&a1, &a2, Oh No!
& Dan Finch
That &a1, &a2 is NOT music to the ears of the rhythmically
challenged. But, the same instructor who said anyone can learn to dance
using a system of rhythm patterns she developed, swore by it. It is a
way of counting music--called rolling count--to give dancers a way to
be better connected to the music.
Rolling count is not for the beginner. The late Skippy Blair, a dance
teacher once named the Person Who Most Influenced Couples Dancing,
believed any beginner can learn to dance by listening to music, lots of
music. Her system was based on learning to hear the repeating pairs of
beats, including a downbeat (on counts 1, 3, 5, and 7) and an upbeat
(on counts 2, 4, 6, and 8). But she didn’t stop there.
For the more advanced dancer, she applied to dancing what musicians
call the “rolling count.” Rolling count is simply a way of breaking a
beat down analytically, like parsing a sentence in grammar. A single
beat becomes not just 1, but &a1. The purpose of this is to
identify spaces in a beat for one’s body to dance as well as the feet.
“The famed cellist, Yo Yo Ma, in a television interview, was asked what
he did with the notes that made his music the best in the world,” Blair
wrote in one of her many treatises on dance. “He said that it was not
the notes that he played but the quality of the spaces between the
notes that made the difference. And so it is with dance.”
You don’t need to know too much about music, but you have to understand
that a “note” or “beat” is not a single moment. There is a span of time
between one note and the next. Think of a fence with boards running
between posts. Consider a post as the striking of a beat. The next post
is the striking of the next beat. The boards between the posts are the
span of time for each beat. In technical terms, each note has an
attack, a duration, and a release. If you step only on the striking of
a beat, you are standing until the next beat is struck, creating a
choppy, stop-and-start look. The movement of your core, hips, or even
the head in conjunction with a step through the span of a beat creates
a fluidity that not only looks good but feels good to the dancer.
“Natural” dancers naturally feel the spaces in the music, but rolling
counts help others identify the elements of those spans of time. We
count cha cha, for example, as 123&4. We are taught to dance five
steps in four beats by splitting the third beat evenly. We count the
five steps in four beats of a jive step as 123a4, which breaks down the
third beat unequally to encourage the more bouncy step of jive. Rolling
count splits every beat into thirds to give you more time to be
creative wherever you want.
Rolling count is applied primarily in West Coast Swing (it is what
makes the anchor step look good), but Blair applied it to all rhythms.
To achieve body flight and lead your partner, your center point of
balance (call it core) has to move first, which should happen on the
“&” count, she has written. The foot releases on the “a” count, so
that it lands on the next beat of music. Without being too technical,
the “&” and the “a” represent time taken from the prior beat. If
you are starting a dance, the &a is the preparation to move. Are
you old enough to remember Lawrence Welk intoning “&a1” to his band
to start them playing?
Dance teachers “count you in” to start moving in a similar way with
some form of preparation, such as counting 5, 6, 7, 8. Blair would do
it: 8&a 1, representing the stealing of time from count 8 before
the actual step occurs on count 1 of the next measure.
Blair, who died this past June at age 97, believed rolling count should
be taught in West Coast Swing to make sure the rhythm is danced with
its characteristic elasticity and smoothness.
The anchor step, which she called the most important part of West Coast
Swing, benefits most from rolling count. It generally ends most figures
and sets up the connection for the lead into the next figure. The
beginner needs to learn that the anchor does not move, hence the name
anchor. It is almost a triple in place, with a body stretch away from
partner to build connection. She suggested thinking about the anchor as
the beginning of a figure instead of the end. That way, with rolling
count, you will anchor, then “breathe” into the next figure, instead of
stopping, then restarting.
Blair created an experiment to feel rolling count. Do the figure
“in-in, out-out” as in All the Ways (Worlock phase VI WCS) or Mona Lisa
Was A Man (Finch phase IV WCS). Basic count would be &1&2,
danced forward with the lead foot on &, trail foot forward on 1,
then repeat stepping back on &2.
Do it again, counting &a1,&a2. Feel your center start to move
on &, step forward with the lead foot on the quick "a" count, then
move the trail foot on 1. Repeat stepping back with &a2. It should
feel more rhythmical. The concept of building into the count is used in
music, Blair said. In piano, a student will hear “lift the hands” in
preparation of count 1; a singer may be told “take a breath” before
starting. Top dancers are often unaware of what creates their own
“magic,” she said. “Others who aspire to make magic of their own are
delighted to hear that it is a learnable skill.”
In a more simplistic way, this sense of preparation before taking a
step is the magic that creates good turning action in the smooth
rhythms. We call it a pulse, a tic through the core, before a step.
Technically this is called contra body movement (CBM). It is the lead
telling your partner to turn. But it is also a internal redirection of
the body so that the first step initiates the turn.
A leader “tells” his partner when to start by generating movement first
through his core; his body says he’s moving, giving her a split second
to react before he steps. Now that’s dancing. Roll with it.
From a club
newsletter, October, 2021,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, February, 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.