Guest post by Greg Dyke
As a dancer (in the blues partner dance scene), trying to understand blues music can be challenging. The variety is huge and the set of music that gets DJed or is played by live bands is not always representative of this variety, or can include songs from various blues-adjacent genres.
The way blues music is often described and categorized has never 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.
If you take the different blues idiom dances, many of them are also attached to a period and geographical area, and to specific types of music.
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 from. [^1]
However, coming from a “I just want to have fun and dance nicely to whatever music is playing” perspective, there is just too much information to assimilate over a short period of time, and too little that is directly (or obviously) relevant to dancing.
Where to start?!
Brenda Russell has been teaching about blues music in the past few years with a focus on the different kinds of blues rhythms or “grooves” that can be found, and the ways in which such rhythms can be danced to. One could maybe call them “song types” rather than genres or styles?
In this article, I’m going to summarize the simplest version that I have been able to make sense and use of. 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 music 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 music. 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* beats [^2].
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 tune. [^3]
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;
Or if you can count:
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.
Please note that 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.
One of the most common blues rhythms is shuffle (and related rhythms such as swing blues, jump blues and boogie).
Shuffle has a ternary beat where only 2 sub-divisions are marked (a1 a2 a3 a4) and tends to have the feel of a strong “long” one, and a “short” two.
A slow shuffle
A faster shuffle
On these kinds of songs, some of the typical dance rhythms are:
A forward and backward pendulum with each one coming on alternate beats (example: forward on every 1 & 3 or 2 & 4), with feet marking at a1 a2 a3 a4.
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.
A lot of music of the swing era (and thereabouts) 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 ‘slows’ and ‘quick quicks’, adding a lot of traveling, while using mostly binary subdivisions for the rhythms in the feet (and relatively little use of ternary subdivision).
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 comes 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 traveling steps works well with these musics, especially enjoying the subdivision rhythm of the beat with the rib cage or, more rarely, with waltz steps.
For those musics that are binary, a large variety of them are of different latin rhythms.
Here is a popular rumba:
to the funky sounds of boogaloo
Various mixtures of slows, quick quicks and unsyncopated triples work well.
I particularly like the characteristic rumba rhythm:slow,
slow, quick quick ( counted: 1 _ 3 4 )
with the pendulum swinging forward on every step.
If we’re only thinking in ‘slows’ and ‘quick quick’ steps, there’s no difference in thinking binary or ternary. But the choice does affect the pendulum (pulse) of the body. Outside of stepping on beat, choosing to use subdivisions is one of the more interesting differences in dancing to binary vs ternary beats.
Country blues tends to have a ragtime or similar binary sound, often with guitar picking. To dance, a struttin’, or paddle steps and skip hops work well.
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.
[^1]: 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.
[^2]: 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.
[^3]: 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.
Thanks to Greg Dyke, the author of this post.