Why does Lindy Hop have 6 AND 8 count patterns?

I’ve taught a fair amount of classes in my day and time and again one of the most common questions I get is “Why is there 6 count steps, when the music is clearly 8 counts”.  Over and over again, I’ve tried to give a quick answer but I really needed more time to explain it thoroughly.  While It’s a multi-faceted issue that can’t be summed up in a sentence or two, it can be clearly explained.  I’ve created this blog entry as a place to point newer students to so that they may understand why we don’t just dance 8 count steps over and over to swing music (though we could — we do not, and there are good reasons we do not)

Partly as a product of our education systems, and partly because so many of us have science, computer or engineering backgrounds, we have a strong desire to categorize and systematize. We desire to put everything in a box… to create rules around what we do.  It’s tempting to want to say “the music is in 8s, therefore the dance should be in 8s and never deviate”, But this desire is terribly limiting. Music is art, dance is art, and we need to be able to match the art created in the music with the moving art that we create with our bodies.  The people who created and innovated our swing dances understood this, and it’s a good thing they did, because our dance is so much more interesting because of it.

Basically, this is why

In short, there is really nothing about a rock step that make it “go with” the beats 1 and 2 any more or any less than a triple step would, or a kick step, or anything else for that matter.  Inherent in the question of “why don’t we just always do 8 count all the time, starting on the 1” is an assumption that something about the music dictates that a rock step goes with 1/2, a triple with 3/4, etc.  In fact I can think of only a handful of songs that use that rhythm. So, clearly we need more flexibility in what we do… at the same time we need simple starting points to teach and understand the dance from, and common kinesthetic language so we can dance with people from around the world.  So we have a divide between what we do and how we (initially) teach the dance.

When we execute one or more 6 count moves (or 4, 10, or 12 count moves) all of the sudden the rock steps and triple steps fall over the dance in different places with respect to the music. Do an eight count, then a 6 count, and all of the sudden the next rock step is on a 7/8.  This makes the dance reflect the improvised nature of the music much better than a formulaic approach, and allows us to place improvisations, points of emphasis and moments of whimsy in the place within the music that you want to to be.  It opens up space for us to emphasize different things, and to make the dance look far less planned than it would if we were entirely predictable by beginning everything exactly with the “1”.

Why it sounds like the music is in 8 counts

Swing music is written in a signature know as 4/4.  This means that the music is divided into groupings of 4 beats, and that quarter notes are to be counted as a single beat.  It’s fairly straightforward, and that’s why it’s known as Common Time.  Something like a waltz is notated in 3/4 time… this means that there are 3 beats in a measure and a quarter note is again, one beat.

Lyrics and melodies are written, (and solos often reflect the same structure) in a way that sounds like 8 counts.  Probably because it’s hard to say a meaningful sentence in 4 counts, and also because at an early time in jazz/blues history, there was not a difference between the two musical forms. Stories as song are a part of how most of our classics are composed, even though we see hints of things like call and response, comedy (Slim Gaillard) and even incredibly complex compositions (particularly from Duke Ellington, who was a composer before he wrote any swing music).  Since the beginning of jazz song-writing, lyricists and composers have made melodies that take place over 8 counts, with almost every 1, 3, 5 or 7 having a note or a word attached to it, at minimum.  That’s a key difference between swing and blues, where blues has a lot of “slides”, and slurring and blending of notes, also known as “blue-ing” a note, where the music gets it’s name from (source, The Blues People, LeRoi Jones). That’s why things like Charleston and Boogie backs work almost all the time to reflect swing music — because they hit the 1/3/5/7.

At the point in history when Jazz was being invented, the influences of European trained musicians, African-born musicians mixed together with different meters and approaches to rhythm that made swing-jazz polyrhythmic. Meaning that there can be, and often are, several rhythmic ideas going on that a dancer can hook into. Listening to a New Orleans front line (trumpet, clarinet, trombone) all work together and you can see this quite clearly.

As an interesting side-note, on a recent trip to Africa, I learned about African musical notation systems. They use circles, with rhythms marked around the perimeter of the circle. While we use a time line in European notation, they use a time cycle. When you overlay those time cycles, it’s easy to see how their music can convey some very complex polyrhythmic ideas, and it lends itself to a layered effect more readily.

