Music for Dance: When Fast is Slow and Slow is Fast

 

I teach a lot of first dance lessons for weddings.  Usually my students have a song picked out or they have several they are considering.  Often they’ll say something like this to me: “I don’t know if this will work.  It’s kind of fast.”  “The music changes part way through.  It’s slow at the beginning and then it speeds up.”  Usually the music they fear will be too fast is not fast at all, and dance music that changes speed mid song is extremely rare.  So what’s really going on here?

Groove vs. tempo

Dance music has a steady beat that is consistent throughout.  There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but let’s stick to the norm here.  When you count the timing of the steady beat, that’s the actual speed.  If you are someone who can easily hear the beat in music, you’ve had the experience of hearing a song that sounds fast but the beat is actually slow.  Sometimes it’s the other way around, sounding slow when the tempo really is fast.  Jazz musicians call that the groove.  It’s the way the music feels, regardless of the actual tempo.

Sometimes the groove changes, but the speed almost never changes with it.  That means that the dance you learn for the song will work through out no matter what the groove is doing.  The groove, however, influences the steps you may choose to use in various parts of the song.  If you are a brand new beginner and find the dance challenging, music notwithstanding,  you may choose to ignore this more advanced concept and just do your steps no matter what the music is doing.  You’ll still be on beat and the dance will work.

Playing with the music

If you’re more advanced, and your song’s groove changes, you might choose to be more creative with the nuances of the music.  Just as the music can feel slow when the beat is fast, so can the way you dance.  You can use steps that glide, with very little body movement drawing attention to speed of the actual footwork.  Conversely, you can use steps that bounce or emphasise the beat, making your dance feel jaunty even though it’s slow.

Just for fun, try listening to your favorite genre of music and see if you can find songs in which the groove and the speed don’t match.  Now that you’re aware of the phenomenon, you’ll start noticing it everywhere!
by LaurieAnn Lepoff
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