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I'm trying to understand the cha-cha, specifically to play and write music with that rhythm. In my research, I've come across two ways "the cha-cha" is taught: as a dance and as a musical rhythm.

I'm confused because it seems like the dancers count/say "one two cha-cha-cha - one two cha-cha-cha", etc. But it seems like the percussionists are counting and playing more like "one two three four-and-one two three four-and-one", etc.

I haven't found anything online yet that tries to match up the dancing and music to show how it lines up, so I'm hoping someone here has experience with the cha-cha along with dancers. I've tried watching dance videos with music but things tend to go by really fast.

The two possibilities I've thought of are either the dancers and musicians put the "one" in a different place (i.e., when dancers say "one", musicians are saying "two"), or the dance goes "cha-cha-cha" and the music goes "dum-dum-dum" at different times (i.e., the last "cha" is at the same time as the first "dum"), or I'm totally wrong and the counting actually lines up and I've misunderstood something basic.

So how does the dancer style of counting the cha-cha line up with the musician style of counting it?

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first time poster here, so apologies if I mess up any formalities.

As a former competitive latin dancer, I will try to explain this in dancer terms, then put my pianist hat on and try to get the musician's perspective.

There are 3 versions of cha cha that I have danced: international latin, rhythm, and night club. Latin and rhythm have been thoroughly addressed by aeroNotAuto, and I agree with him 100%: the base beat is 4&1, 2, 3. Musically that comes out to something along the lines of half note, half note, whole note x3. The 4&1 are often counted as cha cha cha only because it is easier to say at speed than 4&1.

In nightclubs, an alternate beat is often used: 1, 2, 3&4. This is not the beat used for competitive dancing, but is often enjoyed in latin clubs along with salsa, merengue, bachata. As before the beat is counted 1, 2, cha cha cha. and the musical notes are converted accordingly.

The reason your research is varied is likely due to the different uses for a cha cha beat. Neither is wrong or right, and you should use the appropriate format based on your ideal audience and purpose. Furthermore, all of this is for the base beat, often the music will have its own natural synchopations and changes based on the song itself.

tldr; latin and rhythm competition dancing: 4&1, 2, 3. 1 is the first beat of the measure.

Nightclubs: 1, 2, 3&4 is the count, music and measures will change based on song. As is often the case, nightclubs are less picky about beat and more interested in the feel of the song... competitions the exact opposite.

Cheers!

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For ballroom dancers (either Rhythm in the US or Latin in International styles) the steps are counted: two, three, cha-cha-CHA where the last CHA is on the downbeat. Much of the rhythm is sounded by the guiro. The guiro plays either 4-4-4-88 (where 4 means quarter note and 8 means eighth note, I can't quickly figure out how to post an image or pdf) or 4-88-4-88. The last 88 in a measure is cha-cha, the first quarter is an accented CHA, the second and third quarter notes are two, three.

Also, there is a first step to the side on beat one (called a preparatory step) counted ONE, then the cycle of (two, three, cha, cha, CHA) continues.

The same pattern exists in International Rhumba (or did until last year; I don't know if the slow down from 112 beats/minute to 90/beats/minute calls for different counts) and in US competition mambo (but here the 2-3 are quick and the cha-cha-cha are collapsed to subsume beats 4 and 1 of two successive measures.) Salsa is often counted started on one as the tempo is quite fast (144 or more beats/minute) and the beats are not as strongly marked as in cha-cha-cha.

I think that some Country Cha Cha styles start on beat one which makes the main step com on four.

It has been popular over the last few years to put a bass drum one-two-three-four behind everything. A cha-cha-cha being danced to one of these (Boom-Boom-Cha-Cha for example) still goes two, three, cha-cha, CHA.

  • Ok weird. I know when I looked into this a few months ago I found all kinds of dance related sources saying "one two cha-cha-cha", but now I can't find any. Either I'm insane or the whole internet has pranked me. – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 18:49
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The short: The count/the placement of the 1 should be exactly the same for dancers and musicians. Having been both a competitive dancer and a musician, it saddens me to see people saying otherwise.

The long: I danced competitively for years, and also made a living by teaching Ballroom for a little while. I think the things you're seeing online are a result of teaching techniques that are used for introductory dancers. Often this is also an introduction to counting music.

I'd like to address some items mentioned in other answers:

  • The final danced cha is not always on the first beat of a bar. This leads to...
  • Not all steps are counted 2, 3, cha cha cha. Some figures will also have dancers stepping with cha cha cha on 2 & 3.
  • I imagine the mention of a prep step to the side was with the Closed Basic Movement in mind. A dancer does not need to begin with this step, and there are many cases in which the side prep step won't be used.
  • The dancing does not need to begin on a 1. A dancer taking their first step does not mean they are counting it with a 1. In fact, if you watch a collegiate competition at the Ohio Star Ball, you'll see many couples begin with a chasse on 4.

