Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music

by James Joseph

You will not learn “rhythm” in a ballroom class. The convenient explanation is that they’re dance classes and not music classes, but I’m not buying it. My guess is that dance instructors don’t really know how to teach you to count music and hear the beat.

Ballroom dance class - Photo by University of Richmond Living-Learning Programs

Dance class (Photo by Univ. of Richmond Living-Learning Programs)

The only time you hear beats counted—counting the “sets of 8” is the best way to learn the beat—is when a teacher counts to start the class dancing. Even then you’ll probably only get four beats (with no explanation as to what’s being counted). The teacher will start the music and count a set of 8 over the music like this, “and a five six seven eight.” (Isn’t that how every dance teacher and professional dance choreographer you’ve ever heard started a group dancing?) You will take your first step on the next beat, which is the count 1 of the next set of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Any other counting a teacher does is probably counting step patterns, not the music. (Although they’re related, there’s a difference between counting music and counting step patterns. I’ll eventually do some posts on this or you can check out Chapter 6, “Counting Step Patterns,” in my book.)

I wish teachers would spend a few minutes in beginners’ classes going over the beat. While counting music for an hour would be boring, educating students for five minutes on how to do it would be helpful. The beat is not like learning step patterns where you can pick up three or four patterns in an hour, which you could use this weekend at a dance. Learning to hear the beat is a more subtle process that’ll mostly be learned on you own, but teachers need to get their students started.

If you don’t have an ear for music or prior music training, which was my sorry situation, learning the beat could be a slow, sometimes frustrating, process (albeit fun—you just listen to music). There are levels. You want to be 100% sure of the beat with all kinds of music, from rumba to rock ‘n roll. And once you hear the beat you want to take it from hearing it in your head (intellectually) to feeling it in your body (visceral, intuitive).

In my book I commiserate a bit about my experience. I had a slow start, in part, because I was in denial about being rhythmically challenged. After a bunch of months, maybe six, I was okay at finding the beat, but I was not 100 percent sure. It was closer to two years before I reached maximum comfort and could stop thinking about it. During this time I also worked on phrasing, which is dancing to the bigger structure in the music; and music identification, which is how to tell the difference between, say, salsa and samba music.

I’m not sure if there’s a class any where in the world dedicated to hearing the beat. So here’s the message: you have to learn it on your own. I’ll go into it more in my next post. You can get a jump on it now by following this link to my free chapter, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8.”

If you’re a dance teacher who spends time teaching students how to hear the beat, what’s your experience?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Daniel November 28, 2016 at 11:32 pm

Hi I am finding it difficult to find the beat an to dance on time

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John September 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Hello James,
Excellent information in your blog, however there are dance teachers who do teach how to hear the beat. I have been doing it for over 30 years and all of the students who have graced the doors of my Ballroom Dance studio have learned how to hear the beat from day one of their visit. It is a simple explaination and I have not run across anyone who cannot comprehend it.
Based on what I have seen on your web/blog, your book sounds interesting and I am considering getting a copy for reference and perspective. There is always something new to learn. Best wishes for enjoying you dancing now that you can also comprehend and hear the beats.

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James Joseph September 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

John, thanks for looking at my blog with a critical eye. If you get my book the one thing that I hope you take away is that my perspective is from someone who has no talent in music or dance. I believe that most dance teachers have natural ability in music and dance so they often don’t relate to what it’s like to be rhythmically challenged. In particular, I think dance teachers need to explain their verbal calls and how a verbal call relates to the beats of music.

It’s great to hear that you teach how to hear the beat of music. I applaud you with vigor. But, still, it’s rare for ballroom dance teachers to include that in their curriculum. (Exception: I learned from Skippy Blair and her GSDTA certified instructors have been trained to teach how to count music to both hear the beat and the phrasing.)

If you’d like to help enlighten our fellow teachers out there: How do you teach hearing the beat—do you count sets of 8 or do you have a different method? How do you incorporate it into a ballroom dance class—do you spend dedicated time in the beginning of a class or do you discuss it as you go along with each new piece of music that you play? Any tips for teaching the beat would be most welcome.

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Artis April 10, 2017 at 11:23 am

Just don’t believe it! It is not possible. I have never heard the rhythm, for example, in bachata or salsa music. OK, I can hear it in 30 % of the songs, but not in all of them! And it is even harder to understand, whether it is 1 or 5.

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James Joseph April 11, 2017 at 10:47 am

Artis, when you say you’ve never heard the rhythm, I’ll assume by “rhythm” you mean the underlying beat, specifically, hearing the count 1 and counting the sets of 8.

Hearing the beat is a skill, which you can train your ear to do. But there’s music where the sets of 8 are easy to hear and music where the sets of 8 are hard to hear. It sounds like you can hear it in the easy music. Hearing it in the hard music will take some dedicated practice. As you listen to music throughout your day, start counting the sets of 8. Make that a habit. Don’t get hung up on hard music because it’ll drive you nuts. Skip those songs for now but capture the name of the song (use apps like soundhound and shazam) so you can go back to them later.

Salsa music is difficult because the tempo is fast and there’s a lot of percussion. Check out this video I recently did counting the sets of 8 in hear the beat in salsa songs. This video goes to a new series of videos I’ve done on hearing the beat, counting music and phrasing, which you should find helpful and are all listed at hear the beat, feel the music.

Hearing the difference between the count 1 and the count 5, the fist beat of each 4-beat measurer, can be difficult. Try these 3 things: 1) wait for the next major phrase to start, which will give you a firm count 1; 2) listen how measures are naturally paired and, often, one measure sets up a musical thought and the other measure completes a music thought; 3) if there are accents on the count 1s and count 5s, listen really, really hard because the count 1 usually has a tiny bit more emphasis. You can train your ear to do all this if you practice.

When talking about music it’s also best to talk about a specific song. Please feel free to post a youtube link to a song you’re having trouble with and I’ll take a stab at it. Good luck.

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