A recent dance competition featured a DJ who was doing that job for the first time. While there were a couple of songs that didn’t really work, he did a pretty good job. What I really appreciated was his attitude: he admitted that he had a lot to learn and wanted to know where his efforts fell short.
Here is some advice for dance DJs from the perspective of an experienced dancer.
One key consideration when choosing a song for a dance is how well it reflects the character of that dance. Swing dances like Waltz and Slow Foxtrot need to have swing in the music or dancers can’t feel what they are supposed to be responding to musically. Cha Cha is a sharp, cheeky dance highlighting the sexual tension between men and women, and the music needs to bring out that quality. Samba is a party dance from Brazil, and should be light and bouncy. Quickstep music must also be light and fun-loving, with a bit of swing. These characteristics allow the dancers to perform to the best of their ability, without having to fight against music that isn’t appropriate.
You’d expect that dance competitions, where the DJs are experienced, would always have great music selections. Not so. I’ve been to many competitions where at least one song didn’t fit the character of the dance. It ruins the effect for the audience, and keeps the dancers from going all out in their performance. In fact, I recall world-class events where the chair of judges actually stopped the music because the song was so badly suited to the dance. So don’t assume that because a song was played at a competition it makes a great piece of music to dance to.
A Waltz may have the correct numerical bar count, yet be flat and lifeless. Just because it says “Waltz” on the disc label, and just because the label is a strict tempo album published by a reputable dance music studio doesn’t mean the song should be used for dancing. Some of this music is appropriate for show dances, where couples can design the routine to contrast the music. But a DJ’s job is to bring out everything the dancers have to give, and only music that truly fits the character of the dance can do this.
Make sure the songs you choose have the right phrasing. Besides tempo, this is the most important aspect of music for dancing. Samba, for example is expected to have 8 bars per phrase, so if you play something that changes from 8 bars to 6, you’ll make the dancers look and feel off time. Listen to every song carefully ahead of time to make sure it has proper, consistent phrasing all the way through.
In the sections that follow I’ll give examples of good and bad music. Keep in mind that these are not intended to always be current. Music styles change. Some of the songs listed may become dated after a while. They are intended to give examples of the general flavor and rhythmical elements that I’m referring to.
The Standard Dances
The Waltz is the king of the swing dances. The music should be elegant and flowing, with long swings in the movement of the notes. Waltz lends itself well to haunting melodies like Hayley Westenra’s beautiful Dark Waltz. Songs like Greenwaves make a beautiful Waltz because of their tenderness and soft edges. The best Waltz music avoids sharp attacks but instead allows the notes to draw out as long and gracefully as possible. One example of a Waltz that falls short for me is Under the Bridges of Paris from the “Shall We Dance” soundtrack. There’s nothing really wrong with the music, but the 2 count beats are a little too soft and crisp for my liking, keeping the dancers from fully extending into the swing in a way that makes the dance shine.
Tango is a staccato dance with lots of sudden, sharp movements. It highlights the sexual tension between men and women. The better Tango songs have a sensual touch to them, but for international style Tango the songs need to be stronger and more active than for other Tango styles. The wonderfully sexy Sensuel from the “Ballroom Fascination” album is very sexy, but a touch too soft for International-style Tango.
There are differences between International-style, American Smooth Tango and Argentine Tango. The former two can generally use the same music without affecting the dance, but Argentine Tango requires a much different, more sensual and softer musical treatment due to the very different character of that dance. This article focuses on International style because that’s my area of expertise. International-style Tango really needs dramatic quality in the music that has steady movement in it, because that brings out the best qualities of the dance.
There are very few good Tango songs with lyrics; most of the best music is instrumental. Lyrics seem to take away from what is happening on the floor in this dance. Good Tango music allows the notes to attack with a feline grace, quickly yet smoothly, then fall off gradually. This highlights the leg lines and lets the movement on the floor become one with the music. Infiltrado and the faster versions of Tango Notturno (especially the one by Stanley Black’s orchestra) are great International Tango songs because they include a sense of strong horizontal movement which sets that version of Tango apart from the others. Tango music that falls short usually fails by trying to emphasize the staccato nature too strongly.
