Discussing timing in writing is a difficult thing to do. But ….

The musical notation system we use is specific to our Western oriented thinking and understanding of music, which is NOT comprehensive, or adequate to the task of describing all that can be created by gifted musicians, and dancers. Nor does it adequately reflect the rich traditions of other cultures in which the musical traditions include uncommon time signatures and accents.

I want to address a different set of issues, specifically the widespread use of ROLLING COUNT timing in some dance communities (most notably West Coast Swing) and the use of spoken timings that are expressed differently in written form.

Getting Started….

Musically, the NUMBER is the first note or rest (regardless of duration) in a bar of music. The remainder of the bar follows. It is customary to count the NUMBERS as the notes associated with the bottom number in the time signature.  So for 3/4, 4/4, 2/4 , we count quarter notes as numbers. For 2/2 , we count half notes as the numbers.

An example using a bit of Round Dance punctuation where a comma signifies the end of a beat and a semi-colon the end of a bar (measure): (If you just HAVE to know more about that… Reading A Cuesheet )

3/4 music is written 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3;
4/4 music is written 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4;

4/4 can also be counted in slows and quicks in a variety of ways. It is customary for quicks to come in pairs.

Q, Q, Q, Q;
S, -, S, -;
S, -, Q, Q;
Q, Q, S, -;

All ways of expressing the four beats.

Music is a mathematically exact written representation of a limited set of possibilities. Clever people can take this notation and use it to express many things, but some real world rhythms simply can not be expressed in traditional western musical notation. But it is still a rich and useful set of notations, based on dividing by 2.

1 1 / 2 1 / 4 1 / 8 1 / 16 etc.

The DOT notation allows for greater flexibility. When a note is DOTTED you take half again as much as base value of the note and add that to the base value of the note. For example:

1  = 1 / 2 +   1 / 2
1 / 2 =   1 / 4 +   1 / 4
1 / 4 =   1 / 8 +   1 / 8

SOOOO,

1 / 2 =   1 / 4 1 / 8 1 / 8

BUT, you could use the DOT ( · ) notation to create:

1 / 2 =   1 / 4 · +   1 / 8

That is,   1 / 4 plus the Dot (half again of the  1 / 4 , so  1 / 8 ) plus the remainder, so another  1 / 8 .

As long as all the notes and rests add up to the total given in the top number of the time signature, everything is fine. That is a starting place for understanding how we talk about music and timing, and what we mean when we talk about music and timing.

Counting Music The Lawrence Welk Way

Why did Lawrence Welk say:  "An a ONE an a TWO" ? The answer is a human issue, not a musical one. Ask another person (or group of people is even better) to CLAP when you say GO. Then ….  say, "GO." Chances are, especially in group, that you will NOT all clap at the same time.

Now ask them to CLAP when you say ONE. Then say, "And A ONE." Chances are, you all clap at the same time.

The purpose of this "AND A" is to give warning of the event ONE so that we can all be in sync. When music is PLAYING, we don't need that because the previous beats of music tell us when to expect the next beat of music. But when we are just counting a beat, starting from nothing, we have to provide some kind of indication as to WHEN to start against the counting. Most dance teachers figure this out pretty early on, and come up with their own way of getting everyone moving at the same time. For example:

5 6 7 8 …..
5 6 Ready AND….

I had a partner who would use the following for WALTZ:

"HERE WE GO" Spoken in a even way.

It really doesn't matter what you say, as long as people know WHEN to expect the beat so they can all move together. In West Coast Swing, it is common practice to say: "AND A" …. before each beat. That serves the purpose of getting everyone going, but …..It also does something else.

The Concept of a Triplet

Musical notate is based on dividing by 2, as noted above. But the AND A ONE, AND A TWO counting does not match that basic split of beats. That counting is dividing by 3, creating THIRDS. Let's see if we can picture this….

A number followed by 11 dashes (a total of 12 things). The following must be displayed in a FIXED WIDTH FONT to see it.  The reason for 12 is it is the smallest number that is divisible by 4 and by 3, which we need to see the full picture of how different ways of counting produce very different interpretations of the music. (And the potential movement against the music).

1 - - - - - - - - - - - 2 - - - - - - - - - - - 3 - - - - - - - - - - - 1
1 - - - - - & - - - - - 2 - - - - - & - - - - - 3 - - - - - & - - - - - 1
1 - - e - - & - - a - - 2 - - e - - & - - a - - 3 - - e - - & - - a - - 1
1 - - - & - - - a - - - 2 - - - & - - - a - - - 3 - - - & - - - a - - - 1
  • The first line is just a standard 3/4 bar of music counting only the BEATS, that is, the numbers, each representing a 1 / 4 note in music. 
  • The second line a standard 3 / 4 bar of music counting BEATS and half beats (the "&"s) and would be written using 1 / 8 notes. 
  • The third line is a standard 3 / 4 bar of music counting BEATS, and 1 / 4 beats, and would be written using 1 / 16 notes. 
  • The FOURTH line is a  ROLLING COUNT , which divides the bar (measure) into equal THIRDS.