When you become aware of this type of sound, you can start to hear it in Swing music. Certain versions of Caravan, Sing Sing Sing and the Slim Gaillard All-stars intro to Hellzapoppin’ all come to mind as songs with strong influences of African percussion style. 1940s pop songs like In The Mood lack this influence and that’s why they seem sterile and “sing song”, compared to some of the grittier, earlier swing.

Interestingly, African music also has a quality, known as “melo-rhythm”, where one should hear melody in the rhythm, and rhythm in the melody… I believe this to be present in good jazz, and it gives us a good opportunity to experience the music in more ways. Listen to Cottontail, or Flyin’ Home with Ben Webster and you can really hear this quality. Listen to meandering solos of a modern-ish jazz band, and it is not as present.

This polyrhythm is why you can walk in time with the beats, half time the beats, triple step or double-time what’s going on and still be doing something fairly reflective of the music. One can almost think of the song, and the dance as being filled with pieces of random length, just like the hardwood floors we dance on. A consistent approach to the dance that’s filled completely with pieces made of 8 counts simply wouldn’t do justice to the musical form.

So, beyond the influences we have the uniquely American form of Jazz, and if we knew nothing about how the music was written, we would probably hear groups of 8 beats, tied together in groupings of 4.  The time signature is just a product of history. We can approach dancing to a phrase of 4 eight-counts with things like

  • 4 eight count movements
  • 4 six count movements and an 8 count movement
  • 2 eight count moves, a six count move, and a 10 count move

So you see that when all is said and done, we’re still dancing with respect to the larger musical structures, if we mix these up, and as a bonus we get a nonstop succession of movement that looks fluid, has momentum that moves in time with the ideas of the dancers creating the dance, and isn’t anchored or constrained by having to come back to a rock-step on the 1/2.

Groups of two beats

So that’s what’s going on in the lyrical center, but what about the rhythm?  The lower end of the music “swings”, meaning it has a quality called rhythmic displacement.  The amount of time between any even and any odd beat in relation to a set tempo. This is what we can think of as the “hoo-ha”, “whoo wha” or “boom-tick” of the music.

Over these two beats, we can do two beat movements, like rock step, we can kick step, we can triple step or any number of other things (slip slop, lowdown, chug, hop hop, step step, kick hold, etc.  As you string these together in ways that match the music, you are creating your own moves on the fly.

Really, 6 count, 8 count and Charleston are all just “suggested”  groupings of these 2-beat parts.  

As we group these two-beat parts together, we essentially have three choices

  • Use standard groupings, like swing outs or passes.
  • Improvise a standard pattern, ie do a pass but finish with a stomp-off
  • Completely improvise, i.e. shaka-shaka slip slop skate skate skate skate hold mini-dip.

We need all these modes to fully express the phrases, solos, rhythms, drum breaks, tags, phrases, and points of emphasis. A fully 8-count-only-mode wouldn’t give us all the tools we need to make a picture of the music with our bodies.

Points of emphasis

Swing and jazz music can be thought of as multi-dimensional.  There are places where the melody has a strong “attack” with respect to the tempo, meaning the notes in the melody give energy, a rushing feel. Conversely there are places where it relaxes, giving even a fast song an easy going jaunt.  There are places where it has a higher volume. Conversely, there are places where there is more relaxed feel, a relaxed volume. We also deal in breaks, which are essentially stops or holds in the music which serve to create interest and to keep the tempo from speeding up.  In order to be able to react to these points in the music (which can happen on any beat, though likely a 1, 3, 5, or 7), we as dancers need to be able to extend our movements so that emphatic moments in the dance can be, well, emphasized.  Most Lindy Hoppers have experienced extending a movement so they can hit a big break in the song. Extending patterns with the 1/2 (twists) or the 5/6 (rhythm circles) are easy because they are based on a “step step”, and they return your weight to the foot it was on before, essentially making it the most neutral of improvisations.

Arthur Murray

A long time ago, before dance schools, social dancing was not canonized.  There wasn’t a set way to teach things. The concept of a dance studio or dance school didn’t really exist for partner dances widely until the late 30s (there were some in the late 20s, but not many), and they didn’t teach a lot of Lindy Hop.  Foxtrot was a far more popular dance, as was Latin dance, and of course the dance crazes like Big Apple. Dancing was passed along from person to person, or in informal settings. At the Savoy, they had taxi dancers that would teach you steps for a dime a song.  There was no such thing as “East Coast” or “West Coast” swing, mostly because neither had been invented yet.

