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I'm a dancer, and one of my dancer friends recently posed a question which I thought musicians might be able to answer.

In our particular style of dance (west coast swing) and in many others that dance to 4/4 music with 32 or 48 beat phrases, we count out bars/measures of 8, as opposed to the convention in music where those same beats are counted in bars of 4 beats.

Is there any trace of the historical origins of this divergence in convention?

(It is perhaps worth noting as an aside that west coast swing does not impose 8-beat patterns, but rather builds patterns from 2-beat units, resulting in patterns usually of 4, 6, 8, 10 or occasionally more beats. However, the origin of the convention may be from a dance form that did)

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    This is a great question. I remember from my theatre days that strict adherence to the 8 beat dance phrase often ran amok of the the musical time signature. I even saw choreographers using it in triple meter settings (3/4, 6/8, etc.) I will watch the responses with interest, though suspect we are talking about Broadway practice emerging from the Princess Theatre days, into the heyday of the Broadway musical. – memphisslim Jan 14 '15 at 17:55
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    "Musicians' count" and "dancers' count" are very often a source of confusion, particularly when the choreographer loosely calls her sections "bars". – Laurence Payne Mar 12 '16 at 0:47
  • Which was the Princess Theatre? I know of the Palace Theatre, as the home of American Variety. – Laurence Payne Mar 12 '16 at 15:07
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Generally, in most music that progresses in phrase lengths that are multiples of 2 bars (which covers a lot of dance music), the odd-numbered bars generally have greater stress than the even-numbered bars. To be precise, the first beats of the odd-numbered bars have more weight than the first beats of the even-numbered bars, and the starting points of phrases, placement of final chords, etc., generally reflects that. I'm not a dancer, but I'd imagine that differences in weight might have an effect on the dance steps in some styles of dancing.

It evidently does go back to European partner dances, though - the older ballroom and social dances. I can trace it back at least as far as the Lindy Hop of the 1930's (here).

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In the 4/4 time signature, which may be over 95% of popular music today, dancers count beats in "sets of 8" also known as the "8-count" or the "dancer's 8." Musicians count in measures of 4 beats. The two systems are different but related and can coexist (although some musicians have never heard of the 8-count so they might argue that point).

In a lot of 4/4 time music, two 4-beat measures will be rhythmically paired, which is what creates the 8-count. If you listen closely, an 8-count will sound like a "sentence" of music, which makes it an easier structure to work with when choreographing dance. I write about music and dance and to quote from my book, Hear the Beat, Feel the Music: Count, Clap and Tap Your Way to Remarkable Rhythm (ihatetodance.com): “Sets of 8 are a dancer thing. They’re better for identifying the structure in popular music, which you need for choreographing movement, a moot point to a musician. Sets of 8 are better for predicting where the music is going, whether you’re a dancer or just a person who enjoys listening to music.”

I don’t know the origin of the 8-count, so I can’t give you a historical perspective. But I just spoke with dance educator Skippy Blair, who was born in 1924, and she said she was working on sheet music for a band in the 1940s (when she was a teenager) and she was using the 8-count. She believes that the 8-count dates back earlier than 1900.

I would like to correct your language. A “bar” is slang for “measure.” In 4/4 time, bars are 4 beats of music. So the concept of an “8-count bar” is erroneous. An 8-count would be 2 bars of music (8 beats). It looks like this (note that, in the musician’s count, count 1 of the second measure is the same as count 5 in the dancer’s count):

1234 5678 – dancer’s count (an 8-count)

1234 1234 – musician’s count (two 4 beat measures)

I use the terminology of Skippy Blair (swingworld.com) and refer to an 8-count as a “mini-phrase” of music (four sets of 8, which is 32 beats of music, is called a "major phrase," and is probably the most common phrasing in popular music today). In my experience, a musician would refer to an 8-count as just a “phrase” of music (I also think they would call the 32-beat major phrase just a "phrase" of music--but I'm open to be corrected on this). I’m making a point of language because the dancer’s count and music theory can coexist, but it’ll get confusing if we blur the language.

  • If we want to be pedantic about terminology, I could claim that there is no such thing as 4/4 music, since time signature is a property of musical notation rather than of music :) Anyway, I'm still wondering if any historical trace of the origins of the divergence in conventions exists. – Fabio Beltramini May 5 '18 at 3:15
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In swing dancing, eight-count (lindy hop, turkey trot) and six-count (east coast) dances dominate largely because it is based off of 12-bar blues (48 counts per verse). Country dancing is based off of powers of two so the verse tends to be 32 counts or 64 counts (and country ballads having lines 16 counts long.) For country dancing, look towards Playford's dance manuals published in the late 17th century.

Continental dances in Europe are variably structured and can have inconsistent counts. The waltz for example can be done in 3/4 and 5/4 time and in Alsace can have even more obscure rhythms.

Playford's dance manuals were very important for dance teaching, especially for the spread of country dancing throughout Europe. I suspect a lot of the 8-counts come from those books.

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I play for dancers so here's my take:

The musicians are counting each bar with four beats per bar (measure) but actually there are only two accented (louder) beats per bar, on the "1" and the "3". These accented beats provide the pulse of the music. The dancers are counting these accented beats in their "8" counts.

When you dance and count to "8" on a 32 bar (measure) tune with a 4/4 time signature, you're not counting out a single bar (measure), you're counting out four bars with two beats per measure. So each time through the 32 bar tune, you are counting to "8" eight times because 2 beats per bar times 32 bars is 64. The musicians are counting to "4" thirty two times.

  • This is sometimes true, but not always. Yes, in some genres & tempos, dancers would count half time relative to the musician's count, but it's just as common for the two counts to agree. So I don't think this really explains the observed use of 8-counts. – Fabio Beltramini Jan 20 '15 at 22:47
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    Because of the way we write it down, musicians tend to count in bars-worth. But, just like dancers, we PLAY in 2, 4, 8 bar phrases. There's no basic difference, bar the shouting :-) – Laurence Payne Mar 2 '15 at 23:54
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My take is that a usual dance step needs 8 counts to complete. Particularly in couple dancing. I perform music, teach and recently took some dance and wondered this myself 😀

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If music is written with four primary beats per measure, each of those beats can be easily classified into one of four groups:

  • Those that start right after a bar line (beat 1)
  • Those that start start about halfway between bar lines (beat 3)
  • Those that are closer to the previous bar than the next bar (beat 2)
  • Those that are closer to the next bar than the previous one (beat 4)

Having more than four beats per measure makes it harder to identify the beats within a measure. If a piece has 5 or 7 beats per measure, or if it has six beats that don't fit a 3+3 pattern, having an over-long measure may be nicer than subdividing a measure into unequal portions. If, however, a chunk of music has 8 beats which can be split into two 4-beat halves, placing a bar line in the middle of it will make it easier to read than having eight beats with nothing visually to distinguish them.

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