When Should I Count the Music?

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

Question: When should I count the music?
Answer: Always.*

No matter who you are, what your musical background is, or how skilled you are at feeling the music, counting always elevates your dance.

Dancers who move by feel only are unattached to their third partner, the music. Counting gives a way for both partners to be simultaneously directed to the same thing. Even if you are great at feeling the music, you will always be more precise if you are also focusing on the count. Counting while you dance is the dancer’s equivalent of having a click track in your earpiece. There’s a reason that professional musicians listen to a click track when recording in the studio: it makes them more accurate.

Some people learn to dance without spending a lot of time counting music, and they tend to dance by feel. If you are one of those people, you probably think that counting the music while you are dancing inhibits your ability to dance to the lyrics or the melody. You’re probably right. But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t count. That means that you need to practice counting in order to be more comfortable thinking in musical terms. Being able to count while you dance raises the ceiling on how precise your dancing can be; actually counting in turn helps you tune in to the music at a higher level.

In fact, the more you want the freedom to dance to the lyrics or the melody, the more you need to count. When you dance a part of the song lyrically, you need to be able to reattach to the beat once the lyric has finished. If you are not counting, there will be a slight jar as you catch the beat again. By contrast, if your counting is rock solid, you can deviate from the beat and reattach seamlessly. Again, think about professional musicians: they have a click track precisely so they can hold things just a bit longer or rush a phrase ever so slightly and then immediately be back in sync with the rest of the band. Since WCS dancers don’t have click tracks in our ears, we need to be counting to create the same seamless transition.

The Drill: With or without a partner, dance and focus on counting through the entire song. Whether you count patterns, eights, or downbeats and upbeats is up to you: the key is to keep the count running through your head for the entire song. This drill works great during social dancing as well as during solo or partnered practice, so give it a try the next time you head out social dancing.

If you struggle to dance and keep the count going at the same time, spend some time listening to WCS music and counting throughout the song. As that becomes more comfortable, you can add in solo dancing WCS rhythms and finally WCS patterns. If you are a dancer who moves by feel, this may take a while to become comfortable with counting and dancing. That’s ok: you are reprogramming the way you listen to music so that you can perform at a much higher level, and that’s going to take some time.

* This post started with the question, “When should you count,” and there was an asterisk on the initial “always.” Here’s the caveat: there are some rare instances in which counting by numbers may impede your ability to feel something really awesome within the music. In those instances, you may have more success if you “count” with sounds—making the mm-da-duh in your head as your “count.” You still want to do something to stay attached to the music, but it may not be numeric. Having said this, be honest with yourself. If counting numbers truly stops you from moving a specific way, that’s one thing. But if you say that to yourself all the time, it might be that you need a stronger technical foundation in counting music and you’re just covering up for it. Great performers seek out weaknesses in their game and struggle to overcome them; mediocre performers hide (from) their weaknesses.

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