I muck around with music a bit (I tend to sing for better keyboard players, although I did bash out tunes from Andrew Lloyd Webber for Dummies at the last singing party we had), and I also dance. I thought it’d be fun to try to get these two things together in my head, by working out how the music for ballroom dancing works. After a bit of Googling for pages written by people who know more than I do, here it is. Seeing as there are better musicians and better dancers than me reading this, they can correct me if I get it wrong.
Foxtrot is in 4/4 time, between 112 and 120 beats per minute (according to these people). It’s typically danced to Big Band music. The music emphasises beats 1 and 3. I think I can see that in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, where the accompaniment either hits more notes on the treble clef, or uses the bass line to keep that emphasis. In Bobby Darin’s version, the brass is hitting those beats in the intro.
The steps are typically 1 beat or 2 beats long, and we call them “quick” and “slow”, respectively (if I’m writing it down, I’ll abbreviate to Q and S). The basic rhythm of the dance is slow-quick-quick, which means the first two steps hit the emphasised beats. Some figures in the dance vary the rhythm, but the “slow” step, if there is one, starts either on beat 1 or beat 3. Here are the Hiltons giving us something to aspire to, with music and the slows and quicks, starting about 1:25.
<lj-cut text=”Waltz, Quickstep, Tango, over”> Waltz
Waltz is in 3/4 time, as any fule kno . The tempo for slow waltz is about 84 to 90 beats per minute. The music strongly emphasises beat 1.
The steps are typically one step per beat, one-two-three, leading off strongly on beat 1. Sometimes, to get more steps into a bar, one of the beats is split into two half beats, with the second half of the split beat being counted “and”. For example, in the whisk/chassé combination we count the chassé “one, two and three”. Once again, the Hiltons show us how it’s done, starting about 1:20.
The Viennese Waltz is a lot faster, about 180 beats per minute. It’s typically done to classical stuff from Johann Strauss, although other possibilities exist, and of course, a fast waltz gives you the opportunity to dance to silly songs. It’s danced at 1 step per beat, and the steps are mostly turns in each direction as you progress around the floor, and the fleckrl, where the couple rotate about each other rapidly in the centre of the room to show off. There are no split beats in it, it’s fast enough already. Here are some good people doing it.
Quickstep and foxtrot have common roots. Musically, quickstep is in 4/4 again with the emphasis on beats 1 and 3, but faster, at around 200 beats per minute. Again, it’s typically danced to fast Big Band or jazz music, usually about a drum kit that’s getting lonely waiting for its owner to come back from World War II, or some such.
The steps are timed as 2 beat slows and 1 beat quicks like in foxtrot, and the rhythm is typically slow-quick-quick. But the figures we dance in quickstep have more in common with waltz than foxtrot. It’s also more common for figures to roll over the end of the bar, so that you lead off on beat 3 sometimes (the chassé and quarter turn that everyone learns as a beginner does this: it’s phrased as SQQS SQQS). Despite it being fast, we still get split beats in quickstep, too, usually called “quick-a-quick” (there’s obviously not enough time to even say the word “and”).
La Cumparsita is the quintessential tango. We’re still in 4/4, at about 130 beats per minute. The music is staccato (although I’m not sure how well the dots over the notes have come out in the image on the right). There’s a sudden “ba-dump” into beat 1: the piano has a half beat on the bass line of the previous bar in the example on the right, which came from 8notes.com. We usually feel like there’s an 8 beat phrase over the 4 beat bars.
Ballroom tango comes from Argentina via a bit of cleaning up in Paris. Again, there are 2 beat slows and 1 beat quicks, and the odd split beat too. Typically figures are danced quick-quick-slow. It looks nothing like foxtrot or quickstep, though: the style of it matches the staccato style of the music. The dancers stalk around on the slow steps and hit the quicks as quick as they can, and then stop as still as they can, so that the quicks end up being shortened. Here are Marco Cavallaro and Joanne Clifton having some fun with it. I saw them at a ball some years ago: they were great.
Next time, I’ll try and work out what the Latin dances are about.