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It's All About Time

by Sandi & Dan Finch

1 2 3, Slow Quick Quick, 123&4, 1a2. You should immediately recognize these as timing for dance rhythms you do. The 1-2-3 of waltz is easy to recognize—being the only popular rhythm we do in 3/4 timing. Slow Quick Quick could be lots of rhythms—foxtrot, slow two step, bolero. 123&4, maybe cha cha, maybe west coast swing. 1a2? Of course, samba.

We can think of timing in lots of ways in dance. It is the essence of dance, according to one definition, which says dancing is moving through time and space to music. As we get older, another concept of time is one that isn’t always our friend, says Riccardo Cocchi of Irvine, undefeated world professional Latin champion just retired after winning the title for the 10th time. “When you are old enough to understand what to do, you may be too old to do it,” he joked.

Do you think the music is too fast for you to cha cha? Maybe the timing—as in the speed the music is played—is fine, but your steps are too big.

Mainly, we talk about “being on time” when we dance. Being off time means you are not staying in sync with the rhythmic feel of the music. Most dance music is played in “strict tempo,” meaning the metronomic timing of the beats is consistent throughout. Everyone on the floor should be doing the same step at the same time. As beginners, you may struggle to learn to recognize the downbeat—when to start dancing—and you may be too busy remembering steps to hear the tempo in the music, but it gets better with practice.

A good dancer has learned the steps and understands being “on time” with the music. The difference between a good dancer and an excellent one, though, is like singing the music, according to Riccardo. Instead of dancing step by step on each beat of music, play with the timing as a singer does—still working within the measures of music, but stretching out in one place and speeding up in another.

Some teachers will call this adding light and shade to your dancing; Riccardo would say it is dancing as your heart feels the music.

You practice to gain skills, he said during a lecture at this year’s Blackpool Congress in England. With skill comes the ability to not have to think about what you are doing. He quoted Michael Jackson as saying “the worst thing a dancer can do is think.”

If you’re thinking too hard, you aren’t enjoying the music. If you aren’t feeling it, you can’t interpret it. If you are a competition dancer, the judges for sure won’t mark you for doing it wrong and probably not for just doing it right either, he said. They want to see something extra, that you are expressing the music.

As round dancers, we’re not doing this to impress judges, or anyone else. We are doing it for our own enjoyment. If you have learned the figures and been taught the dance, why not play with the timing? Instead of syncopating a chasse 12&3, try 1&23, for a slightly different feel, especially if the orchestra did it that way too.

If you are dancing to a song that is not in strict tempo, feel how the orchestra varies the timing. Those who dance Boulavogue, Lamberty’s phase VI waltz, know there is a retardation in timing towards the end and it works best if you slow your steps, in any way you feel fits.

Of course, your partner either has to feel the music as you do, or you have to communicate your feeling to her. This is leading, but it is not pushing her around, Riccardo said. “You have to encourage her to move.” If the leader is busy guiding every step the partner does, he is interfering with her and restricting himself from dancing.

In our activity, the figure to be done is not a mystery for the follower to have to guess. The cuer tells you. Learn as beginning dancers that men only need to lead direction and timing. Tell her when to start and where to go, then let her feel your timing. Remember the words of Albert Einstein: “Time is an illusion.” Make it yours, as you feel it.


From ICBDA Dancer's Gazette, 2020, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2020. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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