can you hear the beat?

“I’ve been lindy hopping for a year, I like swing music but if I’m honest, I don’t really like the old stuff much, I can’t hear the beat in it”

A friend who’s been dancing for years was chatting with a relatively new and enthusiastic dancer yesterday when the new dancer said this. It raises lots of interesting  issues so I thought I’d blog about it…..

The short response to the Lindy hopper’s statement is; “yep, you’re right, often the beat isn’t as clear in swing era music compared with modern music.”

Given that we learn Lindy hop in a class environment these days and swing music isn’t the pop music of our generation, to a newer dancer, it can sound quite foreign. Add to that the fact that as a new dancer, you are learning rhythmic footwork patterns that are completely new, you can see why being able to clearly hear the beat in the music is quite important. Until you have the muscle memory to really feel comfortable with the rhythmic patterns of the Lindy hop, you are most likely going to struggle dancing to music where you can’t hear or feel the beat.

This raises important questions for scene leaders/teachers/DJ’s.  If your newer dancers prefer modern music, what do you play for them? What if the music you play doesn’t have the same feel as authentic older swing music? Are you training your new dancers to  develop a muscle memory they then have to break out of if they get serious about dancing to authentic swing era music? Rather than open up that can of worms, lets go back to the initial statement and look at these three points:

1. Why can’t the beat be heard as clearly in older swing music?

2. Why is this relevant to the dance?

3. What should you do to respond to the issue the newer dancer has?

1. Why can’t the beat be heard so clearly?
First off, let me just say this – each band, stylistically, has it’s own sound and a rhythm section made up of different instruments that will make the beat more or less distinctive so it’s dangerous to generalise about the clarity of the beat in relation to any era. Within any era there will be examples that have a very different feel and clarity of beat. That said, however, over the years there have been general trends in the way the beat in popular music is played, and this is, in many ways, the reason why the beat is (generally) “clearer” in “modern” music.

Back in the beginning of the swing era, the feeling of something “swinging” was a new invention, before this time there were marches, there was early blues singing and there was ragtime and this “thing called swing”;  was first heard in the MELODY, not in the beat. Louis Armstrong is credited with being one of the earliest and most influential pioneers of making the music swing. You can hear him swinging a melody in this very early clip:

If you can’t tell that the melody is swinging (and you dance lindy hop) try clapping the lindy hop step pattern (rock step tri-ple-step) as you listen to the clip. You should find that when you clap the triple step it feels very natural to clap this with a “swung” rhythm where the “ple” of the tri-ple-step is shorter and delayed. (Conversely, if a song feels natural to clap this rhythm with the “tri” “ple” “step” all the same length, then it’s NOT “swung” it’s called “straight” and it’s the same rhythm as cha-cha-cha in ballroom dancing. A lot of pop music is “straight”) if you try clapping the lindy hop step pattern with a “straight” triple over this clip it doesn’t feel as natural as the swung triple…. Hopefully doing this clapping helps you feel the “swing” Louis Armstrong is developing in the melody.

NB. This is the beginning of swing music, this pre-dates lindy hop dancing.

In modern music, if you ask someone to play you  something that “swings” they will likely think of the rhythm as being an important aspect before they think of the melody and they will likely think of the drums (because in most modern music the rhythm is played on the drums) and they will likely play you a pattern where every half note is accented 1+2+3+4+ (this is sometimes referred to as a shuffle pattern) or they may play you a pattern where some of the “+” accents are missed out as a basic “swing” beat 1, 2+3, 4+. You can hear these two beats in this clip:

But if you go back and listen to Louis again you’ll hear that these “+” accents don’t exist in the rhythm section (also, the rhythmic beat is being played on the piano/guitar in this clip- there are no drums)

So in the earliest swing music, there wasn’t a “swung” beat, the beat the rhythm section  was playing just marked the 1, 2, 3, 4.  The swung feel of the “+” accent is coming through in the melody and is improvised and it doesn’t follow a regular pattern.

As swing music developed into the swing era of the 1930’s-1940’s. The feeling of “swing” in the music still had a lot to do with the melodies and the rhythm section played an open 4 count with few or no “+” accents. Just a steady 1,2,3,4.

You can hear that clearly in this clip: Cab Calloway’s Dinah

The beat here is really clear with just the steady 4 beat and the melody is swinging.

Then the rhythm section started to develop what people sometimes call “chug”. The bands were often travelling to gig’s by train and “chug” is in many senses inspired by the rhythmic sound  of these big trains. You can read more about that here on Glenn Crytzers blog :

And hear it in this clip by Artie Shaw Everything is Jumping:

In the authentic swing era music, the rhythm section  and the “beat” was  not prominent or dominant. As dance music progressed from swing in the 1930’s and 40’s to rock and roll in the 1950’s this changed and the beat became much more dominant. This trend continued into “pop” and “rock” music and by the time the neo-swing movement happened and the lindy hop revival was really taking off (circa mid 1990’s) the modern bands that were playing “swing” where heavily influenced by the dominance of the rhythm section that had evolved over the last 50 years.

