Where to learn: how to hear the beat of music

by James Joseph

You will not find a class on hearing the beat of music (if you teach a class in that, throw me an email, we should talk). It’s rarely touched upon in ballroom dance classes. You must learn the beat on your own. Don’t fret, it’s simple, just listen to music (like with an iPod or whatever). Ahem, make that actively listen to music.

If you don’t have natural ability in music seek help to both get started and for occasional feedback. This could be a musical friend, a dance partner who is musical, a dance teacher or even strangers at a social dance who look competent. After your music maven gets you started, it’s up to you to practice—a lot. It’s the training on your own that develops the skill, not something your teacher does. There’s not a switch that gets flipped from “no rhythm” to “rhythm”; it’s a process, which will take days, weeks or months depending upon your ability. Use your teacher, as well as other musical people you pass along the way, to occasionally test you and give feedback. Getting feedback from others can be a quick process, even just a minute or two, so you’re not asking much.

To learn the beat you could tap a foot or clap hands or march in place. These are all okay and if you have an ear for music or prior musical training that may be enough. But for the rest of us, the secret to hearing the beat is to count music, specifically, counting the sets of 8 (waltz, the exception, is in sets of 6). Why? Because sets of 8 define the beat of the music (technical info: musicians compose dance music in four-beat measures and two measures are naturally paired to create a set of 8). You can practice counting sets of 8 anytime you listen to music—commuting, working out, in the shower, drifting off to sleep at night. (I used to practice counting sets of 8 to the background music of movies.) As you count you can also tap your foot as it’s good to involve the full body. I used to gently shift my solar plexus left and right, back and forth, simulating taking steps. Or sometimes I’d just nod my head back and forth to the beat. Marching in place to the sets of 8—doing a weight change on every beat—is the best as it most resembles dancing, plus you can practice your timing, that is, the coordination necessary to make the weight change exactly on the beat.

To get started simply have your music friend count sets of 8. Starting on a count 1, have them count: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and start over. Listen for the accent on the count 1 (count 5, the first beat of the second measure, has an accent too but to a lesser degree) and how a count 1 sounds like the beginning of a “sentence” of music. Use very easy music, stuff with a medium slow tempo and with sets of 8 that are easy to hear. For example, blues would be easy, salsa would be hard. It would also be helpful to use music with easy to hear downbeats and upbeats. This training exercise by Skippy Blair, which involves your hands, is an excellent way to start (scroll down to the one minute video, “Skippy Blair counting sets of 8 combined with a hand exercise”).

When I first started, I used to go up to my teachers after classes and ask them to count sets of 8 to the practice music—just to hear how it’s done—which could take as little as 30 seconds of the teachers’ time. After I had some competency, I’d ask my teachers after class to listen to me count sets of 8 and give feedback. I would also approach strangers at a dance, who looked musical, to observe me tap a foot or clap or march in place or count sets of 8 (it’s no biggie for them—people love to show off—especially if you compliment their dancing first). If you’re taking private lessons, start the lesson with a few minutes of counting sets of 8. Nobody to help you? Check out this free four minute video of me counting sets of 8 (scroll down to “Counting sets of 8 in easy music”).

Even if you’re an intermediate level dancer, spend a few minutes with someone musical and just listen to music. Let them test you to a variety of music with a range of difficulty, tempo and genre. Definitely throw in something hard like salsa—uptempo Latin with lots of percussion. In addition to the feedback you get, note your confidence—are you always 100% certain of the beat or do you guess a lot?

The good news is that you’re probably not rhythmically challenged. You’ve just never been taught how to hear the beat. It’s a lack of education, not a lack of ability. Granted, even after training you may not be the best, but it’s certain that you can get better.

If you struggle to hear the beat of music, describe your problem in the comments below. What have you tried to learn the beat?

(See also this related post, “Warning: Ballroom dance classes do not teach how to hear the beat of music”)

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Janet Lee Chapman July 3, 2016 at 2:27 pm

I always teach musicality in my Ballroom and Latin classes including musical values. I think it is very important and found your article very interesting.

