Excerpted from "Latin Dance Study Guide" by Martin Blais.
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Of great importance is the matter of small-scale precision of the steps with respect to the music. As a trained jazz musician, I cannot forego noticing someone who dances consistently just-a-little slightly ahead of the beat. This is a very subtle point, which requires great attention, because ultimately it has a the greatest effect on how your style comes out.
A legitimate question is how precise should one be? Some people seem to think that the fact that your feet do not hit the ground precisely on the beat does not matter as long as you're not drifting off the rhythm. The fact that you must not be drifting away from the rhythm is obvious, but precision with respect every step is tantamount to the perception by others that the feet are actually going to the music. However, accurate rhythmic precision itself is not as much an issue as the question of being early vs. being late.
So should you dance slightly ahead or slightly late? Dancing slightly late to the beat looks more "in the rhythm" than dancing slightly ahead of the beat. The human mind seems to play the same trick as in jazz music, where most players are playing in a very "laidback" manner, behind the rhythm section, yet the brain still perceives it "on time".
Analogy with Music
The analogy with music applies perfectly here: there is a very useful lesson to be learned from musical interpretation. When a soloist plays just slightly ahead of the accompanying music–and I really mean just slightly, not on different beats–it creates musical tension (1st figure).
Conversely, when a soloist plays behind the music, which is generally referred to as playing "laid-back", it creates a relaxed, groovy feeling. So much, that our minds will easily be dragged along by a solo that can be as much as nearly a full beat behind the rhythm section, and we will still perceive it as being "on the beat" (2nd figure).
Creating Musical Tension.
Laidback rhythm, creating groove.
Listen to any of the classic jazz ballads and slower standards for ample examples of this musical effect.
If you have a strong sense of rhythm and are able to play with this, try it for yourself in front of a mirror, you'll see that dancing slightly late looks much better. Dancing slightly ahead gives it a nervous flavour, which doesn't look nice. The tension created by playing or dancing ahead is not pleasant for a long duration of time. It's like someone who's singing off key: you "could" use it for effect, but you can't use it much nor for very long.
The same trick of the mind is in effect for someone watching the dancers: if you dance ahead of the music, you look like you're not "on the beat", so-to-speak, even if you're dancing at the same general "pace" as the music. If you dance behind the music, you can even afford to be lazy and behind and it won't show too much, plus you'll appear to be "in the groove".
Now, once you realize that, the real problem is that to be able to create a relaxed, groovy feeling, you yourself must be at ease. Conversely, if you're tense, you will tend to accelerate and create tension yourself. There is only one solution: practice and practice and practice until you are in control of your emotions (and your feet).
There is an important lesson out of this, even for beginners: when you feel that you are getting confused by the music and you start "losing the beat", at that very moment, you are ALWAYS accelerating. Relax, slow down, take a deep breath, and you will very often fall back right into it and will be home-free!
Losing the Beat
When you are not familiar with latin music, which is rather different than the simple backbeat patterns of mainstream North-American music, it is easy to get lost. From the discussion above it follows that if you're feeling that you're losing the beat, you will get nervous, and thus you will invariably accelerate.
If you lose the beat, you are invariably going too fast. I don't think I have ever seen anyone lose the beat by dancing too slow. Here is the rule that saves you: if you're lost slow down. You will almost always find the beat again.