What is all this talk about dancing on beat? There are people who will tell you that dancing to the right beat is one of, if not THE most important skill to master any dance form. If your goal is to dance to an occasional song that the DJ plays in the club, don't worry about the beat. However, if your goal is to progress past the "beginner" or "novice" level of any dance form, you really should consider learning how to count the beats and dance on them.
"Why?" you ask. What do you gain from dancing on beat? How does it improve your experience on the dance floor?
- Being able to dance with anyone: A person that dances on beat can dance with everyone from the person who has never taken a dance lesson to the professional dancer. There's only ONE way to truly be "on beat", so it makes for a universal code of dancing. Even as styles differ from one place to another, everyone hears the same beats. If we all count them the same way, we can all dance together without crashing into one another and stepping on each other's feet.
- Stronger appreciation for the music:
Like it or not, as dancers, we are musicians. We create a visual interpretation of the music with our bodies. Understanding the beats of any dance form (as well as being familiar with the song that we're dancing to) allows us to synchronize our bodies to the music. The piano player is not allowed to play his instrument off beat. The drummer is not allowed to play his instrument off beat. We, as the dancers, are not allowed to play our instruments (our bodies) off beat. When you hear a song 50 times, you begin to really hit the accents and do special moves that go along with certain things that are happening in the song. Eg. As you listen to more salsa music and understand the different beat patterns, you will begin to be able to anticipate accents and other elements in songs that you've never heard! As your body becomes trained, you won't have to even think about dancing on beat -- you'll FEEL it. I always hear people saying that certain dancers "flow" with the music.
- Ability to do more intricate and advanced moves:
Most of us have seen that couple in the dance club that is doing really cool moves. But something's missing. After each flashy turn pattern, you see the female cringe from pain. The song is a mellow, slow jam. They're dancing at warp 9. After the song is over, you swear that the female's left arm is about three inches longer than when the music started. Oh, and the male's biceps have experienced a 10% increase in mass. They are both drenched in sweat and sit down for 4 to 6 songs before attempting to dance again. Is this really necessary? You see dancers all the time that seem to be able to lead and follow the most complex moves almost effortlessly. Are they dance partners? Nope. Did they practice these moves together for hours before showing up the the club? Nope. What is their secret? THEY'RE DANCING ON BEAT. Dancing on beat is the most powerful contract that you can have with your partner on the dance floor. It creates a trust between you that opens all kinds of doors. Both of you have a good idea of where the other person's feet are going to be and when. You both know that you're hearing the music the same way. Under these circumstances, dancing no longer has to be a jerky tug of war. The lead does not have to push and pull the follow onto the "right beat". With that burden removed, the lead can actually lead MOVES and the follow can actually follow them. Less physical contact is required to execute turn patterns. You can completely let go of your partner, do whatever you want, and actually trust that you're not going to slam into each other. If you've ever been injured on the dance floor, you know how powerful that is. That being said, I can't make you any guarantees about what the other couples dancing around you might do. Keep your eyes open.
If you continue to dance on the wrong beats, you're not breaking any laws. You can still have fun on the dance floor. Most people won't refuse to dance with you just because you're dancing to your own beat. Can you really live with that? Aside from all of the benefits that are listed above, dancing on beat lets you know that regardless of your skill level, you're doing it right. That goes a long way.
Now, after all of that, I'll still say that dancing on beat is not something to stress over. Take some time and learn about it, but don't stress over it. Never lose sight of the fact that dancing is supposed to be FUN. If dancing on beat takes the fun out of it for you, then by all means, dance off beat. You should use the beats to enhance your dancing experience. Hopefully understanding the music better will lead to even bigger smiles on the dance floor.
Where to learn: how to hear the beat of music
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. As you count you can also tap your foot as it’s good to involve the full body. You could gently shift your solar plexus left and right, back and forth, simulating taking steps. Or sometimes just nod your 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 count sets of 8. Starting on a count 1, 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.
When you first start, you could go up to your 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 you have some competency, ask your teachers after class to listen to me count sets of 8 and give feedback.
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.