How to Dance to the Beat with Rhythm

Learning dance moves and choreographed routines are one thing, but learning how to hear and accentuate moves to the music is another. Dancing with rhythm can be achieved by counting music, determining the appropriate dance form for the song, and acquiring experience to improve timing and musicality.

So first, let’s discuss counting music. In general, you should begin by listening for the underlying beats or drums of the song and then count patterns.  Virtually, all dance music is comprised of sets of 8 beats (except Waltz), allowing you to count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and then starting over with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

You could tap your foot or fingers to help identify the beats, but we think it’s more effective to march in place. Marching helps train your body to feel the beat and shows you how to transfer your body weight.

After learning how to count an 8 count, you should note that a set can be comprised of two sets of 4. The first half of an 8 count (counts 1-4) can go 1, 2, 3, 4 and the second half (counts 5-8) can go 2, 2, 3, 4. When listening to a piece, you may also notice how counts 1 and 5 have a stronger beat over the others (that’s one reason why dancers may count sets of 4 as opposed to 8). And if you listen closely, you’ll also notice how count 1’s beat is stronger than 5’s. Recognizing this will help you understand how to accentuate your moves on counts 1 and 5.

In the dancing world, the accent beat(s) is called the downbeat(s) (ordinarily the first beat) and the lesser accented beat(s) is the upbeat(s).

A group of beats is called a BAR or measure. In Ballroom Dancing, three types of BARs you may find (and I’m talking about a hole in the wall, a dive, or sports bar) are 2/4 time (two beats to the BAR of music), 3/4 time (three beats to the BAR of music), and 4/4 time (four beats to the BAR of music).

Below you’ll find a list of dance forms and their corresponding number of beats in a BAR (take note how the majority of dances are four beats in a BAR.

  • Two Beats (Downbeat / Accent – Count 1; Upbeat – Count 2)
    • Samba
    • Tango
    • Paso Doble
    • Merengue
  • Three Beats (Downbeat / Accent – Count 1;Upbeat – Counts 2 & 3)
    • Waltz
    • Viennese Waltz
  • Four Beats (Downbeat / Accent – Count 1; Upbeat – Counts 2 & 4; Secondary Downbeat – Count 3)
    • Foxtrot
    • Tango
    • Quickstep
    • Peabody
    • Rumba
    • Bolero
    • Swing
    • Cha Cha
    • Mambo
    • Salsa
    • Hustle
    • Nite club two step
    • Country-dances
    • Paso Doble
    • Samba

Dancing is all about the timing. Learning to count music allows a dancer to correctly correspond their movements to the correct beats. Rhythm comes into play when one’s able to feel the beats, syncopations of the music, and able to correspond movements without losing the underlying beats.

One way to learn how to dance with rhythm is to describe beats as “slow”, “quick”, & “And”.  When a step is given one beat, it’s considered “quick”. When two beats, it’s “slow”.  ¼ or ½ beats are referred as syncopation and identified by “AND” or “a”. If held for longer than two beats, it’s on “hold”.

On the other hand, you have the “tempo”. Tempo is the rate of speed which a particular piece of music is played. In Ballroom Dancing, the tempo is determined by the number of measures found per minute.

As explained earlier, you have to listen to the underlying music (not the vocals) to count out beats and correspond movements accordingly. But, how do you listen to the underlying music? You look for the various percussion instruments and accent moves accordingly.

The best dancers are those who are able to project their own personal style and expression to the music by combining Rhythmical accents felt with the melodic line of the music.  This may sound quite simple and it is, if, you allow the melodic line to motivate your animation, personal style, feelings, individuality, showmanship and rhythmic expression to the music.  All of this while the Rhythmical accents provide the basic rhythm and syncopated shadings necessary for advanced dancing.

In conclusion, in order to be certain you’re doing the proper dance to the proper music, you must determine the basic underlying rhythmical accent of different dances. Once can recognize the basics and can dance correctly to the music, you should attempt to interpret and or develop your own personal expression.

A workshop such as the “Music Notes for Dancing”, offered by The Ballroom at Villa Incanta, demonstrates and distinguishes rhythmical accents of  different dances.