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The Origins of Musical and Salsa Preference

Should you dance salsa on2 or salsa on1? Or salsa on3?

For as long as I have danced salsa, about 12 years now, there has always existed an inter-salsa community debate about whether dancing on2 or on1 is “the better” way, or the “right way”, to dance salsa.

I always found the argument to be non-sensical, for reasons I will make clear in this post. But that being said, it is my opinion that both salsa on2 and salsa on1, and salsa on3 as you’ll see later on, are perfectly legitimate ways to dance salsa, with no one style being better than the other.

What is Sound?

What we know as sound is actually molecules of air that vibrate at a certain frequency, or rate.

Air molecules that vibrate at low speeds tend to be low notes while high notes are fast vibrating molecules. 

These vibrating molecules of air hit our eardrums and make them vibrate at the same rate. Our brain then has to figure out “the-thing-out-there-in-the-world” that is causing the eardrums to wiggle.

We interpret this “medium that make our eardrums wiggle” as sound.

What is music?

Music is organized sound.

There are a number of elements that combine to make music: loudness, pitch, contour, rhythm, tempo, timbre, and reverberation.

It is the meaningful relationship of all these elements that make music.

When the relationship is harmonious, like a symphony orchestra,  we call it music.

If it’s discordant, like a jackhammer, we call it noise.

Once our brain detects music, we decide whether that music is pleasurable or not pleasurable.

In general, we don’t consciously decide whether we like or don’t like a particular type of music; it’s our unconscious brain that decides.

Think about it: do we always have a great reason why we do or don’t like a particular genre of music?

Generally, not.

We just know that we like it or don’t like it.

From there we may attach a reason for our like or dislike. But our initial feeling about music is just that, a feeling.

It is not a consciously thought-out decision.

Once we have made a decision, it can become a part of our identity and we thus have a strong feeling about a certain type of music.

Once we “feel” strongly about the music, we are able to express our feeling in the form of an opinion.

This is the important point: Our musical preferences are completely subjective. There is no fact supporting it, yet we make claims such as “90s hip-hop is much better than today’s rap”  (which clearly it is!). Obviously, this is my opinion, not fact.

the origins of musical preference

Research shows that our tastes in music are mostly set during our adolescent years as our brain is rapidly developing.

This is why it seems that every older generation insists that only the stuff they grew up with is worthy of listening to.

In addition, musical taste is very dependent on culture and tradition. 

Consequently, what we consider pleasing and normal was formed in childhood in a particular place at a particular time surrounded by a particular group of people.

The type of music someone listens to “informs” us at least a little bit about someone’s life. Our music comes to define parts of our personality.

It can give us identity.

In many “primitive” cultures around the world, the word for music and dancing are the same. In other words, these two activities, making music and its associated movements, are intimately linked in the human brain.

Salsa on2 or on1?

So understanding the origins of musical preference–and understanding that music and dance are intimately linked together in the human brain–should we believe that dancing, and our preference for dancing to a certain beat, be any different from how we end up preferring one type of music or another?

If you grew up dancing a particular style, emphasizing a particular beat, that experience is burned into your central nervous system and influenced by all sorts of unconscious variables.

What feels good to you may not feel good to another person, and vice versa. And the genre of salsa you prefer dancing to may differ from that of other people.

From a scientific standpoint, dancing to a particular beat is pleasurable when our ear and body (which are not separate things) are “tuned-in” to a the vibration of air molecules at a certain frequency.

On a human level, however, we are “in-tune” with the music.

We feel it.

We resonate with it. 

We exist in some type of relationship to it.

That relationship may not be so easy—or desirable even— to break, just because someone told you that it’s more “correct” to dance one way or another.

The debate about whether someone should dance on1 or on2 is based on an appeal to authority. If an authoritative figure whom we respect expresses an opinion, then we give that opinion more credibility.

But it’s still an opinion.

And an opinion is not a fact. 

Whether you prefer to dance On1 or On2 is a preference. 

It’s not rooted in an epistemological truth.

This is why I always thought the idea of claiming the superiority of one style of salsa over another was nonsensical.

Trying to apply logical thought processes to a mostly unconscious process is senseless.

It’s like saying someone should prefer French food instead of Italian because French cooking is more correct. It doesn’t make sense.

Taste in food is preference. There is no superior food. I’ve been to France and Italy, they are both amazing.

From my understanding, the idea that dancing on2 is more correct than on1 goes something like this:

The salsa that is most identified with On2 dancing, the New York-based sound of bands that came out of NYC in the 60s emphasizes a certain rhythm called the tumabo, which is played by the conga.

This particular rhythm emphasizes the the slap of the conga on the 2 and the 6 as well as the rhythm of the clave which starts on the 2nd beat in the first measure of the two measure 8-count that dancers use.

On the other hand, dancing on1 emphasizes the first beat of any 8 note phrase.

The first beat is usually the heaviest beat, the beat that you instinctively feel due to its low frequency. It vibrates within you. It, along with the 3,5, and 7 are called the down beats.

They are the beats we tap our foot or clap with naturally, without listening for anything in particular.

Could you make the argument that dancing On2 is a better fit for salsa that has a strong tumbao rhythm?

Sure you could. And quite frankly, I’m likely to agree that it often “feels” better to dance on2 to this type of salsa.

On the other hand, I would not dance On2 to most Colombian salsa. It doesn’t “feel” right to me.

It is also said that dancing on2 is dancing to the rhythm while dancing on1 is like dancing to the melody.

Since songs have both a rhythm and melody components, how does one know which to dance to?

It all comes down to preference.

And preference is subjective.

People can, and do, dance on1 to salsa with a strong tumbao rhythm. This isn’t wrong.

Even Eddie Torres, the legendary teacher most associated with On2 wouldn’t say that.

As he clearly states in numerous videos that can be seen on Youtube, when he started dancing no one had any clue as to what beat they danced on. In effect, there was no “correct beat” to dance on.

My first salsa instructor, who if still alive would be older than Eddie Torres and actually danced at the Palladium, said essentially the same thing.

He said that everyone danced on whatever felt good to them.

Incidentally, he danced on the “3” (which is sometimes called Cuban timing, and also happens to be the beat Colombians often dance Cumbia on).

The bottom line is this: there is no wrong or right because there is no “right” way to dance to salsa, particularly if you are dancing alone.

Rules only apply to permit partners to dance together in a synchronized way.

Ideally, dancers learn to dance various styles. This lets them experiment with dancing different styles with different genres of salsa and figure out what feels best to them. 

Best of all, it enables you to dance with more potential partners! 

At Just One Dance Studio we teach on1, on2, Power 2, on3, Palladium Style Mambo, and Colombian salsa so that you can make the most of your salsa dancing experience. That may seem overwhelming but it doesn’t take too long before your realize there is very little difference between the styles beyond the beat that you accent.