May 13, 2020

The crucial role of accenting the offbeat in dance rhythms

Having discussed the inter-relationship of music and dance in the previous post, we'll move on to the specific topic of how musical rhythm and dance relate to each other, with special attention to the role of accenting the offbeat when making dance rhythms.

From a recent post on the current revival of disco rhythms, here's a straightforward model to understand the link between rhythm and dance, using the simplest of dances:

Consider marching in place to a count that goes: 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4; etc. One of your feet is striking the ground on each of those four main beats. Now insert a little "and" in between each of those four main beats: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and; 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and; etc. These "and" spots are the offbeat, and correspond to raising your leg up, before striking it down on the ground on the main beat.

We're using 4 beats per measure because that's the standard. Giving them equal length makes each one of them a quarter note. When we squeeze in those "and" offbeats, that makes each note only half as long -- eighth notes. Squeezing in more, shorter offbeats produces sixteenth notes, but using this level of complexity is less common. (To sound it out: 1 and then it's 2 and then it's 3 and then it's 4 and then it's, etc.)

In addition to marching in place, consider some other simple rhythmic activities, and see which motions involve the main beat and which involve the offbeat.

Doing jumping jacks -- the main beat is when your feet hit the ground to your sides and your hands reach their highest point over your shoulders. The offbeat is when your feet retract to being right under you and hit the ground, and when your hands retract back to your sides. If you count out loud while doing them, you'll say the numbers when your limbs are most extended, while saying "and" each time they retract back.

Pumping your fist in the air -- your wind-up is completed with the offbeat, and the fullest extension is completed with the main beat. Counting out loud, you'll say "and" when your arm is fully wound up, and say the numbers when your fist punches as far as it's going to.

Nodding or bobbing your head -- you wind up your neck backward until the offbeat hits, then nod or bob it forward until the main beat hits. You'll say "and" when your head is furthest back, and say the numbers when it's furthest forward.

Squatting down and popping back up -- you reach the lowest depth and your knees are bent when the offbeat hits, and you are standing upright and your knees are straight when the main beat hits. You'll say "and" by the time you squat the furthest down, and say the numbers upon regaining upright posture.

Pelvic thrusting -- offbeat when your pelvis is furthest back, main beat when it's furthest forward. You'll say "and" when it's fully back, and say the numbers when it's fully forward. If you're moving your pelvis side-to-side to bump hips with someone next to you, the offbeat hits when your hips are furthest away from their target, and the main beat hits when they contact their target. You'll say "and" when they're furthest away, and say the numbers when they make contact.

You get the idea. Each of these activities consists of two motions -- a wind-up, and a delivery of force. Naturally, the fullest delivery of force should coincide with the strong main beats, while the less forceful wind-up should coincide with the weak offbeats.

During an actual instance of dancing, you probably won't be doing just one of these activities over and over, but these are some of the building blocks that can be assembled into a more varied dance, whether doing one at a time and changing them up, or doing several simultaneously.

To return to the broader topic of the inseparability of music and dance, the models above are not just learning aids or analogies. Musical rhythms are marked by offbeats and main beats precisely because music is so dependent upon dance -- it is designed to coordinate rhythmic bodily movement, whatever else it may or may not be doing in any particular song. (The converse dependency -- dance depending upon music -- is not controversial.)

Those bodily movements involve a wind-up motion and a delivery motion, so musicians must play two different kinds of beats. And since music is meant to dovetail with dance, the strength or weakness is matched between the musical rhythm and the dance motions -- with the weak kind of beat timed with the weak kind of motion, and the strong kind of beat timed with the strong kind of motion.

But why does dance music need to saliently mark the offbeats? Can't there just be rhythmic silence between the main beats -- 1, 2, 3, 4, with no "and"s in between -- and it's understood that the weak wind-up motion will happen some time during the silence, while the strong delivery will happen with the main beat? In other words: silence is weak, so why not pair silence with the weak motion of winding up?

Because although winding up is a weak motion, it does have a definite end-point, and it helps the body coordinate itself to the music if there's a clear marker of when the winding-up motion should stop, and the delivery motion should begin.

That's the problem that non-kinesthetic people have -- they draw out one motion for too long and start the next one late, or they cut one motion too short and start the next one early, so that their changing of motions is not in sync with the beat. Accenting the offbeat (in addition to the main beat) helps to keep both types of motion -- the weak wind-up and the strong delivery -- easily timed by the audience.