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Vencislav December 9, 2015 at 2:37 pm

I love to dance too. I don’t do it regularly but as you say it is libirateng. And I like that I become aware of my body so I kind of get in touch with it. Amazing.Why? maybe because they feel ashame.

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Eric November 19, 2015 at 7:26 pm

If Jim’s excellent videos on YouTube are not enough, I’d recommend a country western song “Country Club” by Travis Tritt, and the Music CD that comes with “Social Dance: Steps to Success, 2nd Edition” by Judy Wright (not the 3rd edition). Country Club has a clear beat as regular as a metronome.

The book’s Music CD has teaching tracks with very clear beats for many of the ballroom styles. The book uses the CD as a quiz to become able to identify a waltz from a foxtrot from a tango – invaluable for me as lead. When I took private lessons I used this CD because it was easy to keep to the beat.

As an older guy, I’ve encountered a fair number of women who admit to not having musicality, and one who had come to this site to work on figuring out the beat. It has now been about four years, and the ballroom beat is pretty natural for me, except for one peculiar kind of waltz where they switch rhythm between 3/4 and polka every other measure, Grrr.

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Cassie November 19, 2015 at 5:23 am

Hi, I have a 6yr old that loves dancing. She is currently taking beginging classes for Ballet, Contemp, Jazz, Hip Hop and Tap. She was told that she is struggling with her musicality. With me not being a dancer or musically inclined I am at a loss on how to help her. Any advice on how to help her? Thank you!

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James Joseph November 21, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Cassie, I need to know what her teacher means by the word “musicality.” Sometimes it means the ability to hear the beat. But dancers usually use it to mean hearing something in the music, like an accent or a riff or a mood; then artistically interpreting that musical element with a movement of the body. I’m guessing that your daughter is having the former issue, which is difficulty in hearing the beat and keeping time with the music. But if it’s the later issue, let me know and I’ll respond to that.

I would count the sets of 8 to very simple music (with a slower tempo) that your daughter enjoys. Then I would try marching in place, making a weight change on each beat (again, use music with a slower tempo). Make sure her step is precisely on the beat. Then add some very simple choreography (eg, instead of marching in place, which would be STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP—STEP STEP over 8 beats; try STEP POINT—STEP POINT—STEP POINT—STEP POINT over 8 beats). Start a move on a count 1, finish the move on a count 8, start a new move on the next count 1 (eg, instead of STEP POINT, try STEP KICK–keep it very simple), etc. This will get her body to feel the natural “sentence-structure” (ie, the sets of 8) in the music. It took me many, many months before I had 100% confidence in hearing the sets of 8 so don’t expect your daughter to get this overnight.

The other issue she may have is being off time. She may hear the beat but she’s unable to get her body on the beat. This could be an issue of technique or coordination. Find a teacher who is good in technique and can train her to get her foot, her frame (solar plexus) and the weight change to come together, simultaneously, on the beat. Hope this helps, please let me know how it goes or if you need more help.

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Katherine September 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm

Get her to march to different kinds of music. Make a game of it. Keeping the beat in different places like her lap, her shoulders, her toes.

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James Joseph September 11, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Katherine, I agree, a variety of music is important. Not sure exactly what you mean by “keeping the beat” in different places. If you mean marking the beat with a slight body motion in different body parts, like a pulse, I like that. Making it a game sounds great, any suggestions?

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Krishna December 2, 2014 at 1:20 am

I’m a basic elementary level jazz dancer and my instructors have repeatedly told me to work on musicality because I am always a beat too fast or a beat too slow. I struggle to catch the first beat of the song and thus,I miss the following ones too. Help please?

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Karin October 1, 2014 at 3:47 am

WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching for ballroom dancing

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Eric September 4, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Jim,

Over 140 lessons and 35 dance events. Slowly losing the ability to explain the music/beat to newbies which you did so well in The Book (now 2 years since buying). Getting to be automatic even for unfamiliar music. The beat is so important for self-healing a dance pattern when a momentary bumping into others, a lapse of concentration, or other distraction causes a slight falter.

Right now I’m working on memorizing the dance step patterns by name/feel in a way that allows me to mentally choreograph on the fly. Otherwise I tend to fall back onto a few combinations.

Still a beginner, but heading for intermediate.

