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For Ballroom Disc Jockeys

As partner dancing in the Bay Area spreads and evolves, and the demographic changes, we are seeing new venues and themes all the time.  The circumstances in which we dance will continue to vary; but the combination of intuition, musical talent, and hard work needed to make a good DJ will remain constant.  If you are on your way to becoming this kind of DJ, here are some thoughts and advice to help you get there faster.

There are 3 things you need to do, to be a competent and well-liked DJ:
1. Know Your Audience
2. Know Your Music
3. Vary Your Selections

1. Audience
Knowing your audience begins with the first phone call you receive to discuss a potential DJ gig.  Ask the host or promoter, what kind of dances he or she expects to hear based on the theme of the evening (e.g. "It's Salsa night", or "It's a speakeasy so we should have Charleston").  Then find out all you can about the guests, starting with: How old are they?  How much dance experience do they have?  What dance(s) have they shown the most interest in, at past events?  Use this information to prepare for the event, but when you get there you will still need to take a look at your crowd and cater to them on the fly.

It is crucial to take note of how old your dancers are.  When you first walk in, look at how old the hosts are.  If they are in their forties, and you spin only tunes that were released in the last five years, you could seriously dampen their evening, and through them, everyone's evening.  The hosts need to have fun in order to start the party, so at least your first few songs should be compatible with their taste.  If you are the host of your own dance party, this one is already well taken care of.  :)  Once the host is smiling, you can look at the guests coming in and play to the age(s) of the whole crowd.  Most of the time you will find that as age goes up, tempo needs to go down.  A person who is 20 years old is willing and able to dance twice as fast as a person of 60.  120 beats per minute is the universal tempo that almost anyone can dance, because (just my theory) that is the tempo at which people normally walk down the street.  A room full of seniors could also do with a nice helping of 110 bpm.  But if they have their teen grandchildren along, please throw out something with a little more zing: a cha cha or foxtrot at 140, swing or waltz at 180.  The older folks may sit those out, but at that tempo the younger folks will be fun to watch, which may keep the seniors entertained.  There are occasionally people for whom their dance age does not correspond to their chronological age.  A 25 year old with a sprained ankle could dance slower or more awkwardly than a slim baby boomer.  Playing a wide variety of tempos will usually accomodate a wide variety of ages.  Most of the time you only need to let a certain tempo take a slight majority to correspond with the age most represented by your group.

The level and distribution of your volume will also depend on the demographic you are spinning for.  Some people are used to rock concerts and other nightlife, and will ask for the volume to be turned up.  Some people are used to classical music, or the radio playing quietly in the background at work, and will ask for the volume to be turned down.  It is your job as the DJ to figure out which preference represents the majority (as opposed to who complains the most) and set your level accordingly.  If you are getting as many requests to turn it down as you are to turn it up, you are probably doing fine.  Just as you know your tempo is good when you get as many requests to play "faster" as to play "slower".

I realize most disc jockeys came into the trade as an outgrowth of their love for music, or for dancing, not because they are sound engineers.  So here are a few basic ideas about sound.  The more broad surfaces a room has (i.e. uninterrupted walls, hard floor, domed ceiling) the more "live" it is: sound has a place to bounce off, so it will carry well, and produce echoes. The more people you have in the room, the more "dead" the room becomes, as they provide insulation against the sound waves.  Therefore at the beginning and end of the evening, when there are few guests present, the volume of the music should be lower than when the party is more crowded.  When you are setting the levels on your mixer to begin  your evening, keep in mind how much you will have to increase later.  To help the sound carry across the room is very important for line-of-dance dances that will cause people to travel far away from your speakers.  Lift the speakers above the heads of the crowd, so that their bodies cannot block the sound.  This is why, in old halls, you will find speakers mounted high on the walls.  If you are bringing your own sound system, invest in some speaker stands.

When volume is left to the intangible preference of individuals, it is easy to get into an argument with guests (or even your hosts) over what is "too quiet" or "too loud."  Therefore I defer to science and numbers.  I follow the OSHA regulations that set a limit of 90 decibels, because prolonged exposure to volumes over 90dB causes permanent hearing loss.  Permanent!  This information, backed up by the current rating on your decibel meter, will often be enough to send away the person telling you to "turn it up."  But bring your earplugs just in case the request comes from the person who hired you.  Some bars and nightclubs have earplugs available for free to anyone who wants them; that is how they can play music at 100dB like they do, and still be OSHA compliant.

