Meredith & Harold



MAJOR SECTIONS: Figures | Articles | Links | Alph. Index | Search | Home

Figures in the Smooth Rhythms
Viennese Waltz
International Tango
American Tango
Two Step
Five Count
One Step
Figures in the Latin Rhythms
Cha Cha
Single Swing
West Coast Swing
Slow Two Step
Argentine Tango
Paso Doble
Dance Articles
Articles Home

Dance Figures

Dance Rhythms
Lead and Follow
Dance Styling
Fred Astaire Album
Other Sections
Dance Links
Music Clips For Each Rhythm
Search Site/Web
Contact Me

&a1, &a2, Oh No!

by Sandi & 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, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, February, 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


Alphabetical Index to
and Technique
Online since 2001 İHarold and Meredith Sears, Boulder, CO, All rights reserved.