Rhythm Structure

The rhythmic structure of a dance describes how the steps of the dance synchronize with the music that it is danced to. The steps are correlated with the rhythm of the music, but the correlation is more sophisticated than just taking a step on every beat of the music—sometimes a step is on a beat, sometimes a step is between beats, and sometimes a beat has no step at all.

In a fast-moving dance like the Lindy Hop, at any moment the dancer's weight is on only one of their feet, say the left. The other (right) foot, without any weight on it, is moving to take the next step. As the dancer takes this next step, their weight transfers from one foot to another (so it is now on their right foot), and the process continues with the next step.

The rhythm of a dance corresponds to how these steps, these changes of weight from foot to foot, line up with the music. For Lindy Hop, these core rhythms are described in the following sections, but they are all built from a common set of smaller units.

The fundamental units of rhythm each take two beats of music to perform, so one bar of music corresponds to two of these units, and a two-bar, eight-beat section of music corresponds to four such units. For a two-beat unit, the key information is whether the number of steps is even or odd.

Suppose the dancer's weight is on their left foot at the beginning of a two-beat unit.

  • If the dancer takes a single step during the unit, their weight will be on their right foot at the end of the unit.
  • If the dancer takes two steps during the unit, they will end up back on their left foot.
  • If the dancer fits in three steps during the unit, the final position will again be with weight on the right foot.
  • If the dancer is fast enough to fit in four steps, they will end up back on their left again.

The pattern is clear: for an odd number of steps, the dancer moves from their left to their right foot during the unit. For an even number of steps, the dancer starts and ends on their left (and of course zero is an even number, which fits the pattern). It also doesn't matter which foot the dancer began with; equivalent things happen when the dancer starts on their right foot. What's important is whether the dancer changes weight or ends up on the same foot during the course of the two-beat unit.

This is important because it allows the dancers to change the details of the footwork without affecting the overall structure of the dance. In a move where there are three steps in a particular two-beat unit, if a dancer decides to alter things and do a single step instead (because it looks more dramatic, or just because they're tired), then they will still end up with their weight on the same foot, ready for the next unit.

Another observation that arises from this counting of steps is that any longer repeated cycles must add up to an even number of steps. If a sequence starts with a step from the left foot, when it is repeated it also needs to start with the left, so there had better have been an even number of steps in the meanwhile.

For a partner dance, the other piece of information needed to describe the dance is how the steps of the leader and the follower are related. Almost universally, they will dance to the same rhythms; if the leader is doing an even number of steps in a two-beat unit of music, so will the follower. What's left is to specify whether they are using the same or opposite feet: whether their movements are

  • mirrored: when the leader's weight is on his right foot, the follower's weight on her left foot (and vice versa), or
  • in unison: when the leader's weight is on his right foot, the follower's weight on her right foot (and vice versa).

The process of shifting from one state to the other is the exception where the leader and follower are necessarily using different rhythms.

In this context, we can tersely describe the rhythmic structure of Lindy Hop as being made up of the following three rhythms, each of which is explored in more detail later:

  • Eight-Beat Rhythm: mirrored even-odd-even-odd.
  • Six-Beat Rhythm: mirrored even-odd-odd.
  • Charleston Rhythm: unison even-odd-even-odd.

Before moving on to the individual units that form the building blocks of the dance, it's worth emphasizing that this section only describes the rhythms of the dance: the footsteps you would hear in time with the music. As we'll describe in the rest of the book, the rhythm of each step is accompanied by movement and rotation and lead and follow. A rhythm that is mirrored between the leader and the follower will sometimes be visually mirrored as well, and sometimes will not be (for example, the follower might spin while the leader stays in place).

However, beginning Lindy Hop dancers do need to practise the rhythms in this section until they are completely second nature. When the music is fast and the dancers are trying to remember a tricky move, this kinaesthetic memory will keep the dancers in time with the music, and allow recovery if the move goes wrong.

Even Number of Steps

The simplest possible rhythm to accompany a two-beat unit of music is to do nothing—to stand still, with the dancer's weight remaining on whichever foot it started on. This is a rather static movement for such a dynamic dance, so often the foot without weight will do something while the weighted foot stays in place—most commonly, by kicking on the first of the two beats.

If the dancer performs two steps in the two beats of music, then they again end up back with their weight on the foot it started from. Most of the time, these two steps will be performed in time with the music, one step on each beat. However, sometimes the first beat of the two is used for something else (such as a kick), and the two steps will be bunched closer together, in a step known as a "ball change".

