Beat Math

A Workshop presented at Callerlab 2009

Moderator Clark Baker and Panelist Tim Marriner

This workshop will start with a brief review of timing. Next we will discuss a methodology for measuring how many beats a call takes and use this methodology on a few calls to see if it gets the same answer as our existing timing charts. Finally we will see if "beat math" really works. Can we simply stick calls together, adding up their beats, and expect the sequence to dance in that many beats? If not, how are we supposed to use our timing numbers?


Our timing charts were created years ago under the leadership of Dick Leger and Decko Deck. This workshop will review basic timing terminology, explain how to time a call, and then see how well timed calling relates to adding up the times of the individual calls.


Command Time: The number of beats it takes to deliver the Command

Lead Time: The number of beats elapsing between the Command and dancer reaction

Execution Time: The number of beats it takes to execute (dance) the Command

Clipped Timing: A calling error where there is insufficient execution time

The timing number given for each call represent execution time under ideal conditions. Dancers take one step for each beat of music so we can use "beats" or "steps" interchangeably.


Off the top of your head, do you know the timing numbers for any of the following calls? All 4 Ladies Chain takes 8 beats. There are two possible reasons for this. Which one do you believe?

Could you put on a record, and without any dancers in front of you, call Heads Square Thru 4, Swing Thru with proper timing?

Time Linear Cycle

There has been some question if our timing of Linear Cycle is correct. Let's spend a little time and see if we can agree on a proper timing.

Timing Longer Sequences

Consider (and dance) the following sequence from Dick Leger:
CL Dick Delta
Circle Left Half Way 8 8 0
Heads Right And Left Thru 8 8 0
Circle Left Half Way 8 8 0
Sides Right And Left Thru 8 8 0
4 Ladies Chain 8 8 0
Heads Promenade 1/2 8 8 0
4 Ladies Chain 8 8 0
Sides Right And Left Thru 8 8 0
Men Promenade Outside
64 64 0

Note that all the calls take 8 beats and he prompts the calls so that the dancers start dancing on beat 1 of each 8-beat phrase. This is similar to how some callers deliver singing calls.

Now dance the following Mainstream sequence:

Call CL timing CMB timing Delta CMB Zoom Delta
Heads Square Thru 4 10 10 0 9 -1
Swing Thru 6 6 0 7 1
Spin The Top 8 5 -3 6 -2
Right And Left Thru 6 6 0 5 -1
Pass Thru 2 2 0 2 0
Wheel And Deal 4 5 1 5 1
Double Pass Thru 4 3 -1 3 -1
Ends Partner Trade 4 3 -1 4 0
Star Thru 4 3 -1 3 -1
Pass Thru 2 2 0 2 0
Wheel And Deal 4 5 1 4 0
Centers Pass Thru 2 2 0 2 0
Allemande Left 4 4 0 4 0
Promenade Home 4 5 1 4 0
64 61 -3 60 -4

I attempted to deliver the calls so that you were able to move in a continuous, non-stop fashion, without having to speed up or slow down, and without having to shortcut the calls. I called the same sequence to different groups of dancers with different music 6 months apart and came within 1 beat of the same overall timing. However, I am 3 to 4 beats faster than the Callerlab timing charts would indicate is proper timing. I am interested in investigating this discrepancy.

Experiment #1: Have Tim call the same sequence and see what the his timing is.

Experiment #2: Change music and repeat experiment #1.

Here is a sequence I captured from a YouTube video. Let's try dancing it and then talk about the timing shortfalls. CL Juri Delta
Heads Up to the middle and back 8 6 -2
Square Thru 4 10 9 -1
Dosado 6 5 -1
Star Thru 4 4 0
Forward and Back (4) 4 4 0
Pass Thru 2 2 0
Bend The Line 4 3 -1
Pass The Ocean 4 3 -1
Swing Thru 6 5 -1
Swing Thru 6 4 -2
Spin The Top 8 6 -2
Spin The Top 8 6 -2
Single Hinge 2 2 0
Ladies Run 4 3 -1
Forward and Back (4) 4 3 -1
Circle Left 6 6
Left Allemande 4 6 2
Right And Left Grand 10 6 -4
Promenade Home
94 83 -11

I am especially interested in the Bend The Line, Pass The Ocean which were each 1 beat faster and the two Swing Thrus and Spin The Tops which were each 1 or 2 beats faster. In this 6 call fragment the caller picked up 9 beats! Was he clipping or was this good dancing?

From watching the video, the dancers were using Hand Up styling and didn't seem to be rushing. However, a back square did break down.

Singing Call Timing

One application of our timing numbers would be in the creation of singing call figures. Each has to fit into 64 beats of music. Here are some popular figures. What is interesting is that they all time to less than 64 but, experienced callers know that they are "tight". That is, they do not have the 4 to 8 beats of "slop" you might expect.

Some of the timing discrepancies are due to how the caller delivers the calls, some is due to how the dancers execute the calls (perhaps doing an arm around the waist Dosado), and perhaps some is due to our timing numbers being off or beat math not working.

