One of the most challenging things for most people when they start to get serious about dancing is finding the beat. Since moving in harmony with the music is the whole reason for dance, this is a critical issue. Even if you have excellent technique, your dancing will look out of place and awkward if you are out of sync with the music.
First things first
All music starts at the beginning, and the beginning is always a “1” beat. Music will always follow a pattern such as “1-2-3,1-2-3” or “1-2-3-4,1-2-3-4.” Not all songs have a strong beat that’s easy to pick out, but there’s always a beat somewhere, even if it’s subtle, and it starts somewhere. Although some songs have an intro that may use a sound effect or snippet of conversation or other unconventional treatment, the first true musical beat you’ll hear in the song is usually a “1” beat. Learn to hear this and things get much easier.
It also repeats regularly throughout the piece of music. When you can hear the “1” beat, you can quickly correct problems during the dance. If you are bumped, or encounter some other problem, knowing where the one beat is means you can get back on track in no time.
Dance music has timing aspects that make each dance unique. The swaying 3/4 time of Waltz is dramatically different from the crisp 2/4 time of Samba, for example. One bar in Waltz will go from 1-3 and then start again, while one bar in Samba will only include the 1 and 2. Dances that rely on 4/4 timing will use a bar that goes from 1-4. The speed of the music will be different from song to song and dance to dance, but whether it counts in 2, 3 or 4 beats will generally always be consistent throughout each song.
In music, the “1” beat usually receives slightly more emphasis. That doesn’t mean it’s louder. In fact, it may even be quieter than other beats. But it somehow has more presence and you’ll have to learn to pick it up. There are some songs where it even feels like a hole in the music, making it easy to notice. When you first start dancing, you’ll find this hard, but it gets easier with practice. Once you learn to hear the “1” you’ll start to see the bars of music unfold without even thinking about it.
The only way to get there is to listen to lots of music. Even listening for the beat count in non-dance music will help. Count it out loud when you listen to music. Try it with your partner to see if both of you hear the same thing. If you don’t, try to figure out who’s right. After a while you’ll find it quite easy to “feel” where the “1” beat is and you won’t have to rely on hearing that first note to pick it up.
Strict tempo music is easier for this purpose because it makes an effort to define the “1” more clearly, while chart hits (which are written for artistic style, not dancing) will sometimes be quite uneven in their emphasis. Many chart hits even put the emphasis on a beat other than the 1, which creates unique challenges for the dancer. In such cases, experienced dancers will change their starting point to let the music flow better with the dance. But for most purposes, International style ballroom dancing always orients itself to count from the “1” beat.
The Latin dances
Latin dances have unique challenges related to the beat. In Rumba there is a visible “holding” of the 1 beat where your weight settles into the hip but there is no lateral movement of the feet.
In International-style Cha Cha the fourth beat is split into two parts so that it counts “4 & 1” which creates the natural “Cha Cha Cha” sequence where the Chasse happens. Be careful with this! Many social dancers mistakenly believe the Cha Cha counts “1, 2, 3 & 4.” In actual fact, it is “1, 2, 3, 4 &,” repeating again so you have a “1, 2, 3, 4 & 1, 2, 3,” etc. value. Don’t dance it with “1, 2, 3 & 4”!
It would be nice for novice dancers if all dance music clearly defined those points. Unfortunately, not all dance music makes it easy.
There is a balance between the movements and the music that creates beauty. Experienced dancers will even play with the music, putting extra motion where the song has less emphasis to keep the dance interesting. This is called “syncopation.” At higher levels of dancing there are also special timings that hold the action through one or more beats for powerful emphasis, like the “Guapacha” timing found in Cha Cha.
Never train yourself to listen for the Chasse split beat sequence in Cha Cha music. I’ve seen many social dancers do that and it creates a host of problems. Instead, train to hear the “1” in all music and you’ll automatically know where to split the beat (or hold the beat) because you’ll know where the count begins.
