WHAT IS FELT
Sometimes in the dance studio, musical confusion arises between dancers and musicians. To help, I believe it’s helpful to begin with one thing we all share, the pulse. Pulse has to do with what is felt. To me, the pulse is an emphasis of the body, usually a point of weight or momentum, an impact, a maximum (or minimum), the onset of a sound or of light. In music and dance, the pulse often occurs periodically (an even amount of time or space between each occurrence) and each sound and movement exists in relationship to it – with it, against it, weaving in and out of it. On the most fundamental level, I imagine music and dance sharing the pulse, coded deeply within us from our ancestral past. As bipeds, when we locomote, there is a pulse, from step to step, which is both felt in the body and audible.
WHAT IS COUNTED
Often, musicians and dancers bring the pulse into the conscious, numerical/analytical mind by counting it. Musicians call the pulses "beats", and generally, dancers often use the term "counts". Beats and counts are synonyms - That is, they mean the same thing. Musicians have usually learned a very specific way of counting beats, subdivisions (smaller rhythms which fit inside the beat), and other rhythm units (such as measures and phrases), and it is very helpful for dancers/dance teachers to have some language in place to help when communicating with musicians. Both musicians and dancers count rhythm using numbers (for the counts/beats), and some combination of other syllables for subdivisions (“and”, “ah” are common for subdivisions).
CONNECTING FEELING AND COUNTING
Sometimes difficulty arises in communication about the feeling of movement and the specific counts in a dance combination. From the start of their training, most musicians count verbally and work in relationship to a constant beat (often using a metronome to train in a sense of steady pulse). Dancers are often more adept at sensing how movement feels, sometimes in relationship to the beat, and don’t spend as much time verbalizing.
Meter can be understood as the link between what is felt and what is counted. It is a way of describing the feel and counting the number of notes between counts.
There are three types of meter - Simple, compound and complex, in music theory parlance. I prefer to use the terms Duple, Triple, and Complex, because they are a little more intuitive. Duple meter groups notes by two and multiples of two and has a “straight” feel. Triple meter groups notes by threes and has a “round” or “swinging” feel. Complex meters are counted in odd numbers other than 3, such as 5, 7, 10, 11, 13 and up, and often feel “uneven”, “lopsided” or “like one leg is longer than the other”, although if you encounter/use them enough, they can begin to feel totally familiar and natural like duple and triple meters.
- Duple meters are usually counted: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and-Six-and...”
- Triple meters are usually counted: “One-and-ah-Two-and-ah-Three-and-ah-Four-and-ah…”
From a musical counting standpoint, a phrase can be understood as the way that counts are grouped, to correspond with a segment of movement. The most common type of musical phrase of any meter, in a dance context, has 8 beats or counts. However, a phrase can have any number of counts.
…and here’s where things can get a little tricky. Often dancers will say “this is an 8” to mean a phrase with groupings of 8 counts, in duple meter: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and…”. And similar terminology could be used for a phrase with groupings of a different number of counts, in duple meter: “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six”, etc., all counted “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and…”.
However, the terms “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six” could also be used to indicate a phrase with a triple meter feel with one third as many counts (pulses) as its name. For example:
- Three counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in nine total subdivisions could be called/counted as “a nine” (3X3=9)(pulses or counts in ALL CAPS): “ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine”
- Four counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in twelve total subdivisions could also be called/counted as “a twelve” (4X3=12): ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine-TEN-eleven-twelve”
- Two counts (triple meter) - “a six”, etc.
In these cases, the numbers 9, 12, and 6 refer to the total number of subdivisions in each phrase, not the number of counts.