Index of pages of LBDC Website FAQs

A dancer's guide to knowing what dance to do

1. Get a Feel for the Song’s Speed

Start by determining the song’s tempo (i.e., it’s speed.) This simply means getting a feel for whether

the song is slow or fast or somewhere in between. Sometimes the instrumentation or vocals in a song can fake you out. For example, a song may sound very upbeat but has rather slow beat. Until you get good at gauging a song’s tempo, just tap your toes or fingers to the beat of the song, becoming a human metronome for its true speed. 

2. Count the beats

As you are tapping out the speed of a song, count the beats per measures. If it’s easy to count 1-2-3-4, it is not a Waltz, Viennese Walt, Paso Doble or Samba. If 1-2-3 matches the music, you’ll know it is Waltz, and once you determined the tempo, you can tell it is Waltz (slow) or Viennese Waltz (faster).

3. Listen to the Rhythm (feel)

If the song is not a Waltz, your next step is to pay attention to the song’s rhythm or feel. Is it happy, romantic, dramatic, bluesy, melancholic, or funky? Does it have a Latin/Afro-Cuban beat? Does it make you want to bounce, glide, twirl or march? Listening to the songs’ rhythm and character will  help you sort it into one of a few broad categories: Ballroom, Latin, Swing, or other (Hustle, Country Western, Nightclub Two Step, etc.).

For example, say the song has a Latin rhythm. The most common Latin dances in ballroom/social dancing are Rumba, Cha Cha, Samba and Salsa. Rumba is the only one of these with a slower, romantic feel. So if the song is like that, you’re ready to Rumba 

And if the song’s rhythm is upbeat, you can eliminate Rumba and then parse out which of the remaining three dances it might be. Samba has a very distinctive “boom-a-boom” percussive beat (think Brazilian Carnival music). If you’re hearing that, it’s probably a Samba. If you’re not, congratulations, you’ve narrowed it down to a Cha Cha or Salsa.

4. When in doubt, step it out

Continuing with the same example, say you’ve figured out the song is either a Cha Cha or a Salsa. Cha Chas usually have a “cha-cha-cha” in their beat, although you may not be able to hear this until you have more experience.

At this point, it is time to experiment with the basic steps in each dance. Do this on your own in place, so small and casual people might not even notice. Try a few Cha Cha basics and see how well your feet match the music. Then try the Salsa basic. Usually, one will feel like the right fit and voila, you have successfully determined what dance to do to this song!

Musical Terms

Bar

Literally means the vertical line in written music that separates one measure from the next. For dancing purposes, bar is synonymous with measure.

Beat

  1. A steady and continuous pulse in the music, within which rhythms are formed.

  2. A single pulse of music. Beats are usually arranged into groups of 2, 3, or 4 to form a measure. The first beat in a measure is usually more pronounced than the others.

Beat Value

The number of beats of music for each step (weight change or action). For example, in Waltz, the count for the Whisk is 123, with a beat value of 1-1-1. The Chassé from Promenade Position that may follow the Whisk has a count of 12&3 with a beat value of 1-1/2-1/2-1. In Foxtrot the count for the Feather Step is SQQ with a beat value of 2- 1-1. See also the Musical Information Chart.

Count

Also called timing. Each dance has its own specific count(s) which help define its feel and character. For example, in Waltz the basic count is 123, while in Tango counts vary (i.e. SQQS, QQS QQS, SQQS QQ) among others. See also: Musical Information Chart.

Counting in Beats and Bars

A method of keeping track of how many measures (bars) of music are used in a particular figure or amalgamation. Both the beats and bars are counted at the same time. Examples of counting in beats and bars are:

  • In 4/4-time (used in Foxtrot, Quickstep and Tango): 1234, 2234, 3234, 4234, etc.

  • In 3/4-time (used in Waltz and Viennese Waltz): 123, 223, 323, 423, etc.

See also: The Counting in Beats and Bars section.

Downbeat

  1. In music terminology, the downbeat is every beat in a measure (bar). If a measure is counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &... the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are considered to be the downbeats, and the &’s are the upbeats.

