Tango Words

Elements of Musicality: Beat and Rhythm

Returning to my favourite subject: musicality. As I said in a previous post, when we first start to dance we learn to dance to the beat, after a while we begin to dance to the rhythm, eventually we discover how to dance to the music. Of course, these aren’t separate; when we dance to the rhythm we’re also dancing to the beat. And when we dance to the music then the elements of beat and rhythm are in there too.

In talking to dancers I find that there is sometimes confusion between beat and rhythm. Put simply, the beat is the steady pulse that you feel in the tune, like a clock ticking. It’s what you might clap along to, or tap your foot to. The rhythm is the actual pattern that the notes of different lengths make, which in a song may be the same as the word patterns. Beside the length of notes, rhythm is also created when some notes are emphasised over others.

Generally, dance music (except for waltz/vals, of course) has four beats to the bar. Beats 1 and 3 are the strong beats (the compás in tango) beats 2 and 4 are the weak beats (sometimes called the back beat or off beat). At its simplest level, when dancing we tend to step on beats 1 and 3. (Although when clapping along to a tune the preference is to clap on the back beat.)

Of course, all this applies to any creative partner dance, not just tango. In jive classes you sometimes hear, “This is a six-beat move,” or “This is a twelve-beat move.” This is only true if you’re limiting yourself to dancing mechanically and solely to the beat of the music. If you’re dancing to the rhythm then how many beats a move takes will depend on how you work with the music.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking in step patterns and becoming a ‘one-and-three dancer’. (And sadly the heavily accented beat of much of what passes for dance music tends to encourage this… but that’s another story for another blog post!) We’re dancers, not metronomes.

“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” — Samuel Beckett