Last Thursday night, Favian Bustos and Fabricio Aleman led their first On2 mambo, salsa, cha cha cha class. Entertaining and informative, the class comprised about 30 On1 dancers seeking to expand their dancing repertoire. Robbie Sky leads a similar class, and as she pointed out last class, we must challenge ourselves to be the best dancers we can be. Austin dancers, as a group, primarily dance On1, as this format is taught to beginners in most Austin dance schools. On1, in my opinion, is easier to teach, and easier to learn, than On2, so the dance schools teach that way to maximize the early success of entering students. As Robbie so nicely pointed out, the more styles one can dance, the greater the universe of dance partners available, and the more fun you can have at any given dance venue, anywhere in the world. Makes sense to me.
Back to the class. After a short introduction to the history of mambo, we got down to basics. Here are my notes from that class:
Cha cha cha evolved from mambo in Cuba back in the 1950’s, and both are danced, and only danced, On2. Mambo was reincarnated as salsa in the 1970’s, and can be danced either On1 or On2. When teaching mambo, it helps to teach cha cha cha at the same time, as they are so similar. I find it easier to hear the On2 beat in cha cha cha, whereas the polyrhythmic nature of mambo obscures it.
Musicians call the basic rhythm of mambo, salsa, and cha cha cha the tumbao. Played on the congas, the drummer accents the beats on 2 and 6, which the dancers then use to locate themselves in the music. Fabricio played the tumbao live on congas while we listened to recorded music. This teaching technique helped me hear and focus on the accented beats of 2 and 6, making it much easier for me to maintain my timing. Fabricio exhibited an impressive knowledge of percussion, and his drumming brought the tumbao into the foreground for us beginners. I suggest that other dance teachers adopt this technique. David Zygn has played congas in his On2 classes for years, but I do not know of any other instructors in Austin doing so.
One big hurdle for me with On2 is finding the second beat of the measure. I’m not a musician, and I have no formal musical training. Instructors should not assume that any given student can find One consistently while the music plays. I suggest that instructors poll their classes to see if anybody or everybody can find One. Once you know where One is, finding Two becomes obvious. If the class is unsure of the location of One, hand clapping on One for an entire song would benefit most students. In my struggle to learn On2, it helped me when I realized that whether dancing On1 or On2, the leader consistently steps on One with his left foot; forward when dancing On1, and backward when dancing On2. Thus, knowing where One lays in the song becomes crucial.
Another facet of On2 instruction bothers me. As Fabricio pointed out, beginner On2 instruction typically involves showing the students the follower’s footwork, so that both leaders and followers step forward on One. Several times in the past, during On2 instruction, the class began by doing the follower’s footwork, and when partner work began, I was told to ignore what I just learned, and do the opposite. Why? This stuff is hard enough to begin with, so why make it harder? We’re talking about building muscle memory, right? So why practice it wrong? During instruction on the basic step, leads and follows should be separated, and each group taught their appropriate footwork, so no class time is wasted learning the incorrect step. I understand that teaching the followers footwork to everyone is traditional, but it’s wrong. Don’t do it. Teach it right from the beginning, or don’t bother. Tradition is nice, unless it’s not.