Salsa Timing: On1, On2, On3 & Everything You Want to Know

Did you know there are various timings you can dance salsa to?

Let me start by saying salsa music is beautifully complex. That’s why finding the beat in salsa music is the biggest challenge for any beginner.

I actually made a step by step course that can help anyone find the beat in salsa music, so click that link if you’re interested.

Let’s dive in…

Salsa’s roots are Afro Cuban. When the Spanish brought the African slaves to Cuba their traditions of music and dance began to mix. From there, musicians and dancers migrated throughout the Caribbean and to New York, where the music adopted new sounds, new rhythms and never stopped evolving. Naturally, the dance also evolved into what is now known as Salsa.

Let’s get three things clear first:

  1. Salsa timing and salsa styles are two different things. Timing refers to the beats of music you dance to and style can refer to two things: a structurally specific way to dance salsa or a visual aesthetic of a dancer. Many people confuse timing and style, assuming they mean the same thing.
  2. Any style of salsa can technically be danced to any timing, and the popularity of one timing over another has changed through time.
  3. Understanding two Spanish words “a tiempo” and “contratiempo” will help us talk about timing more accurately.

“A tiempo” means emphasizing the strong beats of 1-3-5-7 with your steps.
Example: dancing On1 to 1-2-3, 5-6-7 is dancing “a tiempo.”

“Contratiempo” means emphasizing the weaker beats of 2-4-6-8 with your steps.

I haven’t heard universally used English phrases to refer to those two definitions and that’s why I prefer the Spanish words. Plus it’s easier to understand the history and get nerdy with teachers in Latin America when you speak their language.

9 Interpretations of Timing for Dancing Salsa

Not all of the following timings are common but they have existed at some point in history. The On1, On2 and the clave options are the most commonly taught timings today.

A tiempo

  • On1 to 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (break steps are 1 and 5)
  • On2 to 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (break steps are 2 and 6)
  • On3 to 3-4-5, 7-8-1 (break steps are 3 and 7)


  • On2 to 2-3-4, 6-7-8 (break steps are 2 and 6)
  • Cha-cha-cha On2 to 2-3-4-4.5-5, 6-7-8-8.5-1 (break steps are 2 and 6)
  • On4 to 8-1-2, 4-5-6 (break steps on 4 and 8)

Sincopado (Syncopated)

  • On2 to 2-3-4.5 6-7-8.5 (break steps are 2 and 6)

Clave (Son Clave)

  • On2 to 2-3-4, 6-7-8, while aligning your front break to the 2-side of the clave
  • On2 to 2-3-5, 6-6.5-8 (break steps are 2 and 6)

As you can see there is just one way to dance on1, one way to dance on3 and various ways you can dance On2 (On2 defined as dancing with break steps on 2 and 6).

How Has Salsa Timing Evolved Through History?

Contratiempo On2: 2-3-4, 6-7-8

This is the original timing of Son Cubano, a genre of music and dance that orginated in the early 1900’s that birthed salsa. In English it’s often called “son timing,” “classic mambo timing,” or “power 2 timing”. It connects closely to the conga, clave and the bass. Yes, this means dancing On2 came first.

Contratiempo On4: 8-1-2, 4-5-6

You might be pretty surprised to hear dancing On4 was actually a thing. It’s the way a lot of old timers used to interpret the bass, which emphasizes the 2-4-6-8. So although the steps are at a slightly different time than dancing contratiempo On2, it’s really emphasizing the same beats: 2-4-6-8.

On Clave: 2-3-4, 6-7-8 (Original Puerto Rican Interpretation)

Isn’t this the same as contratiempo On2? Yes, but with one addition.

Before Puerto Ricans talked about dancing “On2” they were focused on connecting with the clave, and so they aligned their front break step to the 2-side of the clave.

The Puerto Ricans were front and center in the mambo craze of the 1950’s in New York, commonly known as the Palladium era, and so naturally this emphasis of the clave migrated to New York.

On Clave: 2-3-5, 6-6.5-8 (To the Strikes of the Clave)

This timing is based on the son clave instrument (two wooden sticks that are banged together), which sets the tempo of son, salsa and mambo music. The idea is to align your basic step with as many strikes of the clave as possible. I imagine this timing likely developed during the Palladium era but I haven’t confirmed that.

