As a blues dancer, trying to get your head around the huge variety of blues music can be challenging.
The way blues music is often described and categorised has rarely seemed directly relevant to me as a dancer. If you take the All Music Guide to Blues, for example, various subgenres of blues are described by period, history, geographical area and instrumentation. The link to the blues idiom dances is not obvious, at least not in a “one music type” directly matching to “one blues idiom dance” kind of way.
Knowing this history and how things relate is important if we want to develop a meaningful practice that is respectful of where the music and dance come from1. However, coming from a “I just want to have fun and dance nicely to whatever music is playing” perspective, there is a lot to learn. Where to start?
This is the simplest version that I have been able to make sense and use of (based mostly on the teaching of Brenda Russell). Any attempt to classify any kind of music into a small number of categories is doomed to failure, so think of it more as a starting point for exploration of ways of listening to blues music as dancers, than something that is in any way “correct”.
Binary or Ternary?
Most musics can be thought of as having a regular beat. And some number of beats (often 3 or 4) group together into a bar, which are often grouped together further into 2s, 4s, 8s or 12s (or any other group), to form phrases. We often count these beats with numbers: 1 2 3 4.
Beats tend to be subdivided more “organically”, particularly in dance musics. Sometimes the subdivisions are perfectly regular: 1& 2& 3& 4& describes four binary beats; 1&a 2&a 3&a 4&a describes four ternary beats2.
The ternary beat is often expressed without the &: a1 a2 a3 a4. And the subdivisions of a beat are more fluid in their timing than the beats. They can be somewhere between binary and ternary, or in some music styles vary in amount within a tune3.
In this simple classification of blues, most blues will be either ternary or binary. Apart from instinctively feeling the difference with your body, if you can count 1&2&3&4 it’s binary, and if it’s a1&a2&a3&a4& or a1a2a3a4 it’s ternary.
If it’s binary, it’s most likely either latin blues or country blues.
If it’s ternary, it’s most likely slow blues, shuffle or jazz blues.
These five terms (latin, country blues, slow blues, shuffle, and jazz blues) are all used in this post to encompass a wider range than what is technically meant by those terms. But it’s better than calling them A, B, C, D and E.
One of the most common blues rhythms is shuffle (and related rhythms such as swing blues, jump blues and boogie) This has a ternary beats where only 2 subdivisions are strongly marked by the rhythm section (a1 a2 a3 a4) and tends to have the feel of a strong “long” one, and a hit “short” on two.
On these kinds of songs, some of the typical dance rhythms are a plain step touch (and variations on step touch, such as fishtail), tchoo-tchoo shuffle (a forward and backward pendulum with a forward coming every 2 beats and a step-step pattern on each shuffle beat) and sailor shuffle (a side to side swing/pendulum forward on 1, with the hit on 2 going into a backward pendulum with a ball change: a1 2 a3 4 = change-step ball change-step ball).
(Music is an extract from Rain by the California Honeydrops)
A lot of music of the swing era (and thereabouts) is has characteristics of both jazz and blues. Jazz blues tends to be rather slow for swing dancing and have the same “a1 a2 a3 a4” as shuffle, but with the steady chug chug chug chug of swing music (or an equally steady boum tchick boum tchick of earlier jazz). The instrumentation also tends to be more swing-like, with a lot of melody in the horns.
From a dance perspective such musics can often be danced with an alternation of steps (or quicks), step touches, and slows (same tempo as a step touch, but without marking the touch), and with a lot of travelling, making relatively little use of the ternary subdivision for the rhythms in the feet.
(Music is an extract from Darkness on the Delta by Cassidy and the Orleans Kids)
Last of the ternary we have slow blues. Often, all the ternary subdivisions are present, typically in the percussion. There is also some continuity between slow shuffle and slow blues, as there gets a point where the a1 a2 gets too slow for dancing shuffle and moves into slow drag. Depending on how the ternary beat is marked, there is also a relationship to waltzes.
Sticking to step touches and the occasional travelling steps works well with these musics, especially enjoying the subdivision rhythm of the beat with the rib cage or, more rarely, with waltz steps.
To make my job easier in recording the counts and steps for this post, I chose a particularly fast slow blues extract, that I sped up slightly, so that it would be at the same tempo as the shuffle extract (which is quite slow for a shuffle) and the jazz blues extract (which is also fairly slow).
(Music is an extract from Please Mr. Jailer by Wynona Carr)
For those musics that are binary, a large variety of them are of different latin rhythms, going from rumba to the funky sound of boogaloo.
Various mixtures of slows and quick quicks work well. I particularly like the characteristic rumba rhythm of slow, quick quick or 1 - 3 4, with the pendulum swinging forward on every step (while the difference between binary and ternary doesn’t matter if we’re only stepping on slows and quick quicks, the pulse or pendulum is affected - and aside from stepping on beat subdivisions is one of the more interesting differences in dancing to binary vs ternary beats). In the example below, the “and” marks the back swing, and the slows and quicks mark the forward swing as well as the steps.
(Music is an extract from Death Comes a Knockin by Ruthie Foster)
Country blues tends to have a ragtime or similar binary sound, often with guitar picking. To dance, struttin’, or step-pulses, paddle steps and skip hops work well.
(Music is an extract from Don’t Forget It by Nathan James & Ben Hernandez)
How does this help?
I was listening to a set at a blues dance while thinking about writing this post, and, because it was a good set, with a lot of musical variety, many songs didn’t fit nicely into this classification. But the majority did. When a music doesn’t directly speak to my body and cause it to move, I use these categories to try to connect to ideas of dance basics that I can use beyond “simple” step-touches. I also use it when I DJ and teach, as one of the ways to keep things within a similar theme but also including variety: staying within shuffle, electric vs acoustic, or sticking to electric guitar, but moving from slow blues to boogaloo.
Ultimately, it is only a simple beginning to understanding more deeply where blues music comes from and how it makes us dance.
Why is knowing about the history of blues music and dancing important? That’s a question for another day. For now, let’s just assume it is important, but we are deliberately ignoring most of this history in this post. ↩
Deciding which regularly occurring pulse is the beat is not always unambiguous. Four binary beats could also be argued to be 8 beats, grouped in pairs (1-2 3-4 5-6 7-8), and four ternary beats could also be argued to be 12 beats, grouped in threes (1-2-3 4-5-6 7-8-9 10-11-12). Especially in the context of this post, it’s just semantics. ↩
In swing, for example, at certain tempos, the beat is evenly broken down into an even 3, with “swung” pairs of notes lasting 2/3 and 1/3 of a beat. As the tempo gets faster, the rhythm evens out more and more, but still leaving us with the perception of a swing feel. As the tempo gets slower, the rhythm becomes more uneven. http://www.speech.kth.se/prod/publications/files/2968.pdf ↩