The Speed Trap: How To Stop Rushing the Music

Ray Batten (left) teaching class at Wagner Dance and Arts in Mesa, AZ (courtesy Batten)

You rehearse your group routine to perfection, but when the big performance rolls around, everyone turns into speed demons. It's the runaway-train effect—and it only takes one loud tapper, or zippy turner, to throw the whole group off the music.

While nerves and excitement are partly to blame, the ability to keep to tempo begins in the studio. A well-developed sense of musicality is your best defense against the dreaded speed trap. "When you understand how the steps fit with the music, going too fast won't just feel like rushing," says Jeremy Arnold, lecturer of tap at the University of Texas at Austin. "It'll feel wrong." How can dancers develop that musicality? It all starts with learning to listen.

Music Mindset

"Dancing is moving to music," says Ray Batten of Leggo Monsters Hip-Hop Crew. "If you don't listen to the music, you're just moving." One way to learn to really hear the music you're dancing to is by listening to the way your teacher counts it out. Like many hip-hop teachers and choreographers, Batten, who teaches at Tempe Dance Academy in Arizona, as well as three other studios, emphasizes different aspects of the music each time he counts through the movement. "I'll hum the beats out, beatbox, sing the lyrics, or a mixture of the three," he says. By paying attention to these counts, dancers can begin to hear the layers of the music. Whenever there's a subtle accent in the background, Batten recommends listening to the music on repeat, clapping out or humming that accent until it no longer seems so subtle.

Arnold stresses an understanding of note values. "When you think about tap in terms of musical notes—from the half note to the 32nd note—you build a rhythmic sensibility that'll counter a tendency to rush the beat," he says. To practice note value, Arnold suggests using a tried-and-true model that incorporates fruit names. Clapping a steady tempo with four beats per measure, count out quarter notes with pear, pear, pear, pear; eighth notes with apple, apple, apple, apple; triplets with pineapple, pineapple, pineapple, pineapple; and 16th notes with watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.

Once you understand note value, you can practice the different rhythms by improvising across the floor, first using one specific note value, and then, changing values for subsequent trips. "Try to use only quarter notes, then eighth notes, triplets, etc.," Arnold says. "More advanced students can try 32nd notes, or a pattern of multiple note values."

By helping you hear and feel the pockets in the music where each movement sits, this musical training will make rushing feel counterintuitive.

Jeremy Arnold in rehearsal for Tapestry Dance Company (photo by Ryan Montgomery, courtesy Arnold)

Communication Is Key

While internalizing the music with your movement in the studio is the best preventive strategy for rushing, things happen when you hit the stage. You no longer have the mirror or your teacher's counts to fall back on, and sometimes you'll even have to adjust to live musicians. Dana Benton, a principal dancer with Colorado Ballet and an instructor at the Colorado Ballet Academy, stresses that silent communication with your fellow dancers is crucial. "In a corps de ballet, the dancers in the front can usually see the conductor," she says. "As long as they can feel each other, the dancers behind them can follow their tempo." The same thing goes for pas de deux. "You and your partner need to be on the same page musically if the timing of the lifts is going to work out," she says.

It's best to go into a performance expecting the unexpected: music that is difficult to hear from stage, a fellow dancer whose nerves translate into speed, or in the case of live accompaniment, an unfamiliar tempo. "Even a Broadway company can get thrown off when a conductor decides to take it a bit faster during a matinee, for example," says Paige Chambers Rutsche, former Broadway dancer and Radio City Rockette and co-director of Chambers Performing Arts. To prepare for these situations, or for any other surprises that may surface during a performance, Rutsche teaches her students at Chambers Performing Arts to be aware of their surroundings, and to feed off one another's rhythm and energy. "It's about finding that collective feeling," she says. "And there's nothing wrong with having a leader, typically a really strong dancer who feels the rhythm, to pull the group back when they start to rush."

Paige Chambers Rutsche teaching her students (courtesy Rutsche)

A Ca-Slow Down

In an a cappella piece, there's no guiding downbeat, and no pockets of music to sit in. "You're the music that isn't there, and you have to feel the rhythmic structure from your core," Rutsche says. It may seem freeing to be able to create your own tempo, but an audience can notice when shifts happen unintentionally. "I see it a lot as a judge," says Arnold, who is also on faculty at Revive Dance Convention. "When a tempo shift isn't a clear and active choice, it registers as an unfolding disaster, and it can make an audience cringe."

Arnold admits that the ability to internalize time is an advanced skill, and he recommends that dancers practice with a metronome. "The more you work with it, the more you'll be able to sense what different beats per minute feel like," he says. While it may be tempting to concentrate on the faster end of the tempo spectrum, push yourself to practice with uncomfortably slow speeds. "If a dancer can maintain a consistent, slow tempo in the absence of music, I find that far more impressive than a slew of tricks or a super-fast routine," he says.

No matter how much individual work you do, a group a cappella routine isn't going to work if you can't find a collective internal rhythm. Rutsche stresses taking the time as a group to discuss and understand the rhythmic arc of the piece. "Be sure to get clear communication from your choreographer about moments that are slow and moments that are fast," she says. And then, it all comes down to repetition. "Drill it again and again to collectively internalize your choreographer's rhythmic intentions," she says.

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Speed Trap."

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