A tiempo On2: 1-2-3, 5-6-7

Eddie Torres began teaching and popularizing this timing beginning in the 1980’s, from what I understand. He was mentored by the late June Laberta, a ballroom dance teacher, who helped him develop his technique and timing. It combines break steps on 2 and 6 to the conga with the strong beats emphasized by the cow bell: 1-3-5-7.

A tiempo On1: 1-2-3, 5-6-7

The story I’m consistently told here, that still requires further investigation, is that as salsa began reaching new audiences outside of the Caribbean and New York, it was easier and more intuitive to teach cultural outsiders to dance On1 as opposed to On2. However, this story doesn’t account for the fact that I’ve heard Rueda de Casino was originally danced a tiempo On3 in Cuba. More investigation required! Regardless, dancing On1 is now the most common timing you’ll find globally.

Dancing Salsa On 1 Timing

Salsa On1 is just one of various salsa timings you can dance to and it is the most common timing you’ll find in the world today.

Salsa On1 timing definition:

  • “On1” means you start dancing on the first beat of the bar of music – the 1.
  • Your break steps (direction changes) are on beats 1 and 5.
  • You dance to beats 1-2-3, 5-6-7

Is Salsa On1 a Style?

Although salsa On1 is commonly called LA style salsa, Los Angeles style salsa, or salsa LA, that’s not culturally correct. Why?

The Vazquez brothers (Francisco, Luis, Johnny) pioneered LA style salsa in Los Angeles–a sharp, flashy and acrobatic style of linear salsa danced on1–which helped popularize on1 timing but their style is just a visual aesthetic. They could have very well danced to a different timing.

Salsa on1 is a salsa timing, not a salsa style. There’s a difference between salsa timing and salsa styles.

What Parts of the Music Does Dancing Salsa On1 Connect To?

When making a conscious choice of what timing you dance on it often comes down to what you hear in the music and your personal preference.

Dancing On1 connects to the phrasing in the music (the melodic parts) like the repeating pattern of the piano, as well as the cowbell and güiro that emphasize 1-3-5-7.

Where in the World Is Salsa On1 Danced?

Learning salsa On 1 timing seems to be the most common these days, especially in North America, Latin America, Europe and most other countries.

The exceptions I’ve found so far, where On2 is most common, would be around New York and in South Korea. I’m sure there are other areas that dance mainly On2 but I haven’t danced in every country yet!

If you’re not sure what timing is most common where you live, ask your local dance studio.

What Salsa Styles Are Danced to On1 Timing?

You can technically dance any style of salsa to any timing. Keeping that in mind it’s common to see these salsa styles danced On1:

  • Linear style salsa
  • Casino and Rueda de Casino (aka Cuban salsa or salsa cubana)
  • Colombian style, Cali style, salsa caleña (various names, same style)

How Can I Be More Culturally Accurate When Talking About Salsa Timing?

There are two miscommunications that typically occur:

1) People assume timing and style are the same thing.

When someone says “I dance LA style” they usually mean “I dance linear style salsa on1.”

2) People assume there’s only one way to dance to On1 timing.

When someone says “I dance salsa On1” they probably mean “I dance linear style salsa On1” (although you can dance any style of salsa On1, people usually mean linear style).

Don’t worry if you’ve said these things before, it’s all good we all have! The important thing is to remember there’s a difference between style and timing and deepen your understanding so you can be more accurate when talking about salsa with your friends.

Salsa On1 Summary

Salsa On1 is danced a tiempo to beats 1-2-3, 5-6-7. It connects nicely with the phrasing in the music, specifically the piano, and other percussion instruments like the cow bell and güiro.

Timing and style are two different things, so separate the ideas when you talk about salsa with your friends.

Regardless of what timing is most common in your region of the world, remember you can technically dance any style of salsa to any timing – explore and enjoy!

Want more? Check out this deep dive on the difference between dancing salsa On1 vs On2 when dancing a tiempo.

Dancing Salsa On 2: Mambo Dancing

Dancing salsa On2, although not as common as On1, can be danced various different ways, all of which are experiencing a resurgence in popularity as education of the dance spreads.