Another issue is volume distribution: which parts of the room are loud and which parts are quiet.  At a wedding or other party where catching up with old friends is a big reason people are there, I strongly recommend confining your loud area to the dance floor and leaving the area with tables and chairs (or the bar, the deck, what have you) much more quiet to allow for conversation.  If you walk around the venue several times during the evening to listen to the music and your guests, you will hear whether they can have a relaxed conversation or they have to shout at each other.  By contrast, at a trade show or street fair you would want to throw your sound as wide as you can, to attract potential customers from across the way.  When these customers come over, you can receive them in a little "dead" spot you have created behind the speakers, by hanging drapes or other sound absorbing things.

Dance Preferences
Hopefully by talking to the event promoter or host you will have an idea what kind of dances this group likes to do, before you arrive.  Yet you bring all your music, ready at your fingertips.  Because you might have a big change of plan once you actually meet your guests.  For example let's say you were hired by a bride who asks you to play swing music for her wedding reception.  You arrive with your swing collection in perfect order, and by the time you have played two songs you have figured out that only the bride and groom know how to swing dance, but the groom's family is Latino so you'd better produce some good salsa or you're toast!  Not that all Latinos like to dance salsa or merengue, but if you see that habitual movement in their hips when they are on the floor, you would do well to put on a latin dance tune and see if their faces light up.

You will get used to spotting other dance preferences by sight as well.  Start by scanning your crowd's posture and facial expressions.  People training for competitions, and people into Argentine tango, tend to look more serious than folk dancers and swing dancers.  Then check out the shoes in your audience.  What is the ratio of street shoes to dance shoes?  A lot of well-worn dance shoes is a welcome sight, as it means experience, and usually skill.  What type of dance shoe matters also. If all your women are in stiletto heels, it's not likely they are looking to polka (or swing, or other dances that jump up and down).

It is a fun game to play, trying to guess what dances people are "into" by what they are wearing.  It usually works.  I realize this borders on stereotyping, so be careful not to let yourself take it so far that you mock or condescend to your audience.  With that in mind... see the young girl with the polka dot skirt and pig tails?  Swing, and maybe polka.  And that maternal looking woman, with the long hair, long skirt, and glasses?  Folk dancer.  The guy in jeans and sneakers, shirt untucked, with his arms swaying unconsciously?  Blues, baby.  The one next to him, who could be his math professor, is quiet and sort of stiff.  Probably in khakis and a polo shirt, and he's going to be much more at home in a foxtrot or waltz than in a cha cha or a samba, since those would require him to be on speaking terms with his hips.  The woman in the tight black pants could use some west coast swing or hustle.  Many women like to wear skirts to dance, because they flare out when you spin; but a WCS dancer does not want all that fabric hiding the subtle hip movements they've worked into their repertoire.

There is of course another way to find out what kind of dances your guests enjoy: ask.  When you play a song that is longer than three minutes, use that time to come out of the DJ booth and mingle.  Ask people you know what they want to hear, and trust them to seed the floor.  If you don't know any of the guests, approach whoever looks friendly and is near the edge of the dance floor, especially if they are tapping their foot in that "I wish I could dance" way.  Ask them what their favorite dance is, or what dances they know.  If you ask the question loud and clear, the other people nearby will hear it, and realize you take requests.

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2. Music: organizing
There are many things you will need to know and remember, about every song you own.  These include at least: what dance is it good for, how fast is it, how long is it, what year did it come out, to what genre of music does it belong, and to what demographic would it appeal.  When establishing a system of organization for your music, decide which song specs you need to keep in your head, and how to note the remaining specs in a way that you will be able to find and retrieve.  Filing systems are very personal: some DJs like to make lists that cross-reference each other, some write all over the CDs themselves, some keep lists or data bases in their computers, some use symbols or color-coding.  It is common to sort one's collection by dance, or by genre, or alphabetically by artist.  Choose the one that will best stir your memory. 

