Are you sure you have good timing?

My last post about dancing to blues raised some interesting thoughts about the rhythm of the music we dance to. Regardless of the music’s rhythm, however, we should always have proper timing.

We all know the importance of timing. (Or at least, we should.) Timing by definition is the precise placement or occurrence of something in time, and in the context of dance, that means executing movement at the right time with respect to the music. After all, our function as dancers is to express and physically represent what we hear, so timing our movements to the rhythms and melodies we hear is critical.

Annie Hirsch was invited to speak with the Bay Area West Coast Swing Community last year at an event hosted by The Next Generation Swing Dance Club. During the interview, she was asked what in her mind defined swing. Her response? “Three things: timing, timing, and timing.”

And for those of you who compete, you know it’s the first of the Three T’s upon which you’re judged (timing, technique, and teamwork).

But what exactly does it mean to have proper timing?

When I taught syncopations to my students last month, we came upon the discussion of timing, and I framed timing in three ways:

1. Starting with a down beat. This is the obvious one. The music we dance to has an even number of beats, paired in a downbeat (accented beat) and upbeat (unaccented beat). We sometimes refer to this as the “boom-tick” sound in the music. The downbeat is the odd count (1, 3, 5, 7) and the upbeat is the even beat (2, 4, 6, 8). Leaders should always initiate new patterns on the downbeat. It’s proper timing and it just feels better.

2. Spacing your movements accordingly. This one is pretty fundamental. You can start with a downbeat, but if the time between your steps doesn’t match the time between the beats, then you’re dancing off time. The rhythm of the music needs to match the rhythm of your movements, and that means that your movements happen at the same pace as the music (whether it’s stepping or something else). I see lots of dancers who start with the rhythm then lose it somewhere in the middle of patterns, resetting at the start of the next pattern. You should maintain the rhythm of the music throughout your dance.

3. Dancing triples on downbeat-upbeat pairs. This may not be as obvious, but it’s still important for keeping proper timing. We break the music into two-beat increments: a downbeat followed by an upbeat (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8). A double is two steps in one of these pairs, a triple is three steps in one of these pairs. That means that a triple starts on a downbeat and ends on an upbeat (1&2, 3&4, 5&6, 7&8) – not the other way around (2&3, 4&5, 6&7, 8&1). I often see followers tripling off time, and it’s usually because the leader prepped the follower on a downbeat so the follower was forced to triple through a turn starting on the upbeat. This results in that awkward fumbling of the footwork after the turn. If you want to maintain timing, you should keep your triples properly placed with the music.

Timing isn’t just something we teachers and judges pick on for fun. It’s essential to being a proficient dancer, for your own movement, for connecting with a partner, and for expressing the music. So make sure you’re always on time (in dancing and in life!).

How do you think about timing? What challenges do you face with maintaining timing in your dance? How do you teachers approach timing with your students?

 

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