Monday, October 22, 2012

Countaphobic? Start An 8-Count Program

This article was originally published over 5 years ago (May 2007). It's been tweaked before republishing.
This topic is also covered in the video series. A complete link to the specific video is at the bottom of this article.

"Use the Force, Luke."

That's great for a Star Wars movie, but surprisingly, I hear something similar from a few experienced dancers.

Some people tell newer dancers, "Just feel the music, and let it move you." Others say, "Don't learn to count, it will make you stiff." Or the famous, "Just listen, close your eyes and dance what you feel. Dance like nobody is watching!" I almost expect Yoda to appear in the club with an entourage of jewelry-encrusted Jedi knights.

It seems that some lifelong dancers think that if you count, it will make you a robot or a pattern monkey. I call these people "Countaphobics." And while I sometimes feel like the middle-aged white guy I am, I want to look graceful, powerful, authentic, and sensual. So should I count or not?

The answer is YES!
Absolutely YES!
Learn to count the music!
Learn how the steps relate to the count!

Practice counting out loud while doing the steps, with and without music. Counting is foundational, and the sooner you get a handle on it, the better off you will be as a dancer. It is NOT the end-all for musicality or learning, but it's an important building block that you'll want to include in your musicality studies. Counting doesn't give you a pass on learning the feel of the music and how to express it with your body, but it’s an excellent tool that accelerates the learning process.

Some believe that if you hear the music long enough, your body will move in time with it and you'll become one with the groove. (Alright now, everyone chant with me: "Ommmmmm...")

That may happen in the movies, but learning to dance without counting is like learning to drive on roads with no lane markers, stop lights or direction signs. It is possible, and some will make it from a student driver to accomplished road master, but they’re taking the long road and most will have more fender-benders along the way. Lane markers and traffic lights make complex driving possible and allow lots of people to use the roads at the same time. While dancing, the counts don't tell you how to move, but they provide the lane markers that allow you to sync up with the music and your partner.

Some people fear that if they count they will turn into dancing robots, marching to the time. One thing I have observed: The vast majority of people who are countaphobic can't count all their moves out loud themselves. I have yet to meet someone good at dancing and counting who thinks it was a bad choice to master this combined skill.

I had one lady tell me, “Don’t count it… just feel it” as I was learning patterns in my early classes. I was counting out loud as I figured out how it all fit together. She didn't like dancing with me in the beginning and she hated my counting since she just felt the music. She avoided me after the classes and I stopped asking her to dance as it was clear she didn't like my dancing. I did NOT count while on the floor, unless we were in class, where I always counted out loud. When she saw me a year later, it was obvious that she was shocked at my improvement.

Counting allowed me to internalize the movements and synchronize them with the music. Today, we have a great time and I never count out loud, and I can tell she's having a great time too. She always greets me warmly in the clubs and puts herself in places where I have to ask her to dance or I'll feel rude. I laugh to myself because I’ll never forget her comment and how annoyed she was while I was learning.

Some dancers get fairly advanced, and then hit a wall because they consider counting "too strict." The problem is, they don't understand the power of knowing the exact beat. They aren't dancing on time, or the music changes and they don’t immediately feel it, so they find themselves off the time, but they don't know why or what happened.

Sometimes they think they feel it correctly, but they have the count backward. For salsa dancers, they may be dancing on the 5 (on1) or on the 6 when they think it’s the 2. In some cases they just don't know what they don't hear.

Even tango dancers, where you have tons of interpretive freedom benefit from knowing where the one is, where the music count is, even if they make an artistic choice to ignore it. Tango vals and milonga styles danced without respect to the timing are less musical, and the melody lines of all music relate to the timing in some way.

The musical dancer knows more about the music and counting is a tool for understanding. Some tango music also utilizes a 3-3-2 pulse, and understanding how that relates to the primary count/pulse is a huge win for those leads. (See "Part 12: Layered Pulses" for a specific tango nuevo example, and the concept applies to other music too.)

It's fine to ignore the time when you know where it is, just like you go outside the lane markers while you change lanes, but you still use them as a reference point. These concepts cut across dance styles, and apply to salsa, blues, tango, bachata, swing, hip-hop and more.

Musicians are just as much artists as dancers are, and very, very few advanced musicians ignore counting as they grow their art. Now, few of them count in their performances, because they can feel the time and they know how the music is organized. Feeling the time in the music is the result of many hundreds of hours of practice and experience.

Most adult dances want to hear the time without investing hundreds of hours listening, and counting accelerates that understanding when practiced correctly.

Watch the video above and and you'll see the musicians reading music (which means they can count) and you'll see counting doesn't make these guys stiff. (Side note: The piano player and the trombone player are reading the most; the others go back and forth, but they all used the music to get to the point where they don't have to read during the recording.)

If I'm driving on a crowded freeway, the lane markers exist to allow me to drive with some order, but they don't prevent me from changing lanes, driving faster or slower, passing others, or exiting when I reach my destination. The markers simply allow many people to travel at high speeds without killing themselves.

For a dancer, few other tools will pay as well as learning to count the music ALOUD when you are practicing. Again, for some people, during the INITIAL STAGES of learning to count and dance, they may look stiff as they have to divert some brainpower to the counting, and the dance can suffer. However, counting is an INVESTMENT, and looking a little stiffer is a temporary situation that goes away with experience, while the counting continues as a tool to make you a stronger dancer in less time.

Your daily commute is the perfect time to practice counting out loud. Play your favorite tunes and learn to count them during your drive time, or exercising or while cooking.. Salsa, hip-hop, R&B, rock & roll, tango, samba, waltz; it's all good for learning to count. Just do it off the dance floor too!

Of course, don't count with a partner unless you are in a practice session or class, or you two have agreed you are working on something in public. If you count in public with a non practice partner, I'll make fun of you if I see you. I'll pretend we don't know each other. DON'T DO THAT!

Dancers who know the time and count as well as musicians tend to be the stronger dancers on the scene IF they combine this knowledge with other practice and exposure to great dancing. When dancers discuss "feel", one of the big components to feel is how your movement relates to the count/timing of the music. You are free to dance before, right-on or after the count, and great dances know where the count is, but dance around it depending on the feel they want. (Musicians do this too.)

Counting is a learning accelerator over time, and it pays you back the more you do it. Great dancers even understand how their feel relates to the time (same with musicians).

Don't quit counting just because it doesn't work for you in the first X weeks or months. It continues to pay back over time. Again, if you've never done it, it may make you worse short-term, but longer term it's a winning tool for those who want musicality excellence.
Inside the ring or out, ain't nothing wrong with going down. It's staying down that's wrong.
-Muhammad Ali
YouTube "Music For Dancers" video series: "Part 4: Why Should I Count" 
Complete Series:

1 comment:

  1. "I had one lady tell me, “Don’t count it… just feel it” as I was learning patterns in my early classes."

    I've had *instructors* tell me that. Makes me crazy.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero