The Clave, Percussion, and Dance Rhythm Patterns

Click here for information on Clave & Other Percussion Rhythms (as well as how these rhythms interact with dancing "on 1" and "on 2").
Click here for Dance Rhythm Patterns (i.e. the quicks and slows) for the basic Latin Dances and Swing.


By Barbara Bernstein

Salsa music is counted in 8 beat phrases. These 8 beats constitute two "musical measures" of 4 beats each.


In the clave patterns below, the instrument is struck on the beats that are underlined in the 8 beat phrase.

3-2 Clave Rhythm

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

2-3 Clave Rhythm (also called "Reverse Clave")

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and


Above: DanceInTime performers relax and role-play being in a Latin band at the 2009 Philadelphia Salsa Congress.

Note the difference between the above two clave patterns. In the 3-2 clave rhythm, there are 3 clave beats that are hit in the first measure and only two in the second measure. In the 2-3 clave rhythm it is the reverse. In fact, we simply reverse the first and second measures to get from one clave rhythm to the other. The nature of the music determines which of these clave rhythms to use in a given song.

All other instruments have to be consistent or coordinated with the clave. This is sometimes referred to as "going with the clave." This coordination is essential because the clave is (literally) the "key" or foundation of the Salsa rhythm.

The following additional expressions underscore the importance of the clave: If a DJ "mixes songs on the clave," that means he goes from one song to another while maintaining the integrity of the clave. Likewise when dancers refer to "dancing on the clave," this means that the dancers' steps are consistent with the rhythmic underpinning of the music. (It does not mean that the dancer takes a step each time the clave is struck since dancers take 6 steps in 8 beats while the clave is struck only 5 times.)

There is a distinctive feel to each of the clave measures. The one in which 3 beats are struck creates a syncopation or tension. (The timing on these three notes is somewhat similar to the timing of playing three notes of even length in four beats of music---which is technically called "triplets." Triplets create rhythmic tension that is similar to the clave rhythm, and is a device used in other types of music.) By contrast, the clave measure with 2 beats is less syncopated and resolves the tension. Interestingly, the two beats that provide the resolution tend to be louder and more emphatic-sounding by their nature. 
For further details on the content of the last two paragraphs, readers are encouraged to review the excellent material written by Steve Shaw at this web address.

Considering the very crucial role that the clave plays in Salsa music, it is a remarkably simple instrument. It was originally two pieces of wood that were hit against each other. These days there are also plastic claves which make quite a nice sound as well.

I want to add a couple "footnotes" of interest. I had a conversation with Edie, the Salsa Freak, about rhythm, and she told me something that really underscores the crucial role of the clave. She said that she has gone to jam sessions where there were drums playing but no clave. When she joined in with her clave, "all of a sudden it sounded like a Latin jam session! It changed the whole flavor of the sound."

I also spoke to Mike Bello and Charley Gerard who are both authors of major works in this field. (See the bibliography at the end of this paper.) In the course of these discussions, both men independently mentioned that the concept of a 3-2 clave and a 2-3 clave is an American construction. That is, in Cuba, musicians don't divide the clave rhythm into these two categories.

I was told that Cuban musicians would say that it just depends on where you start the melody. They grow up listening to these rhythms all their lives and become extremely accustomed to them. So they can easily identify which measure of the clave to play in a given section of music. The way they look at it, which measure you start on is of little consequence, hence the two clave rhythms are not really that distinct.


Drums such as congas or bongos generally hit all of the beats in the chart below, so the drums mark the underlying structure. However, certain beats are emphasized.

Note that the way a drummer hits each stroke is not identical. Drums can be hit in different spots, creating a rich and textured sound---something more interesting than just the even marking of beats.

A. The pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what a single conga drum might play. The underlined beats are accented (louder). The conga rhythm is called "tumbao."

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and

B. And the pattern below could be thought of as a simplified version of what the bongos play during a Salsa piece. (In reality, there is an alternate sound also made on beats 4 and 8 on the bongos.) The name of the bongos' rhythm is "martillo" (which literally means hammer).