  2. In dancing, the term downbeat generally refers to the first beat of every measure. It is important to identify the downbeat in order to start correctly and stay on time with the music.

  • In 4/4-time (used in Foxtrot and Tango): the 1 is the downbeat. However, downbeat can also be used to mean both the 1 and 3, with the 1 being dominant. In this case, the 2 and 4 are considered upbeats.

  • In 3/4-time (used in Waltz and Viennese Waltz): the 1 is the downbeat and the 2 and 3 are upbeats.

Measure

In sheet music, the space between two bar lines in which there are a specific number of beats that repeat throughout the music. Typically, there will be 2, 3, or 4

beats in a measure. Being able to hear how many beats are in a measure will help you determine the kind of dance it is. For dancing purposes, measure is

synonymous with bar.

Musicality

Used to describe how well a dancer hears, feels, and expresses the music in his or her body. Aspects of high-level musicality are:

  1. Maintaining the character of the dance.

  2. Matching the mood of the particular piece of music.

  3. Dancing precisely on time with the music.

  4. Hitting accents and breaks in the music.

  5. Taking phrasing into account.

Phrase

A specific number of measures that make up a complete “thought” of music. It is similar to a sentence, having a clear beginning and end. Phrases can be as small as 2 measures or as large as 32 measures.

Phrasing

Dancing or choreographing a figure or group of figures (amalgamation) to fit the phrases in a piece of music. For example, starting a new figure on the first beat of a new phrase and ending the final figure on the last beat of the phrase.

Quick

A term used in counting which usually indicates one beat of music.

Rhythm

  1. In music, the regular recurrence of accented beats that give character to music. In dancing, when someone has “good rhythm,” they are typically relaxed, well coordinated, precisely on time with the music and physically expressing the subtleties in the music.

  2. A term used synonymously with timing or count.

Slow

A term used in counting which usually indicates two beats of music.

Syncopation

  1. In music terminology, upsetting or changing the meter or pulse of a piece of music by shifting the accent to a weaker beat.

  2. In dancing, to deviate from the basic timing of a dance such as dividing a beat of music into two or more parts. For example, the basic timing of most Waltz figures is 123, whereas the count for the Chassé from Promenade Position has a syncopation of 12&3.

Tempo

The speed of the music is determined by the number of measures in one minute of music. A higher number means the music is faster, and a lower number means the music is slower. To determine the tempo of a song, count in beats and bars for one minute. Tempo (plural: tempi) may also be expressed in beats per minute.

Time/Time Signature

Indicates the number of beats in each measure of music. The upper number is the number of beats in a measure, and the lower number indicates the type of musical note that represents one beat. For example, in 4/4-time music, there are 4 beats in a measure, and a quarter note represents one beat. See also the Musical Information Chart.

 

For the International Style Ballroom dances, the time signatures are:

  • 4/4-time (used in Foxtrot, Quickstep, and Tango*): 4 beats in a measure.

  • 3/4-time (used in Waltz and Viennese Waltz): 3 beats in a measure.

  • 2/4-time (used in Tango*): 2 beats in a measure.

*Tango music is written in both 4/4 and 2/4 “time”, with 4/4 being the more common.

Timing

  1. Synonymous with count and rhythm, timing refers to the commonly used numbers or words used to count a particular dance to music.

  2. Refers to the ability of the dancer to stay with the count designated for a particular dance, i.e. “She has excellent timing.”

Upbeat

  1. In music terminology, the upbeat is the second half of each beat and is referred to as &.For example, if a measure is counted 1&2&3&4&, the &s are considered to be the upbeats, and the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 are considered the downbeats.

  2. In dancing, the upbeats are the whole beats that follow the downbeat(s). This is most easily understood through the following examples:

  • 4/4-time (used in most dances): the 2 and 4 are the upbeats and the 1 and 3 are the downbeats.

  • 3/4-time (used in Waltz and Viennese Waltz): the 2 and 3 are the upbeats and the 1 is the downbeat.