Although there is an original mambo dance that came from Cuba and then spread to Mexico and New York in the 40s and 50s, these days when someone says “I dance mambo” they mean salsa On2, which is different than the original mambo dance.

The sporadic free-from steps of the original mambo were danced solo. Once it arrived in New York it eventually began to evolve into a linear structure with break steps (direction changes) on the 2 and the 6 and the partner aspect was added. And that’s what we refer to as mambo or salsa on2 today. As the dance began to spread, On1 timing started to become popular.

Salsa On2 definition:

  • “On2” means you start dancing on the first beat of the bar of music – the 2.
  • Your break steps (direction changes) are on beats 2 and 6.

Is Salsa On2 a Style?

Even though salsa On2 is commonly called “New York style salsa,” “Eddie Torres Style,” “Modern Mambo” or just “Mambo,” it’s not actually a style, it’s a timing.

To be more culturally accurate we need to separate the ideas of salsa timing and salsa styles. Let me explain…

Even if you’re dancing On2, If you don’t look like a New Yorker or Eddie Torres when you dance then you’re not dancing “New York Style” or “Eddie Torres Style.” Timing is timing and style is a visual aesthetic or structural way of dancing salsa.

What Parts of the Music Does Dancing Salsa or Mambo On2 Connect To?

Dancing mambo or salsa On2 connects strongly to the conga, bass and clave, which are all key instruments in son groups and salsa bands.

Historically those are the instruments that a son cubano dancer connected with and that was passed on to mambo and salsa.

A lot of dancers enjoy dancing On2 for the diverse ways you can connect to the music.

Six Different Ways You Can Dance Salsa On2

Contratiempo to 2-3-4, 6-7-8

This is the original son cubano and mambo timing. Son cubano is the music and dance that preceded mambo and salsa. English names for this timing include son timing, power 2 and classic mambo. It connects well to the clave, bass and conga.

Cha-cha-cha to 2-3-4-4.5-5, 6-7-8-8.5-1

Cha-cha is just like dancing On2 contratiempo but you add the triple step on 4 and 8.

A tiempo, to 1-2-3, 5-6-7

Although danced to the same beats as On1, your break steps are now on 2 and 6, which changes the feel of the dance. This is the timing Eddie Torres popularized. It connects well with the conga and cowbell.

Sincopado (Syncopated), to 2-3-4.5, 6-7-8.5

This timing is almost identical to contratiempo On2 but the steps that are normally on 4 and 8 are on 4.5 and 8.5 instead – half a beat later, which lines up with the syncopated tone of the conga.

It’s almost like a timing in between a tiempo and contratiempo.

If you dance a tiempo and step half a beat early in the home position (on 4.5 instead of 5) you’re dancing this syncopated timing.

If you’re dancing contratiempo and you step half a beat late in the home position (on 4.5 instead of 4) you’re dancing syncopated timing.

In reality it seems it’s often danced as kind of a “mistake” for anyone dancing the previous two timings. I believe there some people who intentionally dance this timing–I’m not entirely sure–but I don’t hear of it taught much. Regardless, people talk about it so here it is.

On Clave to 2-3-4, 6-7-8 (front break on the 2-side)

As mentioned earlier, this was the first interpretation of dancing on clave (son clave), where the Puerto Ricans would align their front break with the 2-side of the clave rhythm while dancing On2 contratiempo. They referred to it as “dancing on clave” as it was before people referred to it as “dancing On2.”

On Clave to 2-3-5, 6-6.5-8 (the strikes of the clave)

The idea is to align as many steps of your basic as possible with the strikes of the son clave. You could use this timing when the clave rhythm is easily heard. Note: there are son claves and rumba claves, which have a different rhythms, so it’s important to note we’re talking about son clave in this article.

Helpful Tips for Talking About On2 Timing

Be as clear as possible so people understand you. Here are the definitions and vocabulary I suggest:

Dancing On2 means your break steps are on the 2 and 6

Using the words “a tiempo” and “contratiempo” is helpful so English and Spanish speakers can share the same vocabulary, otherwise keep in mind…

A tiempo means emphasizing the strong beats: 1-3-5-7.
Contratiempo means emphasizing the weaker beats: 2-4-6-8.

