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It's 4/4, but What Is It?

by Sandi & Dan Finch


Almost every rhythm we dance is written in 4/4 timing, so how do you know to do a foxtrot or a bolero? What makes a merengue different from a rumba?

All have four beats in each measure of music. Some we dance Slow Quick Quick, some we dance Quick, Quick, Slow. Merengue is all Quicks. Some call for hip action, most don’t.

We don’t have a problem recognizing waltz because it is just about the only rhythm we dance in 3/4 timing, meaning three beats in every measure of music. If it sounds slow enough, it is waltz. Too fast, it’s Viennese waltz.

We were asked what makes music a merengue as we were preparing a merengue clinic. Lots of music is written in 4/4 timing but the right music just sounds like merengue. What does that mean?

Determining one rhythm from another depends on timing, tempo, rhythm pattern, and character. Timing  is that fraction (4/4, 3/4, 6/8) that tells you how many beats are in each measure (the numerator) and which note gets the emphasis (the denominator)—the quarter note in 4/4 timing. Tempo (Italian for time) is the speed of the music, reported as measures per minute (mpm). Quickstep just wouldn’t be the same if played at the same tempo as waltz. Rhythm pattern refers to which notes are downbeats and which are upbeats. The elusive quality—character—is where the difference between rhythms can become subjective. Character inspires the motion and attitude for a rhythm.

The cha cha is easily identified—you hear the triple in the last half of the measure: 12 3&4. Samba is fast and recognizable by the “a” in 1a23a4 that encourages the bounce (hear “boom-chicka-boom”). Slow two step, foxtrot, and bolero share the same timing and close to the same tempo. Slow two step music though has a strong back beat defining the third step and a melody that encourages a level glide on the balls of your feet. It should feel like skating. Foxtrot music will make you feel like you want to travel (hear “boom tic boom tic”); if it makes you want to bounce, it’s probably one of the swings. Bolero music should have a latin feel, otherwise it is foxtrot. Rumba and bolero have three steps per basic measure and both feel best with a latin beat, but bolero has a swooping rise and fall and long strike missing in rumba and is better suited to slower music. If the music is dramatic and staccato, it’s probably tango. If it conjures up images of a bullfight, it’s paso doble.

And merengue? Its basic 1-2-3-4 beat encourages you to march. The purist should be able to hear an accordion and a güira, a sheet of metal with bumps, played with a stiff brush steadily on the downbeat.


From a club newsletter, January, 2015, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February 2017.


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If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.



If you are not a member of DRDC, do consider joining. The group sponsors triquarterly weekends with great dancing and teaching, and the newsletter is one of the most informative available.

Past DRDC Educational Articles archived here.

Aditional articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Richard Lamberty
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid (see Notebook)



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