By Raul Avila of The Salsa Expert
Hey Salseek Salseros,
I got nice responses from some of you about the clave articles, but there were requests to know more about how the clave relates to the dancer. So, here we go.
Many dancers have heard the expression “dancing on clave,” or "dancing in clave." However, if you ask the average dancer what that means, the “knowledgeable” ones will say that it means dancing on2. This is the most popular definition for dancing in clave. There are other views, such as: it’s feeling the music; or taking steps that go with the clave beats; or moving your body a certain way to the music.
This idea of dancing “in clave” originated during the mambo craze of the 1950’s. It should be noted that the idea of dancing in clave came out of Cuba and that it was already a way of connecting to the music, especially Rumba. But it wasn't until the heyday of mambo in the 50's that this idea became firmly established in New York.
Though there is no way to verify it, there can be little doubt that it was the musicians that put the idea of dancing “in clave” into the heads of dancers. Pedro Aguilar (Cuban Pete), who was a popular dancer in New York during the 50’s, tells the story about how he learned to dance “on clave.” He says that Machito (the famous singer of the Machito Orchestra) came up to him at a dance and said, “I like the way you dance, but you’re not on clave.” The story goes that Machito then went on to explain the subtleness of the clave, and the difference between dancing on one, and dancing on two.
Since the 1950’s, this idea of ‘dancing on2 equals dancing in clave has been passed along informally among dancers. But, it’s only been since the early 90’s, with the increased interest in salsa dancing and music (especially through the internet and salsa congresses), and the popularity of on2 dancing, that this idea has developed into a belief bordering on dogma. With this revitalization of salsa, a new generation of dancers hungered for knowledge concerning this music and dance. They wanted to know about the mysterious clave. They wanted to know about this on2 thing. To fill this knowledge gap, a new wave of teachers, dancers and on2 websites took it upon themselves to break down just how the on2/clave connection actually works. In other words, they wanted to “prove” the idea that dancing in clave “really means” dancing on2. Unfortunately, all the arguments supporting this claim are flawed.
Clave and the Basic Step
Clave and the basic step developed separately and for different reasons. Clave came out of the Afro-Cuban rhythms that are the foundation of salsa music. The basic step came out of a need to partner dance in a logical and symmetrical arrangement.
Clave is a rhythmic pattern that is completed over 8 beats. It is a unique rhythmic statement that, while made up of two parts, has to be taken as a complete phrase. The basic step is also completed over 8 beats, but that's where the similarities with the clave end. Clave is a rhythmic pattern where the relationship between each of its accents produces its distinct sound. Each of the clave beats is played at a different point in the music. Meaning, it does not duplicate itself and its structure is asymmetrical. Over the two measures, or 8 beats, the clave does not play the same beat twice, nor the same rhythmic pattern.
The basic step is symmetrical. It was developed to hook into the underlying regularity of 4/4 timing. Clave was never a factor in its creation and usage. The main consideration in its development was: can I keep time with the music, and, can I create a step pattern where I can mirror, in a symmetrical and balanced manner, my partners steps – so that we can create a logic and structure for dancing with each other. Because of these constraints the basic step has to duplicate the beats it steps on so that the forward half of the basic are on the same beats as the back half of the basic.
Once you understand the role of these two elements, you can then understand their relationship to each other and the music. Clave is integrated with the 4/4 timing of the music, as well as all the sounds in the music. The basic step is not integrated with the clave directly. Its sole purpose is to hook into the 4 beats per measure of the music – which is the underlying time basis of the clave. The basic step indirectly connects with clave through the 4/4 timing.
In part 2 we will look at what it really means to dance “in clave.”
To purchase Raul's complete book of The Salsa Expert, visit www.thesalsaexpert.com