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Smooth Rhythms
Latin Rhythms

by Harold & Meredith Sears

One of the conspicous features of round dancing, and ballroom dancing in general, is the great variety of rhythms and the variety of step patterns that are characteristic of those rhythms.


Rhythm is the regular pattern of sounds in a piece. The beat is the basic unit that measures off the time, the regular pulse of the music. Some beats will be louder or stronger than others and are said to be accented. Music is organized into measures that are recognizable by a more or less prominently accented downbeat: 123; 123; or 1234; 1234. There can be secondary accents in a measure.

At first glance, the rhythm of the various kinds of dance music may seem similar from piece to piece. Waltz is conspicuous with its relatively strong downbeat and its three beats per measure - 3/4 time - but almost all the other rhythms have four beats per measure - 4/4 time. Even Samba and Paso Doble (2/4 time) are usually choreographed in round dancing as though the timing were 4/4.

So, does that mean there are only two kinds of music: 3/4 Waltz and 4/4 everything else? Not at all.


The next feature of the music that we might look at is the speed or tempo. This one feature significantly increases the variety in our dancing exerience. We can go from Slow Two-Step and Bolero at 20 - 25 measures/minute, to Foxtrot, Waltz, Rumba, and West-Coast Swing at about 30, to Cha Cha and Tango, a little faster, to Two-Step at 40, Quickstep, Mambo, and Salsa at 50, and finally, to Viennese Waltz, and Polka at 60. That first "slow" count in a Bolero might be almost 2 seconds long. A "quick" in Polka might only be a quarter of a second.

So, each type of dance has its characteristic rhythm, in terms of beats per measure, and its characteristic tempo or speed, measures per minute. Actually, the tempo of a single rhythm can vary over quite a range, further increasing the variety available to us. There are probably Foxtrots out there that move quickly at 35 or 40 measures/minute and Quicksteps that float at that same 40. Cuers will even take a single dance and slow it down a bit this time, "for ease of dancing," and speed it up for a little excitement the next time.


Another level of variety that we can enjoy is the way in which the beats of music are used to form dance figures. Rumba maintains a regular quick, quick, slow timing (qqs) in most dances, Paso Doble marches along with a 1234; and Waltz figures are usually the regular 123; 123; but even here, a choreographer can throw in a chasse (12&3) or two.

As you look at the way figures are described on a cue sheet or in these pages, notice that some shorthand conventions are commonly used. A slow count (s) represents two beats of music, a quick (q) represents one beat. A comma separates one beat from the next, and a semicolon marks the end of a measure. An "and" (&) represents half a beat, so you are doing two things during one beat of music, and a slash will be used to separate two counts that occur within one beat. In Samba, Jive, and sometimes elsewhere, an "ah" (a) represents less than half a beat. Again, you are doing two things in the one beat of music, but you devote more time to the first step or action than to the second: 1/a, 2.

A brief table for reference:

Term Abbrev. Definition
beat, count bt, ct One unit or accent in the recurring rhythm of a piece of music. In most dance music, you can count four instances of emphasis per measure. Waltz beats recur in groups of three.
measure meas A short section of music in the regularly recurring rhythm, usually marked by an initial stronger accent and then one, two, three, or more lesser accents. For instance, a waltz measure consists of one strong downbeat and two lesser beats: 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3;
comma , In abbreviated descriptions of dance steps (as opposed to complete sentences), a comma indicates the end of one beat of music. For instance, "fwd, fwd, cl;" represents three dance steps on three beats of music, perhaps a waltz measure: step forward on the left foot, forward right, and then close left to right — a Forward Waltz.
semi-colon ; A semi-colon represents the end of a measure of music. In abbreviated descriptions, one often finds two or more semi-colons together. This is a concise way of saying that the previous figure took two or more measures to execute. For instance, in the sequence: "waltz away; pickup; left turning box;;;;" the first two figures took one measure apiece, and the third figure took four measures to complete.
dash - A dash usually represents a pause, nothing happening during a beat of music, at least no step. For instance, a rumba half basic is "fwd, rec, sd, -;" There are four beats in this measure (3 commas and 1 semi-colon) but only three steps. The third step (the side step) occurs over beats 3 and 4.
slash / A slash is used to indicate a split beat of music, two steps or actions occuring in a single beat, a kind of syncopation. For instance a cha half basic is "fwd, rec, sd/cl, sd;" In this 4-beat measure, two things are happening on beat 3 (the "side/close"). The "count" is 1, 2, 3/&, 4;