Try pumping your fist to a sparse count of 1, 2, 3, 4 -- you'll notice that your wind-up is not as drawn back, and you may not even be moving the upper part of your arm and shoulder, just moving your fist back and forth with your forearm only. Pretty crappy fist-pumping. But put an offbeat between each main beat, and fist-pump to a count of 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Now you'll notice pulling your whole arm further back, feeling more coiled strength when the offbeat "and" hits, and then delivering a more forceful pump by the time the main beat hits.

For cerebral people, who are awkward in their own body, this may feel disturbing, like your body is being controlled by a musical puppeteer, or better yet like a wind-up toy. Each micro-motion of your body being marked with a rhythmic pulse -- it brings to mind the phrase "marching in lockstep," or movie scenes of an ancient ship's slaves rowing their oars while their supervisor bangs a drum to coordinate them.

But as usual with cerebrals, their rationalizing gets the better of them -- marking these main beats and offbeats helps the audience member to coordinate their body, both individually and collectively (as we already saw with doing the bump in pairs, or something similar in a larger group like a circle dance).

The regimented rhythm is not discouraging or shutting down something -- it is enabling and encouraging something. Without it, most people wouldn't be able to dance for shit. They'd embarrass themselves and turn off the opposite sex. With it, they've got enough of a kinesthetic aid to guide them through the motions effortlessly.

Moving your body in sync with the rhythm is not machinelike or robotic, it is allowing you to be fully human -- rather than just some disembodied mind. Nobody thinks of dancers, athletes, and other kinesthetic types as robots -- that would be the stereotype of cerebrals who are tone-deaf, have two left feet, fumble-fingers, and so on and so forth.

That's it for the overall discussion of why the offbeat must be marked in the rhythm of a dance song. So far, this marking has only taken the form of speech -- saying the numbers for main beats, and saying "and" for the offbeats. In an actual song, it's the percussion instruments that will take over this job, perhaps with some help from other instruments that are being played rhythmically rather than melodically.

In the next post, we'll get into the concrete details of the basic drum pattern for dancing, with a survey of examples from the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, when this kind of song emerges.


  1. Waltzes don't do offbeat markings, IIRC.
    Don't hear them often though.

  2. There's no room for offbeats in a standard Viennese waltz, which is played at 160-something beats per minute. You can barely count out loud "1 and 2 and 3 and" to that tempo, without getting tongue-tied. Let alone trying to move your limbs in a wind-up plus delivery, within a single beat.

    Or maybe waltz junkies (not one myself) are treating the 1st beat as the only main beat, and the 2nd and 3rd beats as offbeats, weak and trailing after the strong main 1st beat. Then they'd be using the 2 and 3 to do weaker preparatory motions, and deliver more force when it comes back to the 1.

    It's not a very kinesthetic dance anyway, with the limbs pretty still, and most of it footwork to turn around in a circle.

    At any rate, it's not that musicians of dance songs can't violate the rule -- just that it incurs a penalty, and dance-fever people will complain that the song isn't as danceable as they want.

  3. While we're on the subject of the virtues of corporeal people, perhaps we could tie it in with Peter Turchin's notion of "elite overproduction". Too many “progressives” nowadays think that society would be healthier with the likes of “universal Pre-K-to-PhD”; in other words, to inflate university credentials like the Zimbabwean currency! After all, it seems natural. The Western World has gone from societies where most didn’t need high school before the First World War to one where most attended high school but didn’t need college/university before the Second World War to the boomer generation and beyond striving for more and more post-secondary degrees. Yet, evidence shows this doesn’t lead to greater social health:

    During the “Great Compression”, American culture seemed to have a certain affection for the simple as pure and less corrupt. Between Gracie Allen in 1932 ( to Goldie Hawn in 1968 (, a sizable portion of American culture ran with this theme with a bit of Li’l Abner, Gilligan, and Pamela Tiffin (see 1:05:30 of thrown in.

