About Rhythm & Musicality: is it really the same?

Is having rhythm the same as being musical? Is dancing to music a physical statement? Read some of the oppinions here!
Ruud Vermeij
Copyright © Ballroom Icons Photographer U.H. Mayer

Discource initiated by Ruud Vermeij

Is having rhythm the same as being musical?

Is dancing to music a physical statement?

There are many ways in which movement and music can relate. It is not enough for people to say, “Dance with the music,” “You are not with the music,” If you are supposed to be with the music, you might ask, “to which aspect am I relating? Is it the timing, the melody, the articulations, the patterns of the underlying structure, the nuances, the expressive nature? And how am I to be with it? Or what if my movement is supposed to be in contrast with the music?

Anthony Hurley
“I have just enjoyed the Nicholas Brothers tap routine, I am even more interested to hear they only phrased from the musical accents and the puntuation ( da da da)etc. What they achieved was like hearing a good speaker with beautiful voice intination.they became an integral part of the orchestra. I wish more of our ballroom and latin couples would do the same. It seems we have a lot of mathematicians counting to eight and although they hear music they do not listen to what it is telling them.”

Rosemary Brandt
‎”Musicality, an essential quality for the dancer, is often considered to be the gift of the talented few, and not something which must and can be explicitly addressed and taught in terms of dance technique. The role of the musical accompanist in the classroom is all too often reduced to that of pulse keeper who gives tempo information. Steps or movements are demonstrated often to the accompaniment of counted metric beat. The common result is unitised movement, positions and stepping corresponding with musical beats, so that the movement is organised in the same way as the music. But human movement is not metrically structured and neither is dance.

Rhythm is an intrinsic principle of movement function. Speed, duration, acceleration and deceleration are the results of this function. In the functional form, we learn to control the relationship between our weight and the force of gravity through appropriate fluctuations in energy.

These interacting forces result in changes of speed, which punctuate our movement flow, making rhythm visible. This rhythm is related to our efficient function. In dance however, efficiency is not the primary objective. We follow different requirements, which may be described as technical or choreographic. As a result, the interaction between the two forces, gravity and our energy has to be deliberately controlled to create specific qualitative results. These can be identified, physically sensed, understood and perceived. Only when the rhythm of the movement is known and controlled can we attempt to relate the visible rhythm to the aural rhythm in a multitude of creative ways.” Rosemary Brandt lecturer Laban Center, London.

Paul Pellicoro
To have rhythm? To dance as if you have become another instrument in the orchestra.

Luke Martin
Musicality, to me, is dancing with the music rather then dancing to the music.

Peter Mueller
If somebody has got a good rhythm in dancing it doesn´t mean he has good musicality.These are for me different things.

Veroy Ng
Rhythm is part of the musicality while dancers who are good in musicality are able to creates visuality,feeling or dominate perfectly in rhythm,tempo,basic timing,the ups and downs of the melody and also the lyrics that are musicality.Dancers with good musicality are able to make the audience to feel the music too.

Jaroslav Suchý
I was taught and believe the following: From a musical point of view, Rhythm is a periodic repetition of accented beats:

Jesper Frederiksen
Rhythm is the flow in the music. It balance repetition and variation. The components of rhythm are pulse and phrase.

Sandra Wollin
I consider, from all of my musical training, “Rhythm” to be the underlying, basic sound and silences that carry steadily throughout the piece of music being played. As dancers we portray that rhythm by how we react to it with the different parts of our body. It is the HOW and the WHY of that interpretation which allows us to make the difference between “noise” and “music”.

Robyn Windshuttle
Rhythm is a reflection of the energy of life. I don’t think one portrays rhythm rather they engage with it.

David Alford
During my music studies, i had it defined as the various durations of sounds and silence commonly measured against a standard,i.e. the beat.my professor at that time was adamant in insisting that ACCENTS had NOTHING at all to do with rhythm.

Michael Herdlitzka
In all (good) dancing the character of the music will influence the performance of the dancers significantly. In competitive Standard (or as we more conservative dancers like to say: Ballroom) and Latin American dancing the “true” character of each of the ten dances is given by definition of our technique books and the tradition of teaching and performing. Therefore the use of music displaying the characteristic values of the dance concerned is essential.

Unfortunately we envisage loads of CD dance music which are used widely, obviously liked by a majority of teachers (!) and dancers and subconsciously considered as “good” because they are from “dance CD’s”. Most of these tunes sound great. This brings us into the danger of “liking” something which really “sounds great” but does not necessarily reflect the desired characteristics. The dancing profession ought to discuss in a broader sense whether a samba with a very pronounced basic rhythm, but arranged for oriental instrumentation and sung in Hebrew can be somehow close to “characteristic” or not. It may be observed best in show dance or formation competitions what may happen to music when everything is changed but the time signature. Generally in the world of competitive dancing we tend to agree that we are likely to be very tolerant about all characteristic elements of music except for the basic rhythm.

