Becoming More Precise

West Coast Swing Online Musicality & Timing

Do you think that you can dance on the beat? There’s a secret element of timing that pros have mastered and amateur dancers haven’t. If you want to look as clean and exact as the pros with any element of your dancing—footwork, styling, or musicality—then you need to learn to master the art of precision.

We often talk about stepping “on the beat” or hitting an accent “on” a certain count. But the reality is that sound, like movement, is a continuous thing. Even the sharpest hit of a snare drum has a duration; the note is hit, or attacked, it sustains, and then it fades. Likewise, footwork isn’t just a step: it’s a placement of the foot, a weight transfer and articulation of the foot, and then a sending of the weight to the next step. You can make the same breakdown for styling, for musicality, or for any other element of the dance. Because of this duration, pros will talk about dancing through the beat rather than just dancing on the beat.

The hidden element that the pros don’t talk about is precision. Even though you are dancing through the beat, you can be closer to having the attack of your footwork or styling matching the attack of the note, or those two things can be further away. More precise dancers do a better job of making the attack, sustain, and fade of every element in their movement match the same elements of the music.

Instead of thinking about dancing on the beat, it’s helpful to think about how close you are to the music’s attack, sustain, and fade. One way to think about this is to use the engineering concept of a tolerance window. In engineering, no physical object will perfectly match the specified dimensions, so engineers design objects with a tolerance window. For instance, Olympic swimming pools are supposed to be 50 meters long, but they have a tolerance of 0.03 meters. What that means is that any pool that measures between 49.97 and 50.03 meters is “close enough” to 50 meters to count as an acceptable pool. If the pool were outside of that tolerance window, it would be unacceptable: 49.96 meters is too short. More precise engineering jobs will have smaller tolerance windows, while more forgiving jobs will have larger tolerance windows.

You can make your dancing look cleaner by pushing yourself to accept a smaller tolerance window. Sure, you stepped close to the beat, but how close were you? Can you get even closer, consistently? In the next post, we’ll look as some footwork drills to see how you can apply this concept to your own practice sessions.

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