Again, thank you for the book and the videos.

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Eric January 29, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Jim,

About 2.5 years into learning ballroom dance – that is since buying your book. Continue to pile on the lessons and the dancing events. Doing fairly well and have some confidence. OTOH I still can get stumped like on New Years Eve and a band playing Carolina Shag. Even being stumped I can still have a good time.

At this point I’m concentrating on the lead, especially the prep steps – those little indicators a beat or so early that clue in the follower as to the next pattern. As part of my learning, I’ve danced as the follower with instructors to gain an understanding of what the woman faces and how to make it easier/intuitive for her. With the best instructors I have very little sense of being lead despite paying very close attention.

Without your book, I’d still be stuck. Thanks for the labor of love.

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rich July 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm

hi
any advise on intructors in new york or long island
thanks

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Lisa May 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Hi,

It took me a couple of months to learn how to count the 8 count in music from a friend and taking my first dance class, but I think I am managing well. I think I’ve mastered counting the 8 count in this Jazz song for my class now, and ever since then I’ve been practicing counting the 8 count for other songs. For certain songs, however, it is hard for me to hear the count. Can a pause/silence in the music still be considered a count(s)? Also can 1 set of 8 count have a new set of beats for the second set of 8 counts? This is in reference to House type music; I find that counting to to these genre of music is very very difficult because all of the beats sound completely different and new and random!

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Raja Zayat January 27, 2013 at 7:48 am

I guess I can hear the beats in most songs. but I still have a problem in recognizing the first beat (count 1). any helpful ideas?

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James Joseph January 28, 2013 at 7:27 am

Raja, it’ll probably take time to hear the beat and the count 1s. And that assumes you practice daily whenever you hear music (that means you actively listen to music, ie, you try to count sets of 8). So stick with it and evaluate your progress over a period of weeks or even months. For example, every several weeks, are you a little bit better at hearing the count 1?

There’s a lot of variety in music so there are no rules to hearing the count 1. Here are a couple of things that may or may not help on a particular song. Try using these two things together:

First, listen for an emphasis on counts 1 and 5, the first beat of each four-beat measure. Often, count 1 will have a stronger emphasis than count 5. This sometimes occurs but doesn’t always occur.

Second, thematically, listen for an ending and then a beginning. The beginning will be count 1. Although you may hear a theme in the melody, it’s the rhythm section (drums, percussion) that establishes the underlying beat, so try to focus on the rhythm section. Again, you may or may not hear this in a particular song. (This ending and beginning should be the most defined between major phrases, eg, the ending of one 32-beat phase and the beginning of the next 32-beat phrase.)

It’s not unusual to read in other websites that a phrase of vocals will start on a count 1. Again, this sometimes occurs but it doesn’t always occur. Confirm it by what you hear in the rhythm section.

Hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.

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Donalda August 14, 2012 at 8:17 am

Jim, maybe you answered this question already. I realize that if you can’t count the music when it starts the sets of 6 or 8, you are totally of course.

Even with the foxtrot, Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick (if I now understand this) each Slow is 2 beats of music, downbeat & upbeat for 4 beats and the Quick, Quick is 2 beats, for a total of 6 beats. Is that correct?…so it doesn’t really follow the sets of 8.

Thanking you,
dg

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James Joseph September 14, 2012 at 6:18 am

dg, you’re making some important discoveries and are on the right track. I’ll answer the 3 questions I see in your comment:

1) I wouldn’t say if you can’t count the sets of 8 you’re totally off course. Sometimes you’re not aware of the sets of 8 but you happen to be dancing to the sets of 8 because it’s easy music or by guessing or by chance (i.e., even a broken clock is right twice a day). And you might correctly hear the beat, which puts you somewhat on course, but you might be dancing “off phrase”; eg, you’re dancing 8-count step patterns and you start them on count 5 instead of count 1. And there are some people who have an intuitive grasp of music. They hear a set of 8 as, say, a “sentence” of music with a beginning and an end and a theme, but they’re oblivious to numbers.

