Put Your Routines “In the Pocket”

IMAGE A woman's hand slips into her pocket IMAGE

Photo courtesy Camera Eye Photography (CC by 2.0)

Today’s guest post comes from music editor Morriss Partee at Squirrel Trench Audio.

If you’ve ever spent any time around jazz musicians, you might have heard them talking about getting a song “in the pocket.” That’s musician-speak for creating a great groove, where all the musicians are “dialed-in” and on the same page, tempo-wise. The song just feels great at a certain speed; not too fast, not too slow, just right.

Well, dancers need to be “in the pocket” too when it comes to executing your choreography. A change in tempo of just 2 to 4 beats per minute (BPM) can mean the difference between a dance that struggles and a dance that feels great and natural for the performers.

You can use your iPod Touch or iPhone to get all of your dances “in the pocket” and  match your routines to your dancers’ ideal pacing.

  • The first step is to download an app called Tempo Magic Pro (lolo) to your device, available from the iTunes App Store for $4.99. (There may be other apps that will accomplish the same thing.)
  • Then, when you are in class with your dancer, select your song, and use the app’s slider to adjust the tempo of the song up or down a couple of BPM and watch to see if it improves the dance.

Tempo Magic Pro automagically figures out the native tempo of the song, so you’ll see both the original and changed BPM on your iPod Touch or iPhone’s display.

Bumping your Beats Per Minute

Usually, a very slight shift of between 2 to 6 BPM faster or slower is all you need. If you change the tempo too far (10 BPM or more), things start to get squirrely.

A change of 1 or 2 BPM is very subtle, and barely noticeable to a listener, but can have a significant “danceability” impact on your students, especially in tap routines.

A change of 4-6 BPM (which is about a 5% speed difference) is noticeable only to listeners who are very familiar with a song, but has a significant impact on the overall pace and feel of a dance routine. For instance, a routine which seems a tad slow at 122 BPM might get just the boost in energy and pacing it needs at 128 BPM, which is almost exactly a 5% difference. Conversely, a dancer might not be able to execute a combo cleanly with a song at 130 BPM, but be able to nail it at 124 BPM.

Editing with BPM

I recommend sticking with measuring tempo changes using BPM rather than a percentage change, especially if you are working with a music editor. Your music editor will likely be able to calculate and execute changes in tempo expressed as BPM much more readily than if the changes are expressed as percentages or some other measurement.

For example, there might be three parts of songs in your routine, and you discover, using Tempo Magic Pro, that you want the middle song of the piece slowed down from 124 to 122 BPM while the beginning should remain as-is and the ending part should be sped up from 120 BPM to 126 BPM. Your music editor will likely be able to calculate and execute changes in tempo expressed as BPM much more readily than if the changes are expressed as percentages.

So the next time you are starting a new song and routine with your class, try using Tempo Magic Pro (or equivalent app) to shift your song up or down a couple of beats per minute. You don’t even have to tell your dancers what you are doing, just ask them which version felt better to dance with. Make a note of the original tempo of the song, and what tempo feels best for your dancers.

If you are editing the song yourself, when you get home, launch your music editing software (Audacity is free and works on both Macs and Windows PCs), and use the “Change Tempo” command to shift the music permanently to the new desired tempo (i.e. BPM change from 120 to 124). This process will change the tempo of the song without changing the pitch. Save the resulting audio track and burn a CD with this new, tailor-made version for competitions.

Scoring big with tiny tempo changes?

Adjusting the tempo may only make a small difference in some cases, but the improvement could be dramatic in others. You’ll never know how tempo affects the unique physicality of your dancer unless you have him/her try it at different speeds.

Since the musicality of a dance is a major component in competition, using this innovative tempo-tweaking technique with all of your performance numbers will give your dancers a leg up in scoring.

Tempo Magic Pro - loloWith accessible new tools like Tempo Magic Pro, your dancers won’t have to match their pace to the tempo of the song, you can now match the tempo of the song to your dancers’ natural rhythm! This is exactly what live musicians did back in the day.

Now go use this technique to help your dancers grab some gold!

I love finding new ways teachers can improve their song preparation and editing. Though I’m not affiliated with Tempo Magic Pro or Audacity, if you use this method to improve results, I’d love to hear about it!

Morriss Partee is the music editor for Squirrel Trench Audio, a music editing and remix service that creates shortened versions of songs as well as unique custom medleys and remixes for dance routines: Visit squirreltrenchaudio.com. Morriss can be reached at Morriss AT squirreltrenchaudio DOT com.

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  1. Nichelle, I LOVE this! It just sealed the deal – I’m due for a new phone, and I’m officially decided on what to purchase now! I’ll let you know how this app works for me this fall.

    Hope all is well!
    Sarah 🙂

  2. As a tapper & tap choreographer, I can agree that this method will help dancers “get it into their feet” before moving faster. Great tip!

  3. Here’s another very handy use of being able to control tempo on playback: While you are teaching a routine or a specific move, turn, or combo to a student, you can slow the tempo down until he/she can execute the move. Then slowly speed the tempo up until your dancer is performing the routine at the full speed of the song. For instance, if the song’s tempo is 110 bpm, try slowing it down to 95 bpm for rehersals in the beginning of the season as the dancer is becoming familiar with the choreography. Once the routine is mastered at 95 bpm, increase it to 102 bpm. When your student feels comfortable at 102 bpm, then bring it up to full speed of 110 bpm.

  4. I have been waiting for someone to create this app! Thanks for this info Nichelle!

    • Thanks definitely goes to Morriss at Squirrel Trench Audio! I knew about the app & have been slow at getting a new ‘Apps for Dancers’ post out. Morriss leapt to the rescue with this very useful tip on how to use a tempo application. Don’t miss checking out his website – he’s got a lot of great music tips for teachers there!

  5. Super excited about this for my tap class!

  6. I think if use the tempo magic pro or some thing like that to train the dancer’s breath,it may have unexpected results.

    • Hi Joliapple – I’m not sure what you are getting at. Are you saying that the dancer’s breathing patterns will change at different speeds? That might be true, but I don’t think that would diminish the teaching benefits of slowing down a song in order for the student to learn difficult moves or combos. In the course of teaching, slow down the tricky parts, and then return it back to full speed when the student is ready! Give it a try and see what happens! Also, the main article here is about making small changes to the tempo in order to get the song “in the pocket” for the student’s natural pace. Sometimes this might be a small change, other times it may be a large change. For most dance studios, where the season’s songs are set in the Fall and then rehearsed for regional competitions in the Spring, find the right tempo for the dancer at the *beginning* of rehearsals in the Fall. Once you have found the ideal tempo, then commit it to an audio file or CD at that tempo, thus “locking it in”. Now the student has all year long to master their breathing patterns in the routine at the tempo they will be performing at.