Tips for distinguishing the "One" from the "Five"
The first level in deciphering salsa rhythms is learning to find the "one" and/or the "five". If you can do this consistently, congratulations! You've just distinguished yourself from most of the other dancers on the floor.
The next level in hearing and the dancing salsa rhythms is to be able to distinguish beat "one" from beat "five". It’s easy to confuse them and there are various names for this error, such as "having the beat turned around" or "dancing on the follow's time". Does it matter? Well, if neither you nor your partner can hear the difference, then there's no problem. But if the follow can hear the difference and the lead cannot, it can be painful for the follow.
It turns out that being able to hear and dance with the music involves at least two distinct skills:
- Hearing the Beat: being able to hear each beat and measure (4 beats) of music – defined by the percussion instruments, and
- Hearing the Phrase: being able to hear each musical phrase (two measures, or 8 beats) – defined by the melody (typically either sung by the vocalist, or played by one or more the horns). These phrases often have a "question and answer" or "call and response" format: the first measure sets up the question or call, the second measure provides the answer or response. Or the first phrase sets up the question or call, and the second phrase provides the answer or response.
Note that not all songs have a discernable melody at all times. However, when there is a melody, the beginning of the melody usually begins on or near the "one". So, if you are looking for a short, simple explanation of how to distinguish the "one" from the "five", I would say "listen to the melody".