2) A common call for foxtrot is SLOW—SLOW—QUICK QUICK (although I call it QUICK QUICK—SLOW—SLOW, which is the same dance, something I discuss in Chapter 4 of my book on page 57). I don’t like QUICKs and SLOWs as verbal calls because they get misused—teachers assign different values, in terms of the number of beats, without explaining that to the class. When used correctly, a SLOW is one weight change in 2 beats of music, what is also called a single rhythm; and a QUICK QUICK (QUICKs should always come in pairs) is 2 weight changes in 2 beats of music, which is a double rhythm.

3) The common foxtrot pattern above, single—single—double OR double—single—single, is 6 beats of music. So, yes, when you start your second foxtrot pattern you will start it on count 7 of the music. This, technically, throws you off phrase. How you handle this musically going forward is called “phrasing,” which is an intermediate level skill and above. Although I would argue that beginners need to start now training their ears and eyes in the phrasing of music.

Phrasing is difficult to put in words but I’ll carry out our foxtrot example above so you can get a taste. Sets of 8 are also called a “mini-phrase.” A number of mini-phrases (the number varies) will come together thematically to create a “paragraph” of music, called a major phrase (what you might recognize as a chorus or verse). The most common major phrase is four sets of 8, or 32 beats of music. If I were dancing 6-count patterns, at the end of the fourth pattern I would be at count 24. At that point I can do an 8-count pattern, which would finish on count 32. This would allow me to start a new pattern on count 1 of the next major phrase. So what I’ve done is vary the length of my step pattern to phrase to the major phrase. Major phrases vary in length and may not be easy to hear so this is not easy to do. It’s upper level dancing. All good performance choreography should be phrased to the major phrases. Check out West Coast swing videos on YouTube as the WCS basic is 6 counts and these dancers, IMHO, are the best at phrasing. It’s brilliant to watch when it’s done during improvisational social dancing.

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Eric July 23, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Now at six months of lessons and about 10 months using Jim’s book. My dancing base feels solid. After so many years of being unable to crack the dancing code, Jim’s book and his site has given me the boost over the wall. I’m still a beginner, but in several venues I can enter and leave the dance floor with a smile on my face and on my partner’s as well. Thanks Jim.

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James Joseph July 26, 2012 at 9:52 am

Eric, thanks for the progress report. Most interesting is that you’re 10 months into dance training and you can see that you’re still just a beginner. Too many people learn a handful of intermediate step patterns in their first month or two of dance lessons and they think they’re intermediate dancers. Glad to see you’ve learned that there’s much more to partner dancing than just step patterns.

Has there been anything that you consider the key in learning how to dance?

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Eric July 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Jim,
Good question about what was key. Your book and videos were key.

Once you broke the dance code for me, I had to practice by myself. Once that got boring I found a studio people who danced well (IMHO) recommended, then tried and sought out sympatico teachers. Lots of lessons per week, lots of missteps, but progress with a Beginner’s mind.

Women comment that any guy with rhythm is OK. Stepping to the underlying beat is the single biggest accomplishment for me.

As far as I’m concerned, I lucked out when you published your book. I don’t know you personally, and am on the other coast. You have done me a big good turn, and I appreciate your giving me a chance to dance.

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James Joseph July 30, 2012 at 10:43 am

Eric, I wasn’t fishing for a plug for my book, but thanks. You say being able to step on the beat of music was the key in learning how to ballroom dance. I mostly agree—although for me, I would say it was being able to count music (i.e., count sets of 8) to hear the beat. When you say “stepping” on the beat you include both the ability to hear the beat plus the technique and coordination needed to get your foot and center (solar plexus) to land precisely on the beat. (Note that some people can hear the beat but they’re still off time because they lack coordination.)

While the ability to count music was critical for me, it was understanding rhythm (single rhythm, double rhythm, triple rhythm, etc.) and the ability to count step patterns that allowed me to organize everything in my brain and flourish. I’m not sure what you mean by “dance code,” but understanding rhythm, and the difference between counting music and counting a step pattern, cracked the dance code for me.

