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Teaching Rhythm in Dance: Ideas and Exercises

teaching rhythm

Growing up, I trained in all styles of dance and played a musical instrument, the piano. I could easily and proficiently count music, read music, and identify an upbeat or downbeat. Now, as a teacher, I notice that many students, across varying ages and skill levels, struggle with the musical components of dance instruction. Phrasing, tempo, and rhythm are concepts that require detailed explanation and practice in execution and understanding in all styles of dance. Here are a couple of exercises I have integrated into my classes to work on teaching rhythm and helping our understanding of music:

Finding the 8-Count:

There are so many times that I’ve asked a student to find an 8 count. And, they struggled. The understanding of musicality and musical phrasing is an essential part of being a successful dancer, teacher, and educator. In dance, counts are the road map to success. Musicality strengthens a performance into an experience.

Take the time to review rhythm. Explain the different possibilities for timing and counting. This will make your students more adaptable as they work with other teachers and instructors.

Exercise: Round Robin Counts

We will open a class with round robin style counting exercises. Students will take turns finding an 8-count of phrasing in the music, and they will “pass” the phrase onto another dancer who will work to continue the phrasing and counting of the particular music. To notate the phrases, we clap or march and say the counts out loud. For this exercise, we vary types and tempos of music used.

Occasionally, I will stop the lesson of regular classes to “find the 8 count!” Students  learn to be ready for it- which means they are diligently counting in warm-up, across the floor progressions, and in combinations. This skills transfers to shows, dance teams, and auditions. It is a valuable part of their dance education experience!

Activity: Teaching 8-Count in other Languages

Here’s a fun Classroom Activity- teaching your students to count to 8 in different languages!

SPANISH: Uno / Dos / Tres / Cuatro / Cinco / Seis / Siete / Ocho

FRENCH: Un / Deux / Trois / Quatre / Cinq / Six / Sept / Huit

ITALIAN: Uno / De / Tre / Quattro / Cinque / Sei / Sette / Otto

This is a fun, educational (and applicable!) activity for all ages/levels.

Teaching With Counts

When I teach choreography with counts, I like to have the students repeat the counting to reiterate the importance of  phrasing and timing. I tell them we are using the counts as our road map, and to stay on the same journey, we must use the same map.

Phrasing, Tempo, & Rhythm 

I will teach a brief segment of choreography (8 or 16 counts), and we will practice executing it at different speeds:

  • Double time
  • Half time
  • Triple time

It is important that students understand the process of counts and the ability to manipulate speed and tempo.

With time and repetition, these exercises strengthen the dancers’ understanding of rhythm, musicality, and phrasing, improving their overall performance and understanding of dance.

Chasta Hamilton Calhoun

Chasta is the artistic director and owner of Stage Door Dance Productions in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is also the founder of The Dance Exec, a website and organization that provided resources and training for dance studio owners. The resources from The Dance Exec have a new home on the TutuTix blog, giving dance studio owners an even more in-depth library of free tools and information with which to grow their business. Chasta contributes to the TutuTix blog from time to time, offering her perspective as a studio owner (and TutuTix client!).