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Rhythm basics under the spotlight

Part 1


Music is a kind of sound painting and the timbre of the sound is equivalent to the use of color and shading in painting. However, music is different from painting because it is dynamic in a unique way, it changes across time and is moved forward by rhythm and meter. Rhythm is the engine which drives all music and dancing and has supreme power over humans from the very beginning. It is said that drumming existed before speech.

In order to understand, sense and express different rhythms you need to address several interrelated aspects of rhythm such as bar, meter, beat, accents, syncopation, articulation and tempo. Music is organised sound in time and so is rhythm.

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Bar and meter

Bar is the smallest musical structure and may correspond to a pattern in the movement. It is a metrical measure, used in written music in order to organize music in small sections. Each bar usually has the same number of beats. In our dance music, Samba and Paso doble have two beats per bar, Waltz and Viennese Waltz three beats per bar and Cha Cha Cha, Rumba, Jive, Tango, Slow Foxtrot and Quickstep four beats per bar.

Because the first beat is usually the strongest, it is easy to hear the beginning of a bar.

Meter is the regular effect of grouping beats within the bar. Most common are duple (in twos, 2/4 time signature), triple (in threes, 3/4 time signature) or quadruple (in fours, 4/4 time signature), with expectations of stronger and weaker beats. Meter does have a significant effect on your body and its movement, it affects your weight transferring and energy of the body.

When there are three beats in the bar you would perceive that kind of grouping as circular. It gives you a moment to breathe, it is rounder, fuller, softer and swingy.

When there are two or four beats in the bar you will feel a different strength and drive, more linear. That kind of grouping of the beats gives more energy to the body and can be easily used for big movements.

Beat division

To have rhythm in music we need at least one opposing beat with a different sound, whereas to have rhythm in dancing we need at least two opposing body actions.

The spaces between each beat can be divided into further sub beats, using multiples of either two or three. The more the beat is divided, the stronger your urge to move, to dance.


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For example, one whole beat in Samba, which we sing “slow” can be divided in two equal parts that we sing “quick”, “quick”.

If we divide one beat (“slow”) into three equal parts, in music we would call that a triplet, and in movement we can sing it “Pa-na-ma”. The authentic Brazilian Samba no pe (so-called Batucada movement) uses this beat division.

Further on, one beat (“slow”) can be divided into four equal parts. In music that division of one beat (quarter note) will correspond to four 16th notes. We can sing quarter beats “Mi-si-si-pi” or “Ba-tu-ca-da”. Instead of counting 3/4, 1/4, 1 rhythm in Samba “1a 2”, we can sing it “MI-si-si-PI, MI-si-si-pi”.

Counting the rhythms in numbers normally doesn't contribute enough to the sensation of the duration of the movement. By singing or any kind of melodic voicing of the beat value in movement, perception of duration will be much more accurate.

For example, if you sing the alphabet song (abcdefg, hijklmnop), the duration of the sound would correspond QQQQQQS, QQQQQ+Q+S. And then all you need to do is find a nice amalgamation in Tango.

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Accents make it easier for us to understand rhythms, we can feel where the rhythmical pattern starts and finishes. Similar like in language, we use capital letters and dots or other signs.

Metric accent, also called rhythmical accent, occurs naturally in a measure/bar. In most Western music, in 4/4 timing, the first and the third beat would have metric accents.

In music the accent is the stress given to a particular sound; a temporary increase in the volume of the sound. The accented beats in music would be perceived as louder sounds with stronger articulation than others.

There may be secondary accents in the bar, normally not so strong and therefore called medium or weak.

Don't confuse accents in the music with the accents in the movement. For example, in Jive music you feel the second and the fourth beat accentuated, however that doesn't mean that you dance steps on the beat two and four stronger or louder. As a dancer you find movement ways that express the accent in the music, you employ/fulfil the musical accent with concrete muscular/physical action (like bounce, compression and stretching, elongations ...)

To respond to a rhythmical accent in the music, you have to actively use the whole duration of an accentuated beat by supplying the accented beat with appropriate body action.

In movement the changes of speed result in different accents (impulse, impact, rebound, swing, percussive, constant, vibration and suspension). Using accents in movement helps you organize your energy and make the body rhythms feel clearer and more visible for others.

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Syncope in Greek language means to “cut short”. Syncopation is a rhythmic phenomenon, a change perceived by your senses and mind. With simple words, syncopation in music and movement is a “surprise”, an unpredictable change of regularity.

When you break the regular rhythm, you create excitement. The ways of breaking or manipulating the rhythm are your intimate properties, you do it your way, feel it your way. You place an accent where it is normally not expected or you decide for an absence of accents where they are expected.

The best instrument to learn the syncopation is Rumba/Son clave, because it strokes unpredictably. Other instruments with unique ways of syncopation are agogo and tambourin. These two instruments contributed to Samba movement syncopation as their rhythmical patterns incorporate short notes slightly before or after a beat, which produces a surprise or an urge.

In dancing, syncopation is the result of your interplay and exchange of a sustained energy mode before, and a relaxed mode after the injection of syncopation (for example Guapacha timing in Cha Cha Cha).

By syncopating your movements, you will elevate your alertness, presence, interest and your degree of involvement in the action taken.

Your syncopated body rhythms can create an atmosphere, which varies from unsteady, surprising, exciting and urgent to more jazzy, loose and relaxed. Syncopation is what gives music and movement more drive, light and eroticism.

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How to teach rhythms?

A better posed question would be how to pull the rhythms out of yourself as they already exist inside you. Which teaching methods and learning strategies to use?

Playing an instrument helps significantly in order to develop your rhythmical potential. Basically anything that can be stroked and produces a sound can be used as an instrument.

And as a dancer you can use your body as an instrument or even as an entire orchestra, with all body parts available.

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The best and fastest way to learn or remember rhythms is to create them by clapping, singing, voicing, tapping your body or the floor. This is how you add the organic/bodily felt sense to mental understanding and place rhythms under your whole awareness – physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

"Creating rhythms" group classes

There can be so much fun during the “Creating rhythms” group classes, where students play homemade percussive instruments. Shaker/maracas can be made of two empty yogurt pots, filled with seeds or rice and glued together, any metal can or wooden box and a stick (or wooden spoon) can serve as a drum. By using instruments in addition to clapping, slapping and singing you can learn and teach various rhythmical patterns, syncopation, accents, timing, articulation ...

When rhythms are evoked inside you, they can be easily applied to various movements and movement structures.

Rhythm is an experience in time, in music a sound pattern in time, in your dancing an order of action/movements in time.

Mind the mystic games between sounds and silences in music as it is the silence which gives the meaning to the sound. Sounds have different loudness and quietness, pitch, duration and resonance, but silences of different durations in between the sounds help you to perceive the rhythm.

Your rhythmical interpretation in dancing is inspired and stimulated in the first place by percussive instruments. It is their sound, vibration and energy that invite you to move.

The way instruments merge with their unique patterns creates a poly-rhythmical groove of each dance. This affects the actions, timing, accents, articulation and dynamics of your movement.

By attending or preparing “Creating rhythms” group classes for your students you will, beside teaching rhythms, provide an atmosphere that creates a sense of belonging, sharing and supporting each other.


If you are interested in Authentic Latin Percussion, download Snapp Dance app.

The course on this app provides a unique insight into the rhythmical structure of Cha Cha Cha, Rumba Bolero and Samba. Its aim is to help you understand why your steps and figures have specific rhythms and where exactly they come from, while encouraging you to discover and create your own rhythmical interpretations.

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