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?

10 Replies to “Are you in denial about being rhythmically challenged?”

  1. Hi!
    I am in a contemporary ballet company and one of the dancers I dance with may be rhythmically challenged and our company manager is really good at getting the counts clear but the dancer just either doesn’t hear it or ignores what our manager has counted for the group. There are a few sections I dance with her but it is in cannon. I’m counting my counts on the dot (I love counts for everything) but she ends up dancing on my counts when she is suppose to be 4 counts ahead of me. I don’t know how to tell her to stay on her own counts. I don’t know what to do. do you have any suggestions?

    1. Katie, it’s hard to understand the true nature of the problem because it sounds like there may be personalities involved or something else. That said, I will push ahead and give you some suggestions:

      1) Instead of telling a dance partner that they’re doing something wrong, I diplomatically present it like this: “That didn’t feel quite right to me, how did it feel to you?” You could ask that question directly to the dancer in question or it’s a question you could pose to your entire group.

      2) The dancer in question may not be rhythmically challenged but she may not have a strong connection to music or, at least, to this piece of music. In general, she should practice counting music when she’s away from the dance floor. In this situation, she should count the “pattern count” in her head as she dances the pattern. You might get that started by asking the director/manager to count out loud for the group. Assuming everyone has a different part, you need to come up with a simplified count that’ll work for everyone’s choreography and keep the group on time.

      3) As an alternative to a pattern count or in combination with it, try to come up with a verbal call for the dancer in question. Some people don’t do well with numbers so words might work better. It’s got to be an easy phrase of words that serve to keep her actions on time (eg, the pattern count for a basic 6-count west coast swing step is: 1 2–3&4–5&6; a verbal call for that same pattern might be: WALK WALK–TRI-PL-STEP–TRI-PL-STEP. A verbal call uses familiar actions words like STEP, KICK, POINT, SWEEP, etc).

      4) Videotaping is always a good way to see mistakes. Try videotaping a practice and have the group review it together.

      Finally, take some solace in knowing that mistakes always seem bigger to you and that audiences very often don’t see a mistake.

  2. I have always had no rythymI have been taking shag dance lessons four months in begginer class. I know the steps I have learnned but when I get with a partner, sometimes its like my feet are not even.attached to my body. He teaches in class to count, one and two,three and Four, five six each word is a step. Six steps Eight count. My partner says I focus to much on counting instead of just dancing.Dp you think your system can help me without adding more counting confusion(and.frustration) I certainly hope so.

  3. ^ or like explain it on example of live shows ( wonder girls “nobody” or any other group; Korean bands are well known for dancing and singing at the same time during their concerts)

    1. I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking and you’re straining my credibility to comment on the Wonder Girls. Are you asking why they dance well? They probably have talent and they certainly have training. They’re also dancing a choreographed routine, which will always look more clean and perfect than improvisational (but not as much fun to watch, IMHO).

      In the song “Nobody” they make weight changes on the beat and their body movements are in sync with the beat. It also appears—not sure, I’d have to study it more—like a lot of the movement sequences are 4 beats long. So they either span counts 1 to 4 or counts 5 to 8. In any case, overall, it’s phrased to the sets of 8 (note that two 4-beat measures are naturally paired to create a set of 8). If you’re having a hard time hearing the beat and counting sets of 8, it’s going to be hard to see this. But stick with it—your curiosity suggests to me that you have the desire and persistence to figure it out. Find someone who will watch the video with you and count music (sets of 8).

      1. thank you so much for answering!
        I really appreciate that you found time to reply.
        Your remarks are really informative and helpful :)

  4. Hi,
    first of all I’ve to say that your website is really helpful :) Thank you so much !
    I would really love to go to a nice club or to dance during my friends parties. I am learning how to hear the beat of music. your examples are really awesome, but when it goes to trying to hear the beat of songs different than you have posted I am sometimes really not sure, especially with some particular songs. The most challenging for me it’s to understand what exactly the beat of music means in terms of dancing. Girls shake their hips, move their feet and do some different moves, but I really don’t get how is it connected with the beat ? Should the move that I am planning to make begin exactly at the beat and finish just before the other one begins or what? I would really appreciate a video on people dancing and showing like when people dance with the beat and show also the situation which is often seen when people dance off the beat and explained how do you see that it is off the beat. Of course, you might be busy and not have time to make such video, but I think it’s worth a shot just to ask ;)

    1. Tia, you ask good questions, but I believe you’re referring to club dancing, like freestyle rock ‘n roll and hip hop, which is not my area of expertise. That said, I’ll comment on weight changes for partner dancing as it would be the same for basic freestyle dancing.

      A weight change should occur precisely on a beat (there’s also syncopated footwork, which steps between beats of music). If your intent is to step on the beat but you’re early or late, you’re off time and you won’t look connected to the music. That’s bad dancing. BTW, your center (solar plexus) needs to be on time too.

      The music I chose when I made my videos is easy music. So, yes, as you’re discovering, not all music is easy. Even I get messed up with difficult music so temper your frustration a bit if you think it’s the music—and stick to easy music to learn. I suggest you practice at home, alone, to music with a slow tempo and with simple phasing (all 32-beat major phrases, ie, four sets of 8). Try to phrase your moves to the sets of 8, eg, start stuff on a count 1. I also think your questions get into motion study and body styling. It sounds like you need to learn some moves and practice movement technique. I suggest you take jazz or hip hop classes. Your suggestion for a video, to show bad dancing, is a good one but, alas, not sure if I’ll ever get around to it.

  5. I am definitely rhythmically challenged. In fact, I have known since I was young because when people count beats or talk about tempo, I had no clue what they were referring to. Sure, I can look at sheet music and tell you where the beats are, but I cannot listen to music and even find the strongest downbeat let along know what the tempo is. It is like being yellow-green color blind and everyone talks about the find details of paintings. You know that they are talking about something real. You know it’s there. But you cannot see it.

  6. Hi

    Well, about 1 in 6 people can naturally follow the beat in music its something like 1 in 15 can hear the phrasing (the next step up from following the beat) in piece of music.

    Most people, about 95% are musically deaf.

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