but What Is It?
by Sandi &
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
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
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.
a club newsletter, January, 2015,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, February 2017.