of each one of them. I am so confused right now; all I can do is LET GO and feel what the music dictates. It’s quite surprising what comes out at times." 

Oct 2006
© lyw


Siguelo by Javier Vasquez



Mambo Trivia

Mambo is a Cuban musical form and dance style.  The word Mambo (conversation with the gods) is the name of a priestess in Haitian Voodoo, derived from the language of the African slaves who were imported into the Caribbean. The history of modern Mambo begins in 1938, when a danzon called "Mambo" was written by Orestes and Cachao López.  The song was a danzon, descended from European ballroom dances like the English country dance, French contredanse and Spanish contradanza, but it used rhythms derived from African folk music.

Cuban music enters the United States

In the 1930s, the Lecuona Cuban Boys and Desi Arnaz popularized the conga in the US and Don Aspiazu did the same with son montuno, while Arsenio Rodriguez developed the conjunto band and rumba's popularity grew. Conjunto son, mambo, chachachá, rumba and conga became the most important influences on the invention of salsa. [c/o]