Dance rhythms for ballet pianists
This page is a guide for pianists to dance rhythms that are useful in ballet classes.
Although many of these dances and their names have long been forgotten, their rhythmic patterns have survived through oral tradition in the setting of exercises. It is useful to know about them because you can:
- use them as keywords when you are searching online music libraries
- use them as rhythmic templates for improvisation
- use them to make connections between conventional ballet scores and music from different styles and periods, and
- give a name to a rhythmic pattern that a teacher asks for, which enables you to find more music of the same type.
We have made a downloadable list of dance styles you might encounter or find useful, and their typical rhythmic patterns. This is not an exhaustive list of what you can play for class; it is just a guide to lesser known rhythms that are common in dance and ballet music, but not in the popular or classical piano repertoire.
When do pianists need dance rhythms?
- For accompanying ‘free enchaînements’ in vocational graded examinations. These are exercises set by the examiner during the exam (the equivalent of sight-reading tests for musicians). They will first mark the exercise for the dancers, indicating the kind of music that they need, perhaps indicating a dance rhythm such as a rag, mazurka or polonaise. You can improvise something suitable, or play something appropriate from your repertoire, or use one of the pieces supplied in the appendices to the syllabus music books.
- For non-syllabus classes (‘free classes') where the teacher sets each exercise herself, rather than referring to a syllabus.
- For syllabus classes where the teacher wants to isolate and practise a particular movement from a set exercise or dance, using different music. Appendices in the vocational graded syllabus music books include pieces that can be used for such occasions, but you will need more.
Why dance rhythms rather than time signature?
A small change in feel or rhythmic pattern within the same time signature can make a large difference to how an exercise feels for the dancer. For example, a piece in 3/4 can feel like a one-in-a-bar or three-in-a-bar. It can have a slightly lengthened second beat, or a dotted rhythm that accentuates each beat equally. Some pieces in 3/4 have a strong accent every 3 beats, others have one at the beginning of every two-bar group, others may tend towards a 12/8 feel, and not feel much like 3/4 at all, and so on. Dance rhythms provide a quick way of identifying several characteristics at once with a single name: a polka mazurka, for example, is a moderate tempo 3/4 with a dotted rhythm melody that accents every beat in the bar, with a slight lift on the third beat and a slight weight on the first.
For more on this topic, see Metre, rhythm and time signature in ballet classes.
In ballet classes, you will come across two main types of triple metre:
- Waltz-time, where you get a stronger metrical accent at the beginning of every two or four bars rather than every bar.
- ‘Truly triple metre’, where you still feel a strong sense of three-in-a-bar.
The ‘truly triple metres’ are just about everything except the waltz. The further away from Vienna of the mid-19th century you go (historically, socially and geographically) the more you encounter truly triple metre.
- Polish types: polonaise, mazurka (national dance), kujawiak, oberek,
- Spanish types: bolero, fandango, cachucha
- German types: early German waltzes, mazurka (ballroom dance), polka mazurka, redowa
- French types: sarabande, chaconne, minuet, hornpipe (in 3/4)
The waltz types
As a dance that has enjoyed two centuries of popularity, it is hardly surprising that there should be so many variants. The English or Boston waltz is generally slow, with a definite weight to the beginning of the bar. The early German waltz is rather like the mazurka, and often has a continuous running eighth-note movement in the melody. 'Viennese waltz' is often used to mean a way of playing: a one-in-a-bar feel, where the second beat is played slightly early, giving a lilt or swing to the rhythm.
The waltz song has a tendency to be less rhythmic than waltzes written for dancing, and is often in four-bar phrases, rather than the more usual two.
Waltz variations are solos from the ballet repertoire that are based on the waltz rhythm, but are more suited to jumping or very lyrical movement than ordinary ballroom waltz music. When teachers want this, they sometimes ask for a ‘big waltz’ or a ‘grande valse’.
The mazurka types
The main difference between mazurkas and waltzes is that they tend to have three definite accents in each bar, whereas waltzes have a pronounced accent only on the first beat (except the early German waltz). Chopin's mazurkas are in fact examples of three different types of Polish dance, the mazur, the oberek (or obertás) and Kujawiak. Broadly speaking, the Kujawiak is the slowest and most lyrical of the three, the mazur (or mazurka) of medium tempo, and the oberek the fastest.