Musically this is what is knows as a TRIPLET. A TRIPLET is three notes in the space / time of two notes. Normally, 1 / 4 note = TWO 1 / 8 notes. In a musical triplet, we replace the SPACE (or time) of TWO notes, with THREE equally spaced (time valued) notes. The notation is a curved arc over the three linked notes. So in a TRIPLE 1 / 4 = ( 1 / 8 + 1 / 8 + 1 / 8 ). 

Mathematically this is wrong. It should be 1 / 4 = 1 / 12 + 1 / 12 + 1 / 12 .  We don't have a notation for a 1/12th note directly. What we have is the TRIPLET notation. If you want to know more about Triplets, I recommend The Eighth Note Triplet

What's important for our purposes is to get is that the "AND" and "A" of a ROLLING COUNT do not fall in the same place as the "AND" and "A" of a standard count.

Skippy Blair, who is widely recognized as the CREATOR of West Coast Swing, teaches exclusively using ROLLING COUNT. Not just for WCS, but for ALL dances. In my opinion MY OPINION, let me say that again MY OPINION, she is BRILLIANT and her contribution to the dance world has been AMAZING and she deserves ALL the respect and admiration that the dance world can heap upon her.  AND basically what she has is a really really good hammer, and treats all music as if it is a nail. It produces a predictable result, but frankly, I think I know more about waltz and foxtrot than she does. Rolling Count is not the best way to treat all music and all dancing. My OPINION… MY OPINION.  MY OPINION. If I ever Ever EVER hear any one say that I said Skippy Blair was wrong, I'll will personally hunt them down and correct them with a 2×4. But that is beside the point….

Skippy also always counts ALL the ROLLING COUNT sounds AND she always starts with the "AND" and "A" from the previous measure to ensure that when you MOVE, you move when she wants you to. Bear in mind, that one says AND A ONE, AND A TWO this does not mean the AND and A belong to the same BEAT (or even BAR) of music as the ONE, or the TWO, etc. But it creates a mental linkage that can be important. Again: THE "AND" and "A" do NOT belong to the ONE. They belong to the PREVIOUS BEAT. The PREVIOUS BEAT. THE PREVIOUS BEAT !!!!

Rolling Count In Dancing

Of all the communities of dancers I know about, the ones who do the most with Rolling Count is the West Coast Swing dance community. Some might say that you don't really know WCS until you figure out how Rolling Count works.

Let's look at a 6  count basic (side pass, sugar push etc). Using Rolling Count, it would be:

& a 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4 & a 5 & a 6
    ^     ^     ^   ^ ^     ^   ^ ^

In contrast, someone NOT from deep within the WCS community is likely to count WCS those six count basics as: 1  2  3&4 5&6, and treat the 3&4 5&6 as triples, splitting the 1 / 4 notes into 1 / 4 1 / 4 . NOT TRIPLETS, but Triples.

They are VERY different, and that is the basic point of this exposition. Is that WRONG?  No… Is that consistent with what people who are truly experts in the WCS do?   NO WAY.

This is just great for WCS and a few other dances. But is NOT consistent with how the majority of the world views the traditional ballroom and Latin dances.

Skippy would have Cha Cha as: (switch to fixed font again)

& a 1 & a 2 & a 3 & a 4
    ^     ^     ^   ^ ^

In other words, you step on 1, 2, 3 A 4, which is NOT an even split of the 3 beat into two equal halves.

Pretty much the rest of the dance world will tell you that CHA CHA is 1 2 3 & 4 (traditional break on ONE count) OR 1 2 3 4 & (break on TWO count) where the & represents an exact HALF of the beat.

Many dance teachers will even say WHOLE WHOLE HALF HALF WHOLE to emphasize the even-ness of the CHA CHA CHA part.

Musically 1/4   1/4   1/8   1/8   1/4    OR   1/4   1/4   1/4   1/8   1/8 (break on TWO)

Who is RIGHT?

Depends on who you ask. But Latin dancers believe Cha Cha is an even split regardless of what WCS dancers say about it. AND visa versa.

Let's look at a waltz measure.

Suppose you wanted to take FOUR steps in the THREE beats of music.

There are THREE ways to represent this, using standard Round Dance notation:

  •  1 / &, 2, 3;
  •  1, 2 / &, 3;
  •  1, 2, 3 / &;

But what about ….. &1, 2, 3;  ?  Does that represent a split of the ONE beat? If so, how is that different from 1&, 2, 3; which is also a split of the ONE beat?

In Western musical notation, and in Round Dance notation, the NUMBER always represents the start of the beat. The '&' always represents the second half of a split beat. At least, that's what we have in writing.

