In dance music you’ll often hear references to “Strict Tempo.” Strict tempo refers to much more than just the speed of the music, but we’ll start there because that’s an obvious difference.
Music recorded for listening entertainment, such as chart hits, are built for their artistic qualities. The tempo is determined by the emotional impact the artists are trying to achieve. This means that a 4/4 song can have a huge range of “bars per minute” (BPM, which is the usual way we refer to the speed of dance music).
A slow Latin love song may have one bar (four beats) happening 20 times per minute, and another equally emotional love song may have a faster rhythm that measures more than 40 bars per minute. Naturally that kind of range becomes a challenge for dancers! Since dances require the beat count to fit within certain parameters to work properly, not all popular music — even if it has the right kind of beat — will work for dancing. Some songs are simply too fast or too slow.
Whatever tempo a song is created at, it will usually stay fairly true to that tempo from start to finish. Whether it measures exactly 32 bars per minute or 32.5 doesn’t really matter much, even for competition purposes. The song is unlikely to vary from 32 up to 32.5 and back again. It will stay at the beat count it started with. So what’s the problem? Can’t we just pick songs that have the speed we want? The answer is a bit more complicated.
One challenge is that artists write their music not with dancing in mind but with their artistic goal in mind. They might suddenly stop the music entirely part way into the song to achieve an objective.
However, that kind of variation is actually quite rare and not really what “strict tempo” is all about, though it is part of it.
The real differences
Strict Tempo in Action
Given the choice, which version of Julio Iglesias’ “Hey” would you use for a dance lesson or competition: The chart hit people have grown to love, or the strict-tempo version from Dancelife?
Strict-tempo versions of songs contain subtle differences that often make them a better choice for dancing. Minor improvements to how the instruments are used help dancers find points in the beat for things like shifting their body weight or splitting the beat. Plus, the balance of vocals to instruments is usually optimized in strict-tempo songs.
For casual parties or show dancing, you can use the original chart hit any time. In the case of the song “Hey,” the original chart hit is a little soft on the actual beats. The attention is on Julio’s incredible vocals. Because the instruments are slightly mushy the strict tempo version is more suitable for serious dance events, as it more clearly identifies the beat count for dancers, allowing them to use the music more effectively in their presentation.
The more thorny problem with popular music is the artistic license taken with how the beat is handled and how the instruments and vocals are paced within the beat count. A number of issues affect how “danceable” a song really is, regardless of whether the beat count falls within desired speed ranges.
Strict-tempo music is designed so that dancers have phrasing that they can rely on. You’ll notice, for example, that a strict-tempo Samba score will subtly rise in scale for 4 bars, then come down for the nextt 4. This means your movements can go up during the first 4 bars and downwards for the next 4, giving your choreography a much more pleasing look. Viennese Waltz is phrased to rise for 7 bars, reach a crescendo on the 8th, then come down and start again.
Some pop hits include creative introductory sections that may run several bars. These might involve acapella vocals or sound effects. Obviously that becomes a challenge if you’re trying to get people on the dance floor and they don’t even know what kind of dance the song is for! Strict tempo versions of the same song will remove those introductory bars.
I’ve already mentioned the sudden changes in the beat that can happen well into the song, anything ranging from pauses to split beat counts to wildly changing instruments. Creatively it might be a great thing that helps the artist express the meaning of the song, but for dancing such changes cause huge problems for all but the most experienced dancers. Those are taken out when the same song is covered for strict tempo.
A song written for the pop charts doesn’t care much about how people might dance to it. So it won’t contain musical cues especially designed to help dancers. Strict tempo music is designed especially for dancing. It holds a true beat count, keeps the tempo manageable (though some strict tempo songs still provide plenty of challenging moments), and offers subtle additional treatment that helps give the dancers cues for syncopation or opportunities for splitting the beat. If you listen carefully, you’ll begin to hear extra instruments that provide aural cues for the dancer, especially in the Latin music.
What about music for social dance parties?
Strict tempo music is pretty much essential for dance lessons, performances or competition. For casual parties or practice, popular chart hits rarely present a problem. Often it’s actually better to use the original hit because some people may wonder who that stranger is singing one of their favorite songs that they’ve grown to love.
Some chart hits are even used very effectively at dance competitions. However, only an experienced ear can determine whether a chart hit will be suitable for serious dancing situations. There are many issues related to how well the musical character of each song captures the essence of the dance. This site attempts to provide details to help you make an informed decision, but as a general rule you should go with the strict tempo version unless you’re really sure about what you’re doing.