The – as I think – absolutely vital intolerance against unclear, untidy basic rhythm is for some reason or another about to be abandoned. This is true for many of our ten dances, most of all for the Viennese Waltz. The majority (!) of music used in practice or competition is NOT in character with the original Viennese Waltz rhythm and this is not even noticed by the majority of dancers. I am afraid it is not even noticed by the majority of teachers or adjudicators either. I remember only a few years ago in Blackpool a world class professional lecturing and demonstrating – obviously unknowingly – to not only poor but wrong music.

The recognition of the basic time signature is no way enough to be sure about the rhythmic interpretation. Both Samba and Paso Doble are originally written in 2/4 timing. We could argue that there are differences in speed. When I started to learn dancing Samba was usually played at 58 bpm which is hardly noticeable different from the 60 bpm of Paso Doble. Still we had never too great difficulties in differentiating between the two dances. The general tendency to slow down most of our dance music causes numerous changes in its character. I personally am not so sure whether this is a good idea. It would be most definitely bad for the “flying” approach a brilliant dancer could obtain when dancing to typical Viennese Waltz music on a very large floor. So speed is important. But it is very obvious that there are (many) other factors apart from “beats to the bar” and speed which make a difference in a dance’s character. There are various types of accents (not just a thing called “the” accent, and I am proud of having inspired Mr. Laird himself after such a discussion to add the word “percussive” when referring to accentually elongated but not leading beats in Latin American music), the intonation, rhythmic (called “sets”) as well as melodic patterns (called “phrases”, often mixed up and misinterpreted in our dancing world) and last but not least the “typical” kinds of musical and rhythmical instruments.

It is not just the number of beats to the bar, it is the dispersion of relative beat values (and their accentuation) throughout the bar which makes the “rhythm” and therefore a certain character of music recognisable. At very first glance the rhythmical structure of the Viennese Waltz looks fairly simple. There are the “known” three beats. We would count such a pattern instinctively – and correctly – as “1 – 2 – 3”.

But in fact the real and original rhythmical pattern of Viennese Waltz looks slightly different. (Apart from the fact that the Viennese Waltz is the ONLY one of our ten dances originally written in even sets – not phrases – of eight bars, consisting of four subsets with one leading and one following bar each, four of such sets forming a chorus, although sets and phrases most often coincide in Viennese Waltz.) One of the greatest conductors of our time brought it forward very clearly when once conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the world famous New Year’s Concert: “The count of the original Viennese Waltz is 1, 2, perhaps 3.”

The beat values change only slightly but the second beat is anticipated, in other words the time between beats 1 and 2 is shorter than between beats 2 and 3. The count of “1 – 2 – 3” is therefore misleading. I had been very lucky to have the one and only “Flying Dutchman” Mr. Benny Tolmeyer as my teacher and he always used the most appropriate method of counting the Viennese Waltz: “Om–pa – pah”, thus creating a feeling somehow close to “quick – quick – slow” rather than just an even “1 – 2 – 3”. This feeling is in my opinion essential to create the right balance between swing and turn as it was meant to be typical for the original Viennese Waltz. The feeling of a “slow” on the third step would prevent the ever so many competitors (of ALL grades unfortunately!) from the mostly rushed and “hoppy” closing or crossing action. The “quicks” at the beginning of each bar would encourage couples to pick up their swing earlier instead of trying to push a far too long and heavy step on “1”. But in order to do this, they must be aware of the rhythmical character of the music they use for practicing and of course competing.

Looking, or let us better say listening into most Viennese Waltz music on today’s dance CD’s shows us all sorts of rhythms based on 3/4 timing. We can find lots of tunes in plain “1 – 2 – 3” timing, sometimes nice to hear but not in character with the original. This timing would be characteristic for the – let us say – “Italian Waltz” but should then be played much faster. We can find the French Waltz not even in 3/4 but 6/8 timing, very nice to hear due to the reoccurring triplets but this will force dancers to “hop” on every single step. And we can find very popular – because sounding “Italian” – tunes with just the reversed rhythmical pattern which should be counted and felt close to “slow – quick – quick”. Obviously none of these will support the development of the correct and characteristic type of swing and turn. On the contrary getting used to the wrong music will – especially in “musical” dancers (!) – foster the development of the wrong, uncharacteristic movement of poor quality.

