Finding your Inner Metronome

October 11, 2010

“Bah doom, bitty bap! (-uh-uh-) Zah-diggety-boom, shah-boom-beedee-bop!” I pause, turn to my students and ask, “Can you hear it?” Most nod affirmatively, so I ask them to call it back, to scat the phrase with their voices before we translate the rhythm back to our taps. But one student says with a furrowed brow, “I literally hear you, yes, but I don’t hear the music. I just can’t find the beat!”

If you’ve been trained to approach tap on a step-by-step basis, listening skills may take a backseat to executing—or mimicking—a dance routine to music. So why do tap dancers need to know how to “find the beat”? The art of jazz or rhythm tap is not determined by how many wings are followed by how many pullbacks ending on the crash of cymbals on count eight. You can definitely hone those skills, but you can also go beyond, exploring a vast universe of rhythm where you may discover your voice as a musician as well as a dancer.

Hearing music is not simply a matter of your ears performing an auditory function and you counting 5-6-7-8. It’s a matter of listening—visualizing, tasting, smelling and living inside the music. That’s where the beat is: the downbeat, upbeat, offbeat (or breakbeat), the steady beat that serves as a metronome, tapping out the map of the music, lighting the way for a dancer to move. This beat can be assigned numbered counts, yes, but underneath are layers of music, waiting to be heard.

Imagine you’re riding in a car or on the bus, listening to one of your favorite songs. How does your body respond? Maybe you sing or sway your hips, or bob your head to the beat. That nod, up and down and up and down, is most likely aligned with the downbeat—your head drops on the one. But what happens if the beat isn’t in a straight repetitive rhythm, or there’s no clearly emphasized “one”?

Try this exercise to tune your eardrums: Go to a music store that has headphones for sampling the merchandise and grab five CDs that you’ve never heard before from five genres. Then, listen. Listen until you find any up and down groove to sink into, and nod with the beat you find. Next, try singing (or scatting) rhythms in stark contrast or in exact replica to what you hear.

Take the time to locate what you hear. Are the beat patterns predictable or surprising? A lot of popular “top 40” music lives within a repetitive 4/4 rhythm, where it’s easy to find the downbeat (think Justin Timberlake or Rihanna). But you may also find yourself listening to music with other rhythmic patterns that swerve in and out, hit syncopated beats (where unexpected notes are stressed), or are even polyrhythmic (where two or more independent rhythms are layered and sound simultaneously).     

The traditional music of Africa—particularly West Africa—is well-known for complex polyrhythms where the downbeats don’t usually coincide. A few other styles that tend to emphasize polyrhythm: classical music of South India, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latin music, jazz music of various eras and even hip hop! The better you know the source, feel and groove of a piece of music, the more able you are to dance with it, scat into it, and transpose your steps into statements.

That leads me to your next assignment: Take or choreograph a short tap dance phrase, linking any steps you want, with you as the only musician. Then “set it” to five different pieces of music. How does the feel of your phrase change, and how do you stretch or condense your phrasing now that you have other rhythmic patterns to consider? If you find a piece of music that seems to resonate well with your creation, what new phrases emerge? Or was it better left a cappella? Regardless, the process of experimenting with a variety of rhythms will get your inner metronome oiled up and ticking away.

Finally, remember the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”? Tap it out. Take a short phrase and loop it, dancing the rhythmic pattern of the song no matter where your taps fall. (For more on this exercise, see “Try It!” below left.) You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn about your dancing by mixing up the ABCs of your tap vocabulary with a familiar old tune. The notes of your feet will become syncopated as you force them into this phrasing. The goal here is not to plan ahead and find a step that would “work really great to that song.” On the contrary, you could pick any step—the challenge is to follow it through the music, no matter how awkward or unfamiliar it may feel. You’re now on your way to being free from the confines of steps-to-music dancing and to hearing and living in the heart of this artform. You’re dancing with the music, not just to it.

Tap dancers act as musicians and dancers simultaneously. As we move our bodies, our instruments play, and as our instruments play, we follow the punctuation and composition wherever it may lead. Within each and every dance, mood, rhythm and visual design create a layer with the sound score that may be intricately patterned or easy to discern. So as you continue to both build a listening ear and polish your chops, let the music lead the way.


Caitlin Spencer is a tap dancer and educator at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Wake Forest University and the Greensboro Cultural Center. She is also a guest artist with Footnotes Tap Ensemble in Chapel Hill, NC.


Photo: Debi Field