The mazurka was not just a Polish national dance, but also a very popular social dance in European and American ballrooms. This ‘ballroom mazurka’ is quite slow and less marked than the Polish mazurka, and often has a dotted rhythm melody throughout the bar, like the polka mazurka.
Sarabande, triple jig and polonaise
We have grouped these dances together, because they often tend to create six-count phrases, as opposed to the more common eight-count phrase. For this reason, introductions for these dance rhythms are usually only two bars (i.e. six counts) long.
Chopin’s polonaises, and those found in the Tchaikovsky ballets are often stately and processional, with complex rhythmic patterns running against the basic triple metre. A lighter, faster kind of polonaise is more suitable for jumping. This kind is often found in Bournonville’s ballets. Sometimes, ‘polonaise’ is just a misnomer for ‘bolero’ which has an almost identical rhythmic pattern, but at a faster, lighter speed.
Triple jigs (also called ‘slip jigs’) can sometimes be substituted for the lighter kind of polonaise, as can the baroque hornpipe in 3/4 found in the music of Handel and Purcell, for example.
Minuet and chaconne
Some forms of the minuet are slow and stately, and tend towards an accent on the second beat and a feeling of six-count phrases. Others, particularly those found in the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, for example, are considerably faster, and begin to sound like early precursors of the waltz.
Like the Sarabande and mazurka, the chaconne tends to have a ‘lean’ on the second beat of the bar (called an ‘agogic accent’), but at a faster tempo and with a lighter feel.
Two rhythms and two metres dominate the 19th century ballroom, the waltz (3/4) and the polka (2/4). You can do a polka to gallops, reels, quadrilles and hornpipes as long as the metre is duple and the tempo is right. Tunes marked ‘polka’ often have continuous semiquaver movement in the melody, and an oom-pah oom-pah accompaniment. It is one of the styles used in the quadrille, and in the late 19th century becomes transformed in Brazil into choro and in America into ragtime. For this reason, it makes sense to think of rag, polka, hornpipe, reel, choro and quadrille as part of the same rhythmic family, even though the musical styles are very distinct.
The 'classic' polka rhythm is often said to be 'a-one and two, a-one and two'. This might be true of some forms of the dance, but it is not always the case with the music. The idea that polka music followed the rhythm of the polka step itself most likely comes from a few 19th century concert or salon pieces called 'polka' which were, so to speak, music about the polka, rather than music for the polka. In other words, the music was supposed to suggest to a concert audience an imaginary dancer doing the polka.
The schottische (usually pronounced shoteesh), despite its name, is actually a German dance, not Scottish – and also features in Spanish music as chotis. Schottisches are moderately fast, and are similar in style to the shuffle. The continuous dotted rhythm in 2/4 can be very useful for medium allegro.
Teachers – and composers – often use these terms interchangeably. A useful distinction is to think of tango as a dance style with many different styles of music, and habañera (particularly the ‘habañera rhythm') as a musical style, which is often a feature of tango music. Some teachers like to use a very slow habañera for battements fondus. The tango brasileira (Brazilian tango) is a variant of the tango that is very useful for classes. Chiquinha Gonzaga and Ernesto Nazareth both wrote pieces in this style.
Learn to distinguish between:
- The dance step, usually accompanied by a lilting, jig-like rhythm.
- The dance (19th century) – the galop from Act 1 of Giselle, that has a characteristic double semiquaver bounce on the first beat of each 2/4 bar
- A concert piece from late 19th and early 20th century composers, also called polka schnell or Schnellpolka (like the Thunder and Lightning Polka by Johann Strauss II). A relation of the French can-can and Hungarian friska, the fast part of a csárdás. All of these form the basis of the balletic coda, the style used for the finales of 19th century pas de deux.
The jig types
Folk musicians categorise jigs as single jig, double jig and triple jig (or slip jig).
- Single jigs tend to have a long-short lilting pattern (and one and two and three and four). They can replace the march or polka type music in the quadrille (think of those Sousa marches in 12/8).
