The essence of dancing is movement to music, so finding the beat in a song is extremely important. Being able to move on the beat for any kind of dance requires skill, and this is particularly true for west coast swing because WCS music tends to feature breaks, syncopations, and other unique rhythms that make the beat less obvious. The goal of this article is to develop the ability to find the beat and to keep moving on the beat even when thinking about other aspects of the dance.
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Welcome to the Ultimate Guide to Finding the Beat:
Phase 1—Hearing the Beat: The first element to finding the beat is simply being able to hear the beat. For individuals without some past musical experience, this can be a tricky skill.
To learn this skill, put on a song with a very clear and consistent beat. Good songs include “Goin’ Down South” by R.L. Burnside and “Juke Joint” by Johnnie Taylor. Both of these songs have very solid beats without much distraction happening in the bass line. As you listen, clap on the beat (which is the loud drum noise in these songs). Keep practicing this skill until you can effortlessly clap along with the beat through the whole song!
Phase 2—Moving to the Beat: Put on a song with a clear and steady beat again. This time, instead of clapping, take a step on each beat. You should focus on putting your weight onto the new foot as the beat hits. At first, you may stumble; this is probably because you didn’t start moving your body until too late. Continue working on stepping on the beat, and you will gradually learn when you need to start moving your body in order to land on the beat.
Phase 3—Downbeats and Upbeats: Most music for dancing, with the exception of waltz music, has beats occur in pairs. The first beat of each pair is the downbeat; the second beat is the upbeat. Being able to distinguish downbeats and upbeats is important because WCS begins each pattern on a downbeat.
In pop music, downbeats and upbeats and generally played with different instruments. The downbeat is usually a drum or bass (a low pitch), while the upbeat is a cymbal or other higher pitched instrument. If you try say “boom-chick” along with the song, the boom is the downbeat and the chick is the upbeat.
For this part of the exercise, put on a song that clearly distinguishes between downbeats and upbeats. “Juke Joint” is a good song; Prince’s “The Word” also has a clear distinction, especially during the chorus (the downbeat is more subdued during the verses, although the upbeat remains very clearly accented). As this song is playing, you should do step-taps: step on the downbeat, and tap your free foot on the upbeat. This is a single rhythm unit, which means that you will change weight once every two beats.
Phase 4—Keeping the Beat Through Complications: Now that you can dance on the beat throughout a song and can distinguish between downbeats and upbeats, the next challenge is to maintain the beat in your movement when the song isn’t helping you. One of the ways that music can be more interesting is by having the instruments or vocals do stuff that doesn’t perfectly match the beat. Although the beat of the song stays the same, the song itself isn’t marking the beat for you.
This drill is simple: keep dancing to the beat when the song isn’t marking the beat for you. There are two ways that the song can change it up on you. First, you might have a song that just has a break; in this case, the music stops and you have to finish counting the phrase on your own. Examples of this kind of music include “Sweet Sixteen” by Junior Wells (there is only a subtle instrument for the last four beats of each major phrase), Buddy Guy’s “What Kind of Woman Is This?” (which does the same thing without the instrumental cues), and “Man in the Mirror” by James Morrison (which frequently has a sustained vocal note without background instrumentation at the end of mini-phrases).
The second way that a song can obfuscate the rhythm is by having instrumentation that is syncopated against the beat. Robin Thicke’s “Cocaine” is an extreme example; the syncopation is so strong that beginning dancers have an extraordinarily difficult time staying on beat. A more subdued example is “She’s Right Here” by Ne-Yo (featuring Brandy)—the bass drum on the & before the 3 encourages a syncopated triple rather than a standard triple, which usually results in beginners rushing the upbeat and getting off time. When practicing to these kinds of songs, try dancing both doubles and triples. While doing triples, focus on delaying the triple as long as possible.
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