Welcome to
StreetDance Australia 's
Dance Survival Guides
  • Finding the Clave

  • Understanding the Music

  • The Clave Rhythm

  • Dancing with the Clave.

  • Emergence of the Dances

  • New York Mambo/Salsa

  • Origins of Salsa...

    An Introduction to Clave Theory (Breaking on Two)
    by Paul Clifford

    What is this clave thing?

    The clave (KLA-vey) is the beat arrangement in Afro-Cuban music that makes the sound unique and which makes the dance styling different from American/European popular dances!

    So what is this breaking on two stuff?

    Unlike American/European dance, in Cuban dance you don't step on the the down beats, you step in between them! So when you hear the first downbeat on count one, you take your first step on count two!

    So what more do I need to know?

    Welcome! You must have heard other dancers talking about "breaking on 2" or "dancing with the clave" or maybe you were just curious to find out what this clave thing is all about. In a nutshell it is about the musical basis of most Afro-Cuban music (Rumba, Mambo, Cha Cha, Salsa etc) and is the key to you successfully becoming a great dancer!

    If you are a musician learning clave theory and you have stumbled onto this site, this article will give you an insight into how your audience understands the rhythm.

    If you are a dancer this article will explain why you make the movements you do, when you do and that will greatly simplify your learning process and ultimately help you to dance with the music!

    This article discusses the clave from a dancer's viewpoint. Throughout the six parts of it we will discuss the music, how to hear the clave and dance with it. Even so, to really understand the concept of finding and dancing with the clave rhythm, it is useful to understand a bit of drum theory. So, I encourage you to have a look at the excellent sites listed at the end of Part 6 - these discuss the clave from a musicianís viewpoint.

    To speed load times on the Net this article is divided into six parts (seperate pages). I encourage you to read them in sequence, but if you prefer, feel free to jump between them. The memu shown below, appears at the top of each page.

    Part I - Finding the Clave
    Part 2 - Understanding the music
    Part 3 - The Clave rhythm
    Part 4 - Dancing with the Clave
    Part 5 - Emergence of the Clave based dances.
    Part 6 - New York Mambo/Salsa

    I have assumed that you are familiar with at least one of the clave based dances (eg: rumba, mambo, cha cha, salsa). If not click here to skip to the end of Part II which outlines the dance. There is a link there to bring you back here, so you can continue reading.

    Part I: Finding the Clave
    by Paul Clifford

    Afro-Cuban music is based on a call and response pattern. In the clave based dances you respond to the call of the pulse beats that occur on counts one and three by stepping on counts two and four. This is called dancing with the clave!

    As a dancer, it is a good idea to understand the dance steps you perform in the context of the music. After all, it should be the music that tells you how to move and not someone who has contrived a pattern to simplify teaching the dance! In the case of Rumba, Mambo, Cha Cha, Salsa and most music with Afro-Cuban roots that means understanding and finding the clave rhythm.

    rumba columbia clave

    The clave (KLA-vey) is a beat arrangement in Cuban music, which has its roots in African bell and drum patterns. In times passed the clave was played in 12/8 time and later with the influence of European music changed into the 4/4 time that we dance today.

    son clave

    There is an instrument called the clave, which originated in Cuba (probably in the shipyards of Havana). The clave is simply two wooden pegs that are struck together, to tap out the clave rhythm.

    The player cups one peg in one hand and strikes this with the peg held in the other hand.

    The hemba, the peg held in the cupped hand, produces a low pitched sound. The macho, the peg that strikes the hembra, produces a high pitched sound. The tone produced when the two pegs are struck together, will depend on where on the hembra the macho strikes. The purpose of cupping the hand holding the hembra, is to amplify the tone produced. In older times, when there was no other option, this instrument was the music.


    If you are trying to find the clave rhythm in a piece of music and are listening for the clave instrument, you might be disappointed. It may not be there! What you might hear is the drummer playing the clave rhythm on the snare drum as a cross stick rim shot (the closest sound to a clave that can be produced on a drumset) or it might be played on a bell or box attached to the drum kit or it might be played by any group of instruments.

    Instead of listening for a particular sound, listen to the music. Listen for where an emphasis occurs on the 2nd and 3rd counts of every second bar. If in the next bar it sounds like the emphasis is on the 1st, 3rd and 4th counts - then you have found the key to the dance - the clave! Technically, the strike that you might count as "3", actually occurs on the previous half beat - the 2& count.

    The simplest approach to finding the clave is to listen for a strong down beat on the first and third counts, these are the pulse beats that keep the band in time. If after the first down beat you hear the music emphasise the next two counts then you might have found the clave. If not, listen for it in the next bar. If you still havenít found it, you might have started your search on the second down beat (third count), so start again! If you still canít find it, you probably need to buy some Cuban CDs!

    In Part II - Understanding the clave, we will investigate some more information about finding the clave, discuss a bit about the origins of the clave, a bit about how the music works, and provide you with a bit of dance imagery that is intended to help you understand how to move to the music.

    Click here to continue

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    This page was last updated November 2000
    copyright Paul F Clifford (2000)