The 3/&, 4; is your "cha-cha-cha."

and & In timing notation, an "&" represents half a beat, as in the cha example above. A step on an "&" count is very quick.
ah a An "a" represents only 1/4 beat. In a fast jive, a basic rock is danced "1, 2, 3/a, 4; 1/a, 2,

The third step (count 3) is quick, only 3/4 of a beat, but the fourth step (the "a") really allows you to take only partial weight before you have to bounce off and into the fifth step (count 4). If an "&" is very quick, I guess an "a" is very very quick.

ee e The "e" also represents 1/4 beat and is not much used in round dancing, but I'll include it here just for completeness. Where the "a" represents the fourth quarter of a beat, the "e" represents the second quarter. The last two beats of a measure might then be segmented into: 3 e & a, 4 e & a; and then we could talk about stepping on or holding any of these little quarter-beat moments. The timing of one Cha measure is commonly thought of as 123&4. With added precision, we might explain that we dance the cha-cha-cha by stepping on the 3, holding the e, stepping on the &, holding the a, stepping on the 4, and then holding the e, &, and the a of that last beat. (Whew!)

Here is a Foxtrot measure: s, -, q/&, q; Standard Foxtrot timing is slow, quick, quick, but here we have a syncopated measure. Our first step is a "slow" which takes two beats. Notice the first comma that denotes one beat, a dash meaning no step is taken, and then a second comma symbolizing the second beat of the measure. Again, the first step of this figure is a slow that takes two beats of music. The third comma encloses a "q/&." That shorthand means that we take two steps, on the "quick" and next on the "and," in only one beat of music. Syncopation, here, is doing something on the "&" count. Finally, the figure ends with a step on the fourth and last beat of music, and the measure ends with a semi-colon.

Cha Cha figures usually consist of one or more "rock, recover, cha-cha-cha" measures (1,2,3/&,4;) but we can leave off the "rock, recover" and just do a chasse or two (1/&, 2, 3/&, 4;). Triple chas are widely used, too. Hustle offers an unusual example of variety in its figures. The music is 4/4, but many figures are only three beats long. The count of a figure sequence then goes like this: (&/1,2,3,) (&/4;1,2,) (&/3,4;1,) (&/2,3,4;) -- four figures over three measures of music. I think this works because Hustle has a very regular disco beat with no very prominent downbeat on count 1. You feel pretty comfortable starting a figure on beat 2, 3, or 4. Hustle also makes use of even 4-count figures.

Now, look at some of the rest of the 4/4 rhythms in the table below and marvel at the variety of even and syncopated steps, the different arrangements of quicks and slows. Quickstep and Tango are maybe the richest in their variety of figures.

There is just no way one could ever be finished, no way one could get to the point where he has done it all and must say, "Well, I guess I have to go learn something else now -- get another hobby." It won't happen.

Smooth or Modern Rhythms

Beats/ Measure

Measures/ Minute

Official Tempi of Rhythms per NDCA

Characteristic Figure Patterns

Each listing represents one kind of timing pattern common in that rhythm (s=slow, 2 beats; q=quick, 1 beat; &=half a beat; a=one quarter beat). In the abbreviated descriptions, a comma separates two beats, a semi-colon marks the end of a measure, and a slash (/) indicates a split beat, two things occuring in a single beat of music.

Example of a Basic Figure

For more figures, click on the rhythm name in the sidebar to the upper left.

For a description of dance steps (e.g., fwd, sd, close) see the glossary.)

Here also are some music samples: mp3 files, most 150 - 300 MB.

Official International Tempo: 28-30m/m; American Tempo: 28-30m/m

(Belsize Waltz is 33; Carolina Moon is 30; Cavatina is 30; Papillon is 32)


Lower at the end of each measure, stay down through beat 1 of next measure, and then rise during beats 2 & 3--smooth rise and fall.

Forward Waltz: In closed position man steps fwd, fwd, close;

Listen to a segment of Andante or The Old House, cued by John Grooms, Chardonnay, cued by Chris Cantrell, Red River Waltz, cued by Jim Bahr, or Could I Have This Dance, uncued.


