In this article, we cover dance music beats focuing on downbeats and upbeats. In addition, we include a beat definition to help dancers understand musical beats. Dancing is an ekphrastic art form, as well as, a recreational activity. The term, ekphrasis means one art form responding to another art form. An example, is a poem written about a painting. Moreover, dancing responds to music. In  partner dancing, the dancers respond to each other and the music. However, there is a difference between dancing when music is playing and dancing to the music. Furthermore, dancers dance to the music. Hence, having an understanding of the basic elements of how to listen and respond to the music is important in achieving the expressive aspect of dancing.

Dance Music Beats - Upbeats Downbeats Lesson

(Listen and Understand Dance Music mini lesson by Brando Detty)

Dancers don’t have to learn to play an instrument or sight read music but it is important to hear the beats, keep time to the music and have a basic understanding of phrasing and downbeats/upbeats. In the dance genres that encourage more freedom of expression like the West Coast swing, both the Leads and Follows benefit from a basic understanding of these elements in order to incorporate musicality into their dancing.

Understanding the Dance Music Beats

In this article, we will cover the basic concepts necessary to understand and distinguish dance music beats. Particularly, we will focus on distinguishing the downbeats from the upbeats in dancing. I will address the concept using the West Coast swing but also give examples of how this understanding is important for dance music generally. An understanding of downbeats and upbeats is an essential component in one’s dance education.

Dancers should be able to hear and tap out the beats of music for the various popular dance genres. If you have difficulty hearing the dance music beats, ask someone who is has some music background or an experienced dancer to help out by pointing out what to listen for in dance music. After distinguishing the beats, it’s important to understand the two beat increments (three beats in waltz but usually two beats in most dance genres), which are referred to as units. Furthermore, most experienced dancers can hear the two beat units and are able to distinguish the odd beats from the even beats of music.

The majority of dance music beats are organized in muliples of two. However, there are three beats repeated twice for a six beat phrase in the waltz.  In addition, the first beat of three is a down beat. The first of every three beats usually has a lower pitch sound sometimes referred to as a “boom.” The next two beats are higher in pitch and often described as a “tick tick” or a “click click.” The West Coast swing has two-beat increments that might be described as a “boom, tick.” Therefore, the boom is the downbeat and the tick is the upbeat.

(Dance Music Beats – downbeats & upbeats mini lesson)


Downbeats are the odd beats of music like the 1,3, 5 and 7. Upbeats are the even beats of music; the 2, 4,6 and 8. A great exercise is to tap your foot on the downbeat and then snap your fingers on the upbeats. Have you heard the saying, “dancers don’t let their friends clap on the downbeats?”

Generally for dance music, we start on the downbeat at the beginning of a phrase.  Moreover, it’s best to start on count one of an eight beat phrase in the West Coast swing and also count one of a six beat phrase in waltz. Phrasing is another important element in dancing to the music and is crucial to becoming a better dancer.


Various dictionaries offer three or more defintions for the term upbeat or upbeats. For our purposes, we will focus on the definition for the upbeat in dancing. Generally, it is defined as the “unaccented beat, especially immediately preceding a downbeat,” as stated in

Now, take your first dance steps after listening for the beats, listen for the downbeats and upbeats. If possible, start at the beginning of a phrase, for instance in West Coast swing, after an eight beat phrase. Practice listening to different types of dance music to hear the music beats. Remember to continue to listen and respond to the downbeats and upbeats while dancing, so that you are responding to the music more effectively by incorporating this simple technique to your dancing!

(Mercedes Moore Band, San Diego singer, soul, blues and reggae)


Wikipedia Beat (Music)