The Samba and Jive
The Samba and Jive add additional challenges. To beginners, both of these dances sound very much like “1-2-3-4.” In actual fact, they have deeper complexities you learn to appreciate as you get more experienced.
Proper Samba music involves a sequence of 8 beats of music (more accurately 8 bars of 2 beats each, but that’s getting really complex). The first 4 beats go up slightly, the second 4 usually go down. This is important and the reason why everything in Samba is done to the count of 4. For example, you might do four basic movements followed by 4 Whisks followed by 4 Samba Walks. When we change to a different type of action at the start of a new bar of music, it looks smooth and natural. When you make a major change in the middle of a music bar, it looks out of place.
Let’s say you’re doing 8 Criss-Cross Voltas followed by 4 Criss-Cross Bota Fogos. If you start your Voltas at the beginning of a verse (1-a-2-a-3-a-4-5-a-6-a-7-a-8), you start your Bota Fogos at the start of the next 8 beats, which becomes very attractive because you then make your next change where the music starts its next upward swing. Now if you do an extra 2 Voltas, you’ll be putting yourself in an awkward position because then your Bota Fogos start one bar into the next verse of music.
Do you see the problem? That’s why Samba has such carefully defined groups. If you make a mistake you can do something like a pair of hip bumps on the Bota Fogos to bring you back in line with the music.
Jive isn’t quite as challenging, but it has its own unique pattern. If you listen closely to Jive music, you’ll discover that every “2” count has a very distinctive downward feeling, while the “1” count is slightly more bouncy and light feeling. Your dance will look slightly wrong if you go up when the music is going down, so we use that 2 in the Chasse (Triple Step) to drop down (3-a-4, 5-a-6). Watch a quality Jive and you’ll see the very distinctive drop on the 2 and 4 beats in the side Chasses. The Rock Step happens on a “1” and while the heel goes down the body actually rises slightly, matching the upward feeling of the beat. Learn to feel the difference and you’ll dramatically improve your Jive.
The Standard dances
Standard dances also offer surprises, even to experienced dancers. Many dancers are quite shocked when they learn that the Viennese Waltz actually has 8 bars to a phrase. That’s because they are first taught to recognize only the individual 123, 123 beat count and stick with this for years. The best way to count Viennese Waltz is not the usual “123, 123” beat count but to count the bars: “123-223-323″ all the way to “823.” This takes a bit of getting used to, but becomes very satisfying because you can bring in your change step on the start of the new phrase where it looks very natural.
Foxtrot music has definite phrasing in 32-beat counts. Learn to use 8-beat and 32-beat values in your choreography and it will look more beautiful. Start moving into the Preparation Step on the 7-8 so that your first step of a group (typically a Feather Step) will start on the 1. If you do a Feather Step followed by a Reverse Turn, your steps would be SQQSQQ which is a total of 8 beats. You’ve used 4 beats for the Feather Step and another 4 for the Reverse Turn. This syncs beautifully with the music.
Tango is interesting because it is actually counted 1 & 2 & instead of, as most people assume, 1 2 3 4. Thinking of it the proper way helps dancers place the emphasis in the right place while dancing. For example, in two Walks and Promenade Link your SSQQ actually counts as 1 & 2 & 3 & which is where we put the emphasis for the Link. Learn to listen to Tango more closely and you’ll notice that even Tango counts in 8-bar phrases.
Waltz is less dependent on phrasing, but choreography tends to look better when you dance Walts in 6-beat sequences, as in 123-456. There’s always a clearly defined “strong” bar followed by a softer bar. Experienced dancers think of this as a “question” and “answer” sequence and design their choreography in pairs to show this ongoing conversation between the couple. Waltz still has phrasing, just like Viennese Waltz, so if you really want to dance musically you should learn to listen for that and apply these phrase changes to your choreography.
The Quickstep also has phrasing and benefits considerably if you learn to count the bars of music rather than the beats.