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and


There are a number of rhythm patterns that can be struck on a cowbell. If a percussionist had one cowbell, he might strike it on the beats listed below.

1 2 and 3 4 and 5 6 7 8 and (for songs in 3-2 clave)

1 2 3 4 and 5 6 and 7 8 and (for songs in 2-3 clave)

Where and how the bell is struck determines whether the sound is high or low, strong or weak etc.---adding texture to the pattern. If the bell is held so that the opening is the lower part, then hitting the bell at the lower end produces a low tone. The top of the bell does not vibrate much and when hit there, the bell makes a high sound.


Photo by Jim Pesci
Salsa/Mambo dancing is done by taking three steps during four beats of music. The steps are most often taken on beats one, two, three, five, six, and seven, or on beats two, three, four, six, seven, and eight. Sometimes the timing is described as follows: "quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow" with the "quick" step representing one beat and the "slow" step representing two beats.

In an eight beat phrase, dancers generally change direction twice when doing the basic step. That is, they change from going forward to backwards and vice versa. This change of direction is referred to as the "break step."

If a dancer steps on one, two, three, five, six, and seven, and does the break steps on one and five, this is referred to as "dancing on one."

If the dancer steps on two, three, four, six, seven, and eight, while doing the break steps on two and six, then this is referred to as "dancing on two."

Note that a dancer can step on one, two, three, five, six, and seven while breaking on two and six. That would also be a form of "dancing on two." Eddie Torres is credited with the idea of having people start on beat one while doing the break step on beat two. Many people find it easier to begin dancing on beat one. This clever maneuver preserves the dancer's ability to start on the first beat, while still putting the break step, which has special importance, on beat two.

Because the break step is when the dancer changes direction, it is the body movement that is the "strongest" or most emphasized. In a sense, you might call that the dancer's accent. When this accent comes on the downbeat (one and five), the feeling is very different from having that "body accent" occur on two and six. Accenting the two and six creates a greater feeling of rhythmic tension and syncopation. Hence some people say that dancing "on one" is dancing "to the music" while dancing "on two" is dancing "in the music." Mike Bello describes dancing on two as dancing "in the fabric of the music." 
I want to reference here the excellent material written by Steve Shaw at this web address.

Edie, the Salsa Freak, had some interesting things to say about "on one" and "on two" dancing. She said that what is important is dancing "to the music" by responding to the hits and breaks in a song, rather than whether the dance is structured "on one or two." In her opinion, the best and most musically rich experience is to respond to the accents of a particular piece of music by altering where your break steps are to match those accents. Then afterwards you can resume whichever pattern ("on one or two") you were doing for the bulk of the dance. In short, she felt that flexibility in responding to the music is more important that being wedded to a particular style or break pattern.

The fact is that it is perfectly fine to dance on one or on two. It is up to what the dancer prefers. In both cases, the dancer is stepping on three of the five clave strokes. What is essential for a Salsa dancer is to keep the tempo of the music by consistently taking three steps in four beats of music---whether dancing on one or on two. This is really the most fundamental and important dimension of rhythm and timing as it applies to dance.


Chart Summary of Key Instruments' and Dancers' Rhythms




























A Single Conga Drum

Dancing on 1 (both starting and breaking on 1)

Dancing on 2 (both starting and breaking on 2)

Quiz Questions to Test Your Understanding

  1. What does the double line mean between beats 4 and 5, 8 and 1, and after the last 4? 
    Click here for answer

  2. Which of the 8 beats has the strongest emphasis? 
    Click here for answer

  3. Imagine that you are dancing "on one" by both starting the first "quick" on beat one and also breaking(changing direction) on beat one, as shown in line 4 of the chart. How many of your steps will coincide with when the clave is struck? (Assuming it is a 3-2 clave rhythm, which beats will that be on?) 
    Click here for answer

  4. Imagine that you are dancing "on two" by both starting the first "quick" on beat two and also breaking(changing direction) on beat two, as shown in line 5 of the chart. How many of your steps will coincide with when the clave is struck? (Assuming it is a 3-2 clave rhythm, which beats will that be on?) 
    Click here for answer

  5. There are 2 beats when both the clave is struck and the dancers take a step, regardless of whether you are dancing on one or on two. Which beats are they? 
    Click here for answer

  6. Does the clave pattern in the chart represent a 3-2 or 2-3 clave rhythm? 
    Click here for answer

  7. What is the term for the conga drum rhythm? 
    Click here for answer



If you are interested in further practice or information on this subject, here are some references that may be helpful.