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Eric July 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Jim,
The “dance code” is the combo of dance aspects put so well in that opening quote in your book by CMDR Data of Star Trek. Before your book I’d felt like it was just me being incompetent. Now I can perceive the instruction I’m receiving, what is being left out, and what aspect of dance I need to work on. All that said, right now Argentine tango is kicking my hind quarters :-)

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James Joseph August 2, 2012 at 4:00 pm

For the benefit of others, here’s the Star Trek quote:

As I see it, I need to maneuver my partner around the dance floor, taking care not to bump into anyone or anything, dancing to the music, spontaneously choreographing a changing and pleasing series of moves, all the while maintaining light conversation. . . . My, this is difficult, isn’t it?

— Mr. Data (an android), Star Trek: The Next Generation

Eric, I haven’t found any tango dancers who count music or count step patterns. But you have the dance code now so you can translate, right? Good luck.

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Eric January 28, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Jim,

Now at 12 months since starting lessons. About 90 lessons and 25 dances in the last year. Before my first lesson of this successful attempt to learn dance, I used your videos to get the most basic footwork and music beat counting. I feel a solid beginner. Able to be confident in often having a good time.

My past efforts lacked two big elements: serious dedication on my part and your book to breakdown the dance code in difficult-for-me, but do’able chunks. If I’d relied upon only the lessons, I’d have failed again as I had many times before.

Thanks for adding smiles to my life.
Eric

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James Joseph January 30, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Eric, glad to hear your dancing–and your confidence–continues to improve. It’s unfortunate that most dance teachers don’t get the logic behind music and rhythm (my guess is that they have talent, which is why they teach, so they didn’t need logic when they learned to dance). When you get a logical foundation–the dance code–it’s possible to figure out stuff (timing, rhythms, counts, phrasing, technique, dance figures) on your own and progress.

But I think you’ve also learned that dance is hard and it takes time, and I’m glad you have the patience, self-awareness and honesty to admit that you’re still just a beginner after one year. Knowing a bunch if intermediate step patterns does not make you an intermediate dancer! But you’re a “solid beginner” (“advanced beginner” is another way to put it).

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Eric March 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Jim,
Now at three years and over 700 lessons, plus lots of dance events. Feel confident to walk into most venues and successfully dance with almost anyone. Have also helped teach, as an volunteer assistant, basic ballroom. Currently working on West Coast Swing, as well as adding steps and technique to my existing styles.

Still I’m only at the advanced beginner to intermediate level in terms of patterns (e.g. Bronze). What I’ve worked on most has been the musical connection and partnership. This plus floorcraft and a bit of improvisation can bring a big smile to my face (and hopefully my partner’s as well).

At the risk of being called a shill, your book was a key element in cracking the dance code. Anyone whose been stumped might find their eyes opened by your writing. Daily practice hasn’t hurt either.

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Daniel November 28, 2016 at 11:40 pm

Hi I would like sum help with dancing .As I am often dsncing off beat . Can you help or give me sum tips an advice on how I can pick the number 1 count in a song for the 8 beats .would really appreciate your help .

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James Joseph November 29, 2016 at 11:23 am

Daniel, it’s unclear whether your problem is hearing the beat or if it’s hearing the count 1. In any case, I would start by reading this page: ihatetodance.com/counting-music. Then check out the video for the that page here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKRTLn3RiQQ

Then practice counting sets of 8, a lot, to all kinds of music over several weeks. Then, if you have no improvement, let me know. It takes time and persistence. Good luck.

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Eric April 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Attended a Viennese Waltz ball. Had a GREAT time! The last few months of lessons and practice have paid off big-time. Jim’s book gave the key, the rest is “just” work. Learned the beat, a few step patterns, frame/lead, and I’m enjoying myself. Lots more to do, enjoy, and smile about. Thanks Jim!

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James Joseph May 3, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Eric, thanks for another field report, congrats on your continued progress. I think you’re discovering that once you develop a proper foundation in music, rhythm and technique, progress in partner dancing accelerates. While step patterns are important, if that’s the only thing you ever learn, you’ll just be a bad dancer who knows a lot of step patterns.

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Eric March 5, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Another update. Started regular lessons at a place based on recommendations of people I liked who danced well. This plus two other lessons / dance venues add up to five dance events per week for me. As I am making progress, it is getting to be more fun.