You can hear this if you listen to these two versions of  “in the mood”

this is Glenn Miller from the swing era

this is Brian Setzer playing a modern version

There is no doubt that the beat and the rhythm section is more prominent and dominant in the modern version. This leads me to…..

2. Why is this relevant to the dance?

You could argue that the modern version has more energy, it’s got a clearer beat and it’s easier for a new dancer to dance to…..and I wouldn’t disagree with you. So why don’t you hear of many advanced dancers requesting this type of music in their scene, or hear it in competitions or see the international dancers choosing this style of swing music for their showcase choreographies? Why would anyone prefer music that seems less energetic and more ambiguous?

Let’s first consider the fact that it wasn’t just the music that evolved from 1940-1990. Dancing evolved too. And the dancing and music evolved together. Lindy hop developed to music that really swung.  The “Swing” wasn’t as simple as having a swung rhythm…. as discussed above, the swung rhythm didn’t come into it until later and it was never the dominant component. The swing era music often had a very horizontal stretchy feel to it because the musicians  – particularly those playing the melodies, where playing with the length of the notes, making some longer and some shorter, coming in fractionally late or early and  drawing out the length of the notes into the next bar or phrase. The dancers, well they stretched out as well and improvised along with the musicians and a key part of the lindy hop  is that characteristic stretchy connection. When the music changed to rock and roll and the drums became more dominant, it gave the music more of a bounce and more of a vertical up and down feeling, and the dance followed suit. In rock and roll dancing, the connection is far less horizontal and stretchy and there is much more bounce in the knees.

So if you are a modern band who play classic swing era tracks but you are heavily influenced by the way the beat developed since the swing era, then what are you playing? Well, bizarrely enough, to many advanced dancers it’s very confusing, and some will argue that it is uncomfortable to dance lindy hop to. Technically it might “swing” but that stretchy horizontal feeling is drowned out by the dominance of the rhythm so to be “musical”, the music is asking you to pound the floor and have a much more up and down feel.

If we go back to the music of the swing era, where the rhythm section is less dominant and the melodies take centre stage with lots of call and response, all of a sudden there is lots of musicality for the dancers to play with and this becomes the dominant part of the track, or at least a balanced aspect of it. Here is one of my all time favourite clips of lindy hop and it really shows the playfulness of the dancers improvising with the music, the stretchy horizontal connection and the musicality of the dancers responding to the lingering swinging melodies. It’s Nick Williams and Carla Heiney, it’s not a choreography, it’s a jack and jill competition:

There is a real richness to authentic swing era music that gives so much inspiration to the dance – yes, the beat is less distinctive in comparison to modern music, but if you only play modern music then (IMO) you are limiting the possibilities the dancers have to repsond and dance musically with the connection they are learning.

3. What should you do to respond to the issue the newer dancer has?

First off and most importantly, take it as a serious issue. There is no way scenes will grow if the new dancers are put off by the music or don’t feel like you are listening to them when they are struggling. For many dancers, learning lindy hop is a journey and it’s easy to forget that when you’ve been doing it for a while. My advice to scene leaders would be to be really considered in the music you choose to play in your regular lessons. If you are playing authentic swing era music, try to choose tracks that have a more obvious beat for your beginner and improver dancers, tracks that have hand claps are particularly good like shout sister shout by lucky millinder or lavendar coffin by linonel hampton or if they still tell you they prefer modern stuff, try modern bands that are used to playing for lindy hoppers and have developed their sound to suit the playfulness of the dance, any tracks by Gordon Webster, a great example being his version of long gone john or Carsie Blanton’s my baby can dance. Yes, these tracks are all overplayed and you may get sick of them but they are all fun for new dancers and if they become familiar with them they are bound to hear them when they first attend bigger social dances and a bit of familiarity in that environment will greatly help their confidence to get out on the social floor.

In general, having an awareness of this issue and actively making a decision to respond to it is the important thing. You can experiment and play music that is further removed from the swing era; you can militantly stick to really classic, authentic “old” music, that’s up to you. But please know that by choosing to play music for dancers you have a power and an influence on the scene you are playing for.

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4 Responses to can you hear the beat?

  1. Jimmy McGee says:

    Fantastic…brilliant explanations and examples.
    Thank you for posting this.

  2. I have been saying this for the last few years, The early swing ( dixieland trad ) is harder to dance to, If you follow the music. Note that East side Stomp in Kirkland plays more of the modern swing, moderate tempo from the the last 15 years. The beginning eastside dancers are dancing to the music better than the Seattle dancers and are improving faster. Check it our for your self. Mike Wendt

    • vickycasey says:

      Thanks for the comments guys. Michael it’s interesting to hear your thoughts, I have a feeling the music scene in the US is very different to the UK and you have access to bands that get the style more. We do have a few great swing bands in the UK and the 1930’s music is becoming more popular so hopefully we will have more options for modern bands that really get how to swing in the coming few years.

  3. superheidi says:

    Oh bliss, great post! It’s all about what’s on my mind for some time after a get-togehter with some new (and older) local DJs. Like Michael, we touched the subject of trad jazz, that is quite a dominant style (around Europe?) as we speak. Some state the more choppy charleston rhythm does have quite an impact on the smoothness of the dancing.

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