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How to Get Back on Time When The 1 & 5 Switch In Salsa Music

(See video at bottom of this post for examples with a partner)

Have you ever been in the middle of a dance and realized the musicians switched the music around on you? Is that ok? Are you still on time?

How To Handle Timing Switches in Salsa Songs

If all of a sudden you find the music has changed and the 1 and 5 have been reversed, you’re not alone.

This happens a lot in salsa music and it happens without warning. So, here’s what to do…

Firstly, if you’re struggling to find the beat in salsa music, check out my series on How to Find the Beat in Salsa music. It will change your life.

Why do musicians change the timing?

Musicians count in fours so they count 1-2-3-4. That’s one bar of music. And they repeat that: 1-2-3-4. So for them they have a 1 and a 1.

For us dancers, we count in 8’s so 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 becomes 1-2-3-4, 5-6-7-8. We have a 1 and a 5.


Musicians are able to rearrange those bars of 4 beats however they want, so they often switch them around making the 1 into a 5, for us dancers.

It typically starts to feel weird or different than we’re used to so we have a desire to get back on the 1.

If The Timing Switches And I Don’t Switch Back, Am I Off-Time?

It’s important to know that if the music switches and you find yourself dancing on the 5 instead of the 1, that’s not wrong. That’s totally fine. But most people like to switch back because it’s what they’re used to.

If you’re dancing On2, the same applies. If your 2 and 6 get switched around, no big deal. Keep dancing if you like, or decide to switch back.

Depending where you live in the world, some places prefer the lead breaks forward on2, and other places prefer on6 — it’s just a timing convention. One way is not right or wrong.

How to Get Back On Time

Let’s think of your basic in two parts: the front half of your basic and the back half of your basic, or the left side of your basic the right side of your basic if you’re doing a side basic.

All you have to do to get back on time if there’s a timing switch is repeat the same half of your basic twice.

If you just did the front half of your basic, repeat it and break forward with the same foot.

If you just did the back half of your basic, repeat it and break back with the same foot.

See video for visual examples.

Three Steps You Can Use To Switch Timing

The most important part is the principle of weight shifts.

To switch timing you need to stop your weight from shifting where it normally does and repeat your break step. As long as you do that, it doesn’t really matter how you decorate it with your feet, you’re accomplishing the same thing.

So there’s three options I suggest in the video:

  • Tap your foot
  • Flare your foot out to the side
  • Use a syncopated cha-cha step

All three achieve the same thing.

For example: If you’re breaking forward on your left foot on the 5 (instead of the 1, because the music just switched) you rock back on your 6 and hold your weight there.

On the 7 you can use any one of those three options above:

  • Tap your left foot on 7 while keeping your weight on the right foot
  • Flare your left foot out to the side on 7 while keeping your weight on the right foot
  • Do a cha-cha step on &-7 so your weight is back on your right foot on 7

All of those options prepare you to then break forward with your left foot on the 1.

See video for more examples.

How Do I Get Back On Time With A Partner?

Key Takeaways

  • Musicians count in 4s and dancers count in 8s
  • Musicians aren’t thinking of dancers when they compose songs. To them, our 1 and 5 are both 1’s. That’s why they switch them around without thinking of dancers.
  • If you find yourself “off-time” because the 1 and 5 switched, no worries. You’re not doing anything wrong. Despite what some people may say, you’re still on time if you’re breaking on the 1 and the 5.
  • Different parts of the world have different timing conventions. There is no right or wrong.
  • Use the steps mentioned above to get back on time, if that’s what feels good to you.