Finding the Clave
Finding the Clave
by Manny Siverio
I originally learned to dance Salsa/Mambo by breaking on the ‘1'. I had no idea of what breaking on ‘2' meant, let alone what the clave was or for that matter what it meant to count an 8 measure bar. It was a pretty frustrating time in my dancing life. I had to think too much. I found myself counting so much that all I could do was pull my hair in frustration. I was able to follow the steps in class, but when it came to dancing what I learned to an actual tune, I was always told that I was off timing.
As you can imagine I was not having a good time in the beginning. It was especially tough on me as a male. Women who are learning to break on ‘2' have it easier than men. All they need is to dance with a man who already knows how to break on ‘2' and just "follow". If the woman is dancing with a good lead, then he should be able to keep her on the ‘2' timing. I (as a man) did not have it that easy. No matter how good the girl I was dancing with was, it didn’t matter because I was the one expected to "lead". It was bad enough that I had to keep the girl on time, but I was also expected to come up with turn patterns for her to follow, do open floor work (a.k.a. shines or solo work), pick up the girl and still be on the ‘2' timing. And this was suppose to be fun?????? I wanted to be a better dancer not look like I was having a wrestling match with my partner on the dance floor.
Fortunately as time went on I was given a couple of pointers on finding the clave that I would like to pass on. These pointers are not sure fire ways of hearing the clave, but they can at least help. Think of it as an introduction to understanding the beat behind all Salsa Music. Even if you have no interest in learning to dance on ‘2', I find that everybody can benefit from these little hints. Especially those ‘1' dancers looking to learn how to do a lot of those open floor shines that New York ‘2' dancers are known for. But in order for them to learn or copy these moves, they’re going to have to learn to count. In other words learn where the clave starts and ends. Besides, learning the clave can help you figure out what timing someone is dancing on and can allow you to break down a turn pattern that catches your fancy on the dance floor. Knowing the count (clave) will help you understand when and how a person gets into and out of a turn pattern.
As I mentioned before the clave is an 8 beat count. Normally broken down into what people call a 3/2 count. But for our purposes let us say that there are 8 beats simply broken down into 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. When the 8th beat is counted the number sequence starts all over again. With this in mind lets think of some ways a novice can find the 1st beat in the clave.
Lead Singer Cue
The lead singer cue is one of the easiest ways to find the 1st beat to the clave. Normally during a song the lead singer (and the chorus to the song) start on the 1 beat. If you are aware of the tempo of the song (the speed in which to count the 8 beats), then you can start counting 1 through 8. If you are counting correctly then you sound be counting off the number ‘1' again when the lead singer starts his new verbal phrase. Please bear in mind that sometimes the lead singer has a long phrase which that may take up two full 8 counts before he is done. No matter because you should still be counting the number 1 as he begins to sing again.
When you start getting the hang out of it you’ll start to notice that the chorus also jumps in on the ‘1' count. This is pretty evident when you begin to hear the lead singer and the chorus taking turns singing. Finally you’ll know that you’re really getting good when you start paying attention to all the other aspects of the song. For example you’ll becoming aware when instruments jump in and out of the clave.
Picking A Beat
After you become proficient at hearing the ‘1' count of the clave, then its time to be equally aware of each of the other seven beats. A simple drill to help understand where and when the other 7 counts are during the clave is the clap drill. The clap drill is very simple. Just pick a number in the count. Lets say for our sake that you picked that ‘2' beat. Listen to the clave in the song and start counting to yourself and clap every time the ‘2' beat comes along. Keep doing this until you know exactly where the ‘2' beat is. Then move onto the ‘3' beat and so forth until you can PICK out each beat individually.
In the beginning I hated open floor shines. All I wanted to do was to learn turn patterns. I found shines to be a waste of my time. Little did I know that by doing shines I was learning to hear the clave. Lets face it, many open floor shines are pretty complex. With each shine you have to get in at a certain time and know where you are throughout the entire shine in order to stay on the proper timing. Not an easy thing. So in order to do that what does a mambo instructor do to teach you? He has to break down the shine according to the count. But not only that, he also drills the shine into you by either counting out loud or by counting out loud as the music is playing at the same time. As I said you are being drill to hear the clave without realizing it. And if you think this is bad, imagine how good you have to be in order to tie several shines back-to-back without a basic step thrown in between.
Once you start hearing the clave and learn to count it, then the only thing left to do is practice hearing the count whenever you hear a Salsa song. The more you do it the better you’ll get and the less you are aware of it. It got so bad for me that I found myself looking for the clave in all types of non-salsa songs (i.e. Rock, Hustle, House, Meregue??).
Dance to Tune you Already Know
Like I said in the beginning dancing ‘On2' is not always fun. You find that you’re counting to yourself in order to stay on time, you worry about messing up and you end up feeling mechanical and stiff. That’s okay, it normal. With practice you realize that you no longer have to count to yourself, that its okay to mess up because everyone else does (the more experienced dancers just know how to cover it up better) and you feel more alive as you worry less about the clave and allow your body to feel and interpret the music. But since you are going to experience these fears in the beginning anyway, I advise that you go out there and dance to tunes you already know. Believe me it will help take a ton of unwanted pressure off you. Its like you doing your homework and have to report to class. You know the material because you did your assignment (the song), you know where the clave is and you feel comfortable with it like it was an old friend. So go out there smile, sing to yourself and enjoy the dance to its fullest.
Originally posted on Salsaweb NY