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Well Noted

by Sandi & Dan Finch

We all know good music when we hear it. It makes you want to get up and dance. It stirs an emotion or excites you. Sometimes the lyrics make you smile, but always, what you sense is that it feels right.

That rightness comes from the tempo (Italian for time), the speed of the music. Great music played too slow is dirge-y, or if too fast, dancing to it becomes work. Every rhythm has a tempo range where it will feel “right.” That is expressed in beats per minute (BPM) or measures per minute (mpm) [also called bars per minute (bpm)]. To determine the speed of music, count the number of beats or (easier) count the number of measures you hear over a 60 second period and you have your speed. You need to know how many beats are supposed to occur in a measure, which is fairly easy since almost every rhythm we dance is in 4/4 time except waltz, which is 3/4 time. (Technically, samba, paso doble and tango occur in 2/4 time but to simplify choreography, they are considered to be 4/4.)

You can find the time signature on sheet music. It occurs as the tall S-like figure with a slash followed by a fraction, as in the left part of the staff pictured here. The top number of the fraction is the number of beats in a measure. The bottom number tells you the length of each beat, in this case that each quarter note receives one beat. This is also called common time because (why not) it occurs so commonly. (The C with a slash in the right side of the picture means “cut time,” far too complicated a musical concept for here, but basically it tells the musicians to manipulate the rhythm, to play common time with a downbeat on every other beat, like a march or a fast 4/4.)

You don’t need to know all that to understand that music feels best at a certain speed. What you do need to know is how time signature translates into steps: 4/4 means four beats in a measure, which could be a step on each beat (QQQQ) or three steps spread over the measure (SQQ or QQS). Then you need to be able to feel where the beats occur. Some dancers feel it naturally, but for most, getting it right means taking the time to practice hearing the timing before trying to dance to it. Clap or tap your foot as the music plays. Try to feel where each predominant downbeat occurs (signifying the start of a new measure generally). When you can feel that, you will know if you are on time.

This works best when music is played in strict tempo, meaning it stays pretty close to that “perfect” tempo throughout. When you dance to Emily, Emily (Childers phase VI waltz) or Memory (Easterday phase VI rhythm dance), you quickly understand that they aren’t strict tempo. No surprise that this would occur at phase VI. But at all levels, you can come across music that has an underlying beat and a rhythm section doing something different. Now you will know how important it is to isolate the beat you want to dance.

From a club newsletter, March 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2016.


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



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Past DRDC Educational Articles archived here.

Aditional articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Richard Lamberty
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid (see Notebook)



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