It's also possible to squeeze in four steps in two beats of music, but this is usually only feasible with slower music and using steps that don't travel very far.

Step Pattern Number of Steps Example Count Notes
Hold 0 Mostly used with faster music, or to freeze as emphasis.
Kick-Hold 0 1: Kick, 2: Hold Common in patterns for Charleston Moves.
Step-Step 2 1: Step, 2: Step Sometimes referred to as a "Quick" step (from ballroom dancing usage).
Hold-Ball-Change 2 7: Hold, &: Step, 8: Step Often used just before the start of a sequence, as an lead-in; sometimes referred to as another meaning for the term "Stomp Off".
Kick-Ball-Change 2 1: Kick, &: Step, 2: Step Common in jazz step sequences.
And-Step-And-Step 4 & Step, 1: Step, &: Step, 2: Step Hard to perform with faster music.

It is worth highlighting one particular variant of the 'Step-Step' pattern: the rock step. For this, the first step is a step backwards and the second step is a replacement of the other foot back in the place where it started. The net effect is for the dancer to momentarily rock back then forwards again. This step is used very frequently as the first pair of steps in a move; given that it is such a common punctuation, it can also be used as a way for the dancers to get back in sync with each other and with the music if things have gone awry.

Graphical representation of unit with even number of steps
Graphical representation of unit with even number of steps

Odd Number of Steps

During a two-beat period of music, if the dancer transfers their weight from one foot to the other, they will perform an odd number of steps. The simplest variant of this is just to take a single step. This step usually occurs on the first of the two beats; the dancer then holds in place for the second of the two beats.

It is possible for the single step to occur on the second of the two beats; this most commonly occurs when the first beat of the pair is used for a kick (or some other action that does not involve a change of weight).

For music of slower or medium tempo, taking a single step in a two-beat interval of music interrupts the flow of the dance, and it is much more common to instead take three steps. This "triple step" is a common feature of swing dance forms; it has a "shuffle" feel to it because the middle of the three steps is normally rather shorter than the other steps (in order to align with the swung triplets that are common in jazz-derived music).

Step Pattern Number of Steps Example Count Notes
Step 1 1: Step, 2: Hold Sometimes referred to as a "Slow" step (from ballroom dancing usage).
Hold-Step 1 1: Hold, 2: Step Used in Balboa.
Kick-Step 1 1: Kick, 2: Step Common in patterns for Charleston moves.
Triple-Step 3 1: Step, &: Step, 2: Step Sometimes referred to as a "Chassé" step (from ballroom dancing usage).

Graphical representation of unit with odd number of steps
Graphical representation of unit with odd number of steps

Counting Steps

The moves described in this book have a label attached to each of the steps. Most of these labels are numbers, which indicate what beat of the music the step should fall on. Some of the labels are ampersands (&), which indicate that the step should fall in between beats in the music.

This numbering system normally cycles around at beat 8, so the next beat is beat 1 (123456781234567812…). This is a traditional arrangement which is derived from the fact that the musical structure of swing typically involves eight-beat (two bar) phrases.

A few of the moves break this rule of resetting the count at beat 8, because the move is slightly longer than eight beats—it's easier to understand a 10-beat move with a count from 1 to 10 rather than 1234567812.

The vast majority of the moves covered also start their numbering with beat 1 (or with beat 8 for some jazz steps that start on the lead-in beat of the music). The exceptions to this rule are variations or additions to other moves, where the numbering is synchronized with the previous move; for example, if a move variation shares exactly the same motions as a base move for the first four beats, the description of the variation might start with beat number 5.

Many Lindy Hop moves include a rock step, where (say) the leader momentarily steps back on his left foot and then immediately returns his weight to his right foot on the following beat of the music. This small sequence is present in the core eight-beat moves, six-beat moves and the Charleston moves, and its ubiquity makes it a prime target to be altered for footwork variations (see the Rock Step Variations section).

The step counts for moves throughout the book have been aligned so that this common rock step feature occurs on counts 1 and 2 of the move. In practice this does not mean that the rock step will always fall on beats 1 and 2 of the eight-beat phrases in the music—because Lindy Hop includes moves of varying length, the alignment of the start of each move with the musical phrasing will shift throughout the song.

Even counts in the step patterns will always align with even beats in the music, though, so there are four possible alignments between the counting for the moves and the counting for beats in the music. Different alignments are also illustrated in the Putting It Together section, which includes multiple moves of different lengths.

Music 12345678 or  12345678 or  12345678 or  12345678
Dance 12345678  34567812  56781234  78123456