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Go to 3 different ballroom classes and you’ll probably hear 3 different ways of counting calls:
AND SO ON! It gets worse. Go to a Salsa class, and you’d hear “...,1, 2, 3, ..., 5, 6, 7, ...” (I know! where’d the 4 and 8 go?). Or “..., 2, 3, 4, ..., 6, 7, 8”. And that depends if you’re in an “on-1” or “on-2” school. Ha! It’s enough to test the determination of any beginner. So let’s get to the basics then, and sort out this jumble of counting methods.
In the interest of uniformity, all figures or dances referred to are as specified in the INTERNATIONAL STYLE SYLLABI, of the Modern or Latin divisions of the ISTD. Also, I will use numerals for the numbers (1234), “&” for “and”, “Q” for “Quick”, “S” for Slow, and “a” for “Ah”.
123 is the same as QQQ is the same as 3 foot-stomps on the floor is the same as the 3 beats in a Waltz measure or bar.
1234 is the same as QQQQ is the same as 4 foot-stomps on the floor is the same as the 4 beats in a 4/4 bar or measure like the FOXTROT or English Quickstep.
Unless you’re way advanced—in which case there is no need for you to read this article, really—the preceding counts typically mean that your teacher wants you to take 3 (or 4) steps to her counting. So for the 1-3 steps of the Waltz Natural Turn, your teacher will count “1,2,3”. One step, one beat. Typically.
Now, to emphasize a particular dragging motion or to encourage expression, that teacher might say: “one, twoooooo, threeeeee” (emphasizing the closing of the feet common in the Waltz). Where it gets weird is when your teacher starts counting the Waltz as QQS (though this is arguably a common count among your more advanced dancers—it emphasizes expression instead of accuracy. But more on that later).
If you’re a music major, or have had some form of music training, this will get confusing. So I will add a little more detail. (My music-major students usually get it after a couple of passes, so there’s hope.)
First, a reference to a “whole” note (which truly and colloquially, refers to a BEAT in a measure) in ballroom dancing is TYPICALLY different from a whole note (or semi-breve) in music-theory (as in a 4-beat note in a 4/4 measure or bar). You must understand the context in which it is discussed.
Second, a syncopation in ballroom dancing is VERY different from a syncopation in music-theory. Syncopation (in ballroom) refers to splitting the beats so you can take more steps or movement.
Third, by convention/general-usage, each BEAT in a musical measure, is given a count of either 1,2,3,4, or Q (or a foot-stomp, for some teachers). A “slow” count (“S”) is typically used where the measure is 4/4ths. The “slow” is typically assigned the value of two (2) beats (two foot stomps, or a foot-stomp and a pause).
You may recall that except for the Waltz which has 3 beats to a measure, the typical timing in ballroom dancing is 4-beats to a measure). Here’s a Wikipedia article about beats, bars, and measures: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_(music).
The duration or amount of time it takes to make a “dance” step in a figure is measured in beats (often erroneously referred to by some teachers as a “whole” note). A step may be measured in a fraction of a beat, a whole beat, a whole beat and a fraction, or two (or more) beats. For the uber-technical, in Modern/Standard, a dance step is measured from “feet-together” (or when the feet PASS each other) to “feet-together”.
First the simple stuff: a step for each beat. The Waltz Natural Turn has 6 steps taken over 2 bars or measures. That equates to 6 actual steps for every beat of music.
Next, combining beats. The Foxtrot Feather Figure has 3 steps taken over a measure of 4-beats (4-beats per bar in 4/4 music). The first step is taken for a duration of 2 beats (beats 1-2 or “SLOW” or “SLOOOOOOOOW”). The last 2 steps are taken in the last 2 beats (QQ or 3,4).