If you travel, or play at many venues, I recommend copying your music into several formats and/or storage locations.  When you do this, keep your filing system consistent, so that if your usual music format fails or is incompatible with a venue, you can easily reach for your Plan B.  For example if you normally carry CDs, but you want to also make a data DVD for backup, have the DVD contain folders with the contents of each CD, with the folder names matching the titles you gave the CDs.  If your CDs had been named "rhumba," "cha cha," etc and that is how you are accustomed to looking for songs, you may not want to let your computer put them in folders by artist.

Once you have established your music filing system, then every time you find a new song, add it in immediately-- with all the labels, notes, or tags for you to find it again. It is very easy to set music aside and say "I will get to those songs later," but you will find tunes fall through the cracks this way.  I tend to have a backlog, myself, so I keep a physical inbox on my desk for music that needs to be processed into my collection.  It catches CDs, flash drives, printed set lists, and all those little scraps of paper you write lyrics on when you are out and hear something danceable played over the radio.

Music: identifying
Any song played with a regular beat can be danced to.  However, only a small fraction of them are suitable for dancing one of the two dozen established partner dances currently being done in the United States.  So many, many times you will hear a tune that makes you want to get up and move, and yet when you try out partner dances to it, you find there is no perfect match for the song.  I recommend you play this kind of must-move tune at a regular party, where you can jump around by yourself and get dancing to it out of your system... and leave it out of your ballroom dancing collection.  With some patience and perserverance, you will find plenty of songs that are the perfect match for each partner dance you want to do, and it will really feel better to dance to the well-matched song than the almost-matched one, no matter how popular it is.  Often I hear people say, "You can swing dance to anything in 4/4," and I reply, "Yes you can, but that doesn't mean you should."  Like you could drive a nail in with a baseball bat, but why would you do that when hammers are available?

When you hear a song you suspect is danceable, run it through a few basic mental filters and ask yourself:
What time signature is the music in?
Does it feel smooth or bouncy, like walking or running?
Are the rhythms simple or complicated?
Does it let you keep your upper body rigid, or does it encourage undulating movements?

Your filtering process may go something like this:
Decision Tree

Thus you quickly narrow down what dance it could be.  Then when you are home and have the chance, play the song and try dancing to it, and count the beats per minute to find out how fast it is.  Only then can you safely label a song with a dance and add it to your collection.  For example you might hear a song and think it's a rhumba, but once you take out your watch and count it, realize it was faster than you thought, and label it a cha cha instead.

Music: editing
There are a few local disc jockeys who are in the habit of editing their music with a computer program before they play it for an audience.  I am not one of those people.  It is my belief that musical composition (including all methods of songwriting) is an art form, and I have a great respect for art and artists.   I would not censor, deface, nor defame a person's art, just the same as I would not censor, deface, nor defame the person.  Not everybody shares my particular ethics, of course, so think for a moment how much you care about artists (or not).  For example, do you think expurgated versions of books are the best version?  Would you tear a few chapters out of a book, before handing over to your book club to read?  Would you purchase a painting, only to cut 1/3 of it off so that it fit better in a frame you already had?  Do you think it's silly when people want to watch the "director's cut" of a film?  Would you take an old family photo, and photoshop out your uncle's cane, so future generations would not be reminded he was blind?  If you answered "no" to any of these questions, that is probably also your answer to whether you would edit music.  A musical piece is recorded just the way the band wanted it (especially these days, when so many bands can create their own label or publish on the internet), and to change it significantly is to take away what they were trying to express.  Unless you know the band personally, you have no way of knowing what about their composition is significant to them, and therefore no part is "safe" to cut out. 

For example, what if a couple you know gave you a photo of themselves, standing in a hotel lobby.  To fit better in your frame, you crop it off at the waist.  You may be telling yourself it is the same picture, because it contains the same people.  But now that we can no longer see that he is wearing a grass skirt and she is wearing Hawaiian-print boxers, the picture is no longer telling the story.  You might still know that your friends went to Hawaii this summer, but anyone else who looks at the picture will not, and the meaning is lost.  Similarly, I have noticed the parts that are most often edited out of songs by dance DJs, are the most interesting parts, that would have let the listener know the mood and personality of the composer.  Dynamics, tempo changes, pauses, an extra bar or two... these are the quirks that give color and life to a piece, like the amusing clothes in the photo example.  If you find your audience filled with beginner dancers, you may be concerned they will thrown off by such quirks.  If your solution is to cut them out of the song, you end up with half a picture of a hotel lobby.  Even people who are not trained in music will realize something is missing.  Instead, look for a harmonious picture of an entire, empty hotel lobby: in other words, a song that is simple because it was meant to be simple.  You could waltz to "The Ash Grove" and put away Strauss for another day.