    A good early 1960s film (the start of the outgoing culture and warm-up) on the cerebral vs corporeal conflict is Never on Sunday (1960), where a snobby, academic type in Greece tries to "reform" a carefree, fun-loving hooker. According to one review on imdb, "In the end, Dassin is defeated by Mercouri and the other whores who line the streets of Piraeus, as in fact they did at the time. Dassin loses his expression of awe, gets drunk, does a silly dance with the others in the tavern and shouts at Mercouri, "You're beautiful -- but you're dumb." She's not really so dumb. After all, she belongs to an established cinematic genre -- the happy peasant. The movies are full of them. Nationality doesn't count. They all share the same habits. They're happy in their work (usually having something to do with the earth), they sing, they dance, they eat with gusto (al fresco, weather permitting), they smile, they love life, they wear colorful costumes, and they don't mind a drink now and again. The only time they're serious is when they attend some religious ritual."

  4. By the way, if you are interested, I know a YouTube channel featuring a lot of aesthetics from the good old days in North America (1959-92).

  5. Never On Sunday, but a trad-cath who meets Mia Khalifa and becomes increasingly upset that she doesn't live up to his vision of the oldest churches from the birthplace of Christianity.

  6. If you are going to explore the cultures of other vulnerable phases, here is a video of potential interest. It relates to the "Loony Left" of late 1980s Britain, who were very big in inner city governments in the Thatcher era. The Loony Left were extremely similar to the woke left (except somewhat more mellow with a few bizarre conspiracy theories thrown in):

  7. The beatniks were the DSA of their heyday, a vulnerable phase -- late '50s. They didn't have a political figure to unite behind -- maybe Castro symbolically, but no one in the West itself -- so I wouldn't lump them in with the leftist bubbles that appear during vulnerable phases.

    But as a sub-culture, they're everything else seen in the leftist bubble -- dour, emo, and wokescolding -- not a peace-love-and-fun, public-space party culture like the hippies or the ravers or Occupy Wall Street (which exploded during manic phases).

    I started watching Mad Men again for the first time since it aired, and literally LOL'd at the scene where Don Draper hangs out at the beatnik club, especially the girl at 2:25 who could have been featured in an article in The Cut from 2019:

    By the early '60s, when the show is set, beatniks were facing a backlash and being lampooned (e.g., the Maynard G. Krebs character on Dobie Gillis).

  8. Here is a hipster historian lamenting the decline of the early 1970s vulnerable phase as embodied by the cultural shift from proto-woke New Hollywood of the early 1970s to the fun-loving Blockbuster era of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his book he also cites the Bicentennial as a turning point:

  9. That gets me thinking - was there a backlash against hipsters in the late 2000s? According to Wikipedia, there was.

    For instance, the TV sticom "Nathan Barley", in 2005:

    "Nathan Barley[16] (2005). The series, about a self-described "self-facilitating media node",[17] led to the term "Nathan Barleys" being used pejoratively for the subculture it parodied.[18]"

    Time magazine wrote a scathing article about hipsterdom in 2009:

    "Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silk-screened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care.
    — Time, July 2009.[14]"

    Interestingly, one writer ties the hipster phenomenon specifically to 1999-2003 - coinciding with the early 2000s defractory phase.

    "Mark Greif dates the initial phase of the revival of the term hipster to refer to this subculture from 1999 to 2003"

  10. The cerebral/corporeal distinction also explains why some people become better dancers after a few drinks. With the cerebrals it’s shutting off not just their inhibitions but that overthinking that gets in the way of feeling the beat.

  11. The "emo backlash" happens only in the warmup phase, not in the manic, when people have moved on.

    Most likely, there were similar backlashes in the early 90s, but against angsty Gen Xers from the late 80s. I can't think of many examples now - but the movie "Reality Bites"(with Ethan Hawke) comes to mind.

    "The plot follows Lelaina (Ryder), an aspiring videographer working on a documentary called Reality Bites about the disenfranchised lives of her friends and roommates. Their challenges exemplify some of the career and lifestyle choices faced by Generation X."

    "In the years since the initial release of the film, it has achieved cult status and has been singled out as one of the films that captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s grunge scene among young adults".

    Which of course brings up a different point - was grunge part of the emo backlash against the late 80s?

    Another example: The song "Basketcase"(1994) by Greenday. More of a 'gentle' backlash against emoness, being more sympathetic to the emo.

    The Offspring's "Self-Esteem"(1994) is in the same category, but less sympathetic, calling the emo guy out for being a loser.

    Both those songs were from the warmup peak year(1994), as was 'Reality Bites', which just shows that the trends become stronger as the phase goes on.


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