The Key to Dancing Salsa “On-2″

Dancing Salsa “On-2″ is very popular amongst our users, and we have received many requests to create a Salsa timing video that illustrates the “On-2″ foot step pattern. Many dancers have trouble finding the “2″ beat and still can’t isolate the percussion patterns that accent that beat. In this timing video we will focus on the Timbales patterns, the Cáscara and the Mambo Bell, both can help you to keep in time when dancing Salsa “On-2″.

The song we chose is “La Llave” by Grupo Latin Vibe ( “La Llave” means “The Key” in Spanish, so we hope that this video will provide you the key to unlocking the “On-2″ rhythm and let you unleash your full potential on the dance floor without having to worry whether you are still in time with the music. This is also a relatively slow track (164BPM), and many Salsa dance studios play this song for practicing.

Another thing to notice about this song is the use of a Vibraphone. The vibraphone is a percussion instrument, but it’s also a chromatic one. This means that it can play all sort of notes, and is suitable for playing the melody. The instrument itself resembles a big xylophone with the bars arranged like the keys on a piano keyboard. Many Salsa groups and artists utilize the magical sound of the Virbraphone in their music. Some examples are The New Swing Sextet, La Sonora Carruseles, Louie Ramirez, Joe Cuba Sextet as well as many others.

Gropo Latin Vibe with Tommy Mattioli on the Vibraphone

Grupo Latin Vibe with Tommy Mattioli on the Vibraphone

So here we go, the new timing video:

We will now explain to you the two Timbales patterns illustrated in this video, their relation to the “Clave” pattern and how they can be used to find the “On-2″ beat.

The Cáscara Pattern

Cáscara illustrated in Gold

Cáscara in Gold

Cáscara is the Spanish word for a shell, and it is also the name of a very common timbales pattern. This pattern is played by hitting the shell of the drums with the woodstick.  It is usually played during the verses, either with one or two sticks, and has a direct relation to the Clave. The pattern itself consists of single and double-strokes, and sounds like:

Ta  TaTa  TaTa  TaTa  Ta  TaTa

Each ‘Ta‘ signifies a single stroke and ‘TaTa‘ a double-stroke. We have a single stroke, followed by 3 groups of double strokes, another single stroke, and finally a 4th group of double-strokes. The interesting thing about this pattern is that it starts on beat 2: The first ‘Ta’ in the sequence falls on the second beat of each phrase, that is the beat where the men break backwards when dancing “On-2″. To illustrate this, we will show you the cáscara pattern again, but this time also with the beat numbers:

2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 & 1 &
Ta  TaTa  TaTa  TaTa  Ta  TaTa

The best thing about this pattern is that you don’t actually have to remember all these beats – once you internalize the pattern, by listening to it and memorizing how it sounds, you will be able to pick it up very easily. Then you will be able to find the “2″ beat just by listening for this pattern, and whenever you hear that the pattern repeats and a new iteration begins, you will immediately know this is the “2″ beat and that you ought to break backward with your right foot (or forward with your left foot, if you are the follower).

You can practice this pattern along with the video. All you have to do is to say it aloud (the ‘Ta’ and ‘TaTa’) following along with the timbales animation – whenever their shells highlight in gold there is a stroke of the Cáscara pattern. If you find it hard to follow, you can begin with just saying the ‘Ta’ on the 2nd beat (when the instructor voice says “2″), then you can add the first ‘TaTa’ following immediately on beat 3, and gradually add more ‘Ta’ and ‘TaTa’s until you master the complete pattern.

→ Listen to the Cáscara pattern on the Salsa Beat Machine

The Timbales Bell Pattern

Bell in Purple

Bell in Purple

The Timbales bell is usually played during the chorus and the more energetic parts of the song. In some cases, the Cáscara pattern we discussed above is also played on the timbales bell, but usually it the bell its own distinct pattern that goes as follows:

2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 & 1 &
Ta  TaTaTaTa  TaTaTaTa  TaTaTa

As you can see, this pattern consists of a single, accented stoke on the 2-beat, followed by 3 groups with multiple strokes (each group consists of either 3 or 4 strokes). All you have to look for is that single, accented stroke, and when you hear it you will know you found the “2″ beat and you are dancing in time. Again, you don’t have to remember all the beats in this pattern – once you internalize the sound of this pattern you will learn to recognize it in music and you will be able to dance Salsa in On-2 timing easily.

The bell strokes are indicated in the video using a purple glow. For practicing, you can try spotting the single ‘Ta’ stroke that falls on “2″. Once you can spot is visually in the video, try closing your eyes and see if you can still spot it without the visual clues. Then you can try saying ‘Ta’ on beat 2, and gradually add additional “Ta” sequences until you will be able to read aloud the complete pattern while keeping in time with the music. After you master the bell pattern in this video, you can look for it in additional songs. “Idilio” by Willie Colon, for example, has a very clear bell pattern starting at 02:35.

→ Listen to the Timbales Bell pattern on the Salsa Beat Machine

The Clave

The Clave is a fundamental rhythmic pattern in afro-cuban music. It is usually played with two wooden stick, or by striking a special woodblock mounted on the Timbales set. We are not going to explain this pattern in detail here, but in favor of those who are already familiar with it, we provide a chart to show you how it relates to the other Timbales patterns:

2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 6 & 7 & 8 & 1 &  <- Beats
Ta  TaTa  TaTa  TaTa  Ta  TaTa   <- Cáscara
Ta  TaTaTaTa  TaTaTaTa  TaTaTa   <- Bell
X   X       X     X     X        <- Clave Pattern

Each stroke of the Clave is represented by an ‘X’ in this chart. As you can see, the 2-side of the clave (the one with the 2 strokes, on the left) comes together with the accented Ta on both the Cáscara and the Timbales bell patterns. For songs in 2-3 clave, like “La Llave”, this falls on the beat number 2. For songs with 3-2 clave (for example, “La Salsa Nunca Se Acaba” by Susie Hansen), the accented Ta of these patterns still falls on the 2-side of the Clave, which means beat number 6.


You can find the lyrics of the song, along with a full English translation on a distinct blog post:

La Llave by Grupo Latin Vibe Lyrics + Translation

Final Word

We hope that the information presented in this article will serve as another step in your journey towards mastering the Salsa music rhythms. We have done our best to present it in a simple and accurate manner, and we would love to get your feedback about this. You can leave a comment below and share your impressions with us.

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5 Responses to “The Key to Dancing Salsa “On-2″”

  1. ממש אוסף של כדורים ממריצים ומתמכרת לאט לאט..:)

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Salsa Beat Machine, riemino. riemino said: The Key to Dancing Salsa “On-2″ #salsa [...]

  3. Mama In The Sierras! says:

    THANK YOU!!!!!

  4. Isaac says:

    Joel your site is full of excellent material. refreshing from the generally find basic training explanations and showing well the 2 different ways. Thanks for the compilation and work . Isaac

  5. Pankaj says:

    Really great information as I dance salsa “on 1″ can you please discuss all these with some other instruments including above instruments “On-1″

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