Are you in denial about being rhythmically challenged?

rhythmically challenged: A phrase frequently used to describe someone who consistently dances off time. A better definition would be a person who lacks the education required to be able to rhythmically count beats of music. (reference: Skippy Blair’s Dance Terminology Notebook)

Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos
Photo by Konstantinos Koukopoulos

I was rhythmically challenged. Even after seven years of ballroom dance classes, I still had trouble with the beat — yet I didn’t know it. You see, they don’t teach this stuff in school or in dance classes. Then I found an enlightened teacher, got educated and trained on my own. Now I’m very connected to the beat.

It took me a long time to realize that I had a problem with how to hear the beat in music. There’s not a test you take with a score. You’re friends don’t pull you aside and do an intervention. Dance partners will be less anxious to dance with you but that’s hard to detect because they’ll still dance with you. You can even learn choreography and give the appearance that you’re connected to the music. I believe that’s the state of many celebrities on Dancing with the Stars.

The difficulty in hearing the beat can vary a lot from song to song. You often get songs with beats that are easy, particularly with the teaching music used in ballroom dance classes, which helps you get on the beat and be rhythmic. You can get partners who have a good sense of rhythm and they will help you stay on the beat, yet you won’t know that they’re helping. And very often you step on the beat by guessing or by accident (think: even a broken clock is right twice a day). So it’s easy to be in denial about a lack of rhythm. Besides, you know dozens of intermediate level step patterns so you must be an intermediate level dancer, right?

When I was a beginner, whether I was dancing at a dedicated dance with other beginners or at a venue where nobody knew how to dance (like a wedding reception), many of my partners liked my dancing because I was better than a lot of other guys. Funny thing, those guys were rhythmically challenged too so my musical arrhythmia didn’t stand out. Besides, many of my followers, also beginners, were challenged, so they were unable to judge my ability. To them, being charming, gentle and competently executing cool step patterns—albeit, off time—is better than: 1) being a dweeb or a creep; 2) dancing rough; 3) doing uncool patterns or doing cool choreography that’s poorly executed; 4) rocking back-and-forth like a dork. So even if you’re rhythmically challenged, you can have partners who will tell you, sincerely, you’re a good dancer, which further buries the truth.

In my experience this is not just a guy thing. Many women are rhythmically challenged. I suspect that a minority of people have the ability to really hear the beat—that is, to always be sure of the beat, not just occasionally (guessing doesn’t count). I suspect that not being sure of the beat is the average condition.

An intellectual (read: superficial) grasp of the beat can be easy to fake because it often works — by guessing, by accident and by dancing to music with beats that are easy to hear. But having rhythm in your flesh and bones (read: natural and intuitive) is where you want to be. It’s a thrill to be viscerally moved by music as it’ll not only make you a dancer but it’ll make listening to all music more enjoyable. I believe that most people can train themselves to always hear the beat, but first you need to be educated. I just wish they taught it in school and in dance classes.

What’s your story: Do you suspect you’re rhythmically challenged? Where you once rhythmically challenged and did you overcome it? How did you overcome it?