Your insights, videos, and survival guidance has gotten me on my way. I feel solid on the dance floor in a few styles at the beginner level. When I falter, I often know which of the several aspects of a given dance is off and how to recover.

Having practiced a few styles a lot (!), I can now take a woman who wants to dance that style, but lacks the steps, and do a few basic steps to music teaching her. And most importantly, both of us have a good time. This is a real charge for me.

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James Joseph March 9, 2012 at 8:23 am

Eric, thanks for the progress report. I think this is the first time you’ve written with a degree of confidence. But, remember: on the dance floor, never let your ego exceed your ability.

Partner dancing is hard. For most people a one-hour ballroom dance class, once a week, is not enough. (Sure, you’ll learn intermediate level step patterns and think you’re an intermediate dancer but, really, you’re still a beginner). I think what you’re doing–dancing four or five times a week–is necessary, at least for a period of time. You need a concentrated effort to not only train your body (rhythm, musicality, muscle memory, dance connection, etc.), but to gain experience on the dance floor. For example, learning which step patterns can be lead with a stranger takes a lot of experimentation.

Be careful teaching partners on the social dance floor as, generally, it’s bad etiquette, particulalry with a stranger. Usually your partner doesn’t want to be taught and/or will still be confused. And, sorry to say, the person doing the teaching is often wrong about what they’re teaching. At the very least, move off the dance floor so you don’t annoy others.

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Eric January 17, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Jim,
Dances last two weekend went well. I was able to comfortably keep sync’ed to the beat most of the time, do the step pattern, and chat with my partner. This took over 4 months of doing a bit every day at home. Got positive feedback from my partners or spontaneous lessons, as the case may be :-). Maybe 10% of where I want to be – which I account as significant progress. Thanks to your book which blew smoke off the dance floor’s terra incognito.

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James Joseph February 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Eric, I’m giving you a “congrats” because you’ve reached what I consider a very important milestone: the ability to dance and talk at the same time. That means you’ve trained your body and your sense of rhythm to dance, to some degree, automatically. Now that your basic dancing is becoming “thoughtless,” you can begin to think about other things like dance technique and musicality.

This is great progress—and for others who are reading this, note that it took Eric, as he says, “over 4 months of doing a bit every day at home.” Ballroom dance is hard, it takes time and, in addition to instruction, you must train on your own. Even with this success, keep it in perspective: you will have bad nights, dance partners who you don’t connect to, and you will learn new dances that will make you feel like a total beginner again.

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Eric October 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm

You describe mens dance issues in a viscerally compelling way. It captures the essence of my frustration. Your videos have got me wanting to dance rather than dreading. Perhaps I can look forward to dance survival in style rather than mere dance survival?

After buying your book I went to a very nice used book store and bought anything that either had a practice CD or had foot patterns counted 1-8 like you described. “Social Dance: Steps to Success”, 2nd edition (by Judy Patterson Wright) has diagnosed many of the issues you have and provided a very detailed learning process. The CD includes getting the counts, ID’ing music to dance styles. Rather dry compared to your writing, but thorough in its text.

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James Joseph November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Eric, glad to hear I’ve inspired you. I point out in my book that doing a survival dance, and doing an improvisational dance with style, are not that far apart. To do both just limit your footwork to double rhythm (STEP STEP) and single rhythm (STEP HOLD) and really listen to the music. Keep the footwork simple but connected to the music. Practice by shadow dancing at home, alone, to a variety of unfamiliar music. Try to match your singles and doubles to what’s going on in the music (blank rhythm is handy too–no weight changes in two beats of music, which is a HOLD HOLD–for doing dramatic pauses). Work on dancing through your mistakes and extending your body to create nice lines (esp. when you do a dramatic pause). Get comfortable standing still on the dance floor for a few beats; let the musical phrasing tell you when to start stepping again. Notice how some music is easy to dance to and some music is hard. There’s probably not going to be an “aha moment” but I bet, as time passes, you’ll find your musicality and competence improving. Dancing to the music is what will impress your partner and make you look good–not robotically dancing through a long list of step patterns that doesn’t fit the music.

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Eric November 3, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Moving with the beat but more free-form, and staying sync’ed to the next phrase start – are fun. This adds alot to the pleasure of the dance. I’ll have to try stopping for that dramatic pause. In the past, stopping would not go well since I had little idea on when to start again.