Not only do I refrain from cutting pieces out of songs; I also abstain from adding things in.  I have occasionally heard songs with repeats spliced in, preumably in an effort to simplify the song by making even bars or verses.  The visual art analogy there would be if you inheirited a portrait, but it appeared to you to be unfinished.  You paint in the missing ear, and are pleased to have restored symmetry.  The artist then laments that his picture of Van Gogh is ruined.

My exception (most rules have one :) is that I have occasionally shifted the tempo of a song by a handful of beats per minute.  One can observe that most bands will play slightly slower or faster from concert to concert, or live versus recorded, and so I am imitating something they would do themselves. However, I do recall a West Coast Swing DJ who took a 140bpm song and slowed it down to 120 for his purposes-- and the band noticed and called him on it.  No wonder, when that is such a big shift, taking a song from "medium" to "slow" and giving it a very different sound.  My shifts are usually to take a song from 200 bpm down to 192; it is "fast" either way, but for most of my audience 192 is "danceable" and at 200 many more people start dropping out.  On the opposite end, one could shift a 96 bpm song to 100.  I don't often bother with the slow end, though.  The fast songs are worth shifting because they get more requests and a better response from dancers.

If you were to shift a song farther than a measure or two per minute, you would create a difference that will be noticed by your audience.  Almost anyone who has learned to play an instrument has internalized the amount of time it takes to strike (bow, pluck, strum, blow, etc) a note on their instrument, and how that time changes with the tempo and the attack on the note.  When a song is sped up, it will still retain the feeling that the band had plenty of time to find their next chord, which sounds peculiar in a fast song.  And vice versa in a slowed-down song.  Most of your audience will not be able to explain why, as I am doing, but I can't begin to count how many times I have been out dancing and heard my partner say, "This song sounds funny."  So even if you do not share my penchant for artistic integrity, consider leaving songs as they are because it will improve the dancers' comfort.  A sure way to put a dent in their evening, is to take a Disney song they know from their childhood (look at the age of the crowd to figure out what Disney movies came out when they were litle), and play it at 20+ bpm faster than the original.  Not that I want you to conduct that experiment!  I would fain discourage causing so many wrinkled brows and frowns.  And it is even worse is to take a piece out of a song.  Many years of standing on the sidelines talking during a dance has taught me that there is always someone singing along, who will flinch and say, "Where did the other verse go?"  The DJ may not notice this, and think himself successful because the dance floor is mostly full; but those people sitting out and listening to the music, are less likely to come back, and less likely to invite their friends to the event, if they have an unpleasant aural experience.

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3. Variety
To keep your audience entertained, variety is everything.  You have heard the saying, "variety is the spice of life," and after my first couple of years of experience I became convinced that for a party, it's really the meat and potatoes (or beans and rice, if you're vegetarian :)  How much you vary the dances will be limited by the abilities of the dancers, as well as the theme set by the host or promoter of the party.  However, it is always in your power to vary your musical selections.  The most important factors to vary are tempo and genre.  Tempo can range from barely moving, to frantic.  Just make sure not to play too may highest-tempo songs in a row, so you don't wear your dancers out.  Tempo recommendations for each dance will follow below in the dance descriptions.

Playing a variety of genres will make a big improvement to everyone's evening.  Like a box of assorted chocolates, there will be something for every person's taste, and your evening will be overall delicious.  To vary musical genres must be the biggest challenge for the present generation of DJs, because so few of them do it.  It can require collecting and playing music that the DJ doesn't like, or doesn't know how to dance to.  For example, someone going to DJ a swing dance should also bring the styles of music that suit Balboa and Charleston, even if he doesn't do those dances himself.  There was a period in west coast swing when some, but not all, dancers learned Carolina Shag to mix in with their WCS, and I remember Kelly Buckwalter saying, "I should not be the only DJ who includes shag music."