Singing Call Figure #1
Heads Promenade Half 8
Square Thru 4 10
Right And Left Thru 6
Veer Left 2
Ferris Wheel 6
Square Thru 3 6
Swing Corner 4 or is it 8?
Promenade (Full) 16
Singing Call Figure #2
Heads Square Thru 10
Dosado 6 Timing of Arm Around Waist Dosado?
Swing Thru 6
Spin The Top 8
Right And Left Thru 6
Flutter Wheel, Sweep 1/4 8 Or Square Thru 3 (6 beats)
Swing 4
Promenade (Full) 16
Singing Call Figure #3
Heads Promenade 1/2 4
Sides Right And Left Thru 8 but sides aren't ready for this
Sides Square Thru 4 8
Dosado 6
Eight Chain 4 10
Swing Corner 4
Promenade (Full) 16
56 Seems like plenty of time, but experience indicates "way tight"
Singing Call Break
Sides Face, Grand Square 32
Allemande Left 4
Weave The Ring 8
Swing 4
Promenade (1/2) 8
Listen to caller sing :-( 8


Our timing numbers measure the execution time in beats of steps of each call when executed according to proper definition and styling by trained dancers under ideal conditions.

Why are most of our timing numbers even? I believe they were measured by callers who had a strong drive to make them even so that they would more relate to dancing on the phrase. Square dancers are not taught which foot to start with. I see no a priori reason calls should take an even number of beats. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find a call which can be done twice and have that take an odd number of beats. This would imply that calls exist that take fractional beats! If our timing numbers have been artificially made even, and if we really believe our timing numbers are important, then we should fix this situation and report accurate timing numbers, perhaps with a notation that you can always add 1 to any odd number.

How should proper timing be taught to dancers? Some callers and publications advocate that dancers be taught the proper number of steps for each call. While I believe it is important to train dancers to take one step for each beat of music, and to try to get them to use our shuffling on the ball of their foot gliding step, I don't believe a dancer should be taught anything about timing except that Grand Square takes 32 beats and should be danced that way and not rushed.

So, if dancers aren't taught proper timing, how will they learn it? I believe (to answer one of the initial questions) that each call has a "natural" number of steps it takes and that dancers will take that amount of steps without special emphasis or training. The caller must call in a way that allows the proper amount of time.

How should proper timing be taught to callers? This is a big subject and I haven't put a lot of thought into it. Generally I am a fan of "sight timing". That is, watch the squares and get your timing off them. Just before they need the next call, give it to them. Of course, this lets the dancers control your timing. If they are moving slow, the timing will be longer than recommended. If they are rushing, you will be rushing and it will result in a clipped delivery.

Consider the following situation. You have 3 squares up front. One moves a little slowly, one moves at proper dance speed, and one is younger and used to dancing fast. If you use the middle square for your timing, you are hoping the slower square will pick up the pace and that the faster square will change they dance style to accommodate your timing. Probably this will happen. However, if you picked the fast square to get your timing, the slow square will probably break down and get nothing. A caller who uses "sight timing" must be aware of these issues.

While sight timing may work for longer calls, for shorter calls and certain combinations, you develop a cadence on how they must be said. For example, Double Pass Thru, short pause, Track 2, or Pass To The Center Pass Thru. Sometimes we use patter words as part of the delivery to give us the necessary timing.

I don't advocate counting. For example, I don't call Heads Square Thru 4 and then count 8 beats and then call Swing Thru. I do this when I try to do phrased calling with simple ONS material (e.g. Circle Left 1 2 3 4 5 6 Circle Right ,,,). A better caller probably can internalize that sense of time but I have to count it.

What about phrased calling? We experienced this with Dick's sequence. In my opinion, with today's patter choreography, we have almost no phrased calling. We do have some callers who hear the phrase and are able to get back on phrase, especially for calls like Right And Left Grand. It would be interesting to measure some of these callers and figure out how often each call starts on an 8 beat phrase, or a 4 beat phrase, or not at all.

Those who hear the phrase and use it claim that their calling has that "something extra" and that it makes the dancing more enjoyable even if the dancers don't know why. Given that typical square dance patter music have very subdued phrasing, I am skeptical of these claims. I believe there are some experiments we can conduct in this area. Perhaps next year.

As a contra dancer, I get to dance to strongly phrased music with choreography that has been created to match the phrase. I do "get" the lift caused by the strong connection of the music with the figures. You can feel this of you come to the Zesty Contra dance at 10pm tonight.

A first step towards adding some phrased calling to your dances would be to start each patter sequence so the dancers step out on beat 1 of an 8 beat phrase. This requires that you hear the phrase and wait until the right time to deliver your next call. If you do it right, the dancers will want to step out on beat 1. My bet is that few of our callers have this skill today, partly because of the insipid patter music we use.

Does beat math work? That is, if you call a sequence of calls so they dancers move non-stop, and add up the actual beats taken, do they equal the sum of the timing numbers? Generally, what we have seen today is "no". However, I don't know if that is because some of the timing numbers are wrong, or if there is a blending effect between calls. Also, I wonder if some calls need a different timing number from an ocean wave than from facing couples (e.g. Spin The Top, Right And Left Thru).

We can see some of this blending in the timing of individual calls vs. the timing of their parts. Eight Chain 2 is a Right Pull By (2) followed by a Courtesy Turn (4). Eight Chain Thru should take 6 times 4 or 24 beats but our timing number is 20. Relay The Deucey is similar to a Spin The Top (8), Grand Swing Thru (6), Spin The Top (8) which is 22. Our timing number is 20, and in a particular case I have it regularly danced in 16 beats.


Main points you can take away and apply to your calling:
  1. Don't make the common singing call mistakes Tim mentioned
  2. Practice giving the dancers beat 1 of each patter sequence
  3. Perhaps teach your dancers good timing through your well timed delivery

I will add more conclusions after the workshop.

Revised: $Date: 2009/04/02 17:19:19 $