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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Rhythm, Dance, and a Neurological Disorder

a complex musican score

Finding the beat can be daunting for many a would-be dancer.

Can’t find the beat?

I’ve written before about people who can’t find the beat to dance to, and I’ve given my best guesses as to the cause.  But today I heard about a new study of a rare neurological disorder that actually causes White Man’s Clapping Syndrome.  The disorder was discovered so recently that it’s only just now being talked about.  Hundreds of people, apparently, lined up to be tested.  They all were sure they were victims of this malady.  Only one of them actually qualified.

So common is this inability to find the beat in music that people who have it think they were born with something missing.  If you’ve read my previous posts on the subject, you know that I believe they were born with their sense of rhythm intact.  They lost it somewhere along the way.

Clapping offbeat in Germany

What I thought was so interesting about this interview, which I heard on public radio, with the scientist who found the disorder, was that they spoke about it as the inability to clap to music.  Jon Carroll coined the phrase “White Man’s Clapping Syndrome” and I fell in love with it and have been using it ever since although I try to remember to give him credit when I do.  A musician on the show pointed out that clapping offbeat can be cultural, using Austrians an example. At a concert in Austria he noticed (how could he not) that the entire audience was clapping on the wrong beat.  The scientist clarified that while they were on the wrong beat, they were at least on a consistent beat in the music, hence not suffering from her new found malady.

I’ve never danced in Austria, but I certainly have noticed that Germans, as a society as a whole, do clap on the downbeat to jazz, to which everyone else claps on the upbeat.  I used to spend the month of July at a four week  international dance camp in Sweden where about fifty different countries were represented and you couldn’t miss that interesting cultural difference.

But the scientist is right.  If you can clap on the downbeat you can hear the beat in music even if it feels “wrong” to the ears of others.  It’s a totally different issue than that of not being able to find a consistent beat at all.

If this topic interests you, check out my previous posts on the subject:

Can You Dance with White Man’s Clapping Syndrome?

Deaf Dancers: Can You Dance if You Can’t Hear the Music?

Rhythm and Dance in Nature

Is Rhythm Innate?

Rhythm: Our Birthright

by LaurieAnn Lepoff

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