Beware of tempo

by James Joseph

I have an issue with tempo.

I went through a long period where I could dance okay in class but I was terrible at a social dance. Some of that had to do with a lack of familiar partners (read: my leading sucked and partners at a dance were not familiar with the step patterns I learned in class) and some of it had to do with my poor memory (read: the half-life of a new pattern from class for me is as little as 10 minutes). But a lot of it had to do with tempo.

The tempo of a song is the number of beats per minute, e.g., 120 BPM. Every dance has a range of tempos that work for that dance. Teachers tend to teach at the slower range because it’s easier to learn a dance at a slower tempo. When you’re at a dance you’ll hear a range of tempos but my unscientific-Murphy’s-Law opinion is that very little will be at the slower tempos, the one you learned in class. I seemed to always get deejays and bands that played mostly uptempo (fast) music.

Other stuff being equal—same partner, same dance moves—I began to notice a pattern: what worked for me at, say, 120 BPM would be awkward at 130 BPM and might completely disintegrate at 140 BPM. This erosion of my dancing prowess was not necessarily a lack of physical ability and coordination. It was more the inability of my brain to keep up with the action at faster tempos. Mental confusion. Because my dancing was not yet automatic, at faster tempos my brain was not quick enough to remember everything I had to do: my foot goes here, my hand goes there, the lead is like this, stay on the beat, flirt with a clever line. Plus, I had to think about what move to try to impress her with next. Plus, I was always distracted with trying to look cool, not easy for a beginner.

It took me a while to realize that uptempo music was a problem because, when you can’t hear the beat, which was my problem for many years, you can’t hear the tempo. Being stuck at the beginner level for more than seven years gave me plenty of time to formulate and test this theory. Noble-Laureate I’m not, over-analytical dancer I am.

I’m still a bit picky with songs and, unless I have a partner of equal or better ability, I tend to avoid uptempo. Although it doesn’t always work nor is it always appropriate to even try, I attempt to manage the process with conversation. For example, if the song hasn’t yet started, I might use a line like this: “Let’s dance but we have to make sure it’s a good song.” If I’m already on the floor and dancing and it’s not going well, I might go with this line: “This is not a good dance song, way too uptempo—gosh, it’s probably over 160 BPM—let’s dance the next one.”

I asked Skippy Blair about tempo and she said, “People do have tempos. There are those who dance everything. There are those who cannot dance slow. Many people ‘own’ a tempo.” And she suggested this line: “I’d sure love to dance with you the next time they play my tempo.”

ADVANCED INFO ALERT: You dudes who count tempo in measures per minute (MPM), puh-lease, have mercy. In 4/4 time, you would say 120 BPM is equal to 30 MPM, but in ¾ time you would say 120 BPM is equal to 40 MPM. Are you telling me that even if my ear hears the same number of beats in the span of a minute I need to know time signatures (4/4-time, ¾-time) to identify tempo? Can you make tempo any more difficult for the beginner?

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