We used to introduce students to Cha Cha by counting chasse steps cha cha cha because people tend to pick up on it a little faster that way. When you start dancing more advanced figures, you'll end up with multiple chasse steps in a row. That's why in advanced dancing, you will almost never hear someone count with cha cha cha. It's too easy to lose your place in the music that way.

You can use the book Latin American Cha Cha Cha, written by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (I'm holding a 2003 copy), to reference any figures I have mentioned. On page 101 you will see part of the count for Cuban Breaks spelled out as 2&3, 4&1 et cetera. I won't even get into Guapacha variation of timing. My point is that as a musician, you have no way to know what timing a dancer is going to use over your music. Cha Cha music does not need to have a 4&1 or 2&3 emphasis*. In fact, I would argue that comfortable Cha Cha dancers almost never dance over musical syncopation that coincides with their chasse (or other alternate timing) steps. They will count the same beat as you, but their syncopation may be different. The Dance Examinations Board does specify Cha Cha music should have a musical accent on the first beat, and a percussive accent on the fourth beat of each bar.

Disclaimer: I have a stronger background in the International style, but have taught both International and American styles of Cha Cha. I am under the impression that the American style evolved from the International style. The method of counting the styles is the same, although the tempo for the American style has historically been a little slower. As always, be careful what you learn from the Internet. That goes for this site as well (my posts included).

Edit: That's not to say that a good/popular Cha Cha won't have emphasis on the & between 4 and 1. You'll likely hear dancers say that they prefer not only the emphasis that ISTD dictates (4, 1) but also between (&). Again, this doesn't mean you should be predicting their competitive routines - they will syncopate as they see fit and you don't need to dictate when they step. If you're writing music for night club Cha Cha, however, I'll have to defer to DanceLifeLaw. Just keep in mind that many of the videos you find online will be for competitive or formal (Arthur Murray/Fred Astaire) Cha Cha in the International Latin or American Rhythm styles.

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"one two cha-cha-cha" used by dancers is indeed musically misleading as the "one" for dancers is not the one in terms of musical measures. The 3rd "cha" is actually the first beat of the following bar:

1---------2---------3---------4--------|1---------2----...
      ...one-------two-------cha--cha--cha-------

Try to clap your hand on the 1 (beat of the measure) as you say "one two cha-cha-cha":

1---------2---------3---------4--------|1---------2----...
      ...one-------two-------cha--cha--cha-------
CLAP                                   CLAP

I think you'll immediatly feel the flow of the ryhtm in a much more intuitive way (as you say, musically you can count it "one two three four-and-one", "four-and-one" com on top of "cha-cha-cha").

  • This was my thought after looking at several different sources but when I discussed it with a friend who has a dance background she thought I was wrong. Just so I'm 100% clear, the numerical "1 2..." on the top row is the actual beat numbers that musicians would count, and the spelled out "one two..." on the bottom row is how the dancers are counting it, right? – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 14:31
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    Yep, that's it. It's rather difficult to find an example where both music and dance steps are perceptible in the most clear way, this one here youtu.be/QisK7N-75lU?t=546 is the best I could find. If you look and hear attemptively I think you can perceive that the down beat comes at the third of the three quick steps, in fact that's where the musical excerpt and dance end (clearly in a down beat). – José David May 10 '16 at 14:46
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If you look at sheet music published by a reputable source, it is clear the final "cha" is on the first beat of the bar.

For example, in the Trinity College London piano exam syllabus:

There are also published examples in the ABRSM (London Royal Schools of Music) examimations.

I have no idea why dancers count it they way the OP claims they do - but from (bitter) practical experience I wouldn't give much weight to their evidence about anything to do with rhythm.

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This just about sums it up. ___

enter image description here

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    And yet somehow doesn't give me any greater understanding. Are you saying I'm wrong about how musicians seem to be counting the cha-cha? – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 14:27
  • I think so, yes. I can't see any other way to count it. It's a pretty solid 4-on-the-floor sort of groove. – Laurence Payne May 10 '16 at 14:32
  • And you totally disagree with joseem's answer then? Perhaps not all musicians count the cha-cha the same way? Have I opened a huge can of worms? Also, I thought "four on the floor" meant each quarter note (crotchet) has a kick drum hit on it, which doesn't seem to be the case for any of the cha-cha rhythms I've seen online. – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 14:34
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    You just asked me my actual question in your last comment. – Todd Wilcox May 10 '16 at 14:52
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    Well, the dance instructers on this video actually do it (musically) correctly, they say, very clearly, "cha-cha-one () two () three", not "one () two () cha-cha-cha". Their "one" is really the downbeat/1st beat of the bar. – José David May 10 '16 at 16:03

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