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Rhythm can be learned

Learning to dance can very well be one of the most awkward experiences of a lifetime for many people. Especially tall lanky white guys like me.

However, I have seen a lot of people learn to dance. Awkward people.

People seem to think you either have rhythm, or you don’t. Well I’m here to drop some science explaining that not only do we all have rhythm, but we can all learn to dance. And we all probably should, but that’s another topic.

Moving is very important. We are built to move, or we wouldn’t live.

Moving should also be sort of easy (at least basic movement, like walking). We can’t just burn all our energy from food while walking to get more. But when one thinks of how sophisticated walking is, one might want to pull ones hair out. Just go to google images and search ‘gait cycle’.

Looks complicated… but walking is easy!

How is this?

Obviously, walking is a voluntary action; you decide when, where, how ,and why you walk. But the rhythm of walking is actually engrained in your nervous system. Specifically, it is believed to be in networks located in the spinal cord.

These networks are called Central Pattern Generators, or CPG’s. For an overly complicated review of how they work, read this. But it’s not necessary to understand for this article.

Basically, CPG’s coordinate your muscles so that they work in a perfect sequence to make walking very easy and efficient. Therefore, all you have to do is think: “walk”. Of course, it’s not never this black and white; our brains regulate our walking substantially, and we react to our senses to make adjustments (like stepping on a rock). But the basic pattern is thought to come from activating these little networks.


So what does this have to do with dancing?

Turns out these CPG’s can be adapted and utilized for different rhythms and patterns.

To quote the author in the reference above: “As animals mature, there are changes in the rhythmic motor patterns they express. For instance, tadpoles swim, but frogs hop; chicks hatch, but then walk; humans crawl, then walk, then run. Furthermore, humans can easily learn novel rhythmic motor patterns (e.g. swimming strokes, dances) that, once learned, seem as ‘automatic’ and ingrained as do clearly CPG-driven motor patterns such as walking.”

Those of us who can dance already know this: at first, learning a step or pattern is very awkward. But once you ‘get the rhythm’, you can do it almost automatically, without thinking of the details at all.

Of course, you knew that, but now we have a scientific basis for it!

Now, my point in explaining all of this is as follows:

Everyone can learn to dance.

Yes, we all have these ‘CPG’ networks in our nervous systems. If we didn’t we probably couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.

Therefore, it just takes practice, and you will learn to dance. Don’t let anyone else make you feel any different.

Feels awkward? Of course it does. But feeling awkward is a good thing.

As my friend and fellow dancer Dave Gardiner says:

“feeling awkward starts to become something you get excited about, because you know you are about to learn something new.”

So keep practicing, and eventually it will feel as natural as walking.


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    7 Responses to Rhythm can be learned

    1. Juan José Farina says:

      I agree with this ! But there is more to dancing than just learning it, just that I guess it is off subject here since it is not something scientific. Having the steps is one thing, having musicality is one thing, and having “energy”, “attitude”, “emotions”, “strength” in the moves is another very very important. There maybe even a few more things about dancing too… But I agree that everyone can dance.

    2. Moe Badderman says:

      # “walking is easy!”
      Easy for you, but not easy (nor even possible) for everyone.

      # “Everyone can learn to [whatever]”
      False. Whatever you think everyone can learn, there are people (perhaps a LOT of people) who cannot.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Really? Are we doing math here? You want existential and universal quantifiers in every sentence?

        This blog is just a bit of fun, and perhaps I reached a bit to sound positive. Not sure why you need to deconstruct the language in such a way. Sure, I could have said “walking is easy for many people” or “almost anyone can learn to [whatever]”, but why? I sure didn’t explicitly say there are no exceptions, and to elaborate in such a way would be boring to read and tedious to write. I trust people can deduce what I meant within this context. And last of all – this is pretty inconsequential. I get a handful of hits on this blog post a day.

        These are the kinds of comments that make me want to disable comments in general.

        • Cat C says:

          Loved this blog. I’ve always been a little awkward with balance, catching the beat & dancing sexy, even though I’m a sexy woman. A cuban girlfriend of mine, when I once asked her to teach me how to move during dance, the way she did, told me that you have to be born with rhythm, it can’t be taught. I never forgot that and I enjoyed your blog, because it reminded me that there are those that might be more gifted, but if I really want to learn this (FINALLY!), then I just need to put my mind to it and do it, even if I’m not as good as some others, at least it feels good for me to do it. Pay no attention to the trolls who respond with negative comments. You made me and others smile. Btw, i found your blog when I saw a dancing movie tonight and it renewed my yearning to dance well. I googled “Rhythym for Dummies” (in the spirit of all those how to for dummies books, lol) and found your blog :) Peace, brother.

    3. Glen says:

      Hi Tony

      I am a tall, lanky dancer at 6’2. I have been training
      ballet, modern and contemporary for years. I still feel that my rhythm can vastly improve. . With choreo, I can see the movement and just do it. When I move however, its hard for me to count the beat When it comes to hip hop and small, fast movement…I am just a plain “buster”. I love dancing of course but I want to be confident that Im on the beat without thinking tooo hard about. Gah. Any suggestions??


      • Eric Daure says:

        Hi Tony,

        I enjoyed your article, having just found it while doing market research for a new rhythm course I’m developing.

        I agree with you that everyone alive must have rhythm, as life cannot continue without it, and that virtually all can learn to patch into that inner metronome.

        I’ve long been on an informal mission to propagate that message in the world, and recently decided to make a real impact on it with my course/technique. I call it Viscerokinesthetic Deep Rhythm Training, and it’s designed to strongly reconnect people’s experience of rhythm at the “gut” level.

        We’re currently gathering five participants for our R&D testing phase, and I believe Glen could be an ideal candidate. If chosen, Glen will get the training free, so I hope you don’t mind my putting this forward in a reply
        Glen, feel free to get in touch if you’d like to explore further. it’s currently about 30 min/day for 2 weeks.



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