Official International Tempo: 28-30m/m; American Tempo: 30-32m/m

(Where or When is 30; From My Guy is 32; Am I Blue is 28; Sweet Ida is 29)


Lower slightly at the end of each measure, but rise soon and stay up--long gliding steps.

Box: In closed position man steps forward, -, side, close; back, -, side, close;

Listen to a bit of Ain't Misbehavin', Marie, Memories Of You, and Penny For Your Thoughts, cued by John Grooms; Ain't That A Kick, Nearness of You, This Is the Life, and When You're Smiling, cued by Chris Cantrell; or Broken Hearts, cued by Jim Bahr.


Official International Tempo: 50-52m/m; American Tempo: 60-62

(Fortuocity is 50; St Michael's is 48)


Light and skipping, stay up and "in flight."

Quarter Turns and Progressive Chasse is a long figure, but it is found in almost every quickstep: In closed position line of dance step fwd, -, fwd turn right face (rf), -; side, close, sd & bk, -; bk trn lf, -, sd, cl; sd & fwd, -, fwd, -; end in banjo line of dance.

To get a better idea of what quickstep music sounds like, listen to a part of the classic and often danced Fortuocity, uncued, or Fortuocity, cued by Chris Cantrell.



(Roses For Elizabeth is 32; Hold Me is 30; Spaghetti Rag is 40; Baby O' Mine is 32; Frenchy Brown is 39)


Smooth flow; no rise and fall.

Forward Two-Step: In semi-closed position fwd, close, fwd, -;

Turning Two-Step: In closed position sd, cl, fwd and sd turning 1/2, -;

To hear how two-step differs from other rhythms, you can listen to some of Games Lovers Play, cued by John Grooms, or Patricia, cued by Chris Cantrell.



(Unchained 5-Step is 40; Stayin' Alive is 52)

ss; qqs;
qqs; ss;

Smooth flow; no rise and fall.

Forward Two and a Two-Step: In semi fwd, -, fwd, -; fwd, cl, fwd, -;

My audio example here is Stayin' Alive, cued by John Grooms.



Official American Tempo for Peabody: 60-62m/m

(My Love is 42)


Steady walking; no rise and fall.

Walk Two: In closed position, step forward, -, forward, -;
Run Four: fwd, fwd, fwd, fwd;

My audio example here is My Love, cued by John Grooms.


Official American Tempo: 60-62m/m

(Street Fair is 60; Fiddlestepper Polka is 62)


Fast and bouncy; think of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.

Basic or Forward Two-Step: In semi fwd, close, fwd, -/hop; fwd, close, fwd, -/hop;
Two Forward Two-Steps
Two Turning Two-Steps (from Street Fair)

As an example, you may listen to a part of Fiddlestepper Polka, uncued.

International Tango-4b/m

Official International Tempo: 32m/m; American Tempo: 30-32m/m

(Tango Capriccioso is 32; Gold Tango is 30; Just A Tango is 33; Sombras is 31)


Firm frame, soft knees, deliberate steps, sharp steps and head movements, no rise and fall.

Walk: In closed position fwd, -, fwd to bjo, -;
Promenade: In semi closed position fwd on lead foot, -, fwd trail foot, side and fwd lead; close trail foot slightly back of lead still in semi closed position, -,

Audio examples of tango are from Gardenia Tango, uncued, and Gold Tango IV, cued by Chris Cantrell.

Viennese Waltz-3b/m

Official International Tempo: 56-60m/m; American Tempo: 54-58m/m

(Bamboozled By You is 52; Look At Me I'm Sandra Dee is 54)


Waltz rise and fall but not as much because of speed.

Viennese Turns: fwd trn left face, sd trn, cross in front; bk trn, sd trn, cl (woman xif); (full turn)

Audio examples of Look At Me I'm Sandra Dee, cued by Harold Sears, and a bit of Strauss' The Beautiful Blue Danube (uncued).

