La Clave

I found this article/essay on

(Originally posted on SalsaNewYork 0n 4/03)
NY Mambo Instructors Sonia Cuevas and Oscar Diaz have submitted their first contribution to SalsaNewYork with a brief essay.

La Clave,
The Key to Dancing On Time (An Essay)
By Sonia Cuevas and Oscar Diaz

We very often notice that many “On 2” dancers have difficulty maintaining proper timing outside of the classroom environment. We believe this is true because dancers place more emphasis on learning shines and turn patterns and neglect timing and ear training. Timing and ear training can be tedious and difficult for many dancers who don’t have any formal musical training. However, it is important that the “On 2” dancer incorporate timing and ear training to totally experience what our dance style is all about.

The key to proper dance timing is to understand the relationship between La Clave in salsa music and the “On 2” dancer’s basic step. All salsa music is played in 4/4 time. This means there are 4 beats to a measure of music. Our basic step is executed over 2 measures of music. We often call the 2 musical measures we use to execute our basic step a “dancer’s measure”.

La clave (Spanish for The Key) is a syncopated rhythm that is usually played by striking 2 wooden sticks across a dancer’s measure. Although it is sometimes difficult to hear, it is always present.

There are basically 2 types of clave. The 3:2 clave plays 3 beats in the 1st half and 2 beats in the second half of the dancer’s measure and the 2:3 clave plays 2 beats in the 1st half and 3 beats in the 2nd half of the dancers measure. The 3:2 is played on the 1st, 2 ½ , 4th, 6th and 7th beats of the dancer’s measure. The “On 2” dancer executes the 1st step of his or her basic step on the 1st beat of la clave. The 2:3 clave is played on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6 ½ and 8th beats of a dancer’s measure.

The “On 2” dancer executes his or her 1st step of the basic step the beat just prior to the 1st beat of la clave. Understanding la clave also let’s the “On 2” dancer know the tempo of the music. He or she executes the basic step faster or slower, depending on the tempo of the music.

It is vitally important for the “On 2” dancer to obtain timing/ear training from their dance instructor. Many of the more experienced instructors incorporate some form of timing/ear training in their class instructions. Some will actually play la clave while the class is practicing shine steps. Other instructors will have students count off the basic step before executing shine steps. It is important for the new generation of dance instructors to include timing/ear training in their classes. The “On 2” dancer can purchase CD, audio or video tapes which include timing/ear training. We hope this article is beneficial for many of you so you can better appreciate salsa music and dance to the beat of la clave!


I remember I got so excited after I learned the clave that I rushed right out and had my beginning students clapping the clave because I thought it was so cool. Though they could clap the rhythm, they didn't quite get it and were confused when I started clapping when they were dancing. I think the clave needs to be introduced only after the basic timing for the footwork is well established.

With that said, I love the clave. I think I'm more accustomed to the 3:2 clave. Is 3:2 more common?
Ahhhh the clave...

Well in response to your question...the 3/2 clave is probably
more popular, however, the 2/3 clave is also heavily used.

I think the amazing thing about the clave is that those two
seemingly simple wooden sticks, can actually dictate the
rhythm of an entire culture...

Anyway, that's beyond the scope of this post, but if you'd
like my recommendation, become more familiar with the
timing of the 2/3 clave...

In one of my posts, I included a track from my course which
played the conga beat...would you like me to post an audio
clip of the 2/3 clave with counting so that you can understand
the beat?


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