You can SAY &123 in a way that makes it seem like they split the ONE, but Round Dance (and musical) notation does not support that. 

Let's take a simple example where everyone agrees on the rhythm and the written notation: CHASSE: 12&3… I think it is safe to say, everyone agrees… 12&3.

The written description is:

[Chasse (12&3)]  Step, step / close, step;

So my question to those who promote &1 descriptions of figures is:

If I'm allowed to say that &1 and 1& can both be valid when I'm splitting beat ONE, why can't I say that 1&23 is the same as 12&3 when splitting the TWO beat, like in the chasse?

A) [Chasse (12&3)]  Step, step / close, step;

B) [Chasse (1&23)]  Step, step / close, step;

Perhaps it depends on what I do with my VOICE….

ONE (pause) AND TWO (pause) THREE

That's the same as:

ONE (pause) TWO AND (pause) THREE

Isn't it?   Come on.  They're the same… Aren't they?

It doesn't matter how many times I say it, or what emphasis I put into my voice, in written form, they are NOT the same.

Let's look at an example where it might actually make a difference.

The SPIN & TWIST

For the Follower, this is 7 steps taken over two measures.  THE question ALWAYS gets asked. Here is my version of the question in excruciating detail:

Does the Follower take FOUR steps in the first measure and THREE steps in the second measure OR, does the Follower take THREE steps in the first measure and FOUR steps in the second measure?

Mind you, the way that question is usually asked is not nearly as specific and clear as what I just wrote. But that is what the follower (and good leaders) wants to know. Which measure is syncopated?  (And how is it syncopated, since the second measure COULD use chasse timing as a valid option…. But that is too much, even for me 😉

If I answer by giving the following COUNT:

123&123

Then, you simply CAN NOT tell what I mean. Those words alone are not sufficient to answer the question.

I can use my VOICE to indicate the split I want. There are TWO options:

A) 123& (pause) 123

B) 123  (pause)   &123

Ok GREAT. It was clear when I said it. BUT, will it match what I wrote?

Round Dance written descriptions allow me to split the current beat into NUMBER / &, but do NOT allow me to split the current beat into & / NUMBER.

I can show:

Version A:   Desc, desc, desc / desc;  Desc, desc, desc;

And I can show:

Version B:   Desc, desc, desc; Desc / desc, desc, desc;

Each of these long descriptions is clear and represents a particular timing to dance. But cuesheets might include more than the long description. They might include a COUNT.

For the first example above it is easy. I get:

Version A:   [Spin & Twist (123&; 123)]  Desc, desc, desc / desc;  Desc, desc, desc;

But I have TWO things I could write for version B)

Version B-1:   [Spin & Twist (123; &123)] Desc, desc, desc; Desc / desc, desc, desc;

Version B-2:   [Spin & Twist (123; 1&23)] Desc, desc, desc; Desc / desc, desc, desc;

For versions B-1 and B-2, the written description is IDENTICAL, and only the manner in which I notate the split beat in the COUNT differs.

Which is "correct"?  Is &1 a special case? You can only split the ONE beat in front of the beat, but you can't split the TWO beat in front of the beat, only AFTER the beat?

Of course !! That makes perfect sense…

&123 is NOT the same as 1&23.  &123 means to steal a little bit of time from the PREVIOUS beat. 1&23 means to split the first beat.

REALLY ???? Then why not WRITE it that way, since we have a perfectly good, consistent, and universally understood way of DOING THAT.

Just my somewhat less than humble opinion. Your mileage may vary.

3 Comments

  1. Bill Herzog says:

    Hello Richard, I was glad to find this posting with all the detail of timing.  It is much appreciated.  I would like to narrow the focus a bit to try and understand further.  I am an amateur musician who just started West Coast Swing lessons.  It is frustrating to me to try and dance to the music as if I were also playing a guitar.   Would it be possible for you to graphically draw out linearly 1.  An example of standard musical notation of a few measures of 4/4 music, and then 2. underneath each notation put the 6 count used by most the instructors?  Thanks, Bill

  2. Richard Lamberty says:

    Hi Bill,
    well… I’m not sure what you are looking for that isn’t there. In a section called: THE CONCEPT OF A TRIPLET there is an ASCII picture of the timing.
    Below that, under ROLLING COUNT IN DANCING is another representation.
    If those do not provide enough detail, then I would need a piece of paper, a pen, a glass of wine, and you sitting at the table with me.
    I’m guessing that might be a fun and interesting conversation.
    Richard

  3. chris says:

    Hi Bill, what do you mean by this?  "It is frustrating to me to try and dance to the music as if I were also playing a guitar."
     
    Something many people struggle with at first (particularly if they understand music, or have done a dance such as salsa) is that we are dancing to 4/4 music, but only using 6 beats worth for each pattern rather than 4 or 8 beats.  Is that what your question relates to?
     

Leave a Reply