Hesitation Canter Waltz-6 b/m (6/8 timing)


(Baby Mine is 32; She's Got You is 31)
1--4-6; (the "hesitation" and then the "canter")
1-3--6; (the "canter" and then the "hesitation")
1--4--; (two "hesitation" steps)
1-34-6; (two "canters," four steps)

Waltz rise and fall and a wonderful lilting feel arising from the syncopated step patterns.
Two Left Turns: in CP fwd L trng, -, -, sd & bk R, -, cl L ending CP RLOD; bk R trng, -, -, sd & fwd R trng, -, cl R ending CP DLW;

Audio example of Baby Mine, cued by Harold Sears.

Latin Rhythms

Beats/ Measure

Measures/ Minute

Characteristic Figure Patterns

Each listing represents one kind of timing pattern common in that rhythm (s=slow, 2 beats; q=quick, 1 beat; &=half a beat; a=one quarter beat). In the abbreviated descriptions, a comma separates two beats, a semi-colon marks the end of a measure, and a slash (/) indicates a split beat, two things occuring in a single beat of music.


Example of a Basic Figure

For more figures, click on the rhythm in the sidebar to the upper left.

Here are also some music samples: mp3 files, most 150 - 300 MB.

Cha Cha-4b/m

Official International Tempo: 32m/m; American Tempo: 28-30m/m

(Dolittle Cha is 32; Gazpacho Cha is 32; Last Night Cha is 30)


Looser hold in latin, bodies 6" apart. On balls of feet, knees flexed; somewhat bouncy feel: one, two, cha-cha-cha; The second option above is called guapacha (waa-paa-cha) timing, or more often, simply "guapa" timing. You wait through most of the first beat, slowly drawing the free foot toward the supporting foot, and then step quickly, &2. It's a syncopated 1,2. The cha is normal timing. The "time step" in cha is a figure where guapa timing fits well.

Full Basic: In closed wall fwd, rec, sd/cl, sd; bk, rec, sd/cl, sd;

Here is a bit of Cha Cha Frenesi, uncued, Doolittle Cha, cued by John Grooms, and You're the Top, cued by Chris Cantrell.


Official International Tempo: 26-27m/m; American Tempo: 32-36m/m

(both Amapola and Perfidia are 28; Esta Rumba is 27)


More regular tempo than cha, on balls of feet, knees flexed. Latin hip follows the step.

Full Basic: In closed wall fwd, rec, sd, -; bk, rec, sd, -;

Listen to parts of And I Love You So, uncued; and And I Love You So and Mia Tres, cued by Chris Cantrell.


Official American Tempo: 48-51m/m

(Jambo Mambo, and Tequilla are 40; Sing A Long Mambo is 42)


Sharp initial step, small steps; a fast, staccato rumba. Latin hip follows the step.

Basic: In closed wall step forward, recover, side, -; back, recover, side, -;

Audio examples here are from Jack Is Back, uncued, and Who's Got the Mambo, cued by Chris Cantrell.



Official International Tempo: 48-50m/m; American Tempo: 52m/m

(Eso Beso is 52m/m)

Round dancers think in terms of 4 beats per measure, yielding an effect of ~26 measures per minute — samba isn't fast.

2; 3a4;
1a2a; 3a4;

With a soft "samba bounce."

Basic Forward and Back: In closed position fwd/cl, step, bk/cl, step;

You may listen to some of Iko Iko, uncued, or Iko Iko or Bring It All Back, cued by Chris Cantrell.

Swing or Jive-4b/m

Official International Tempo for Jive: 44-46m/m; American Tempo for Swing: 34-36m/m

Kansas City is 28; Calendar Girl is 31; Pink Caddilac is 32; Tampa Jive is 34)

123&4; 1&2
123&4; 123&4;

Soft knees; quite a bouncy feel. More free than cha; think jitterbug. This is "triple swing." At faster tempos, you can dance "double swing" (1234;12) or more commonly, "single swing" (qqs;s)

Basic Rock: In facing position rk apt, rec, sd/cl, sd; sd/cl, sd,

Here, I have Choo Choo Ch'Boogie, a fast jive, uncued, Pink Cadillac, uncued, Tampa Jive, cued by Chris Cantrell, and Zat You, a jive/foxtrot, cued by Jim Bahr.

West-Coast Swing-4b/m

Official American Tempo: 28-32m/m

(Java Jive is 26)

1234; 1&2
123&4; 1&2
123&4; 123&4;

Slow and smooth; a "slot" dance where woman dances as on a diving board; the man moves to the side to let her pass.

