I received an email a few months ago from a DJ in Alabama who was preparing for an upcoming event where a number of ballroom dancers would be present, and he wanted some help in preparing a playlist. He admitted that he tended to play the same songs over and over when he got requests for a particular dance style, due to his lack of knowledge about ballroom.
He had run across this list that I had posted several years ago, and since the iTunes Store link for each song no longer worked (thanks a bunch, Apple), he didn't know which musicians performed the songs on the list, and asked if I had a list that included the artists.
I was able to re-create that list for him, and I took the opportunity to add a few more recent songs. He was quite appreciative, and told me that he was adding the list to his file of "things to always carry to a gig."
My observation is that many (most?) DJs aren't very knowledgeable about ballroom dance music or steps (heck, a lot of band leaders aren't either; some seem to think that every song with a vaguely Latin beat is a bossa nova. I'm a ballroom dancer and I don't know how to do a bossa nova.). This isn't surprising, since ballroom dancers are likely a small and shrinking audience at most events. I was more than happy to help this gentleman because it meant being able to support and promote ballroom in some small way.
It also caused me to consider the likelihood that there are other DJs out there who are in the same boat: they don't often work a ballroom crowd, but when they do, they feel a bit inadequate for the undertaking. With that in mind, I'm going to draw upon my decade-plus dance experience (including five years of preparing ballroom playlists), and offer some tips to DJs in case Mr. Google leads them to this page.
- I have created a downloadable list of suggested songs showing song title, artist, and suggested dance step (PDF format).
- The waltz is your friend. Waltzes are to ballroom dancers like the Star Spangled Banner is to most Americans (some NFL players excluded): if you want to get their attention, or better yet, get them on the dance floor, play a waltz.
- But don't play a fast waltz. Mr. Bojangles is a great song, but a bad choice for a dance song...it's too fast (and too long...see below). The best waltzes are slow and romantic, and the ladies will make sure the guys get them onto the dance floor. Moon River is always a great choice; for something more contemporary, try Easy by Rascal Flatts.
- Many Latin-flavored songs lend themselves to both rumba and cha cha steps, so when in doubt, simply introduce the song as "Latin." Leave it up to the dancers to decide what to do. Santana's Smooth is a great example of a song that will accommodate both steps, as is the Pussycat Dolls' version of Sway.
- West Coast swing is completely different from East Coast swing (the latter is noted on the playlist simply as "swing"). However, while one can generally do an East Coast swing to a West Coast number, vice versa is rarely true. Wilson Pickett's Mustang Sally is a good example of a song that works for both steps. If you're at a loss for a West Coast tune, find a slow blues number; it will likely work.
- If someone asks you for a Night Club 2 Step or Night Club Slow, they're wanting a slow, romantic song (sometime referred to as a "belt buckle rubbing song"). Unchained Melody or Patsy Cline's Crazy will always do the trick.
- If you're playing a gig that is primarily geared toward ballroom, be sure to vary the songs. There's nothing more aggravating than getting three or four of the same steps in a row, whether they're fox trot, waltz, Latin, or swing. This will require some advance planning, and even the best plans will be derailed by special requests, but try to vary the steps as much as possible.
- Ballroom dancers differ from the usual party crowd in wanting to have a little time between songs. For one thing, since ballroom is always partner dancing, this gives the gentlemen time to escort the ladies back to their seats after a dance, if they're not a couple.
- Never include a song that's more than four minutes long. (Rules are made to be broken, and this one can at least be bent, but try to adhere to it.) The Gotan Project's Santa Maria tango from the movie Shall We Dance is popular, but at almost six minutes, it's too dang long for most dancers. Unless you're a pro, you don't have enough tango steps to fill six minutes of music.
- Keep the volume reasonable. If you normally crank Uptown Funk to 10, Fly Me to the Moon should be around 7. Ballroom lends itself to conversation while dancing, and chest-pounding bass won't make the DJ any friends.
- Unless your client has given you strict instructions to the contrary, it's OK to throw in some non-ballroom songs, as long as you don't overdo it. The occasional Texas 2 Step, polka, or a "Golden Oldie" tune like The Twist is actually a welcome change for even ballroom dancers. And, what the heck, see if you can get away with Uptown Funk near the end of the gig...you might be surprised at the good response.
- Last, but certainly not least, line dances shall not be tolerated. Remember when I said rules are made to be broken? This one isn't. Not even in Texas. (I can't, however, speak for Alabama.)