As things like the musician’s strike and the end of World War II propelled people toward rock and roll and solo dancing, there wasn’t as much market for partner dancing.  The people who patronized dance studios were an older, wealthier set. They demanded easy answers and black-and-white sylabii that didn’t dive into the confusion and grey areas that dance truly does when one pursues it as an art form.  Dancing as a 6 count only form (i.e. East Coast) was a simple invention of dance schools in the 1940s that made dancing easy to learn.   Nowadays, East Coast swing as an entity in and of itself separate from Lindy Hop is something that has infiltrated many dance communities all over the world.  Some people teach “East Coast Swing” and “Lindy Hop” as if they were different things and not just an easier-to-understand mental construct.

The only compelling reason for us to teach classes of only a single mode like 6 or 8 count is to make things easy, progressive, digestible for students.  Kind of a “paint-by numbers” scenario.  Just as Groovie Movie said, “having learned the basic steps, you now forget them completely”. Fluid movement between 6 and 8 count vocabulary is step one on the journey to being a competent social dancer.  Step two is being able to invent movements of any even-numbered length on the fly to match the music you are hearing.

Some movements just need less time

And, in a way, perhaps it can be thought of very simply.  Typically a move which has one change of places does not need more then 6 counts.  It has a start, a middle and an end, all of which need about 2 counts.  This is one way that a follow can make a fairly educated guess about whether a movement will be 6 or 8 count — if the lead has their hand on the follow’s back on the count 4, then you can give a reasonably high probability that the movement will be 8 counts. Telegraphing leverage into a triple step is another way we can prematurely and/or accurately cap movements and ensure a six count feel.  Some follows are really savvy and rearrange “step step triple-step, step step triple-step” to be “step step triple-step triple-step, step step” when they are unsure, in case they need to truncate their movement early, into a six count. Of course there is always rolling through your rock steps (adding an “and one” rhythm to a rock step), a great way to turn an incorrectly assumed 8 count into a 6 count.

When dancing used to “sometimes” be on 7

It is told that at one time, it was common or even preferred to start a swing out on the 7/8 or the music with a rock step.  Sometimes they would start movements on the “1”, but mostly it was 7/8.  7/8 makes a lot of sense.  The point when the two bodies come together has a ton of energy, and is therefore a good match for the point of the music that’s most emphatic (the 1/2).  This was hard for people to understand during the swing revival and it ended up being standardized to start on the 1/2.

When rock steps happen in different places in the music than the “1 and 2”, it adds a great deal of visual interest to the viewer and the dancers involved.

How to use this all to your advantage in the dance

All this is lovely and moderately useful information, but how do we apply it to the dance?

First, I think that we can move away from patterns if we think about using the beginnings we create as places to start improvising from.  We don’t have to always think about trying to make things fit to the 8s. Try letting yourself begin a move then throwing out of your mind the idea that it needs to end at some point.  Try keeping it going through a random grouping of 2-count syncopations like step-steps, triples, hitches, chugs, skates, twists, anything you feel.

Another way that you can apply this is to think about your dance as being never ending. You’re just doing long sequences of two count moves. In other words, if your 6 count ends with some rotation, continue that rotation into the next movement. Try to blur the visual line between your 7/8 triple step and your 1/2. This can be hard for teachers who spend hours breaking things down for students, only to find the cookie-cutter approach affecting their own dancing.

Lastly, you can adopt a mindset such that there is no mistakes in your dance.  No missed movement, only a missed two count, and you can keep moving from there without hesitation into the next thing.  When we dance to patterns, the though that we are breaking a pattern breaks our concentration and our sense that the move is “right”.  Try thinking of a constant flow, free from mistakes. It can really de-stress the dance.

Finally, I’d just like to say that these dances all had to be invented by someone.  They are born from the music and when our bodies react to the music in a way that makes sense that’s more right than anything that we can figure out with our mathematical or scientific selves.  Feeling over limitations, instinct over imitation.

We teach some applicable concepts in our class “Amazing Phrasing”

Also, big shout outs to Paul and Sharon, the people who introduced me to any concept of “musicality” and were the first to show me what it was. Keith Hughs who taught the first class where I learned about phrasing, Carey Rayburn, my trumpet teacher, Elliot Reed and Pascal, my swing guitar teachers, and all the others I learned from along the way.

Catch you on the hardwoods! Feel free to leave us a comment!