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Rhythm basics under the spotlight

Part 2

Rhythm in music is all about the timing of sounds and silences. In dancing we explore body rhythms through the timing of body actions and movements.

As a dancer you somehow have to balance two times, the external time of music being played in strict tempo and the internal time which is related to your felt senses of the movement, context and feelings which arise out of the moment.

Dancer's internal perception of timing in movement is unique. It gets your signature when you decide how to cut the time to create the sense of urgency or stretch it towards the feeling of timelessness. The perception of time can be as mysterious as leaves changing their colour in autumn.

Your articulation of the movement and elastic approach to time can create an endless number of moods and atmospheres, surprise and excitement on one hand and a peaceful, mystic, dream-like flow on the other.

By studying articulation and tempo rubato in music you will discover many hidden guidelines waiting to be acknowledged and translated into your dance expression.

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Bryan Watson and Carmen, masters of body rhythms and unique timings


Articulation in music, like in speech, refers to the manner in which sounds are initiated and released. You can say “Come closer” in many different ways which communicate different intentions. If you say it in a fast, detached and separated manner (in music the term is “staccato”), it may sound like an order. Saying the same two words slowly, in a connected and smoother manner (“legato”), will sound like a friendly invitation. By articulating the same two words in a lengthened manner, with holding and pressing the energy and time (“tenuto”), your message will sound intimate, like carrying the tension and not knowing what might happen next.


The way in which a musician plays an instrument can be pure inspiration for a dancer. Before the percussionist touches the conga drums, that instrument is only an object. It is the musician who brings the potential sound of instruments to life with the technique of playing and so do you. Your movement articulation, the way you treat the movement, will make your ideas and intentions behind the movement visible.

Knowing a clear rhythm of a movement structure is just the beginning. By articulating the movement rhythm in a sense of attack (initiation) and decay (decline in intensity, release), timing clarity and especially control of the energy, you can give to that “same” rhythm many different dance expressions.

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In the movement, the articulation can be portrayed through your choice of dynamics, especially time and flow/energy. Movements in time duration can be shorter or longer and in flow/energy held inward or free, released outward.

Many dancers today associate with attack much more than decay, which gives their dancing the look of exaggerated impact, rush, sameness and fight; too many stops while in the meantime the feet seem to be “biting” the floor. You can strike/hit the floor with your foot in a staccato manner or you can place the foot with control in a caressing manner. In any chosen manner there is a balance and control between attack and decay. You need to consciously apply the so-called “foot usage” with accurate foot pressure to every step.


Articulation can refer to any type of dance movement. For example, in a simple weight transfer you first need to find preparation in the decay of the previous movement, then choose and articulate the footwork, legwork, body weight distribution and coordination between the standing and supporting leg. A beautiful movement cycling process which portrays the musical rhythmical cycling as well.

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Corky and Shirley Ballas, Shirley's feet articulation is an inspiration...

Feet articulation has a very particular expressive value. Brazilian people say that a good “sambista” (one who dances Samba) can speak with the feet. Cuban authentic Rumba (Guaguanco, Yambu, Columbia) dancers use their bare feet with such expertise that they create, by rolling and slipping their feet and caressing the ground, the illusion of gliding and nearly levitating.

Foot articulation and inter-feet and leg coordination have an essential effect on timing and rhythm of the entire body motion.

Tempo rubato

The musical term “tempo rubato” comes from the Italian “rubare”, which means to steal. Tempo rubato refers to the literally robbed, stolen time in music, subtle timing manipulation and nuance in performance. It also gives an elastic style to dance performance in which expressive phrasing results in slight deviations from a strict tempo.


You can use this principle by giving more time to one place (by slowing down your movement) and then making up for it (the payback time) by accelerating, speeding up. Or you can do the opposite, first save some time by speeding up and after using the excess time.


By discretely stretching certain beats, measures or even phrases and compacting the others, you will bring life into mechanical execution. By introducing variety and excluding regularity you will give to the movement a kind of “third accent”, your individual, emotional and interpretative touch.

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Moraima Bravo and Jürgen Neudeck, a 'stolen' moment in Cuban Cha Cha Cha

Deeper knowledge of music and movement and your well-balanced sense of inner rhythmical pulse should protect you from going to the point of distortion. Franz Liszt wrote about Chopin’s rubato: “Look at those trees ... The wind plays with the leaves and brings them to life, but the tree remains a tree.”

Tempo rubato is a nuance in movement with an all elusive definition. How do you count silence or stretched time? Well, you dream it, you feel it.

You definitely cannot imitate tempo rubato. You can only become aware of the smallest fractions of time possible, parts of the beats ... Your attention needs to go towards when exactly to start the movement and how long does it take. Bending the time can be interpreted only individually, attached to the uniqueness of your feeling and rhythmical sensitivity.

In the teaching process the use of special words can stimulate the sensing of tempo rubato – words like stretch, hold, resist, stay there a bit longer, hug the time, grow, move tenderly, relax, free out, let go ...

Tempo rubato is not a mathematical concept and cannot be taught by mechanically adding to the duration of the movement or subtracting from another. The purpose is to add expression to the movement using your individual imagination.

Like in singing, tempo rubato can come across quite naturally in dancing as well. Use your gut feeling to determine where to resist and where to let go.

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In the best performance, neither the basic pulse nor the imagination is lost. Even in Latin basic syllabus there are some movements which lend themselves to laying a foundation for tempo rubato to occur. For example, repetitive movements, continuous locksteps, Cuban break, zigzag ...

In Ballroom dancing you can apply tempo rubato to many actions and movements, starting with rise, stretching actions, movements outside partner or partner outside ... All actions that require time to perform the effect of lightness or levitation are perfect opportunities to apply tempo rubato.


Dancing happens in time and space and you can touch both dimensions with subtle manipulations that transform actual movement into virtual, more illusive and mystic expressions.

You can learn those skills from many sources, however our first teacher is our own heart!


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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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