3 notes &

Learning the Different Beats of Ballroom Dances

My grandparents performing a foxtrot

imageNew ballroom dancers face the challenge of learning how to tell the difference between the various different music styles.  There are at least 10 different rhythm patterns making up the most popular ballroom, latin and swing dance styles.

To understand what makes a particular song right for a given dance style requires listening  to and analyzing the underlying rhythm pattern.   This pattern is not the  melody but the  underlying percussion pattern.    This pattern can come from a number of different instruments including drums and piano. 

Tempo:  Italian for time.  Usually represented as Beats Per Minute (BPM). Tempo is simply the speed of the music.

Beat.  Beat is the unit of measurement in a measure.  A recurring pulse in the music usually represented by a drum.

Different aspects of the Beat are called the following:

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.

Measure: Simply a segment of time.  A measure’s length will vary from song to song.  A measure will consist of a number of beats which is used to identify the timing.  A measure with three beats and the first beat is the strong beat is considered 3/4 time.   3/4 time is stated as three four time, not three quarter time.

Timing: A representation of the number of beats in a measure and what beat receives emphasis.  The top or first number contains the number of beats per measure.  The bottom number represents the emphasis or strong beat.  3/4 timing the emphasis is on the quarter not,  3/8 would be on the eighth note,  3/2 timing the emphasis on the half note.  Most dance music is emphasized on the quarter not so you will usually see 3/4 or 4/4 timing for example.

Phrase: A group of measures/beats.  A Phrase can consist of 8 , 16, 24, 32 or more beats.

Mini Phrase: A grouping of two measures usually counted 1-8.  This is the most common phrase discussed when taking dance lessons.  The first beat of a mini-phrase of 8 is slightly accented which is why you will often hear an instructor start counting 5,6,7,8 in classes.

Basic Phrase: A group of eight measures consisting of a total of 32 beats.  This is sometimes called basic phrase.  This is very commonly used in choreography.

What Beginners Should Learn: What are the differences between Beat, Rhythm and Tempo?

  • a Beat is the basic time unit of a piece of music.
  • the Rhythm of a song is made up of a sequence of beats.
  • the Tempo is the speed at which the beats occur.

How to find the First Beat?

There are three ways for picking out the first beat:

  1. Listen for when the singer begins to sing. Singers tend to sing on the first beat of any new sequence of music.
  2. Listen for the beat that has a greater intensity or volume than the others. This is often the first beat.
  3. Listen for the bass line in the drums or bass guitar. The first beat of a bar has slightly more emphasis and can be clearly heard in the bass.

How to Master Finding the Beat?

Finding the first beat takes practice. It requires listening to a variety of music regularly and listening for the different intensity of the beats. as soon as you can pick out the beat of a particular song, your ability to keep time to music improves. 

I find that it helps to learn to dance by using all 5 senses in dance classes and practice sessions.

Finding the beat exercise

Now it is time to put into practice what you have just learned.


Timing:  4/4 Time

Tempo:  approximately 120 bpm (beats per minute)

Count:  1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4

Beat Representation:  Boom tic Boom tic

Foxtrot is typically danced to Big Band /Swing music and usually danced slow slow quick quick with each slow consisting of two beats and  each quick of one beat. The basic requires 6 beats so to end on a measure requires two basics in the same manner as east coast swing.

Below are some songs for Foxtrot.  See if you can hear the boom tic boom tic beat.

All Of Me by Graham Dalby And The Grahamophones

It’s Cool to Be Cool by Sarah Moule (Boom is emphasized by piano through portions of this song).

Too Marvelous For Words by Frank Sanatra


Timing:  4/4 Time

Tempo:  approximately 200 bpm

Beat Representation:  Boom tic Boom tic

Count:  1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4

QuickStep is very Fast  and lively Tempo Big Band Swing style music.  Some music may also be suitable for lindy hop or fast swing. Quickstep is danced slow quick quick, slow, quick, quick.

Foxtrot and quickstep are very similar in the musical style as both are danced to big band  4/4 time music.  The main difference is the tempo.  Where Foxtrot is around 120 bpm,  quick step is much faster being closer to 200 bpm.  Identifying quickstep is the same as identifying foxtrot only at a much faster tempo.

Here are a couple of examples:

It Don’t mean a Thing by Count Basie Orchestra

Sing Sing Sing by Benny Goodman And His Orchestra


Timing:  3/4 Time

Tempo:  approximately 90 – 100 bpm

Beat Representation:  Boom tic tic

Count:  1,2,3,1,2,3

Waltz is danced to graceful and elegant music.  The timing is quite different from most other styles.  3/4 time means each measure has three beats and the first beat will be the strong or emphasized beat.   If the music is emphasized every fourth beat then it is not 3/4 time and not waltz music.