Let us support the dancing of a better, more characteristic Viennese Waltz! Let us assist teachers and competitors by making them aware of the right music! Let us force competition and practice organisers to use only music which reflects the true and original character of each dance!

Peter Ingris
Great topic. The thing is that there are different forms and manifestations of rhythm, related to different “things”. Everything in life has some kind of rhythm. Our heart beat is following rhythm. Our breathing is also rhythmical. Then there is rhythmical sound, which relates to the accents and their “regular occurrence”. Rhythmical sound has also profound physiological effect on our heart rate – faster rhythmical sound makes our heart beat faster. Speaking of body and the movement, the rhythm has different meaning. The body has rhythmical centers = body parts, which can be moved and coordinated independently. Head shoulders, hands feet certain muscle groups. Rhythmical movement would be movement, where accents are achieved by changing energy and speed. If for an example the dancer is about to respond to poly-rhythmical sound/music ( Latin music is poly-rhythmical ), in which different instruments play different rhythms, the challenge would be to use as many different body parts and muscle groups – rhythmical centers- as possible to express those rhythms present in the sound or additional ones, not present in the sound. In competitive Latin american dancing every movement and aspect of it can be used in rhythmical manner. That would be part when dancers can get creative.

Yvonne Marceau
In its most simple form, I can’t help thinking that rhythm has a certain amount to do with predictability–it allows you to anticipate/tell the future: when the next beat will fall. This lends great comfort to humans and creates, again in a simple sense, a sense of unity with another (or others) as you know exactly where you’re going with them, to the next beat!

Pascal Recca
Rhythm (from Greek ῥυθμός – rhythmos, “any regular recurring motion, symmetry”[1]) is a “movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions.” [2] In other words, rhythm is simply the timing of the musical sounds and silences. While rhythm most commonly applies to sound, such as music and spoken language, it may also refer to visual presentation, as “timed movement through space.”

Pamela McGill
Rhythm must surely start with the beat of the music, the accents that are being heard, then the body responds to that beat whatever it is.

Ruud Vermeij
Some artist thoughts on rhythm:

Rhythmic connection
“ The rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dance synthesised, not by reiterating each other but by reinforcing the essentials of each, by mood or by structure. S.Colberg. 1992

Rhythm in bodily movement
“ A continuous play of forces pulling now in harmony, now in opposition, within the space-time continuum.” M.Fee 1973

Time rhythm
“Rhythms which arise from the qualities of suddenness and sustaintment and their short or prolonged duration in any sequence.” R.Laban 1948

Breath Rhythm
“ the phrasing of the movement is determined by the breathing of the individual dancer or of the choreographer” D.Humprey 1959

Inherent rhythm “ the organic naturalness of rhythm in the body through control and release, work and rest, repetition and periodicity.Rhythm as an experience may be said to be a measured energy” M.H.Doubler 1957

Phrasing in DanceSport
“In dance sport, phrasing is related to the structure of the music i.e.. An eight bar phrase. But what about the structure of movement? In movement, phrasing is the relationship of changes in an organic unity, the organic unity is the structure of the arrangement of those changes” R. Vermeij 1990

Rhythmic awareness
“ The discrimination and relating of the sound the body makes, especially of the feet on the floor, with the sensation of the movement that created the sound” M. Fee 1971

Metrical rhythm
Rhythms of measured time units; arising through the recurrence of units of a certain length of time in movement” R.Lange 1975

Rhythm slave
“ as dancer you,re a slave to the rhythm of the music” Michael Jackson 1993

Rhythm slave
“ A dancer who allows himself to be totally dependent on the music,s rhythm. Louis Horst 1963

The Music is my slave
“The Music is my slave” A. Pavlova

Motor rhythm
“The rhythmic structure of movement as experienced and dictated by the body,s response to a movement phrase” Dorris Humphrey 1959

Organic Rhythm
“Movements are put together so that they are joined functionally. They have muscle logic.” H.Taylor 1977

They have rhythm
“A rhythm which emerges by the way movements are put together so that they grow out of each other.” V.Preston-Dunlop 1992

Dynamics of dance sport
The flow of the weight contrasted with the rhythmicesed footwork and both subtle and varied arm movements. Geoffrey Hearn. 1992 instructing

Rhythm is
“a regular occurrence of accented beats in a bar of music” Walter laird 1980 instructing

“As an organiser, rhythm might be thought of as a potent force that binds together the various elements of dance into a unified and harmonious structure” Alma Hawkins 1979

“as important as good technique, the rhythm of the music must flow from the dancer so that he/she does not move on the beat but in it” D.Sorrel 1976

Dance to Music
“ The engagement of the dancer with the musical score, not mickey mousing but expressing the feeling of the rhythm in the body. Mackrell 1998

Slavic on the importance of Musicality and Rhythm

Ruud Vermeij
Choreology has taken into account changes in speed, the duration and creation of accent. The following terminology might prove helpful for an understanding of rhythm in movement.

