Where Did The Clave Go?

This is the infamous question that comes from a dancer who realizes that they don’t always hear the clave in EVERY salsa song. You may be wondering what I’m talking about and that’s exactly why I wanted to write this article.

Did you know that when you listen to the amazing music that we call Salsa, you cannot tangibly HEAR the clave being played in every song? Well, it’s true, and I’d love to help you understand WHY it’s not physically played in many Salsa songs. But, most importantly, I’d like to show you WHY it may be the most important distinction you can make, in reference to impacting your dance.

First, allow me to share that, as an instructor, I’ve had this conversation with many dancers and it typically goes a little something like this:

Me: “So, as a dancer, what do you connect to the most in a Salsa song?”

Dance: “The clave! Because it is the heartbeat of Salsa”

Me: “Yes, I agree!”

At this point the dancer will reference a song and ask….

Dancer: “You hear that?  pa—pa—pa—, pa pa”

However! Without realizing it, they are clapping the clave to a song that isn’t physically playing it, and more times than not, they are clapping it backwards! I usually don’t say much in those moments, unless you’re a student or a friend of mine that I have rapport with and I know you’d receive constructive criticism well. So, I often find myself baffled about this, because much of the time it comes from people that are actually good at executing the dance and it makes me think “MAN! This dancer is already awesome, I can only imagine what would happen if this person actually understood and connected with the music at a deeper level! It would be sick!”. In my opinion, I look at this subject as the difference between snorkeling and scuba diving. Both experience the water, but the scuba diver will often have a “deeper” experience than the snorkeler would. In the same way, I believe that a Salsa dancer who becomes a student of rhythm will experience Salsa in a deeper level, and understanding clave is the starting point of this experience.

So, what is the “tangible” clave? This just means that you physically hear the clave playing in a Salsa song. Here is an example:

Can you hear the Pa—Pa—Pa—,  Pa Pa? That is what we call 3/2 clave.

Now take a listen to this song:

Do you hear the same sound? Nope! Not at all, but did you know that this song is in the same “clave” as the previous example? Yes, this song is in 3/2 clave, but the “tangible” clave is not there.

What does this mean? To keep the explanation geared towards a dancer and easy to understand, generally, within one basic step, each rhythm played in a Salsa song should have one side (example- “123”of the basic)  “busier” than the other (example- “567” of the basic), therefore, it creates an alternating drive between “conflict” and “resolution” that gives Salsa its driving pulse that we all love. In saying this, a good general way to accurately determine the clave direction (2/3 or 3/2) in a song, is to learn to find “the straight side” of the rhythm. The straight side is the “2” (the side that has 2 notes) side of the clave. As an example, let me show you what that looks like in the mambo bell:

So, why is it important for us as dancers? Because without clave, Salsa is not Salsa. At its highest level, the very interpretation we give this amazing music stems from how we feel the essence of Salsa, which is clave, so clave should be a dancers priority, in order to get the most out of their dance. Dance moves are great! But nothing looks as good as personal connection feels in Salsa. To give you a real example of how this can change the landscape of your dance (if you choose to do so), I’ll take the concept of “conflict” and “resolution” and apply it to dance. If the clave has this alternating drive, wouldn’t it translate into our dance? I’m not saying you must interpret it literally each time you dance, but if you do choose to do so, one side of your basic will FEEL different than the other. Your basic won’t FEEL robotic like “123, 567″, because you are now interpreting the driving force of Salsa, which is clave. You may be thinking “How could you do that on the dance floor if the person you are dancing with has no clue about clave?”. Well, I can say this: In the 15 years I have been dancing, when I choose to truly interpret & connect with a song, my partner enjoys the dance more, because what I connect to generally translates into my partner. Since you’re dealing with tangible rhythm and genuinely connecting, not fabricating, your partner will more than likely connect with your dancing on a subconscious level. Have you ever heard the saying “You have to FEEL it”? This is what I mean! When you FEEL it, your partner will too! So, what would happen to your dance if you chose to be an informed student of the Salsa music? How much better would you be? How many “glass ceilings” will you break? How much better would you feel when you dance?

Coming from someone who has never liked dancing and was dragged to his first Salsa class by his then girlfriend (and now I have the honor of calling her my wife), I can tell you that this distinction has changed everything about how I see Salsa. I have been teaching this specific concept for over 8 years with a 100% success rate. Everyone who decided to step up and take on the challenge of understanding Salsa at a different level (and accomplished it), transformed their dance forever. I pray the same for you.

God Bless!

Keep in mind that this is just scratching the surface of clave and it should be viewed through those lenses. There are many other rhythms and concepts that complete the understanding of clave, and if you’re interested in this level of training, give me a shout and I’d be honored to serve you in any way I can.

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  1. says: Mick from Australia

    It can be safely said that a high proportion of Australia’s salsa dancers and teachers have almost no knowledge of salsa music, its instruments and its origins. Most think it evolved from South America! Not to say they can’t dance it well enough, but they are only skimming the surface of the dance in reality.

  2. says: Chencho Alberto

    What you will find in EVERY salsa song is the rythm of the congas called tumbao. This is the base from which every instrument follows [tempo]. From this you can dance on2. Not every song has clave though, but every one has to have tumbao

    1. Amen, Thank you for the input. Salsa is written IN clave, but as described in the post, it is not always literally pronounced in the song- such an interesting dynamic of salsa!

      Thank you again for your comment

  3. says: Roger Stevens


    Thank you for the “Where did the clave go?” article.

    The asymmetry of the music’s 8-beat grouping (i.e. dancer’s measure), is something that I’ve mulled over for some time. And, one of my goals is to more-deeply understand, as well as eventually exploit and utilize, this aspect of the [musical] concept of Tension & Resolution.

    I think that there may also be some benefits in learning how to recognize the Tension & Resolution phenomenon also inherent in the chord progressions of the montuno; typically played as arpeggiated [individual chord tones] piano and bass “riffs.” Those chord progressions also create tension and resolution, as they progress from the chord-tones of the music’s key (i.e. “tonic”), by creating tension of various degrees with other chord tones, before resolving/ending at the tonic. Awareness would aid in observing (and feeling) the musical piece’s cohesiveness and overall context. And, may also aid in determining that piece’s structure; as well as being more acutely-aware of any [enjoyably] surprising deviations from the expected (or typical). At the very least, providing a deeping appreciation of the composer’s (and performers’) musical concept and flavor.

    Is this something that you, or others have observed? And possibly, utilized in creative leading or following?

    1. Absolutely brother, yes! You hit the nail on the head! Our rhythmic vocabulary can impact our creativity on the dance floor drastically!

      Thank you so much for reading my article