Open Arms by Journey

Fascination by Nat King Cole

Viennese Waltz

Timing:  3/4 Time

Tempo:  approximately 190 bpm

Beat Representation:  Boom tic tic

Count:  1,2,3,1,2,3

Similar to waltz, viennese has a tempo that is almost twice as fast as waltz.  As in waltz, the first beat is emphasized.   Another major difference is in the timing of the beat.   In waltz, the three beats are evenly spaced, but in viennese, the two and three beat are closer together.   This gives the music it’s rolling slow, quick, quick feel.   One thing to note is that occasionally you might find it difficult to distinguish a viennese waltz from a regular waltz so listen carefully.  You will definitely figure it out when you try to dance regular waltz to this kind of music.


Danube Waves Waltz by Alfred Hause Orchester

After The Ball Is Over by Nat King Cole


Timing:  4/4 Time (usually)
Tempo:  approximately 120  beats per minute
Beat Representation:  tap tap tap tap drum-roll that leads into repeat pattern
Count:  Sometimes taught vocalizing the steps with the letters T, A, N, G, O

Tango music has a distinctive style and is probably one of the most easily identifiable.   It is most often defined by the staccato nature of steps and the unique instrument (bandoneon  similar to accordion) played.

The dance itself is dramatic and danced to a count of : slow slow quick quick slow.  Each slow is danced on one beat of music and each quick on half a beat.

The issue of timing in Tango music is not as cut and dried as most other dances Saying Tango is 4/4 time should be more than sufficient to enable you to identify the style.


Hernando’s Hideaway by Tango Orchester Alfred Hause
Tango Del Amor by Carioca Band  (Listen to the drumroll)

Cha Cha

Timing:  4/4 Time
Tempo:  approximately 112 to 128  beats per minute
Beat Representation: Boom, tic,  tic,  tic
Count:  1,2,3,4 & 1,2,3,4

Cha Cha music has its own distinctive sound that can be identified by distinct percussion instruments giving it a unique staccato sound but has the same tempo as Hustle, West Coast Swing.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see people dancing swing or hustle to some Cha Cha music.   five steps are taken to four beats of music with the break step on the 2 beat and is danced slow, slow, slow, quick, quick.   The emphasis is on the 1 beat.

Tea for Two by Warren Covington And The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
A Bailar Calypso by Elli Medeiros
Pata Pata by Thalia


Timing:  4/4 Time
Tempo:  East Coast Swing:  approximately 140 bpm,  Jive :  180 bpm
Beat Representation: Boom, tic,  Boom,  tic
Count:  1,2,3,4 & 1,2,3,4

Swing and Jive have an exciting up beat feel, usually danced to swing style jump blues music.  East Coast Swing can be danced to a variety of contemporary music styles.

East Coast Swing is counted quick, quick slow(triple step), quick quick slow(triple step), slow slow(rock step)

All Shook Up by Elvis Presley
In The Mood by Glenn Miller Orchestra

Goody Two Shoes by Adam Ant
Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry

West Coast Swing

Timing:  4/4 Time
Tempo:  ranges from approximately 100 – 135 bpm
Beat Representation: Boom, tic,  Boom,  tic  (Swing Count is:  Boom, ta tic, Boom, ta tic)
Count:  1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4

Although traditionally dance to slower bluesy Swing style,   West Coast Swing (WCS) can be danced to a wide variety of music including many contemporary songs with the right tempo and 4/4 timing.

Traditional WCS music has a “Swing” Beat that is identifiable by the slight delay in the half note  before the even note.  If you listen to the percussion in the following songs, you will not hear the basic 1,2,3,4 or boom, tic, boom tic.  What you will actually hear is more closely represented as boom, ta tic, boom, ta tic.  Boom is the down or odd beat, ta is a half note that is played closer to the two (Musically, it’s called a swung Eighth)  and tic is the two and so on. Another way to represent this might be 1, ta 2, 3, ta 4.

So on each even beat you hear two percussion beats pressed together.  the half note before the 2 beat and the 4 beat is played not in the half timing but somewhere close to 1/3.   This give it the rolling ta da sound that is the distinctive swing beat.  You will hear this same beat in many East Coast Swing songs as well, only at faster tempo.


I’m the Only One by Melissa Etheridge
No More Doggin by Colin James

All Summer Long by Kid Rock
Buttons by The Pussycat Dolls

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