It is important to note that there are many figures that do not fit in measures or group of bars (instead, they "bleed" into adjacent beats, like dances that start their figures on the 2nd or 3rd beat of the bar). A well-known example is the American-Style Foxtrot basic figure. The usual count for basic is SSQQ, taking one and a half bars, or 6 beats, which does not fit neatly into 2 bars of 4/4 music. Another good example is the Rhumba Basic figure is “2, 3, 4-1”, which some express as “QQS” but count it starting from the 2nd beat of the measure. The 2nd and 3rd beats are taken with 1 step apiece, and the 4th and following 1st beat is taken in one step as a “Slow”.
It should be noted here that there is another way of looking at measuring timing that is often introduced at an advanced stage of learning. This is especially true for the Foxtrot and the Waltz. The "BASIC" or simpler way of counting beats, i.e. from closed-feet to closed-feet, is done here to introduce the subject to beginning and intermediate dancers. It is important to note that the steps in Foxtrot are usually measured by body-movement or body-flight.
Things get complicated when a beat is split and thus becomes a ballroom “syncopation” (remember, this is NOT the music-theory syncopation. So from this point on, when I refer to “syncopations” or “sync” or “syncopate”, I am referring to BALLROOM syncopation).
First, a syncopation is the act of dividing a beat so that you can take more than 1 step in the duration of that ONE beat. There are two ways a beat may be divided or syncopated. a) You may split the beat in HALF (each half is called an “AND” and represented by an ampersand or “&”, or b) you may divide the beat in THIRDS (each third (1/3) is TYPICALLY called an “AH” and represented with an “a”. Thus, a syncopated beat is typically performed with 2 steps, taken at a 1/2 x 1/2 split, or a 2/3 x 1/3 division. Taking 3 steps during a syncopated beat is extremely rare, except perhaps in the slowest of Foxtrot movements.
Sample syncopated timing counts are “12&3” (2nd beat is split), “1&23” (1st beat is split), “QQS&” (the 4th beat is split), “1a23a4” (2nd and 4th beats are divided. The “a” is a 1/3 of a beat, the “2” and “4” remainders are 2/3 of a beat).
Second, (again "TYPICALLY") when splitting a beat in HALF, the syncopated HALF BEAT symbol (the “AND” represented by an ampersand or “&”) is placed AFTER the beat number that is split. Thus, the count: “1&23” means that the first beat is split—the “1” and the “&” share the same amount of duration or time. The “12&3” timing means that the 2nd beat is split, and so on.
Third, the syncopated THIRD symbol (the “a”) is USUALLY PLACED BEFORE the beat number that is divided. Thus “a123” means that the first beat is divided—the “a” and the “1” counts have a 1/3 and 2/3 beat duration, respectively. BUT NOTE that this is by general practice only. You might find the "a" placed AFTER the count that was split, which is entirely valid too. (So in the previous example, it would come out as "1a23" instead). Dividing a beat into 1/3 has been the realm of Latin dancing. There, like in the Samba, the accent or syncopation placement works nicely by placing the "a" BEFORE the split number. When in doubt, ask the teacher where the split is.
I would recommend that beginning and intermediate dancers learn the syncopated steps prescribed in syllabi. There are figures that have steps that are designed to be syncopated. Typically, Chassés (like those from a Promenade Position) are syncopated with timing like “12&3”, splitting the 2nd step. These types of steps are often specified in detail in the syllabi of the dance styles.
Expression is indispensable in high-level dance. And to achieve expressive movement, you need to know where to put fast and slow movement to provide good contrast. This is achieved simply by stealing a bit of time from a step, and putting into another beat so you can hold a pose longer or stretch a movement better and more expressively.
As a final example, consider the first 3 steps of the Waltz Natural Turn. You can take the timing as “1, 2, 3” with precise metronomic dullness. Or, you can stretch the 3rd beat by changing the timing of the first two steps to 2/3 time each and pushing the 2/3 you gained (1/3 + 1/3) into the 3rd step. Thus the time duration for each step of the figure becomes (2/3), (2/3), (1 + 2/3).
Lastly, a good understanding of syncopation is necessary if you want to raise your dancing from good to excellent. The ability to syncopate steps at will, when mastered, can open an entire new world of expressiveness.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Happy dancing!
See you next time.