In a three hour dance, you have time to play about 40 songs, which should be enough time to include every genre of music you have: pop, country, classical, jazz, folk, classic rock, techno, world, big band, new age, and alternative rock, at least.  Other genres like hip hop, punk, reggae, metal, blues, etc also become possible if you have a  sufficiently broad range of dances you can play.  Most DJs will settle into a couple of genres they are comfortable with, unless they make a conscious effort toward variety.  When getting ready for your gig, you can make a list of ten genres you plan to cover, and two or three songs for each.  Keep it with you in the DJ booth and look over at it once in a while, either to work those songs in or to check off genres you have already played.

There are two pits to avoid, as most DJs fall into one or the other.  One school of habit is to choose songs that have been around as long as you can remember, because they are tried and true ballroom standards.  Like always choosing "Oye Como Va" to play as a cha cha, because that's what you remember from when you learned to cha cha.  So your audience will have safe songs to execute their moves to, but the evening can come across as stale and dated.  The other, opposite school of habit is to say, "Oh I don't want to play Santana, everyone plays Santana" and putting on your latest, most alternative cha cha so you can be hip with the new music.  This does avoid the stale feeling; but when the songs are new every time, the crowd loses the sense of continuity and familiarity.  New songs also run a higher risk of not being danceable, since trying it out in your living room at home is very different from trying it out on a crowd that includes beginners.  I recommend using brand new, just-released songs like spices: as a very small part of our dance diet, chosen carefully to add the right flavor.  The majority of the evening is then made up of songs that your audience could have heard before, either on the dance floor or on the radio.  Not everyone listens to the same radio stations (especially now that there are so many options via the internet), so a song that is familiar to some of your dancers can still be the fresh, new song for others.

With the exception of hustle and nightclub two step, all the ballroom dances date back to the 1950s or earlier, so you have at least six decades of music to choose from.  Please use music for each dance that spans across the decades.  To continue the cha cha example, you can play one by Santana, and one by Tito Puente, and one by the Pussycat Dolls.  If it's swing you're doing, you can include Benny Goodman, Royal Crown Revue, and Frank Sinatra, easily in one evening.  By varying the age of your tunes, sometimes you will find they have done double duty and varied in genre as well.

Sometimes a DJ will carry and play songs that are mostly 15 and 20 years old.  Perhaps this is because they collected a lot of music when they first began their career, and once it became sufficiently large they left off searching.  Or perhaps it has been a long time since they were in college and had their ears and interests in the latest music.  Whatever the case, it is important to stretch those music-gathering muscles, and keep current.  You don't want to be like that wedding DJ you went up to as a teen, who answered your request with a blank look.  A good place to start, to find out what bands are "in," is to ask someone.  Who do you know that is around 18 years old: a coworker, a nephew, your babysitter?  Ask them what they like to listen to.

The DJ that is not much above 18 himself, has an even greater challenge, because he can only remember the last decade or so of music as it came out.  What else may have come his way depends on his circumstances, but he will probably have huge gaps to fill.  For example only a narrow slice of what was being listened to in the 1970s is going to be played on the 1970s themed radio station.  So maybe you've heard the Jackson 5 but you haven't heard Rush.  Inquire as much as you can of older folks who were hip "back in the day," and then use Google, Wikipedia, and Pandora to follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the best new-to-you music.

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How to Recognize and Utilize Each Dance
Each form of partner dance has its own characteristic music, and its own crowd of followers (and leaders, ha ha).  Here is some more detail about each one.  This will take a while to cover, so you are welcome to check back periodically as more dance styles are added.



Cha Cha
As a Latin dance, cha cha has that "clave" rhythm that puts emphasis at times that feel unusual when compared to traditional European music.  To match this, the dance puts emphasis on count 2 with a heavy step.  Many people have a hard time doing this, like in the movie Dirty Dancing, when the protagonist keeps telling his follower, "find the 2."  So to help those dancers who would step on the right beat if they only could hear it, choose songs that have a louder syllable being sung on beat 2, or a drum being struck there, or both.  For example, "I Need to Know" by Marc Anthony has percussion for beat 2 that stands out and doesn't happen any other time during the 8 count step.  It is more rare to find the melody emphasizing beat 2, but certainly possible.  For example, in "Wild, Wild West" by The Escape Club, he sings, "She's so mean, but I don't care, I love her eyes and her wild, wild hair"  He puts an emphasis on these pairs of words, which match the dancer's paired steps in cha cha, and not the triple cha-cha-cha part.

