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I dance standard ballroom dances like the waltz, jive, and rumba. Except for the waltz, I have difficulty finding the downbeat of each new measure.

Is there some system to find when each new measure starts?

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2 Answers 2

From playing and listening to a lot of West African drumming (particularly malinke rhythms), I've faced this challenge oodles of times. A lot of times, I'll be sitting there tapping my foot, and I'm not even counting it in the right time signature, let alone even knowing where the beat is. A 12/8 rhythm can always be counted as a 3/4 (though doing so is usually really awkward). A rhythm that rides on the upbeats only, particularly in 6/8, 12/8, or 24/8 can sound like the beat is on the 'ah' of each beat, because it sounds like a shuffle: 'and-ah- -and-ah- and-ah-' sounds just like 'ah-1- -ah-2- -ah 3') if you don't know what's going on.

Anyways, I've only found one good way to deal with this that doesn't involve asking what's going on: watching! If there are foot-tapping musicians to be found, they'll often put some emphasis on the one, often by moving another body part (often the head)--bassists and drummers in particular. Also, if you have a bunch of dancers around you doing a dance you're familiar with, check them.

In a room full of people who are familiar with the music, you have more to help than just the song!

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The only reliable system is ear training.

I assume you identify Waltz's first beat by its being stronger than the other two (“louder“, for some interpretations possibly a bit shorter as well).

Rumba can be a bit more tricky at times. Instead of trying to locate the precise first beat, I'd suggest you started by training your ear to “hear” the musical phrases' length (8 beats). The first beat might come naturally from there. You could theoretically confuse it with the fifth, but as far as dancing is concerned, it's not a big problem outside of competition.

Jive is both trickier and easier. Trickier: since it's a 6-beated dance danced to 4-beated music (most frequently in 16-beated phrases), there's no way you can synchronize both ones all the time. Easier: so you'll go for the gcd (two). Only 50% chance of missing, but your era-trained partner could feel very unstable if you got it reversed. There's unfortunately no hard rule there; most commonly the 1s (out of 4) get the melody accents and the 2s (all of them, i.e. out of 2) get the drum accents.

All other standard/latin I can remember would work like Rumba, possibly simpler for phrases that fit in 4. Cha-cha-cha's still a mystery to me as why the 1 is where it is, but I've come to accept it as a convention and be done with it.

None of this will be enough if you're aiming for competition level, but training would make you hear enough music to get as familiar with it as needed.

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Awesome answer. I'm wondering it if it'd be worth listening more to the melodic instruments to pick the beginning of the bar? I'm not really familiar with rumba, so maybe that's not useful there... –  naught101 Sep 12 '12 at 7:18

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