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Why Musicians and Dancers Count Differently

Updated: May 6, 2022

Singer on stage with a bass player behind her.

Why do dancers count 5, 6, 7, & 8? Because musicians took 1, 2, 3 & 4.

It's funny because it's true.

Dancers count music in groups of 8, while musicians count in groups of 4. This may seem like a small difference, but if dancers were at all aware of the problem it would probably start a massive civil war between the two, ending in thrown shoes and dented trumpets the likes of which could only be compared to an early apocalypse, with the angels brrmming their trumpets and, being ignored in the panicked cofuffle, finally giving up and throwing their trumpets at people. The conflict would equal in severity only to the Great Schism of 1054 that rocked the Catholic foundation and split the church because they couldn't agree on whether to say ‘from the father’ or ‘of the father.’

Luckily for us, when musicians talk technical, the eyes of the dancers glaze over with a confused myst and look at the musicians as if they're little green hominids with squiddy eyestalks coming out of their head.

To answer this infallible problem, we'll begin with the musicians, who were invented at least a couple of hundred years before swing dancing was.

How Musicians and Dancers Count

In the jazz music that swing dancers listen to, musicians count to 4. The swing dancers count to 8 in the same song. We’ll use the first line of a famous jazz tune, Shiny Stockings, to show what all the counting would look like if it was written down.

In the written music, every 4 beats is divided by a line and is called a 'bar.'

Dancers don't read music, in fact they don’t read at all. This is why they have so much time to dance. They only read Facebook to discover when the next dance event is on. Because they don't read, dancers feel the music, and move in the most natural way that makes sense to the way they are dancing.

It turns out that in swing music, groups of 8 beats is the most natural way to feel and dance to the music. 4 beats is too small - one rock step and triple step isn’t enough to make a proper move. 16 beats is waaay to long. 8 beats is in the Goldilocks zone - it’s just right!

There has always been a difference of opinion between the musicians and the dancers as to what the musicians really meant. There was a very famous ballet called the Rite of Spring, and when it was first played in 1913 it caused a riot in Paris. (The whole unfortunate ordeal was just a misinterpretation. The French, being purposely bad at English, thought they were going to see the 'Riot of Spring,' and took up any opportunity to holler through the streets and make upper class people feel uncomfortable.) During the rehearsals, the ballet master counted the dancers to 17 at one point, and the composer, Stravinsky, heard this and remarked, “I did not write a 17-beat bar in my music!” He had, in fact, many lengths of bars in his music, many 2’s, many 3’s, and many 4’s, mostly one after the other. This got not only the dancers and musicians confused but the conductor as well. One got the sense that by the end of the piece he still had not decided how many beats he wanted there to be in each bar. But there was definitely - DEFINITELY - not a 17-beat bar.

Now let’s get technical!

Beats & Bars ...

A musician has a name for a beat, a bar, and something even bigger than a bar, a phrase. A bar is 4 beats, and a phrase tends to be 16 beats. But there's nothing in between, as you can see from the image below. Musicians don’t have a name for a group of 8 beats!

This made the dancers feel very lonely and left out, so they decided to name it themselves, and came out with the very original name of an ‘8-count.’ And someone else (probably a musician) saw that dancers had created an 8-count, thought it was a very good idea, and gave it another name in honour of dancers and their creativity - and called it a ‘Dancer's 8.’

The Lindy Ambassador Frankie Manning, who was there as Lindy was invented had his own unique count-off that went, 'a-one, a-two, a-you know what to do!' It's interesting to speculate that his count off was influenced by the musicians in a time when swing dancing was too young to have developed its own count off.

... & Phrases

Now let’s look at the dancers interpretation of a phrase. In Lindy Hop we have this thing called a ‘Frankie Phrase’ which is made up of four moves - three Swing Outs and a Lindy Circle. If we dance these moves to the music, you’ll find the Frankie Phrase is twice as long as the musical phrase.

For a passage of music to be a phrase it has to be a complete musical thought. In most swing music the musicians take 4 bars to express a complete musical idea. For a Lindy Hopper that’s only two moves, which isn’t enough to say something complete. The perfect Goldilocks length is 8 bars, or 4 moves. It’s just right! This ‘Dancers Phrase’ is the ideal length for a dancer to fully express a musical idea.

(In 12-bar blues, the dancer needs 12 bars, or six moves, for a complete phrase. In that same time the musician would have played three phrases.)

Confused by all the numbers? Here’s a pretty picture. As a rule of thumb, dancers just want theirs to be longer.

What's in a Name?

I am lucky to be both a musician and a dancer. I was trained in the art of classical music in the lecture theatres and library towers of the universities, while I learned to swing in the streets and drinking dens of Perth. But they don’t need to be rivals, glaring at each other from across closed windows and threatening each other with comfy padded shoes. They both seek the same magical connection to music.

Hidden deep in academic tomes of music theory, there are names for the different parts of phrases, and it turns out there is a potential name for 8 counts. Half of a phrase is called a 'phrase member.' Unfortunately this turned out not to be a good name, as getting dancers to take note of a particular member didn’t go down well, err, no pun intended?

Some other possible names that I’ve come across for an 8-count were a ‘statement’, and a ‘subphrase.' Someone even called it a ‘miniphrase’.

In the end, I decided that I would call it a ‘d-bar’ (pronounced ‘dee-bar’), which is shorthand for ‘Dancer’s bar’. That way I can get rid of the double entendre behind calling it a ‘member’ and freely call out which d-bar we're up to without feeling smutty. We’ve got enough connotations in swing dancing, like the fact that we 'swing', or that we can ask someone for a shag … I was talking about Collegiate Shag!

So please, share this around and we can end the confusion surrounding this issue. That way we can avoid conflict, and musicians and dancers can live in peace and harmony.

Azza Gee.

Azza is a lifelong swing dancer, the founder of Swingtopia Dance in Perth, Western Australia, and a lover of Bubble Tea. Sign in to comment below, or send your thoughts to

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