That song is also a good example of the sometimes blurred line between cha cha and west coast swing.  When the song first starts, and there is only drums, it fits cha cha, cut and dried.  Then when the chorus kicks in, the timing of the guitars is different, and the singer changes his timing to match.  These melodic elements, which are more swinging, push the drums into the background for a while.  So a person who started with the cha cha rhythm could keep hearing it and stick with it, yet if someone wanted to swing dance they could find elements to work with too.  Fortunately, since both cha cha and west coast swing are danced in one place, having both happen on the dance floor at once will not cause undue traffic problems.  When playing a song you know may be good for both, I recommend announcing it as a cha cha.  People who are really into west coast swing will grab onto any song that has the attitude they are looking for; you won't need to tell them they could west coast.

Foxtrot - Vintage
Foxtrot - Modern

Hambo is a folk dance in 3/4 time.  If you are wondering whether you have folk dancers in your audience, playing a hambo is a safe way to find out. Your crowd can dance a rotary or Viennese waltz to the hambo music, if they don't know the choreography for hambo.  In order to fit the hambo, your song needs to not only be in 3/4, but also needs to be made up entirely of regular verses, 8 bars long each.  It is easiest to find these in collections of folk music that are intended for hambo, or for forms of country dancing which require regular verses.  It is certainly possible to find contemporary music with regular verses, but it is a lot of work.  Set yourself up for a long day of listening to waltz songs, and counting out the entirety of each one, writing down verses as you go.  Or better yet, dance the hambo (or some other 8-bar dance) to the whole song.  Never assume that, just because the first half of the song is regular, the whole thing is.

The feeling of hambo music has a lilt that is later in the beat than regular waltz, a sliding sound (usually produced by a fiddle) between count 1 and 2 that more resembles mazurka.  So if you have already collected a number of songs for mazurka, it is well worth listening to them again to see if some of them are also useful for hambo.  Some folk dance groups do their hambo with a pronounced bounce.  Yet the music is not bouncy in an obvious way, like music is for polka or jive.  There is a suble springy feeling, more like the flexing of a trampoline and less like the pogo stick you have in a reel.

Lindy Hop
Nightclub Two Step

Polka is that happy, homey, white-people dance.  Most of us were raised on it, as polka is the most common beat used for cartoon music and kid's songs (from Mickey Mouse to the Wiggles).  The polka craze of the 1940s is still on the edge of the memory of living people.  Perhaps your grandmother can tell you about the Lawrence Welk show.  This means that polka has the surprising combination of being the dance that is most energetic and aerobic, and also the most nostalgic and cozy.

Polka music is in 2/4 time, with an "oom-pa, oom-pa" feeling that is easiest to hear from the tuba of an old brass band, but can be played by a variety of instruments.  The accordion lends itself particularly well to the 2 beats of polka, since it has to go in-out, in-out anyway.  You can find polka music from a variety of countries and historical eras.  The original polka craze of the 1840s had mostly slower polkas, until Strauss and other famous composers caught on and made some more fiesty, complicated things.  Then in the late 1800s we had Sousa and Dede, and there were many popular and folk songs written as polkas.  In America some of these have survived, especially in the context of documenting the westward migration of homesteaders.  In the 1910s and 20s polka was obscured by the ragtime stuff, but in the 1940s it made a big comeback.  This century's polkas were a bit faster, and most were popular songs on the radio.  Frankie Yankovic is the most famous of the era, but many pop artists recorded polkas: the Andrews Sisters, Patti Page, Louis Prima.  This lasted until the 1960s, when polka faded from the mainstream along with all the other ballroom dances, since the "groovy" young people would rather dance by themselves.

The challenge when identifying a song as a polka, is to make sure it is not some other bouncy dance, and that it is a dancer-pleasing tempo.  I count polka beats as though it was in 4/4, to make it easier to compare with other dances, and as such I find most dancers have a hard time below 216 and above 280.  I recommend the majority of your polkas be in that range, unless your crowd seems to request otherwise.  So an example of the slow end would be "This Ole House" by Rosemary Clooney, and at the fast end "Camelot Song" by Monty Python.  Oh yes, lots of comedy music is 2/4 polka.  Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, Weird Al, etc.  The trouble with comedy numbers though, is that they often contain narratives, tempo changes, and other irregularities -- so play with caution.  Punk music is also a great source for polkas, although I have found that a polka full of angst does not get as many people on the floor as a cutesy old one.