There’s a fine line between softness and crispness. When it crosses the line it becomes truly awful. A good example of a really bad Tango is Dancelife’s Woman in Love (from the album Bring 2 Smiles to Your Feet). Ugh. In contrast, Tango Milonga from the very same album is actually a very good International Tango choice.
Some popular music has the right pacing for Tango but just doesn’t feel like Tango. If you expect social dancers to Tango to it just because you decided it would work for Tango you’ll only have them scratching their heads wondering what they should dance to this.
You’d think there could be little that could be problematic with Viennese Waltz music. Surprisingly, I’ve seen plenty of bad choices. Songs like the theme from The Waltons seemed like a good choice to one competition DJ, but it has sharp contrasting undertones that compete with the smoothness of the rotation. Jerry Goldsmith didn’t design the song to be danced to. On the other hand, Storybook by Lee Lessack is a popular competition Viennese Waltz song, because the notes move so gracefully that you can feel the swing as each partner rotates around the other on the floor. However, be aware that this song will be very challenging to less experienced dancers because the complexities between the vocals and melody make it very hard for the dancers to hear the 1 beat and to identify the phrasing.
When you choose a song for the Viennese Waltz, make sure that it has smooth rotational qualities and uninterrupted swing.
Another aspect of Viennese Waltz music is the phrasing. There are songs out there with unusual 7-bar phrasing. Be careful to choose only songs with traditional 8-bar phrasing. Some have 8-bar phrasing with unexpected 7-bar phrasing from time to time. That can really throw choreography. Always choose music with a clear intro that isn’t ridiculously long so that the dancers aren’t waiting around for 20 seconds waiting for the intro to end.
When I showed my aunt a video of world-class Slow Foxtrot, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes and said, “It’s beautiful walking!” The music for Slow Foxtrot is the best of all the DanceSport music and must reflect that quality of a romantic stroll in the park. There are so many good choices out there, I’m always shocked when a DJ picks an unsuitable song. But it does happen.
Look for smoothness with swing that isn’t too deep, and a soft bass beat that doesn’t come on too strong. Songs like September in the Rain by Dinah Washington, Bobby Darin’s incredible “Beautiful Things,” Frankie Lane’s Kisses that Shake the World or Vanessa Williams’ delightfully sexy Come On Strong wonderfully match the qualities of what is happening on the floor. On the other hand, tunes like Peggy Lee’s A Doodlin’ Song (which I’ve actually heard played at a comp) are choppy, with notes that arrive and leave too quickly, removing the long horizontal swing that the dance calls for. This has the effect of minimizing movement on the floor rather then emphasizing it.
And please be careful with songs that are just inappropriate. I find some music, like “Love for Sale,” to be culturally offensive because of the lyrics and so they really should be avoided. At one competition the DJ actually played this song for a children’s event! I was naturally appalled.
The Quickstep has its roots in the party dances of the Big Band era, including the Charleston. So, the music should be light and fluffy, with a suitable Big Band swing quality. If the song has lyrics, they should be playful. Songs like Ricky Lee’s Can’t Touch It and Caro Emerald’s That Man are wonderful choices because they meet these criteria so well. Some songs, like Flying by the Nice Little Penguins is a bit too ‘jumpy’ to make a great Quickstep song. There isn’t enough swing quality, making it feel short and small instead of long and smooth. Pick songs with a slow, deliberate attack and fade to the music. It needs to bounce horizontally, not only jump vertically.
The Latin Dances
The Samba has its origins in the carnival atmpospher of Brazil. It’s a party dance, and the music should reflect that aspect of the dance. It should also have a nice, light bounce action to it. Songs like Mas Que Nada, especially the version on Latin Music 8, or Straight to Memphis by Club de Belugas are great Samba songs with a strong beat and a good rhythm bounce.
Some Samba music is too hard, with a solid beat but lacking qualities that help the dancers bounce and enjoy themselves on the floor. Sum Svistu’s “Pa-Pa-Pa” comes to mind. Not a bad song for social dancing, but horrible for competition.
