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As you probably know, salsa music has a particular structure. There are four beats in a “measure,” and two measures in count of eight beats, which corresponds to the basic step. There is an emphasis on the first beat of each measure and we can hear that emphasis in a variety of ways. For instance, the singer will often start a verse on the first beat of an 8-beat count. Or, a different instrument will come in on that first beat – often a trumpet (or other brass), or another section of the orchestra.
Underlying the melody (which, being the melody, is usually what we listen for) is something rhythmic. It may be a bass line played by a low-sounding instrument, like a bass. It may be percussion like the clave (thick wooden dowels that provide the characteristic clicking sound), a cowbell, or some other way of hearing the beat. This percussion line usually sounds every second beat in the count, so we can hear it as a count of 1, 3, 5, 7.
In our basic step, we “break” forward and break back (left and right foot, respectively, for leaders; right back and left forward for followers) on the first beat of each measure, which is the first and fifth beats of the count. Go listen to a bit of salsa music or varying tempos and you’ll hear what I mean.
So now that we’re dancing the basic in time to the music (and NOT to a count in your head), you’ll be able to execute some of the foundation patterns according to when the beats and emphasis fall in the music. For instance, the leader can “get out of the way” for a cross-body lead on the first measure of a count, pull (or push) the follower across on the first count of the second measure, and “get back in the way.” For a follower spot turn, the lead (“hand up”) happens on the first count of the measure, the “compress” of follower into leader on the first count of the second measure, and the fingertip push-circle of the turn itself on remaining beats of the second measure of the count. The more you listen and dance to music, the more natural these foundation move timings will become.
Finally, when putting together a more complicated or involved choreography or pattern, we now have to become aware of the overarching structure of the music, that being four counts-of-eight (32 measures) in a phrase. When you listen to a song, you should be able to hear these musical sentences or phrases where a lyric stanza completes or where a chorus happens. If you count the measures, you’ll typically find four counts of eight – that is eight full basic steps – in each phrase. That’s why a full choreographed pattern will often comprise 32 beats, 8 measures of 4 beats, or 4 counts of 8. If you want to execute a complete pattern and have it correspond nicely to the musical phrasing, you’ll want to listen for the completion of one such phrase and begin your pattern at the start of the next. As a leader, listening for this phrasing at the end of a song will help you plan for that big finish timed exactly with the last note of the song, leaving your partner saying, “Wow!”