The Cha-cha-chá, sometimes also called cha-cha, is one of the latin dances. It presents an interesting rhythmical problem, as the basic rhythm is in some sense shifted with the respect to the normal organisation of dance rhythms.

In this lesson
Latin rhythm, Contemporary cha-cha, Country cha-cha 4 count or 8 count?, How to start the dance, Guapacha timing

The music

Cha-cha, being a latin dance, is mostly done to latin music, although some pop and even some country music is also suitable. The essence of cha-cha music is that it makes you step the cha-cha-chá rhythm. In the original latin music it is very easy to pinpoint how the music does this; in more contemporary music the story is less clear.

The latin cha-cha rhythm

One of the distinguishing characteristics of latin music is the absence of the drum kit. Instead, bands playing latin music use one or more percussion players. One of the percussion instruments is especially important here: the conga. In authentic cha-cha music you hear the high conga play two distinct hits on the last two eight notes of each measure. In fact, the dance originated from dancers reacting to this rhythm in certain pieces of mambo music, and the bandleaders catching on to this fact and starting to write music specifically based on this rhythm. Thus, cha-cha is really a variant of mambo. The first cha-cha song was written in 1951 by Enrique Jorín.

latin chacha rhythm with conga, cowbell, and guiroThe cha-cha rhythm, then, is mostly characterised by the high conga notes. If you count the eighth notes in a bar as 1&2&3&4&, the two conga hits fall on the 4&. There are other percussion elements typical for cha-cha: often, claves, a woodblock or cowbell plays on every quarter note, and the guiro plays a rhythm of 12&34&. These three latin instruments sound pretty complete together. There are also a number of piano accompaniment patterns that are regularly used in cha-cha. Adding the latin percussion, piano, bass, and some drums for good measure, together, and you have a latin chacha groove going. (Movie, big, small)

Contemporary cha-cha music

Nowadays, especially in social dance context, cha-cha is not only danced to latin music, but to pop and country music. The kind of pop music used comes straight out of the hit parade, and has lots of electronically generated sounds. That sort of music uses a drumkit, often electronic drums, instead of the latin percussion, and usually it doesn't really have anything corresponding to the conga hits on 4&. Instead of accenting only the & in the fourth beat, this music accents more or less every "&", and that gives it a cha-cha feel, even if there is no real accent on 4&. (Movie, big)

Country cha-cha music

Cowboys swaying their hips? What is the world coming to. Anyway.

Certain country music can be used, and is in fact used in country competitions, for a smooth, slightly slow, kind of cha-cha.

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The dance

Cha-cha dancing has a rhythm that is in a sense shifted with respect to what you would normally expect. Additionally, even such a seemingly innocent question as how to start the dance is a bit of a problem. You can read plenty about these matters in the next two sections.

Four count or eight count?

Music notation almost never has eight counts to a measure, so from that point of view the answer is clear. However, if you start on your left foot, and you step one measure of 1234& count, you have made five weight changes, so you are ready to start the next measure on your right foot. You need to step another whole measure of 1234& to get back on the foot you started with. For this reason, people have argued that cha-cha is an eight count dance. However, there are many combinations where counting to eight does not make much sense.

Basic rhythm

If you compare cha-cha to swing, but independent of the rhythm, it seems to share two elements:

It is most natural to dance a triple-step or a rock-step on the first two (the 1 and 2) or the last two beats (the 3 and 4) of a measure. In cha-cha, however, the rock-step occurs on the middle two beats (the 2 and 3), and the triple-step straddles the bar line (it happens on the 4 and 1 beats). This does not feel natural, as is born out by:

There are two ways of going about this problem. One is to say "a triple-step has to be on 1&2 or 3&4, and there are no such triple-step rhythms in cha-cha, so the rhythm is something else". The better solution is to say "cha-cha has a triple-step and some sort of rockstep, but they are shifted by one beat, or syncopated".

Good supporting evidence for this latter viewpoint comes from Enrique Jorin, whose song Bailar el cha-cha-cha has lyrics that go Cha-cha-cha, Un Dos!. Apparently, he splits up the cha-cha rhythm into the cha-cha-ch step, and the rock step which he counts one two. If you listen to where this one two is sung, it is on beats 2 and 3 (Movie).This is one of those cases where the dance count and the music count are at odds: counting the steps is not the same as counting the beats. Do not let yourself get confused by this: listen for the conga notes in the music, and put the cha-cha-cha there.

How do you start to dance?

A big problem for many people beginning to dance cha-cha is how to start off dancing. Here is the dilemma:

Additionally, there is a matter of what foot you start off on. The problem is to satisfy at the same time the following demands:

You see the problem? The rock is the second step, so if the first step of the bar is on the left foot, the second can not be, and the other way around.

I am aware of the following approaches to starting the dance:

Guapacha timing

There is a popular timing variation that you can apply to the basic, or in fact to most figures, called Guapacha timing (pronounced "Wappacha"). It consists of delaying the step on beat 2 until the "&" after 2. You might call this a syncopation, but bear in mind that it is only one in the musical sense. This timing chance is in fact leadable in the closed position basic: when you do the chassé to the right apply some sway to the right. It is less common to use this timing on the chassé to the left.

The top line shows the regular cha-cha timing of 4&123.

The bottom line shows the guapacha timing of 4&1(2)&3.

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This file is part of "Feel The Beat", a musicology course for dancers, by Victor Eijkhout (victor at eijkhout dot net), who appreciates being sent additions or corrections on the material in this course. Copyright 2000/1 Victor Eijkhout.

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Last modified on: Monday, May 29, 2001.