The dances most commonly mistaken for polkas are reels and jigs, the other bouncy white people dances.  Jigs are in 6/8 so, to pass on what an Irish dancer friend told me, you can tell it's a jig if you can say "patio furniture, patio furniture" along to it.  Reels are in 4/4, which is a little more even-sounding than the 2/4 of polka, and the bounce is different.  Reels have a more sudden, up and down bounce, where polkas are more gradual and stretched out (to go along with traveling farther).  To hear the difference, listen to a traditional reel like "I'll tell me Ma" or "Star of the County Down" and then compare it to one of my polka examples above.  Another instructive example is the techno hit, "Turbo Polka" by Atomik Harmonik.  Even though it has polka in the name, it's a reel, not a polka; it's in 4/4.  One other mistake we make occasionally: I always wanted to polka to "Kodachrome" by Paul Simon.  But when I played it at a dance and people weren't as enthused as I was, I realized it was a quickstep.  Listening to it again, I realize it has more "tickety-tick" than "oom-pa" and I should have known better.


Samba is a bouncy dance, but the bounce is more relaxed than polka, less insistent than swing.  One theory I was told by a dance teacher, is that where swing divides the beat into 3 pieces, samba divides it into 4, so that the second step of your triple is very delayed.  Samba music sounds Latin to most of us clueless white folks, and this leads to some confusion, because we use so much Latin music for salsa.  But it is important to distinguish the two, since so many dancers know how to do salsa, and so few know samba.  When you play a song as a foxtrot and the dancers choose to swing to it instead, it causes little or no harm to your party.  But when an intended salsa turns out to be a samba, it can clear the floor, which is cause for concern.  Here are some examples of songs that are good for samba: "Under the Sea," from Disney's Little Mermaid; "Whenever, Wherever," by Shakira; "Eastern Bloc," by Thomas Dolby.  These come from different genres of music, with different instrumentation, but what they have in common is the rhythmic bounce.  None of them have the constant tick-tick marching percussion characteristic of salsa.  To isolate the difference in rhythm, look up the hits by Gloria Estefan.  "Hablemos el Mismo Idioma" is a salsa, "You'll Be Mine (Party Time)" is a samba.  Same singer, but very different feeling.

Swing - East Coast
Swing - Jive

Waltz is possibly the easiest dance to recognize when you hear it played, because it is the only ballroom dance with an odd number of beats.  All our others, being in 2/4 or 4/4, will have the feeling that you could divide them in half.  Most waltzes also have a swaying feeling, making you want to rock  "to and fro" rather than walking or running.  Waltz has been around for hundreds of years, and many styles of it have come, and gone, and come back out again.  So here are descriptions for specific varieties of waltz.

Waltz - Box Step
This sort of waltz is done in modified rectangles instead of spinning circles, and therefore has a lot in common with Foxtrot.  Long walking steps require rather slow music, 90-120 bpm.  Traveling in long lines, hovering, and stately contrabody poses all run against the swaying of older forms of waltz.  So the music needs to be devoid of "oom pa pa" and instead feel like walking, "tick tick tick."  This makes music for American waltz harder to pick out than others, because many of us would not notice a song is a waltz, without the swaying feeling.  For example, you could play "Natural Woman" by Aretha Franklin.  When she sings "you make me / feel like a / nat-u-ral / wo-man-" each of those syllables is equal in duration and emphasis.  Each syllable is a beat of music, and a weight change for the dancer.  The even-ness is good for plain walking.  As opposed to a song like "Iris" by the GooGoo Dolls; when he sings "and I / don't want the / world to / see me" the word "don't" is much louder and later in its beat than the other two syllables that follow it, and slides into them with a lilt.  So a song like "Iris" sways too much (and is too fast) to be good for a box step waltz.  Also note that people doing the International, competitive version of box step want the slowest songs; in order to rehearse at the speed they are accustomed to, and demonstrate control of their bodies.  Over 100bpm and they can feel awkward using their standard moves.

Waltz - Cross-Step
Waltz - Rotary
Waltz - Viennese
West Coast Swing



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