It’s a surprisingly common question in dance – many people find it easier to go skydiving, than tell the difference between foxtrot and swing music. This can also be completely paralyzing, as you try to figure the song out while time wastes away. Fortunately, there are are certain patterns to every dance style an intent listener can pick up on.
What is the Tempo?
The tempo is one of the first things we need to wrap our heads around, because it’s usually the most obvious part of the music. It measures the frequency of beats (an emphasis in the song, like a drum beat), which we use to stay on time when dancing. The tempo can vary considerably, as you can see by checking out the table below:
The tempo helps you start narrowing down the dance possibilities. For instance, the song is unlikely to be a rumba if it’s at a jive tempo!
What is the Beat Pattern?
It helps to define the different kinds of beat that might be used, especially when you hear something like:
Boom – Emphasis or strong beat, most likely a base drum or heavy beat.
Tic – Regular beat, possibly a snare drum or light cymbal.
Tap – Tango beat.
Tada – Samba quick. Sounds like two beats pushed together.
The beat pattern is the sequence of beats that repeats throughout a song. For instance:
Foxtrot – boom, tic, boom, tic
Tango – tap, tap, tap, tap, ta-raaap (drumroll) leading into repeat pattern
Cha cha – boom, tic, tic, tic
Warning: Many songs use a variety of singing and other instruments to distract you, but channel your inner Zen master, and keep listening for that underlying beat pattern.
What is the flavour of the song?
Every dance has has a specific sound that reflect the diverse communities in which they grew. The easiest separation to make is whether the song has a Latin feel to it (clave, Mediterranean guitar, conga drums, etc.) or whether it lacks those instruments, in which case it is most likely smooth/standard.
There are other qualities that define the personality of the dance. Samba has a very bouncy, high-energy, festive quality, where a rumba is more down tempo and romantic. Foxtrot has a classy big band sound, but tango is sharper, stronger and more staccato. Look up songs from different genres and listen to them in your home. Gradually, you’ll find you can start to distinguish the different styles from each other.
What if I still can’t tell?
Not all songs are meant to represent a specific ballroom dance. BUT, that doesn’t mean we can’t dance to them! If you’re really stumped, you can always follow the ‘When in Rome’ rule, and look at what other dancers are doing. Or just pick a dance that feels right and go. In the end, the dance is whatever you want it to be, and the night is too short to spend making up your mind.