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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What is Blues Dancing?

dancing with my partner Bill

Blues Dancing is like a one song hug

Blues dancing has been around for decades in one form or another.  It’s one of my favorite dances because it is so open to interpretation that it can look drastically different from one dancer to another.  As long as the character of the dance remains intimate and, well, bluesy, you can trade on pretty much any moves in your background from Lindy Hop to Tango.  This doesn’t mean you can just go off on a tangent and forget about your partner.  Blues is not an easy dance to lead, and if your lead is not crystal clear, it’s no fun for your partner.  You can see in the clip at the end a number of different styles and it’s still easy to see what they all have in common.

Blues is a street dance and as such has evolved from an offshoot of the Lindy Hop community (what Lindy dancers do late at night when everyone is tired, but one wants to go home, and the DJs start slowing the music way down to fit the energy level) to its own art form.  Now there are blues communities, blues dancers who never dance Lindy, and Blues workshops and camps.  It’s no longer something that dancers just DO.  You can learn it from dance teacers

.Here’s a story I love about Blues dancing.  Several years ago Steven Mitchel (one of the world’s greatest jazz dancers) was giving a swing workshop.  He decided by popular demand to teach Blues for one section of the weekend.  I was hanging around during the break when a local friend of Steven was meeting him for a visit while he was in town.  “What are you doing now?” asked the friend.  “Blues,” said Steven.  “What’s that?”  “You know.” Steven looked around for a victim, grabbed me and did a little blues demo.  Unimpressed, the friend said “You have to teach that?”  “Evidently,” replied Steven.

If you know a partner dance and do it well, especially if you are music oriented and can easily respond to the feel and mood of a song, you probably can dance blues already.  But as you can see by how these talented dancers play with the dance, you can also pick up some really cool ideas from other dancers and step up your game by taking a class or going to a blues camp.  Find a teacher whose dance style and teaching match your taste and learning style.  I prefer a style that requires no skill to follow, like the second couple in the clip, although of course a skilled follow will enhance any dance and be more fun to dance with.  There are styles that are based on very complex dances like Argentine Tango where the follower has to know the dance it’s based on in order to follow the blues version.  There are styles where the follower just has to not be afraid of being that close, but needs no other training, and everything in between!

If you decide to try your hand at Blues dancing by learning on the fly, don’t be afraid to steal from other dancers.  All street dances have a tradition of getting ideas from other dancers.  Usually by the time you put it into your own dance, it doesn’t look anything like the step that inspired you.  But even if you steal it directly by asking the other dancer to show you how to do it, it’s still OK!  Just take the time and trouble to learn to do it right, and have fun.  Partner dance is a great way to have human contact in your life and Blues is like a long playful hug.  Learn to lead well, don’t be creepy, and everyone will want to dance with you!

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By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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Choosing a First Dance Song


footprint pattern

Your “first dance” music will become “your song”!

Blogs by Djs and other wedding professionals often suggest first dance songs for couples who haven’t come up with their own and need ideas. As a dance teacher, I have a somewhat different perspective. A recent post in wine country wedding magazine lists five songs that are their top picks. Their first pick, At Last by Etta James, is also the first pick for many of my students. If they have a particular relationship with the song, if they picked it because of it’s special meaning for them, I can make it work. But if they picked it because they saw it on a blog like this one, or just thought it was a good choice because it’s slow and romantic, I’ll steer them away from it.

It’s part of my job to educate my students about what makes a good dance song. At Last, and in fact the number two song on wine country’s list, Elvis Presley’s Cant Help Falling In Love, are both ballads. Ballads are great if you don’t know how to dance and want to spend your first dance rocking back and forth in a clench like you did in high school.

When people come to me, however, they want to learn how to do a real dance and for that you need something with a beat. The beat in a ballad is so slow that by the time your get to the end of a measure you can’t remember when it started. For all intents and purposes, it has no beat. A perfect song for a real dance, a waltz, foxtrot, or nightclub two-step, say, has a clear easy to find beat.

A good dance song has clear measures and an easy beat. You can tell if it’s in 3/4 time (a waltz) or 4/4 time (practically everything else). The beginning of each measure is clear and didn’t happen so long ago that you’ve lost track by the time you get to the next one.

Many people who go to wedding blogs for song ideas are not dancers and are not taking lessons. A ballad is ideal for these people. A song with a beat is hard to dance to if you just want to sway to a romantic mood. The confusion is when they come to a dance lesson with song in hand, and it’s a ballad. If you are learning to dance for you wedding, get your ideas from your teacher, not your DJ.

I encourage my students to come with as many different songs as possible if they are considering more than one. That gives me an opportunity to help them select one with a good dance beat. If, however, they want “At Last” and only At Last will do, the way to work around it is to forget about the measures and dance to it as it it’s just a series of slow beats, like a techno song. Then I teach them waltz steps so they can step on every beat. It’s too slow for a combination of slow and quick steps, and no one will notice that it’s not a waltz because they don’t notice the measures anyway.

If they have time for a more challenging dance, Blues Dancing can be done to a ballad as well because it can be adapted to the mood, rather than the beat, of the music. It’s a much more challenging dance to learn to lead, however, so they can choose, dependent on their time and budget.  The bottom line is, any song can work, but if you’re a beginner, make it easy on yourself. Pick an easy song if you have a choice!

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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