What everybody needs to know about which beat of music to start a dance

Photo by Branden Lally
Photo by Brendan Lally

I used to struggle with when to start a dance. I would stand stiff and motionless, like a statue, with my partner in hand, stressing over when to take the first step. I didn’t know when to break into the music. I didn’t know if it mattered. I could hear spots in the music that would have been good places to start, but I couldn’t predict when they were coming. Something was missing, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know.

I now know that those spots occur on a regular basis: every eight beats of music. It’s best to start dancing on the first beat of a set of 8, called the count 1 or “the 1 of the music.” You can also start on a count 5, the beginning of the second four-beat measure. Women expect you to start on a 1 or 5 or it’ll be an awkward start.

This brings up one of the more difficult subjects in ballroom dancing: phrasing. Technically, you can be on the beat but, if you start dancing on the wrong beat, you will be “off phrase.” In a dance with an eight count basic step pattern, like salsa or cha-cha or Lindy Hop, it’s more important to start on a count 1. A dance with a six count basic, like West Coast swing or East Coast swing or foxtrot, it’s less important (that is, it’s easier to get away with starting on a count 5).

What’s your experience when trying to start a dance?

Not all music is dance music

Not all music is dance music, although most popular music is danceable. Dance music varies in difficulty so some music is better for dancing than other music, which is, in part, a personal preference. But some music is just not danceable. The jazz music of Count Basie, known as swing, is usually good dance music but the jazz of Miles Davis, known as bee bop, is not dance music at all.

I don’t typically dance every song in an evening of dance so, strategically, I sit out the music that’s not dance music or is music that’ll be difficult for me. This makes me appear to be a better dancer. If you struggle with dance, choose your music wisely.

For me, if I can count sets of 8 and if it makes me feel like dancing and if I can visualize myself doing some steps (that’s when I evaluate if the tempo is too fast), then it’s dance music. If I can’t count sets of 8 I try counting sets of 6 to see if it’s a waltz, although my guess is that less than 2% of popular music is a waltz. If that doesn’t work it probably isn’t dance music or, at least, it’s not good dance music for me.

If I can’t count sets of 8 and it still feels danceable—it’s usually something with a slow tempo–I might try an improvisational slow dance. If that doesn’t work and the song isn’t over, I sometimes let it evolve into a Steve-Martin-esque parody of a slow dance. There’s a classic parody of a “slow fox trot”—not sure what you call it—by Steve Martin and Gilda Ratner from Saturday Night Live. I was going to give the youtube link but the video “is no longer available.” If I ever find it, I’ll post the link.

Count music: sets of 8, heavy measure, light measure (video: 1 min. 15 sec.)

In this video Skippy Blair counts the sets of 8 in a piece of music. The hand motion she uses is a good exercise when you count music to work on timing and training your body to hear the sets of 8.

Listen for the heavy measure, beats 1 to 4, and the light measure, beats 5 to 8. The light measure is the thematic “conclusion” to a set of 8. Listening for the thematic conclusion is a good way to identify a set of 8. All dance music, except the waltz, is structured in sets of 8. The waltz is counted in sets of 6.

From Skippy Blair’s 2006 Summer Intensive, video courtesy of Skippy Blair

Hearing the beat of the music by counting "sets of 8" (audio: 30 sec.)

This is a 30 sec. audio clip of Skippy Blair counting sets of 8. You will never, ever, ever be a good ballroom dancer unless you can “hear”—either count or intuitively feel—the sets of 8 in the music.

Why? Because the ability to count music and hear the sets of 8 keeps you on the beat and it tells you when to start and finish patterns. A set of 8 defines the beat of the music. So, if you can hear the sets of 8, it confirms that you know where the beat is for that piece of music.

I don’t want to scare you so I won’t tell you how long it took me to hear the sets of 8 on my own (87 years! kidding). But it’s an automatic process now and I’m shocked at how connected I am to the sets of 8. Remember, I used to think I was rhythmically challenged.

As you listen to this clip, listen how a set of 8 is like a “sentence” of music. Then notice how four sets of 8 (32 beats), or four “sentences,” come together to create a complete musical thought, which is like a “paragraph” of music. A set of 8 is called a “mini-phrase,” and four sets of 8 is called a “major-phrase.”

Most songs have introductions, which can be any length; this piece has a 16 beat intro. Skippy then counts four 32-beat phrases for a total of 144 beats. The 32-beat major-phrase is the simplest, most common structure in dance music. The beats in this clip are structured like this:

8 8 = 16 beats (the intro)
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
8 8 8 8 = 32 beats
Total = 144 beats

All ballroom dance music is counted in sets of 8 except waltz, which is counted in sets of 6. There’s more on sets of 8 in my web book, Chapter 4, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.”

TIP: It’s going to take a while to the hear sets of 8 so practice counting anytime you hear music: the car, a TV show, a movie, an elevator, the gym, a store, you name it. Get confirmation from other dancers to make sure you’re doing it correctly. Now that I’m better connected to music, one of the great benefits of learning to dance is that I get a bigger thrill just listening to any kind of music.

Audio clip courtesy of Skippy Blair (swingworld.com).