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?

Fake a ballroom dance with a “basic side step” (video: 2 min., 15 sec.)

A basic side step will work with most kinds of dance music, from foxtrot and rumba, to salsa and swing, to unfamiliar music (this video goes with the book so it’s also posted on the Freebie Video page):

Here are two reasons why, if you need a crash course in ballroom dancing, you should learn to do a basic side step:

  1. It uses the versatile double—single—double—single rhythm pattern (that’s eight beats of music: STEP STEP—STEP HOLD—STEP STEP—STEP HOLD), which is easy and fits a vast range of tempos and musical genres. This simple footwork creates a rhythm for the feet that anybody can groove on.
  2. If you don’t have a good dance connection with your partner—two newbies will not have a good dance connection—it will be easier to move your partner side-to-side than to move her forward-and-back.

Even if you know some dances, the plight of many beginners is that they can’t identify the music and what dance to do. If you get stuck on the dance floor not knowing what dance to do, start with a basic side step; then, see what develops and transition into something else if it’s appropriate. Watch other dancers on the floor for clues.

If you’re looking for minimal choreography, the basic side step is a good foundation step pattern for a wedding dance and a slow dance. Learn it well.

Note: The basic side step will not work for a waltz because waltz music is counted in sets of 6 (all other ballroom music is counted in sets of 8).

3 Steps to Fred Astairedom

Instead of stumbling through seven years of beginner’s classes, if only I had stumbled upon a teacher who could relate to me, a guy with no talent in music or dance. If only this teacher had said to me, “Listen, man, there are things you can do before you step into your first dance class that’ll save you from embarrassment. And there’s stuff you can do after class, away from the dance floor—at home, alone—to build a foundation that’ll make learning dance easy.”

Then, as if he were Moses mamboing down the mountain, if only he had presented me with the tablets of dance containing the three things beginners and pre-beginners need to work on:

1. Connect to the music and, especially, the beat of the music.
If you want to do just one thing right on the dance floor, find the beat of the music (Chapter 1, “The Beat of the Music”). Nothing will tick your partner off more–short of injuring her–than being off-time. You don’t have to step on every beat of music but, when you do step, you must step precisely on a beat of music. The key to finding the beat is counting the sets of 8 in the music (Chapter 2, “Counting Music: Finding the Sets of 8“). The key to staying on the beat is feeling the downbeat and the upbeat (Chapter 3, “Downbeat and Upbeat“).

2. Learn the basic dance rhythms: single rhythm, double rhythm and triple rhythm.
A dance rhythm, a phrase coined by Skippy Blair, is the number of weight changes in two beats of music (Chapter 4, “Rhythm Patterns”). Beginners should start with the three basic dance rhythms:

  • Single rhythm is one step in two beats of music, which, if you were marking the rhythm in place, is a STEP HOLD (a hold or a touch are words commonly used for a beat of music with no weight change). I deplore the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a SLOW.
  • Double rhythm is two steps in two beats of music, a STEP STEP. I cringe at the use of “quicks” and “slows”, but sometimes this rhythm is correctly called a QUICK QUICK.
  • Triple rhythm is three steps in two beats of music, which is tricky because your feet must move quickly to step between two beats of music to create a STEP-STEP-STEP.

Skippy has made the simple but brilliant discovery that virtually all of the basic step patterns (the dance figures used to move around the floor) for every dance, usually six or eight beats in length, are just some combination of single, double and triple rhythm. For a wealth of information, check out Skippy Blair’s Dance Dictionary.

3. Burn the most common rhythm patterns onto your brain, especially the 8-beat pattern, double—single—double—single.


This is the mother of all patterns. Not only is it the basic rhythm pattern (a combination of two or more dance rhythms) for salsa and rumba, it’s common in foxtrot. It’s the easiest, most versatile pattern and will get you through most situations. Skippy says it’s the best pattern to use for a wedding dance or a survival dance. Surf your iPod and, standing in place, practice (at home, alone) marking (Chapter 5, “Marking Rhythms”) this rhythm pattern to a variety of music until you can do it without thinking.

Repetition will set you free.