There are various terms that mean the same thing:

  • On2 contratiempo, power 2 and classic mambo all refer to 2-3-4, 6-7-8.
  • On2 a tiempo and modern mambo refer to 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (with break steps on 2 and 6)

Lastly, if you’re a newer dancer who struggles with timing and you’re looking for a step by step course on how to find the beat in salsa music – hit that link!

Want more detail on the difference between salsa vs mambo? I compared salsa on1 to salsa on2 dancing a tiempo here.

Dancing Salsa On 3

Whaaaat, dancing On3 exists? Since when? I’ve never heard of this before!

I’m not surprised because I’ve never seen it taught.

The thing about music and dance is that there is no right or wrong. There is just interpretation. You can dance on any timing you like!

Naturally, people have found a way to dance on almost every timing possible to son and salsa music.

Why Do People Dance On3 if Nobody Teaches It?

People dance On3 for the same reason you dance On1 – because it emphasizes the strong beats of 1-3-5-7.

The cow bell and the güiro love emphasizing the strong beats of 1-3-5-7 so when those instruments are really prominent those are the beats you want to step on.

Let’s look at the beats you dance On1 to: 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (strong beats are in bold)

Let’s look at the beats you dance On3 to: 3-4-5, 7-8-1 (strong beats are in bold)

Notice how the strong beats are spaced exactly the same for On1 and On3? All you do is start stepping On3 instead of On1. The quick-quick-slow rhythm of your steps remains the same.

That’s why dancing On3 is so common in Latin America.

People either…

  1. Try to dance On1 but start stepping On3 by accident and it works out just fine, or
  2. They don’t know much about timing and are just interpreting what they hear in the music, based on their experience growing up in a culture with salsa.

Either way they’re not wrong, they’re just dancing to what they hear.

You can dance perfectly fine with a partner On3 and many latinxs do it. It’s just not the standard way salsa is taught.

I guarantee you if you go to Latin America, as a leader or a follower, you’ll eventually dance with a partner who starts dancing On3. They’ll take you along for the ride whether you want to or not because that’s just how they dance – enjoy your first song On3!

Did you know that Rueda de Casino–the cuban style of salsa danced in a circle with various pairs of partners–was originally danced On3?

There you go, now you know something about dancing On3!

Why not give it a try?

Dancing Salsa On 4

If you weren’t surprised about On3 you probably are about On4!

It’s not a timing you’ll likely see anymore, but it was a common way old timers used to interpret the bass, dancing to 2-3-4, 6-7-8 but with break steps on 4 and 8.

Similar to how On1 dancers sometimes dance On3 by mistake because the cowbell emphasizes the strong beats and it’s just a matter of shifting your break steps, you can understand dancing On4 in a similar way.

The bass emphasizes 2-4-6-8 so you can either break on 2 and 6, which is most common these days, or you could shift your steps and break on the 4 and the 8. It still feels good.

Look at the beats you dance On2 to: 2-3-4, 6-7-8 (weaker beats are in bold)

Look at the beats you dance On4 to: 8-1-2, 4-5-6 (weaker beats are in bold)

Notice how the weaker beats are spaced exactly the same in your basic for On2 and On4? The rhythm is the same, you just shift your steps.

That explains why both timings make sense when dancing contratiempo to the bass.

Cool huh?

Summary of Salsa Timing

Salsa timing is a rich topic with lots of complexities. Learning about it was confusing for me, so I hope this article has upgraded your understanding!

Learning more about the music will undoubtedly inspire you and help you have more fun on the dance floor and that’s my goal.

I also think it helps to separate the ideas of salsa timing and salsa styles so we can be more accurate when we talk about the salsa with our friends.

But remember, it’s not about being a snob or knowing more than someone else. The only goal is to discuss ideas and spread the highest quality knowledge possible so we can be more informed and express ourselves better, with words and dance.

If you’re interested in continuing the journey with us check out our salsa course and bachata course. You can do a free one week trial here.

If you have a comment, question or want to drop a knowledge bomb on me send me a DM on instagram @thedancedojo or @robncampbell


P.S. Thanks to Tito Ortos for being a valuable resource of salsa history and timing in Puerto Rico in terms of the clave and dancing On4.

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