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James Joseph November 7, 2011 at 8:38 am

Eric, ballroom dancing is a three-way partnership between you, your partner and the music. Most casual social dancers lack musicality. If you think dancing to the music is fun for you, imagine how much fun it’ll be for your dance partners. It’s easy for dance teachers to teach, and for students to learn, three or four step patterns in an hour. But it’s hard to teach musicality, and it’ll take way more than an hour to learn, so it’s rarely taught. You’ll have to pick it up on your own. Even if you find someone who can teach it, unless you have talent, it’ll still take many hours of training.

A typical move for a “dramatic pause” is to do a dip. (I don’t advise dips with unknown partners—risk of injury, many partners don’t how to do it and many partners will resist.) In my book (page 117) I suggest doing like a one-eighth mini-dip. This let’s you strike a nice line with your body without the risk of a dip. You can use it to catch something going on in the music, like an accent or the thematic resolution of a musical phrase. Lesser resolutions in ballroom music often occur at the end of each set of 8. More obvious resolutions occur at the end of major phrases (like a 32-beat phrase). After you do a dip or dramatic pause, step again on the count 1 at the beginning of the next set of 8. This means you have to start moving and come out of the pause before that next set of 8, which will set you up (weight on your right foot) to make the weight change (with your left foot) on the next count 1 to start a new move. Shadow dancing is great for working out that timing. Watching great dancers is a good way to see what you like in the way of styling and creating nice lines; and it should help to visually prep your subconscious. You know you’re hooked on dancing when you spend more time watching the guys—to steal moves—than watching the ladies :-)

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Eric October 20, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Another month has passed and I would like to add a few more comments to the three threads above.

1. Had a chance to explain the beats and related issues to a local DC teacher who I’d taken lessons from before and who teaches widely in the area. She explained that she grew up with music – her family was very musical. She did not have a way to teach what you have emphasized in your book. What you emphasized in the book has proven to be square one for me. I’m thankful for finally having my feet on square one.

Wrt dance styles, I appreciate your advice and have being trying a few styles and their music to judge what I’d prefer. The pop music you have in your videos has turned out to be ones that I really like – in many ways more than the regular ballroom numbers. Is there a genre or other way to search out more like them? Also, what dance venues would you imagine would play these kind of songs?

2. The Skippy Blair DVD has some good material, but I’d say what you’ve posted is at the level I can deal with and benefit from at this point. I took her video a few minutes a night and tried to work with it – but only minor success – probably will come back to it later. I am pursuing some other angles to augment what you’ve provided on your website and in the book, but results are TBD.

3. The down and upbeats have definitely gotten easier with time using practice techniques you described in the book. After verifying a past teacher doesn’t even mention the entire matter (too second nature for her), I feel a bit better about my lost dance years. Hey, it took a while for people to figure out Earth rotates around the Sun, too.

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James Joseph October 24, 2011 at 9:09 am

Eric, glad to hear you’re making an effort to find good dance music. It’s hard to dance to crappy music; when you’re a beginner, there are many things that detract from a good performance so you don’t realize the negative impact of poor music. Dancing with the Stars should take note: some of their music is weak, which hurts performances and gives an advantage to couples who get great music.

“Musical genre” is a tough subject; it’s difficult to put into words and, in part, it’s subjective. I would not have identified the music in my instructional videos as “pop.” Sure, it’s popular music and it could all play on a pop radio station, but I think each song fits into a more descriptive genre (for example, as far as dance music genres go, “Game of Love” is a cha cha). As a broad and loose category, I think it would be better to describe all of the music as “rock.” Give this a try: go to pandora.com, a website that specializes in musical genres, and plug in each song title (song credits are at the end of each of my instructional videos). Pandora will play songs that are in that genre.

