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Re: why count eight beats when only four are neede
Posted by Jonathan Atkinson
6/2/2012  9:06:00 PM
Dancers of almost all styles have a peculiar habit of counting to 8, but it's really just one of many possible methods of counting. This particular method promotes awareness of the strong/weak relationship between 2-measure pairs.

When you count to 4, there is likely no difference in your mind between count 1 in any measure from count 1 in any other. However, the 1 count in an odd measure is actually stronger than the 1 in the even measure that follows. If that sounds confusing, perhaps it would be easier to understand if it were explained to you this way: 1 is stronger than 5. As you can see, counting to 8 makes it the 2-measure relationship easier to understand, and easier to feel.

Now clearly, phrasing can easily extend beyond 2 measures. So if 8 is better than 4, one might imagine then that it would be better still to count to 16 or even 32. But where simplicity is concerned, there is a point of diminishing returns, and most teachers would agree that 16 is well past that point. 8, as it turns out, is the sweet spot for dancers. This probably has to do with the fact that the typical dance phrase consists of 2 measures, or some multiple thereof. Think, for example, of the Cha Cha, Rumba, Mambo and Salsa basic step -- all are 2 measures. Here, counting to 8 encourages you to dance the first part of the basic on the first measure and the second on the second, which is considered more musical from a phrasing standpoint.

Counting to 8 does have its shortcomings, and musicians tend to cringe at the very idea. Music, after all, is rarely actually written in 8/4 time. But it has nonetheless served dancers very well, especially in the teaching realm.

If you prefer to count "properly" to the time signature, you can still count the phrases by using the "beats and bars" method of counting, whereby you replace beat 1 of each measure with the measure number (e.g. "1234, 2234, 3234, 4234", etc). This is a very elegant method, but does require more skill, which is why many still prefer the simplicity of 8 -- Anyone can do it.

As to why Mambo in particular *doesn't* usually go to 8, again it comes down to a matter of simplicity. If you're going to skip the number 1, as many Mambo counters do, then " -, 2, 3, 4" is complex enough, without having to worry about phrasing on top of that. However, those that do count Mambo by including the number 1 -- not by taking an extra step, but merely in the act of saying it as they count -- will often either count to 8, or count beats and bars.

Another interesting question is why many Mambo and Salsa dancers frequently omit the held beat from their counting. It's not technically incorrect to do so, but I would argue that it's inferior at least from a teaching standpoint; Speaking the held beat encourages the student to hold for the full value of the slow step, while failure to do so tends to result in a rushed slow, or in the worst cases, no slow at all. Moreover, in Mambo, omitting the number 1 has a nasty way of tricking the brain. So even though you may be saying the words "2, 3, 4", you're actually dancing on "1, 2, 3". This is more common than you might think. Including the 1 in your Mambo counting, while not a guarantee, will at least add to the probability that your brain will interpret the 2 as an actual 2.

Jonathan Atkinson
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