For many of us learning to dance, one of the biggest issues is timing and musicality in general. We didn’t all show great promise in music when we were younger so we weren’t even taught the basics. We probably never listened to the music we danced to so we don’t have a good sense for it. We have also spent years responding to the lyrics in songs so we aren’t even used to responding to the actual music. For these reasons, we struggle with timing and need to know how to dance to the beat.
It’s bad enough if you’re dancing by yourself and you can’t keep time. You worry that others will notice. However, this is actually unlikely, while you’re worried about what others think of you when you’re dancing; they are actually more worried about what you think of them. We are all self-obsessed so don’t worry. The time when you really need to worry is when you are dancing with another person. If you’re out of time, then there will not be much of a connection. Without that connection, dance just isn’t that fun. So it’s pretty clear that you need to improve our ability to keep time you learn to dance – if you want to dance well.
So how to do it?
1 – Understand how music works: teach me how to dance in time.
The first thing that is essential is understanding music. When you know what you’re listening for, it is much easier to hear it.
Note that you need to ‘hear’ it. If you’re a more visual person or a kinaesthetic person, then you might want to try closing you’re eyes when first working on improving your music ability. Also, tapping in time, while keeping the rest of your body still, is always good start too.
Music comes in cycles. Normally, in modern music and most dance music, there are cycles of 4 beats. The obvious exception is the modern waltz, which is in cycles of 3 beats. Each of these cycles is called a bar. Now there is no reason why each bar needs to take a certain time. The speed of the music is defined by beats per minute (BPM).
The bars are the basic cycle, but there are others. This is at the discretion of the composer and restrained somewhat by the style of the music. Mambo is more likely to come only in bars, and it is counted 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4. However, many pieces of music will actually have another cycle of 8 beats and count as follows – 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Sometimes there will then be a cycle of 4 bars. Jive is an example of this. At this stage you just need to know it. We will focus only cases with 2 bars at a time.
Note some people count slows and quicks and some leave out some numbers to indicate a slow progression – I am looking at you salsa dancers! This is fine if it works for you, but it is always handy to know these basics; they are universal.
Now that we know there are cycle, we still need to know what they are and how we hear them. That’s part 2.
2 – Hearing the bars
Normally, the start of each bar will have a significant event. Something like a cowbell from the drums or a snare. Maybe a higher note from a brass instrument. Perhaps something from the base guitar. The key is to listen to the music for a stronger beat that comes in every so often and at a regular period (we will assume that the BPM remains constant).
Once you have this try counting the other beats at equal periods between the major beats. As you do you will notice that music might use a similar feature on each 2nd, 3rd or whatever beat. Most modern western music has some kind of an emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beats. When you can hear these beats, you have made a significant step.
Now try counting like this – 1, 2, 3, 4, 1 ,2 ,3 ,4
The larger font for the 1 means you note that it is the start of a bar, and requires extra attention.
I have assumed that the music for 4 beats to a bar. Make adjustments to your counting as required.
3 – Hearing more cycles
As I mentioned above, music can have cycles of bars. The most common is cycles of two bars making 8 or 6 beats. In this case the strongest beat is on the 1 and the next strongest is on 5. You would count it like this – 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. When you can hear this cycle you will know when to start dancing – we start on the 1, and not the 5. Also, you sometimes use the 8 to get ready to start – Rumba is a good example of this and, to some extent, so is the Samba (but more about that pesky dance some other time). Actually, one of the best examples is any music you might listen to if were interested in how to slow dance.
As I mentioned above some cycles are greater, there can be 16 beat cycles (4 bars) or 32 beats cycles (8 bars) often called phrases. Typically, the style of the music will change when each phrase comes in.
Take a look at the video below. This is the clip for the Black Keys song Lonely Boy. The original plan for this video was to have something different. However, the guy that is featured is an actor called Derick Tuggle and he danced so well that the band wanted to use only him. He had one hour to learn the lyrics and come up with the dance sequence. You can see from the video that derrick has excellent musicality. He is in time and in the first 3 phrases he changes his dance style to suit each phrase. That means by watching Derick dance you can get a visual cue for the start of each phrase (and the change in music) at the beginning of the song. He is an excellent example of what you can do when you start picking up on all elements of the music. I often want to find this guy and say ‘teach me how to dance!’ just to get that natural connection to the music.
4 – Responding to the music
Hearing the music is the first step, but you also need be able to respond to the music physically.
A good start is simply using your fingers and tapping to the music. This is more than simple tapping though. You want to use certain fingers for certain beats. Choose one finger for the 1st beat another finger for the 5th beat. You can use any other finger or maybe the whole hand for the other beats.
Then, when listening to the music, tap in time with it. Ensure you use the allocated finger, hand or whatever you choose for each beat.
This is not exactly the same as dancing in time, but it is a very good start to getting your body to respond to the music and stay in time with it as you move. Then you will know how to dance to the beat.
5 – Expressing the music
If you were initially unable to stay in time, then you will feel pretty happy with yourself for getting this far.
However, there is more to musicality. You also want to dance in a way that expresses the nature and character of the music. This is easier to understand conceptually, but perhaps harder to achieve. It is beyond what is covered here, but something that you will want to consider when you are better able to keep time and want to really learn to dance.