As far as a venue, you have to find deejays (or bands) who play the kind of music you want. Working off of a “rock” theme, a rock ‘n roll club or disco or “top 40” joint might work, particularly if you stick to dancing to songs with slower tempos (good for swing, cha cha, rumba and improvising, like blues dancing.) But these are not partner dance venues. People would be dancing free-style rock ‘n roll and, if you didn’t bring a partner, you’d have to ease someone into the closed ballroom position, which would have unpredictable results. I would also check West Coast swing venues as WCS is the dance that best fits rock ‘n roll music and, generally, WCS deejays play a mix of contemporary rock and blues. If you’re attracted to slower tempos, I’d look for blues dancing. In both cases—in all cases—it’s still going to be on a deejay-by-deejay basis so shop for someone you like (search them online and you might get lucky and find their playlists posted). For example, I’ve listened to many WCS deejays and my opinion of them ranges from brilliant to awful.

Thanks for the update on your progress and the anecdotal info about your teacher. I think your experience will be instructional for others. Please continue to keep me posted.

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Eric September 19, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Sir,
Your insights are most excellent. They would have saved me many sadly wasted dance classes and dance floor embarrassments. Now I have the book and am part way through.

Using your videos and the book, I am actually starting to enjoy simple step-touch dancing. Connecting to the music via dance is what I’ve been needing to do, but lacked your insight to know it or how to learn.

Three questions:
1. Which dance style would you pick to learn first. Looks like my initial extensive lessons in Viennese Waltz many years ago got me off on the wrong foot for any other dance or even that one – the beats and rhythm were too complex.

2. If you had more of the beat, rhythms, and the looking-down-at-the-feet perspective, I’d buy it. I need the feedback. Maybe a recording where music is on one track and counting on the other, so then I can use the balance control to test myself without the counting and see how well I maintain it. Is there any particular product of Skippy Blair you would recommend?

3. In your “counting sets of 8” short video, the first song had its strongest beat on the 2 count while the others had it on the 1 count (or so it seemed to me). Per p.64, the downbeat is count 1, yet from the “thum TAA” p.39, I got the impression the upbeat is usually the stronger.

With Appreciation,
Eric

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James Joseph September 21, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Eric, thanks for the nice words, glad my book helps. I’ll take a stab at your questions:

1) With regards to what dance to learn first, it depends. First, make sure that you love the genre of music as you’ll probably find it harder to learn to dance if you don’t like the music or if the music bores you. Next, consider the venue where you want to dance. Eg, if you want to go to clubs, consider salsa, swing or tango, which have easy-to-find club scenes; if you want to dance at weddings, maybe dances like rumba, foxtrot and East Coast swing would be good. Next, consider an easy dance. Eg, any dance that uses triple rhythm (3 weight changes in 2 beats of music — 1&2), like East Coast swing, West Coast swing and samba, will be harder than a dance that uses just single rhythm and double rhythm (eg, rumba, salsa, foxtrot use just singles and doubles; I like rumba because the tempo of the music is slower than salsa, it uses the versatile rhythm pattern, double–single–double–single, and, unlike foxtrot, it doesn’t travel and the basic pattern is 8 beats so it’s naturally phrased to the sets of 8 in the music). Finally, pick a good teacher. I find much of the teaching today to be poor and inadequate and that will stunt your growth as a dancer. A good place to start would be to find a teacher who is certified by Skippy Blair’s organization, The Golden State Dance Teachers Association (email Skippy directly at skippy@skippyblair.com).

2) Thanks for the video suggestion. I need to get more videos up but they take time and I’ve got a list of more important things to do first (eg, I need to do an ebook version of the book). As far as a Skippy Blair DVD to buy, the only one she has that covers the material I think you’re looking for is called, Timing & Phrasing, which is available here http://www.swingworld.com/products.htm

3) As I was learning to dance I got confused with accents as they vary from song to song and, when I asked questions, musicians often gave different answers than dancers. The accent you want to listen for is on count 1 of a set of 8. Count 5, the first beat of the second 4-beat measure, will have an accent but it will be less accented than count 1 (although that can be hard to distinguish). The upbeats, counts 2, 4, 6 and 8, may or may not have accents. Yes, sometimes a heavily accented upbeat will hit your ear as more accented than count 1, but an upbeat does not need to be accented as they are upbeats due to their location, not their emphasis. A lot of the music I chose for my videos have accented upbeats because it’s easier to hear the beat of music when you can hear a strong upbeat.

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