Dancers and Musicality; How We Count

A colleague started a discussion in a Dance Teacher social media group on how dancers count music. He suggested that we are doing a disservice to our students if we do not count the music as it is written in the score (i.e. dancers should count music written in 4/4 in “4’s” rather than “8’s”). Here are my musings on this subject.

The tradition of counting music for dance that is written in a duple meter (i.e. 2/4, 4/4, 8/4) in 8’s goes back many generations. Counting dancers in with the famous “a 5,6,7,8!” , as in the opening number of A Chorus Line, is a tradition that goes back to the work of the legendary jazz master (and my mentor) Luigi. This method of counting  in “8’s” was based on the fact that most popular music, at the time when these techniques were developing, was written in 4/4 but usually contained musical phrases or ideas that were two measures long. In this way choreographers were counting musical ideas or phrases, not than the literal measures in the written score.

But music very often doesn’t fit into these neat phrases. We can have meters that are somewhat less usual (5/4, 7/4), meters that are somewhat more complex (hemiola- a 6/8 where the accent alternates; the first measure has the accent on the 1 and the 4, the second measure has the accent on 1,3,5…think “America” from West Side Story), meters that are somewhat variable (changing throughout the piece). I have seen dancers and choreographers count “8” over all of these complicated rhythms and meters creating what I have always considered to be a confusing mess.

I firmly believe that there is no “one way“ or “best way” to teach musicality and phrasing. I think most of us agree that this is an extremely important facet of the dancers education. I think most of us also agree that it behooves us to train dancers who understand different ways of counting music because they will invariably run into various methods during their careers. 

Returning to the original poster’s premise: “…we are doing our students a great disservice by counting in ‘8s’ instead of ‘4s’…”. I think that there is a lot of validity in this statement, especially for tap dance. I need to preface this by saying that I am not a trained tap dancer but I worked very closely with a dear friend and colleague for many, many years who was a superb tap dancer and teacher. She always insisted that tap must be taught in “4s”. And this has always made sense to me. Tap dancers are creating music with their choreography. Since they are creating music, it makes sense that they should be thinking like musicians as well as a dancers.

I am a well trained musician. I play two instruments and I have played in Symphony Orchestras. One thing that I can say about a musical score, is that although a 4/4 score will have clearly delineated measures of four counts, there are often markings in the score that indicate where phrases begin and end. These markings are placed by the composer to give the performer a clearer idea of the composer’s intention. No composer expects a musician to put a “metaphorical period” at the end of each measure. These phrase markings indicate a bigger, more complex, more interesting and artistic picture of the work. I believe that tap dancers understand this intuitively because of how they are trained. Dancers of other disciplines might not have the same intuition.

It is my job to create musical dancers. I  teach the work of my mentor Luigi as well as classical ballet. I have always found that I get the best result if I count the music for my students in musical phrases. If that means that I count a 4/4 in “8’s” , then so be it. But I might also count it in “4’s”, depending on the musical phrasing. I have often choreographed to the music of Burt Bacharach. His music, like the music of Stravinsky, Bernstein and Prokofiev, employs frequent meter changes. Sometimes I count the music exactly as it is written in the score. Sometimes I count it in more logical musical phrases. For example, in one of the big dance breaks in his “Turkey Lurkey Time” from musical Promises Promises I found it logical to count some phrases in 12 and some in 8. This is clearly not how the score is written, but it created the musical phrasing that I wanted my dancers to exhibit. I did explain to the dancers why I was counting the music in this way, and this was not how it was written in the score. I think it is very important dancers understand why they do what they do.

I also find it important to explain to my dancers that although the music may sound like it is going in phrases of 8, sometimes a choreographic phrase might run past that 8, ending on the 1, for example.

Each teacher is unique and has a unique set of communication skills. I don’t think that there is any “one right way“ to teach musicality to dancers. I treat each piece of music uniquely and this has always worked for me. But building dancers with a rich knowledge and sense of musicality should be the ultimate goal, regardless of the method.

5 thoughts on “Dancers and Musicality; How We Count

  1. Hello!

    I am a dancer and dance teacher wanting to improve my musical knowledge. I want to give my students this aspect of training which I never received. I took piano and voice lessons for a short period of time and have some basic knowledge. Do you have any resources for me to increase my knowledge? Are there any resources you recommend for use in teaching young students?

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    • Hi Katie,

      I wish I had some resources toward which I could direct you. The musical training that I received was through decades of private study in piano and clarinet with excellent classically trained teachers. I’m sure that the resources you seek are out there; I’m sorry that I just don’t know where to point you.

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