Impulse describes a movement that has an accent at its beginning, because that is where its greatest speed is seen and felt, after which the greatest change is seen or felt. The movement decelerates over time.

Impact is the opposite of impulse. Accent and greatest speed are at the end of the movement, while the movement begins at a speed that continues to accelerate throughout its duration.

The accent of a swing is centrally placed, in that the beginning and end of a swinging movement are suspended, while the greatest speed, the greatest change, in this case the dropping of weight, occurs in the middle of the movement.

Many movements do not have accents or changes of any kind and are controlled throughout their duration.

The accent is on every movement with an irregular speed, controlled through a constant interplay between tension and release. Trembling actions are examples of Vibration.

The accent is on every movement which tends to create a clear rhythmic structure.

A rebound is an impact followed by an impulse but merged into one movement with an accent.

Suspension is a movement that decelerates until the next movement must inevitably result from it.

These examples describe the rhythm of single movements, but in dance we do not do single movements.
We relate one movement to the next. This progressive relationship of one movement to the next is called phrasing. In our dance world, phrasing is again related to the structure of the music, e.g.an eight bar phrase. But what about the structure of movement? In movement, phrasing is the relationship of changes in an organic unity. The organic unity is the structure of the arrangement of those changes.

The linguistic model supports this understanding of phrasing. A specific arrangement of letters creates words, the arrangement of words creates sentences, sentences create prose. For example the “Hockeystick” in Rumba on its own is like a word without a sentence. It is what follows and precedes which gives a word as well as the hockeystick, rhythm and phrasing. It is rhythm and phrasing that contribute to meaning.
A body rhythm phrase creates the smallest compositional unit of dance in which actions are combined rhythmically in a set form, resulting in a closed choreographic pattern. As a rule, they are bound in a dynamic arch.

When the movement phrase is not identical to the musical phrase it does not mean that they are unrelated. Being musical does not mean that your movement rhythm is the same as the audible music rhythm. A dancer’s awareness of his responsibility to create, that is to phrase his dance movement, coupled with his ability to relate that to the music rhythm is what musicality in dance entails. The interrelationship between the two rhythms is musicality, whether their relationship be identical or complementary.

David Alford
interesting comments,that we are out of touch with our body’s rhythm.this reminds me of a quote i once read by gregory bateson:”the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

Sammy Stopford

My first advise, dancers should Remember the most important part of your body for dance is ,,,,,your ears!!! All movement is derived from sound and all sounds will provide the dancer with opportunity for movement ,,,,,,Sammy

Peter Townsend ‎

2 Ears and 1 mouth….. listen twice as much as you speak!

Massimo Giorgianni

One question about the rhythm subject I think is interesting:


The answer is YES, he need to understand and develop the harmony through movement and breath, then he will not be the employee of the music…but he can make a decision from his inner process of WHEN to move in relation of WHAT he hears.

The word CHOICE is what I feel is necessary in order to interpret the relationship from dancer to the music.
1- I listen to myself
2- I listen to the music
3- I choose
4- I execute

Alan and Hazel Fletcher


We believe that Rhythm and Music should be combined to produce great dancing but there are often at dance competitions many examples of dancers who possess great rhythm but cannot co-ordinate that facet to the music, therefore the simple fact of dancing in time to the music alludes them!
Similarly we often witness many dancers showing a “musical” feel where they are highlighting the lyrical aspects of the music they are dancing to but again not actually in time with the music as required from the technique book. Some examples of this =

1. The often used delay in Foxtrot therefore the Slow Quick Quick becomes delayed and is in fact Quick Quick Slow. To certain musical tracks this can appear musical and even lyrical but totally offensive to the purist eye for the correct interpretation of the rhythm and music combined.

2. In Rumba the often witnessed “stepping” on the one beat through interpreting the music incorrectly. This is most evident from many dancers on the Rumba figure “Sliding Doors.” In our opinion this is not acceptable musical interpretation, it is simply “Out of time!”

Michael Malitowski

Rhythm – dancer’s organisation of movement
Musicality- dancer’s rhythm related to music
Technique – dancer’s ability to make it visible

  1. Surely, if one has a routine it wont always fit every musical
    Piece.So my advice; create a vocab of hundeds of figures, know
    How to connect them, then learn to lead them or be led and only
    then go out and become the music.I wish my time spent learning
    routines could be forgotten and this process adopted long ago.

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