There are many opinions when it comes to the arts, including dance. Here is a nice explanation from a well-respected musician and dancer. We hope you enjoy it and thank you for allowing us to share it Betto!
What is Dancing On2?
Norberto ‘Betto’ Herrera·Sunday, August 5, 2018
Dancing Salsa On2 or Mambo On2, not only means to break on the 2nd beat of the music measure, it means to break on the 2 side of the Clave. This is what Tito Puente explained to Eddie Torres and what Mambo Legend Pedro Aguilar “Cuban Pete” (RIP) explained to me personally.
Let’s review the Clave a little. It’s composed of 2 sides, one with 2 hits and the other with 3 hits. If we talk specifically about Mambo, let’s just concentrate on the 2/3 Clave, because Mambo is traditionally composed using the Cuban Son in its 2/3 version, because of its roots in Rumba Guaguanco, and you can count it like this: 2, 3, 5, 6.5, 8.
In the U.S., we have categorized the slotted or linear dance style using 2 terms. On1 vs On2, and even going further to call On1=Salsa and On2=Mambo. The first is a very simplistic attempt to classify the beats people use while dancing. The second is very misleading, as it tries to confuse people from understanding the material they are learning. Some instructors and studios even charge people twice for learning the same moves using the different count system. (Different topic for a different day)
People started to use the labels On1 and On2 in the States. It was simple and easy to understand, especially for people who did not grow up with this music. “If On1, you break on the first beat. If On2, you break on the second beat.” Easy!
However, there are counting systems that have long been stablished in Cuba that can help us provide the answers, Tiempo and Contratiempo. Popular music like the Cuban Son and the Changüí from Guantanamo are danced on Contratiempo. In this system, the dancer uses the beats 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 (using the eight-beat dancer bar). Other music like Guaracha are danced on Tiempo, as one of my mentors Maestro Pupy Insua (RIP) explained to me. In this system, the dancer uses the beats 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. And in Puerto Rico as well as in Cuba, they also dance popular music On Clave. In this system, the dancer uses the beats 2, 3, 5, 6, 6.5, 8.
Music just like language, needs to evolve in order to survive. The slotted or linear dance style that we call New York Mambo (which is very different than Cuban Mambo), also has evolved along with the music.
When the Cuban Son started, did not include the conga drums, and only featured the bongos as its main percussion instrument. This is the reason for the pause in the neutral point, which accords with the low hit of the bongo rhythm “Martillo”. After the introduction of the conga drum into the Conjunto by Arsenio Rodriguez, the music became even more clear to be danced using Contratiempo, like it already was practiced in Cuba.
Then came the metals, with the introduction of the Timbales and Bells. Specially the Bongocero’s (Bongo’s player) Bell (cowbell), which plays A Caballo during the Montuno section of the music, hitting the odd numbers very clearly in the downbeats (1, 3, 5 and 7). This made the music more conducive to being danced on Tiempo.
Later on came a Cuban named, Mario Bauzá, with his crazy idea to add more brass into the orchestration, with some Jazz arrangements. He created a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans, which revolutionized Latin music with a perfect balance between melody and percussion. Mario Bauzá’s format/version has been the formula that became the standard for decades until the arrival of the Cuban Timba, which I consider the new evolution of this music.
This is why we can dance the same songs in different ways, depending on the dancer’s ear, or the section of the composition (Son, Montuno or Mambo), this is talking about the original format of the Cuban Son.
From my research and observations, dancers use these three different counting systems while dancing Mambo (again not Cuban Mambo):
– On Tiempo, with the timing 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7.
– On Contratiempo 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8.
– On Clave 2, 3, 5, 6, 6.5, 8.
This is depending on the orchestration of the music, the era and/or region, where the specific style has been developed.
In other words, we can take a bus, a car or a bicycle, the main goal is to arrive to the 2 side of the Clave.