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That Pesky "Other" Cha-Cha Rhythm—4&1 

What Is It All About and What Is Its Place In Round Dancing Anyway?

by Jim & Bonnie Bahr

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we dance a cha-cha routine in round dancing, we begin on the one beat. After all, you're supposed to start at the beginning, right? That's just logical, and we are perfectly content in doing it that way. Then one day you hear from someone, somewhere, "Why are you dancing the cha off beat?" "What are you talking about," we exclaim in horror. "I never dance off beat." So there, I guess we put them in their place. The very idea. 

Well, we were right (kind of). There are four beats in cha-cha music, and we weren't trying to waltz to it. But if we really think about it, we actually could do any four-count rhythm, including two step, quickstep, foxtrot, rumba, mambo, samba, jive, and merengue — just to name a few — and remain in the realm of staying on time with the music. 

Four & One Cha — What in the world do they mean, and why are they dancing it in this strange manner? Beginning back in the thirties and forties, most American ballroom studios danced it on the one count, but you don't find studios teaching or dancing it that way today. Why did they switch? I certainly hope no one in round dancing is going to switch. Surely they're not planning to change on me now? 

All of these thoughts have run through our minds at one time or another as round dancers. I remember the first time it came up for Jim and me in the seventies. We were gone from one of our classes and had asked another teacher in the area to fill in for us. They were working on cha cha when he simply told them, and I quote, "You're not doing real cha cha; I don't care what you've been told." Well, that shook them up and sent us off on a quest to find out what he was referring to. We have talked to many different sources on the subject and have come up with some of the following answers. One of my favorites is the one given in Latin & American Dances, by Doris Lavelle, published in 1969. Doris was an examiner for the ISTD in England and was traveling to Cuba and other countries, researching the Latin dances for the Society, with her partner, Monsieur Pierre. She said, 

We found, on a visit to Havana, Cuba, that although we had been teaching and dancing to Cuban music for some years, we were not teaching it as taught and danced in Cuba. When dancing with the Cuban girls, Pierre discovered that they were not happy with the rhythm he was using and upon further study with the famous professional, Pepe Rivera, realized that they danced the basic step commencing on the second beat of music. … the steps which now make up the professional syllabuses of all the leading societies in Great Britain are the steps which we learned mainly from Pepe Rivera. … At that time in Cuba there were hundreds of excellent dancers. Cubans do not learn to dance but everywhere they go they hear Cuban music. It was, then, on the radio all day long, one good band after another and most of the shops had radios always switched on. It was wonderful to see even small children, whilst waiting to be served, moving their little hips to the fascinating rhythm, all on the 2,3,4,1 timing (rumba which relates directly to cha cha by adding the syncopation). 

Upon researching other books written in the thirties and forties, we found that Fred Astaire taught 123&4, the same as round dancing (referring to it as a kind of swing) until the more advanced level, when he reintroduced all the basics in the 234&1 Cuban rhythm. Arthur Murray books also referred to it as the Cuban rhythm but taught it exclusively from the beginning. 

From another book published by the ISTD, titled Dancing Ballroom, Latin American, and Social: 

The Cha Cha Cha is perhaps the most popular of the Latin dances. The name rolls off the tongue, and the rhythm is easy to understand. The dance almost speaks for itself through the music where the beat of the Bongo Drums and the Maracas seem to say 'Cha, Cha Cha, Step, Step' … Take care to buy records that are written as Cha Cha Chas, and if possible begin with a slow one. When a dancer is efficient, he can begin the dance with the Cha Cha Chasse, or with the forward step on the left foot. Some dancers even prefer to commence with the backward half of the Basic Movement. There is no set rule about this. Because of its Latin parentage, the rhythm is felt in the hips more than in the feet, although of course it is essential to learn the foot positions first. It is not necessary to have a large repertoire of figures because the feeling of the music is satisfaction in itself. 

We've asked many leading authorities about the subject and have been given many answers, but the most common comment was, dance the 4&1 rhythm because that is more musical. And when pressed for what "more musical" actually means, they told us that the music is building to a sort of exciting crescendo on the one beat … it sort of explodes. So the dance should accent that count and make it exciting also. 

I asked our coach, Richard Booth, "What would you say to a student who was breaking on the one?" He grinned at me and said, "I would tell them, that is not the correct rhythm." We laughed, and although I knew that is exactly what he would say to them in his situation, I asked him to tell me why. He explained it like this. Even though the drum in the cha cha is beating one, two, three, four — strong beats, and you could technically dance any four-count dance (e.g., foxtrot) to it — the true rhythm (not the melody, which carries the tune itself), the Maracas (shakers) and the Claves (blocks) are playing the syncopations or accents on the 4&1. Hence: one, two, three, four and one causing an explosion on the one beat. 

That made sense to me, and I really can hear it cha-cha-ing away in the music, and yes, I love to dance it that way. But do I think it belongs in round dancing? That is a really a difficult question. 

First of all, it's terribly unrealistic to think anyone would want to go in and change all the hundreds of neat routines that have been written to date. They are wonderful dances, and we all enjoy them just the way they are. It is just as silly to think that all future dances will be done with the Cuban rhythm — no real future in that either. We do think, however, that as we grow in our round dance career and as we keep learning a long list of different rhythms, that we should delve into that other cha-cha rhythm as well, so when we hear: "That's not real cha cha," we know what is meant. 

So, the next time your cuer puts on a cha cha, listen closely. Count the beats. Where is the "cha-cha-cha," really? Can you hear it on the 4&1? If you can, and if this is a routine that you know well, then try to dance the cha on the 4&1. Here are three approaches to getting you off the 1 beat and onto the 234&1: 

  1. You can count the introductory measures and then simply hold the 1 and start dancing on the 2 beat,
  2. You can tap on the 1 and then step on the 2. That way, you are doing something at the start of the measure, or
  3. You can start the dance with the trail feet free, take a side step on the 1, and then begin the first figure on the 2. With this strategy, you are actually taking a step on the 1 but you will be dancing the choreography, 234&1. 

You will probably get off this new beat. Although you will get stated OK and think, hey this is really cool — lo and behold, there you are back on the old beat. Just keep counting and try your strategy again, especially 1 or 2 above. Hold, step, step, cha-cha-cha or touch, step, step, cha-cha-cha. It really does feel good!


This article was adapted from clinic notes prepared by Jim & Bonnie for the
URDC Convention in Winston Salem, N.C., 2000 and
was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2009.



If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.

If you are not a member of DRDC, do consider joining. The group sponsors quarterly weekends with great dancing and teaching, and the newsletter is one of the most informative available.

Past DRDC Educational Articles by
Jim & Barbara German, ca. 2000-2001
Chris & Terri Cantrell, 2001-2005
Harold & Meredith Sears, 2005-present

Some articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid


Go beyond this site. Good instructional books and videos, both new and used, are available at low prices from Amazon. Find other references on our Sources and Links pages.



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