3 Steps to Fred Astairedom

by James Joseph

Instead of stumbling through seven years of beginner’s classes, if only I had stumbled upon a teacher who could relate to me, a guy with no talent in music or dance. If only this teacher had said to me, “Listen, man, there are things you can do before you step into your first dance class that’ll save you from embarrassment. And there’s stuff you can do after class, away from the dance floor—at home, alone—to build a foundation that’ll make learning dance easy.”

Then, as if he were Moses mamboing down the mountain, if only he had presented me with the tablets of dance containing the three things beginners and pre-beginners need to work on:

1. Connect to the music and, especially, the beat of the music.
If you want to do just one thing right on the dance floor, find the beat of the music (Chapter 1, “The Beat of the Music”). Nothing will tick your partner off more–short of injuring her–than being off-time. You don’t have to step on every beat of music but, when you do step, you must step precisely on a beat of music. The key to finding the beat is counting the sets of 8 in the music (Chapter 2, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8“). The key to staying on the beat is feeling the downbeat and the upbeat (Chapter 3, “Downbeat and Upbeat“).

2. Learn the basic dance rhythms: single rhythm, double rhythm and triple rhythm.
A dance rhythm, a phrase coined by Skippy Blair, is the number of weight changes in two beats of music (Chapter 4, “Rhythm Patterns”). Beginners should start with the three basic dance rhythms:

  • Single rhythm is one step in two beats of music, which, if you were marking the rhythm in place, is a STEP HOLD (a hold or a touch are words commonly used for a beat of music with no weight change). I deplore the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a SLOW.
  • Double rhythm is two steps in two beats of music, a STEP STEP. I cringe at the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a QUICK QUICK.
  • Triple rhythm is three steps in two beats of music, which is tricky because your feet must move quickly to step between two beats of music to create a STEP-STEP-STEP.

Skippy has made the simple but brilliant discovery that virtually all of the basic step patterns (the dance figures used to move around the floor) for every dance, usually six or eight beats in length, are just some combination of single, double and triple rhythm. For a wealth of information, check out Skippy Blair’s Dance Dictionary.

3. Burn the most common rhythm patterns onto your brain, especially the 8-beat pattern, double—single—double—single.

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This is the mother of all patterns. Not only is it the basic rhythm pattern (a combination of two or more dance rhythms) for salsa and rumba, it’s common in foxtrot. It’s the easiest, most versatile pattern and will get you through most situations. Skippy says it’s the best pattern to use for a wedding dance or a survival dance. Surf your iPod and, standing in place, practice (at home, alone) marking (Chapter 5, “Marking Rhythms”) this rhythm pattern to a variety of music until you can do it without thinking.

Repetition will set you free.

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