Sugar Push: In facing position line back, bk, tch, fwd; XIB/sd, sd, (woman bk/cl fwd),

You can listen to samples of Java Jive, uncued, or to Java Jive or Love Potion West, both cued by Chris Cantrell.




(Sugar Blues is 27; In the Mood is 36)


A slow swing style.

Swing Out: In left open facing position, lead feet free, rock back and recover; the woman steps forward, forward. On the triple, turn right face 1/2 with a side/close, side to closed position. In second measure, hook right behind left, continuing right face 1/2, step side; woman steps fwd, fwd, turning 1/2. Then man does a back triple, and woman does a little side triple to left open facing again.

To get a feel for this rhythm, you can listen to clips from In the Mood, uncued, or In the Mood, cued by Chris Cantrell.



(Good Lovin' is 48)


Fast like mambo but more open, loose, and free

Side Basic: Facing partner step side, rec, cl, -; sd, rec, cl, -;
Double Step: Facing sd, cl, sd, -; sd, cl, sd, -;

Listen to a clip from Bailamos, uncued, Salsa Cafe, cued by John Grooms, or She Knows That She Wants To, cued by Chris Cantrell.


Official American Tempo: 28-30m/m

(Be My Lover is 28)


Smooth and flat disco/swing; another slot dance.

Basic: In closed position (all quicks) point lead foot to side, small side step, point to trail side, small side step; close, step,
Push Break: In low butterfly position (bfly) step back on left/recover, check fwd on left, bk,

This rhythm has not been used much in round dancing, but here is a clip from Be My Lover, uncued.


Official American Tempo: 24-26m/m

(Abrazame is 23)


Very slow first step with rise, then lower on beats 2 & 3. Smooth, regular tempo; a slow, sensual rumba.

Basic: In closed wall sd, -, slip bk, fwd; sd, -, slip fwd, bk;

Listen to a bit from Sleeping Beauty, uncued, or Sleeping Beauty, cued by Chris Cantrell.

Slow Two-Step-4 or 6b/m


(Adeline is 32; In This Life is 32; Rachel's Song is 26)


Slow and flat; no rise and fall.

Basic: In closed wall side, -, xib, rec; sd, -, xib, rec;
In 6/4 timing, a half basic would be sd, -, -, xib, -, rec;

Here is a part of Adeline, uncued, and an old favorite, Rachel's Song, cued by Chris Cantrell.

Argentine Tango-4b/m

Official American Tempo: 26-33m/m

(Fenestra is 28; Peligro is 25; Otra Noche is 24; Verano is 32)


Slower and smoother than International Tango; flowing steps on balls of feet, knees flexed, slight rise and fall.

Basic: In closed position (all slows) point left foot to side, -, draw l to r, -; step sd left, -, fwd r to banjo, -; fwd l, -, close r, -;
Tango Draw: fwd, fwd & sd, draw l to r, -;

I have some of Ole Guapa (uncued) and Fenestra, cued by Chris Cantrell.


Official American Tempo: 29-32m/m

(Gravity Storm is 29)


A flat, marching feel but with lots of Cuban hip: place the foot early, take weight late, which moves the hip. Some conscious hip thrusts.

Forward Basic: In closed fwd, fwd, fwd, fwd;
Side Basic: In closed sd, cl, sd, cl;

Here is Dancez Merengue, uncued, and Dancez Merengue, cued by John Grooms.

Paso Doble


Official International Tempo: 60-62m/m; American Tempo: 58-60m/m

(El Pico is 60; Spanish Banderillero is 31)

As in samba, round dancers think in terms of 4 beats per measure, yielding an effect of ~30 measures per minute — paso isn't fast either.


A flat, marching dance with proud, upright carriage.

Appel: Right foot (woman left) is lowered firmly to the floor, This is the first step of many paso figures.
Basic : In closed position appel, fwd, fwd, fwd;
Ecart : In loose closed position appel, fwd, sd, cross in back (XIB) to semi;

You may listen to a clip from Paso Cadiz, uncued, or Trumpet Fiesta, cued by Chris Cantrell.

Exerpt published as “Rhythms and Timing,” in Dallas Harvest Holiday 2007, 47-10, p. 2, 10/2007; reprinted Texas Round Dance Teachers Association Newsletter, November 2011.


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