1. Salsa Music, Rhythm, Phrasing and Timing: A Dancer's Tool To Help Demystify, Decipher and Decode Most of the Major Rhythms in Salsa Music While Synchronizing Your Dance Steps by Mike Bello. This is a booklet that describes the major percussive rhythms in Salsa music, accompanied by a CD. You can get it through Mike's website:

2. On Mike Bello's website you can also sign up to subscribe to a free newsletter which he sends out on rhythm.

3. Latin Percussion Inc. puts out a videotape titled "The Rhythmic Construction of a Salsa Tune" which features percussionist Pablo "Chino" Nunez. He breaks down the rhythms of the percussion instruments and then plays each one to a variety of types of salsa music. I bought this from a percussionist in Delaware who sells instructional materials named Scott Davidson. You can order from his website: or contact him at this address:

4. Scott also sold me a CD titled "Conga Drumming: Practice Partner." This has an extended recording of the Afro-Cuban rhythms made by the Son Clave, the Rumba Clave, and the Cowbell. (Note that the clave rhythm described in this paper is the Son clave. The Rumba clave is the same except you strike the clave on the "and" of the 4th beat instead of on the 4.) Dancers and music students can listen to the rhythm patterns and become familiar with their sounds. Drummers can practice along to the CD.

5.The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion and Drum Set by Ed Uribe is a big book that comes with a CD. It is published by the Warner Music Group Company, a division of Warner Brothers Publications. (This can also be purchased through Scott Davidson.)

6. Salsa! The Rhythm of Latin Music by Charley Gerard and Marty Sheller is a very complete work on the subject and also comes with a CD. It is published by White Cliffs Media, African and World Music. You can contact the publisher at 1800-359-3210 or through this website:

7. Mike Bello also puts out a videotape titled: "Salsa-Mambo Shines." This title notwithstanding, he goes over the rhythm of the Salsa percussion instruments at the beginning of the video and talks a little about how those rhythms interact with the dancer's footwork. Then he goes on to teach some nice shines! You can get this through his website:

8. The website has a wealth of information on the clave and tumbao rhythms and how they relate to dancing. The article titled "Our 'On 2' Dance and Music" written by Steve Shaw has a common-sense tone to it with clear explanations. The email address for questions regarding the site is:

9. There is a lot of information on the website: You can click on "clave rhythms" and see the various "Son clave" and "Rumba clave" rhythms explained and written out in musical scores.

10. The CD "Learn To Salsa Now" is a remarkably unique multimedia tool. You can use it as a regular CD, and just play salsa music. Or it can become a video that you can watch on your computer screen (PC or Mac). The video enables you to watch dancers execute certain steps. It also allows the user to watch a band playing salsa music while turning on and off individual instruments including percussion. Hence it helps the viewer understand the contribution of each instrument and how all the rhythms interact. (One of my students brought this to class with his laptop one day, and a lot of us were riveted to it. We'd never seen anything quite like it before!) You can buy this through Tower Records. Their toll free number is: 1800AskTower.

11. Last of all, don't be afraid to make personal contact with anyone whose work you studied and were impressed by. People are pretty reachable these days through websites and email, and most experts in the field are delighted to chat with someone interested in what they have done. You can learn a lot that is not in books that way. I had personal conversations with musicians and authors of books on rhythm which provided a lot of insight into the material. Mike Bello, Charley Gerard, Scott Davidson, and Edie the Salsa Freak were all very helpful and generous with their time and I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank them!!

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