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Salsa Musicality & Shines: 4 Rhythms You Need to Know

Let’s cover four common rhythms we use in salsa dancing, why we use them and how you can use them.

Then we’ll get into some steps you can use for each of them.

Four Common Salsa Rhythms

Basic count 1-2-3, 5-6-7

This is the quick-quick-slow rhythm of salsa that you’re most used to.

Chord beats 1-3-5-7

These are the downbeats, the strong beats of salsa music, often emphasized by instruments like the cowbell in the second half of the song, called the montuno section.

Other instruments that emphasize these beats are the piano (the chords), the maracas and the güiro.

Full count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8

This is when you step on every beat.

Syncopations 1-&-2-&-3-&-4 etc.

Syncopations or syncopated steps means you step on the the &’s in between the beats, the half beats.

You don’t need to step on a specific “&,” a syncopated step simply means you’re using at least one of the half beats. For example: 1-&-2.

Some Steps You Can Do With Each Rhythm

The examples in the video above aren’t meant to teach you the steps. It’s more about explaining concepts and helping you develop as a dancer. If you want the nitty-gritty detailed breakdowns try our online salsa program free for a week here and go to the shines module.

Steps using basic count: 1-2-3, 5-6-7

  • Any of your basic steps
    • Front-back basic
    • Side basic
    • Front basic
    • Back basic
  • Right turn
  • Left turn

You can use this rhythm throughout the entire song. It’s your base for everything.

Steps using chord beats: 1-3-5-7

It doesn’t matter if you dance On1 or On2 the chord beats are always 1-3-5-7.

The most common instruments to connect with on those beats is the cowbell and there’s lots of steps you can use for this.

  • Chord beat walks: step and walk in a direction on 1-3-5-7
  • Chord beat walk with jazz point: alternate steps with flaring your foot to the side
  • Rocking back and forth during the intro of a song

You’re typically going to use this rhythm in the second half of the song, the montuno section, where the cowbell is played, adding drive and energy to the song.

You could also dance the intro of a song rocking side to side with your partner doing a step-touch.

Steps using full count: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8

  • Grapevine
  • Mambo taps (chord beat emphasis, but you step on every beat)
  • In and outs (chord beat emphasis, but you step on every beat)

You’ll typically use full count footwork in the second half of the song when it’s more energetic. Why?

It makes sense to use this rhythm when there’s more things going on, more instrumentation.

Stepping on every beat might not make as much musical sense when things are slower or more calm. That’s not to say it’s not allowed. It’s up to you on how you want to interpret the music and your personal choices, but this is just an idea of how you could connect the amount of steps you do to the energy of the song.

Low energy, less happening musically, less steps.
High energy, more happening musically, more steps.

Steps using syncopations: 1-&-2-&-3-&-4 etc.

  • Syncopated in and outs (1-&-2-&-3, 5-&-6-&-7)
  • Kick ball change (1-&-2) or (1-2-&-3)
  • Cha-cha-cha step (4-&-5 or 8-&-1)

Syncopated steps are typically used in the second part of the song where there’s more energy.

You can also use a syncopated step to change the count you’re dancing on if the music switches (the 1 and 5 have been reversed).

Applying The Four Rhythms

(See video above for visual examples)

When you’re doing shines you’re typically going to find people mix all the rhythms together, especially once you go beyond a beginner level.

The idea is these rhythms give you more tools for interpreting the music in a more accurate and varied way, so you can really bring a song to life.

Human brains love change and contrast. We don’t like seeing a flat line or an energy level that’s always the same thing. We like peaks, we like valleys, high energy, and low energy.

So, if you take something that’s slow and then you add something that’s quick it’s going to be more interesting and vice versa.

The idea is to keep things interesting and fun, and these rhythms help us do that.

I hope you enjoyed this short introduction to salsa musicality.

It’s a deep topic and there’s so much to share.

More to come!