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"What Kind of Dance Are They Playing?"

by Will Adams  

We can all remember when we went dancing the first time after having a few lessons. Odds are we did not rush out on the floor when the band started playing. We were self conscious, and perhaps we weren't even sure what dance we should do to the music the band was playing.

We furtively looked around the floor to see what others were doing. Our confidence may have sunk even lower to see that some couples were doing one dance, others another. Finally we might ask our friends, "What kind of dance are they playing?"

Most dance teachers tell us much about patterns, timing, techniques, and styling. But few ever tell us much about the music. We simply assume that if we have been learning a rumba step, the record the teacher plays must be a rumba. But there are clues in most music that tell us what to dance.

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"It's the Beat!"

Most of us know that the melody, harmony (chords), words, or even the title tell us nothing about the dance. "'Til I Waltz Again with You," for example, is a Fox Trot. What we dance to is the beat, or more properly, the rhythm. We could dance to a drum with nothing else (many peoples do). But what is "the beat?"

There are four elements in music that constitute the beat, or the rhythm: Counts per measure, location of the accents, off-beats, and syncopation. Let's look at these one at a time.

Counts per measure

A measure is the main unit of music after the individual note. Most music that we dance to is written in 4/4 time. This means that each measure (sometimes called a bar) has four counts in it, and that each quarter note ( ) gets one Count.

Of course, the Waltz is written in 3/4 time. (So was the Minuet.) This is read not "three fourths," but "three quarter time." And some music, such as most Sambas, Meringues, and occasional Polkas, is written in 2/4 time. There are, of course, many other possibilities: 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, even 5/4, but one rarely encounters these in ballroom dancing.


If most dances use 4/4 timing, what distinguishes them? After we have determined the number of counts per measure, the second thing to look for is location of the accents.

  • Most of us know that Fox Trot music is accented on the first and third counts. We could count it, 1, 2, 3, 4  
    (Click here for wave audio)
  • The Waltz has an accent on the first of the three counts. We count it 1, 2, 3
    (Click here for wave audio)
  • The Rumba has accents on all counts except the second.
  • Cha Cha, West Coast Swing, and Polka have accents on all four counts.
  • Samba music is accented on both counts.

For Fox Trot and Waltz, number of counts and accents are enough to identify them. All other dances need one of the other two elements of "the beat."



Sometimes there are beats, but not counts, in between the main counts. When counting the beat of the music out loud, off-beats are usually indicated with the word "and" (written & in the descriptions below).

For example, Tango music has no accents on any of the four counts, but there is one accent in each measure on the half beat before the first count: &-1, 2, 3, 4, &-1, 2, 3, 4
(Click here for wave audio)

Cha Cha music has a steady, even, double time beat: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
(Click here for wave audio)

Rumbas are similar to Cha Cha, except that they mess around with the second count. The classic rumbas from the 1940's simply left it out, counting: 1 & ² & 3 & 4 & 1 & ² & 3 & 4 &.
(Click here for wave audio)
More recent rumbas triple time the second count, but without an accent:
Think of the song, "Amor." 1 &-uh-2 & 3 & 4 & 1 &-uh-2 & 3 & 4 &.
Think of the songs, "Besame Mucho," or "The Shadow of Your Smile."
(Click here for wave audio)

Sambas and Meringues have an unaccented beat half way between the two counts: 1 & 2, 1 & 2
(Click here for wave audio)

Latin rhythms are never syncopated (except East Coast Swing, of course). Swing dances, however, introduce this fourth element.


Syncopation refers to small, unaccented beats that fall neither on the counts nor half way in between. Generally they are three fourths of the way between two counts. Syncopation is the main indicator of swing music, although some may be found in Fox Trot. When counting the beat out loud, syncopation's are usually indicated by "da-" (as in da-boom), or by "uh"(as in uh-1, uh-2, uh-3, uh-4). Normally syncopations and off beats are not found in the same music, although the triple timed second beat in modern Rumba has one of each (1 &-uh-2).

For example, West Coast Swing, like Cha Cha, accents all four counts. But while Cha Cha has those unaccented beats half way between each pair of counts, West Coast Swing music has unaccented beats between each half beat and the next count. We could count it: uh-1, uh-2, uh-3, uh-4, or da-BOOM, da-BOOM, da-BOOM, da-BOOM (Click here for wave audio)

East Coast Swing (Jive) music is accented the same as Fox Trot, on the first and third counts. The difference is that Jive has much more syncopation. We might count it: uh-1, uh-2, uh-3, uh-4, or da-BOOM, da-boom, da-BOOM, da-boom. Think of the main theme from "In the Mood." (Click here for wave audio)


Since it is neither melody, nor harmony, nor words nor title that determines the appropriate dance, but the beat or rhythm, it follows that the same song may be played as different dances. "Tea for Two" was a Fox Trot, until it became a Cha Cha. "Three O'clock in the Morning is sometimes a Fox Trot, sometimes a Waltz. And it is easy to convert a Rumba to a Fox Trot, or vice versa. I have heard "Perfidia" and "The Shadow of Your Smile" played both ways. I play the song, "Blue Moon," on the piano so that twice through uses eight different dance rhythms (Click here for wave audio {1.4 meg} ) or (Click here for MIDI). The indicators of the appropriate dance might be summarized as in the accompanying Table.

Indicators of the Appropriate Dance


Counts per Measure

Location of Accents

Off- beats


Fox Trot 


1 & 3


Little or none








Half beat before 1


East Coast Swing


1 & 3 



West Coast Swing


1, 2, 3, 4





1, 3, 4





1, 2



Cha Cha


1, 2, 3, 4 



¹Actually, Viennese Waltz music sometimes hurries the second count, producing a sort of syncopation.

Ambiguous Music

Dancers should remember that musicians, like dancers, are artists. Like dancers, they often take artistic license with a performance. Consequently, some music may be ambiguous.

It is not unusual to hear music that is clearly a Latin beat, but could be either Rumba or Cha Cha. If a band adds an off beat after the second count of a Samba, it may sound more like a Cha Cha. Certain music may obviously be swing by virtue of the syncopation, but not clearly East Coast or West Coast. And I have heard Fox Trots that could double as West Coast (Tuxedo Junction).

So when the band strikes up, don't worry about what others are dancing, and don't ask "What Kind of Dance Are They Playing?" Just count the beats, note the accents, and listen for off-beats and syncopation. Then, Let's Dance!

Note: This is an elementary discussion of the subject. For an in-depth discussion of 13 different Latin beats, see Manny Patino and Jorge Moreno, Afro-Cuban Keyboard Grooves, copyright 1997, by Hal Leonard Corporation.

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