And don’t get me started on those awful Big Band styled Sambas like Skylab Orchestra’s “Happy Talk.” These weren’t even good Samba songs back in the 50’s where they came from. The instruments are all wrong for Latin. Once I heard the Samba medley from the Strictly Ballroom album played at a competition. Obviously the DJ thought it was suitable just because it was called a Samba. Not! Dancers spent thousands of dollars to perfect a Samba routine only to have a DJ destroy their performance through a bad choice of music.
Be careful to check the phrasing as well of any song you choose. A surprising number of Samba songs have uneven phrasing that switches from, say, 8 bar phrases to 6. This has a devastating result on the floor because the couples will look as if they’re off time and have little opportunity to fix it on the fly just because you picked a bad song! They’ll hate you for doing this to them if you pick a poorly phrased song.
Cha Cha Cha
I love Cha Cha music. It’s crisp, fun and easy to move to. Many popular songs have a beat count that works for Cha Cha, but most of them aren’t suitable for dancing for a variety of reasons. The Cha Cha is a cheeky dance and the music should reflect that playful quality. Some songs are too heavy or too soft to make the dance shine. This makes it tough for the dancers to really let go and pull out all the stops in terms of energy and musicality.
Some great Cha Cha songs include Y Bailo by Donato y Estefano, Sweet Like Cola by Lou Bega and Sex Bomb by Tom Jones. They are all crisp, full of energy and radiate the story of men and women playing the game of love.
A recent version of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” from the album The Latin Mix 4 and the classic Dance With Me by Delilah Morgan are also delightful Cha Cha tunes. On the other end of the scale are songs like Tito Ramirez’s “Wabble Cha,” from the Agua de Coco album. I’ve heard this at an event and it was stupendously uninspiring. How can couples put an effort in when there’s a song like that playing?
The Rumba is a romantic dance, full of passion. Where the Cha Cha represents the man’s desire as he chases the woman, the Rumba represents the result after the woman gives in to his advances. The music should reflect a love story. More than that, the music needs to be strong while at the same time having smooth edges and a background melody that suggests a rising crescendo of passion. I personally love songs that tell the woman’s desire for the man, which is the heart of the Rumba character. Songs like Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps by Doris Day.
For social dancing, try to pick songs where the beat is clearly defined because social dancers will struggle with songs that have a soft or hidden beat emphasis.
Among the pop music that can be used for Rumba, one of my favorites is Berlin’s Take My Breath Away from the Top Gun soundtrack. Sensual, beautiful and perfectly suited to the Rumba.
Be kind to the dancers. Play Spanish Gypsy Dance and you’ll be loved. Only if you really know what you’re doing, with a full understanding of how Paso is phrased, should you ever play anything else.
The Jive is, in many ways, the Latin equivalent to the Quickstep. It was created out of many different dance styles and needs to be light and fresh so that dancers can accentuate that light quality with their footwork. Songs that go back to the Big Band era are fine (like Swing Brothers’ “Hey Baby” from Vivo Latino), but there are some good modern songs as well.
The key issue with the Jive is the phrasing. A number of songs out there have odd phrasing. For example, one song I often hear played in competitions is “Hey Ya” from the Dance House album Dance Charts Step IV. This song changes from 8 bar to 6 bar phrasing all through the song, and has moments where it even goes to 4 bars before returning to the 8 and 6 format. Horrible. You can design a show dance routine to this song and it would be awesome, but why subject dancers to a song that will make them look off time?
Another example is Madonna’s Hanky Panky, which I hear at competitions all the time. In almost every respect it’s a fantastic Jive song, yet it suffers from this same phrasing change several times into the music that makes the dancers suddenly look off time.
Great Jive songs include “Bim Bam” from the Dancelife album Conquistador Latino and S-Club 7’s Reach. Make sure you listen to the complete songs you select before you have to play them for the participants in case the numbers have phrasing issues.
Hope that helps you choose great dance music. In some cases, DJ’s get great reputations for understanding the music, and others become a source of horror and whispered conversations. Consistently getting the music right will put you in a position where dancers look forward to you and what you’re going to play for them.