- Double jigs are slower, and have a continuous quaver motion
- Triple jigs (also called slip jigs) are in 9/8, and tend to be counted in 6 (i.e. in two-bar units)
The tarantella is a much faster version of the double jig in rhythmic terms, although it is not related to this dance. Tarantellas usually begin with a half-bar upbeat in 6/8.
These are not dance rhythms exactly, but are useful to have in your repertoire. The Latin root barca- refers both to a boat (related to the English word bark, a sailing ship) and a baby's crib. Barcarolles, by analogy, have a slow, rocking motion like the roll of a ship at sea (or a gondola in a Venetian canal – a favourite 19th century image) or of one of those cribs with a curved base which allows the baby to be rocked to sleep. Because the primary motion in both cases is from side to side, the main feature of a barcarolle is a very prominent form of duple metre, where the music seems to 'rock' constantly back and forth in two count phrases. The subdivision of this metre can be duple or triple, hence barcarolles are found in the 19th century repertoire in both 6/8, 3/4 and 2/4.
Here is a list of rhythm types that are useful to have in your repertoire. If you have a few examples of each of these, you will be well prepared.
Slow to medium
- Lyrical adagios in any time signature (e.g. arias, nocturnes or barcarolles)
- Mazurka, polka mazurka or minuet
- Waltzes at various speeds and rhythmic patterns
- Polonaise/triple jig/bolero/
- Habañera/tango types
Medium to fast
- Jig, quadrille, rag, choro, contredanse, hornpipe, reel, polka types
- Czardas/galop/can-can/coda/Schnellpolka types
- ‘Spanish’ dances in the balletic tradition (i.e. those from The Nutcracker, Coppélia or Don Quixote).
- Polka-style dances in 2/4 with continuous semiquaver movement in the melody (see also
- Polka-style dances in 2/4 at moderate or very moderate tempo (sometimes called ‘Polka française’)
- Balletic variations in waltz time at various speeds
Metre is a kind of framework that groups beats into twos or threes. To some extent, that framework is ‘in’ the music: musicians put accents on certain beats in order to convey a sense of this grouping. But the framework is also in our heads: once we have a sense of what the music is doing, we then expect the music to carry on that way, and so we still have a sense of how the beats are grouped, even without strong accents being present in the music. For more on this, read Justin London’s How to Talk About Musical Metre.
Time signature is a feature of music notation, and is a way of representing metre and metrical grouping on the page. In the simplest terms, metre defines how music goes, and time signature describes how music is written. You might feel that music is ‘in 3’ while you are counting or moving along to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s written in 3/4: it might be written in 4/4 with a ‘triplet’ accompaniment (three notes in the time of one beat), or in 12/8 but counted in threes (i.e. four lots of three in a bar). The opposite can apply: music might be written in 3/4, but you will group each bar into a phrase of four or eight counts as you listen, so that it feels like ‘4’.
Metre, time signature and dance rhythms
In metre, we only ever talk about groups of two or three, whereas the number of possible time signatures is enormous. But however complex the time signature is, it will only ever consist of some kind of combination of twos and threes. So a 6/8 is a combination of two threes, a 4/4 is a combination of two twos, a 9/8 is a combination of three threes, a 7/8 is a combination of twos and threes in all sorts of ways – 2+2+3, or 3+2+2, or 2+3+2 and so on.
Time signature doesn’t tell us anything about tempo, only about the grouping of beats. You can have a fast 3/4 and a slow 6/8, and vice versa. Neither does time signature tell you much about the feel or quality of the rhythm of a piece of music: the same time signature can have a totally different feel depending on the tempo, how beats in the bar are grouped or subdivided, and subtle differences in timing within the bar. This is similar to what Justin London calls this the ‘many meters hypothesis’ in his book, Hearing in Time. You can consider that many meters hypothesis as another way of talking about many dance rhythms.
- For more on the different types of waltz, and 19th century dance rhythms in general, see Friedrich Zorn’s famous Grammar of the Art of Dancing.
- For more on the music of Polish dances see these essays by Maja Trochimczyk, (click on the links to the various dance types).
- For more on tango, including many free scores and audio samples see Todotango.
- An overview of Western social dance from the Library of Congress
- For a database of Celtic folk tunes, see The Session.
- See our free online sheet music for ballet.