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When rehearsing ballets, it is most common for dancers to count their steps against the music in eights.
You may not realise it, but when you see a ballet being performed, there are usually two very different types of counting going on. The orchestra, directed by the conductor, have their music written in front of them. The music is divided into bars, which are often all of the same length for large stretches of the music. For example, the famous 'Dance of the Knights' in the ballroom scene of Romeo and Juliet is divided up into bars of four counts.
Dancers often count in sets of eight, if the music is 'in four', or six if the music is 'in 3'; they complete one set of counts for every two that the musicians do. However, it is also common for these counts to go against the bars in the music. When learning a piece in the rehearsal studio, the dancers will start by counting ever single step. However, once the have reached the end of the rehearsal period, often they are able to dance the entire piece without counting much at all.
When a dancer isn't on stage dancing, they are not continiously counting until their next entry. They have a musical cue, normally eight counts before they have to go back on stage, which they learn by ear. When they hear the cue, they start counting.
Some ballets have very difficult counts. Many Igor Stravinsky ballets are complicated for the musicians, with their counts changing frequently and often involving irregular numbers such as fives and sevens. These ballets also involve complicated counts for the dancers, which can change constantly. For example, in the all-Balanchine and Stravinsky programme that BRB is performing in spring 2007, it would not be unusual for a dancer to count constantly through the entire ballet!
To find out more about the Stravinsky and Balanchine programme click here.