What makes a good [dance style] song?
October 22, 2009 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm starting to be able to identify what social dances fit different songs, but I don't know how to describe the features of the songs that make them appropriate for different dances. Can you help me name the features of songs that make them work well for the different social dances?

In other words, what are the characteristics that make a song good for [insert social dance here]? I understand that there's a lot of overlap and flexibility, but if you were to describe what makes a song scream, "Please jive to me!" or "I'm a tango!", what would you say?

I'm interested in all kinds of social dances, but particularly the ballroom standards and nightclub dances (so waltz, tango, foxtrot, quickstep, samba, chacha, rumba, paso doble, jive, east coast swing, lindy hop, west coast swing, hustle, and nightclub-2).
posted by philosophygeek to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Beat, base, tempo, region of origin, instinct to move that way. I think region-related dances (like a tango) give you the instinctual urge to well, do the tango beacause it is what it is. While something more modern like say BEP makes you dance to the beat, base, tempo. There is no set "dance" for that type of music. It is whatever comes natural.
posted by stormpooper at 12:18 PM on October 22, 2009

As a long-time viola and second-violin player, the waltz is characterized by a moderate and clear 3/4 time signature, with clear rhythmic harmony on the second and third beat of each measure. Or in other words, a clear "omm-PA-PA." The classic Strauss waltzes have an introduction that gives dancers time to get into position, two or more extended verses that can be repeated at the discretion of the conductor, and a really grand finishing coda.

Polkas are a quick 2/4 rhythm with an emphasis on the off-beat (omm-PA|omm-PA|omm-PA|omm-PA|PA---), which leads to Weird Al's observation that most pop songs of the last 30 years can be played as a polka. And again, you have an introduction, a coda, and two or more extended verses that can be repeated.

Something that's key to most forms of dance music is a clearly audible rhythmic structure with few variations in tempo.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:32 PM on October 22, 2009

If you want to boil it down, there are just two steps to follow before it becomes open to your personal preference:
First, what is the timing (time signature) - is it 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4?
Then, how fast is the beat?

Those two questions knock out all the dances that you can't do to the song, then you just pick from the remainder which dance you want to do, be it based on what you feel like, or on which seems culturally or historically appropriate, or whatever.

You can of course bend the rules in all sorts of ways, but clearly you want to learn the rules first :-)

To learn to recognize the timing, ask a friend who plays music to explain how to listen for the time signature, and/or play a bunch of music that you know which is what.
For how fast (tempo), you'll come to be able to feel if it is within tolerance of the tempo for this dance or that, but until then, you can just try a few repeats of the basic step on your own when you hear music, and if you find yourself too rushed, you know it's too fast, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:39 PM on October 22, 2009

All I know are salsa, chacha and meringue from a latin ballroom class I took. It can still be hard to hear the differences on some songs, but when it's really clear the beat matches the steps. You can assume that all three example use four beats to a measure, so 'Dum Dum Dum Dum'

In salsa, the beat goes 'Dum Dum Dum pause, Dum Dum Dum pause'. The first three beats on each quarter of the measure with the last beat silent.

In chacha, the beat goes 'Dum Dum Dum-dah-Dum, Dum Dum Dum-dah-Dum' Each quarter is explicitly heard, and there is an extra beat in between the final two quarters. This gives rise to the expression ('one, two, cha-cha-cha'

In meringue, the dance is basically two quarter beats and is quite simple. ('Dum Dum, Dum Dum') That's it. You can extend it to a full measure if you'd like, but the steps are typically thought of in half measure increments.

Concerning other dances, like the waltz for example, a full measure is only three beats, with emphasis placed on the first beat, so 'Dum dah dah, Dum dah dah'.

Depending on the musicians and the piece the beat can be hard to find sometimes (for me anyway). Sometimes you really feel it though. I imagine all it takes is practice. Just keep doing it!
posted by scrutiny at 12:40 PM on October 22, 2009

I should be clear that I actually know virtually nothing of music, so my description is how is sounds to my untrained ear. I'm sure I made some sort of musical faux-pas in the above statement.
posted by scrutiny at 12:41 PM on October 22, 2009

An interesting question. Hard to answer unfortunately. I'm not a dancer, and have been responsible for botching the work of many a choreographer in my time so I can't speak to this subject from a dance perspective. What I could offer is the speculation, that certain songs or styles of music are associated with different dance styles because the beat of the song or genre probably dovetails with the movements associated with each dance style.

Perhaps thinking of it this way helps. A style of dance is basically a series of movements that are often set to music. Whatever type of dance you are doing has it's own set of movements or steps that combine to form the over all "dance". I think it may be safe to assume that the type of steps that comprise a dance play a huge factor in what sort of music is associated with it. A slower flowing dance style would just naturally pair better perhaps with a slower orchestral piece of music then say The Sex Pistols. Now of course, you can, and it is often done that a particular style of dance can be choreographed to whatever music you want. However, since we are dealing with a question of genre standards, the music associated commonly with a style of dance also probably closely relates to the nature of the movement of that same dance.

Another thing to consider is historical context. Dancing in many ways is a product of the popular culture in the time it came to prominence. So a large influence of what genre of music is associated with each type of dance can probably be seen as a result of what the popular music during the period that style of dance came to prominence was.
posted by theButterFly at 12:50 PM on October 22, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. Perhaps I can clarify my question by explaining why I'm asking. Imagine the following conversation:

A: Would you like to dance?
B: I'd love to, but this song is a waltz, and I don't know how to waltz. Can I have the next tango instead?
A: Oh, I didn't know this was a waltz! How can you tell?
B: [insert explanation here]

So, I know the general factors that distinguish kinds of songs: beat, tempo, instrumentation, etc. I'm looking for the specific characteristics that suggest particular kinds of dances.

As an example of the kind of answer I'm looking for: west coast is normally danced to music from about 80 to 130 bpm, with an pulse on the 2 & 4 of the music. The music will ideally be swung, so that there's a triple rhythm feel (&a1 &a2 &a3 &a4, rather than 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &).
posted by philosophygeek at 1:08 PM on October 22, 2009

Try this link from DanceSport for more detailed info about their official ballroom dances. There are more dances than this page covers like nightclub 2-step, jitterbug, etc. but it does go into the characteristics of competitive dance music and that's essentially what social dancing is.

In a nutshell, try to imagine dancing a certain dance to the music you're listening to until you find a good fit. Eventually the more dances you know and the more often you do it, the quicker you'll know.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:40 PM on October 22, 2009

I've just gone and used a tapping metronome to figure out the tempi that I personally am comfortable with for several dances. This is my subjective judgement and yours may differ.

Triple rhythm, of course, is the giveaway for the waltz. I can waltz as slow as about 74 bpm, but I'm not really happy with anything less than 100. A modest, natural tempo comes out around 120. As the tempo gets faster, you need to switch from plain style to Viennese (in which all of your horizontal translation is on the first beat, and the second and third beats are devoted only to rotation and recovery). For me, the break-even point on that is the tempo of Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," which I have just measured at 137. Viennese may remain practical, depending on the floor conditions and the dancer's technique, up to the two hundred or so; I find that I can execute the step itself as fast as 220-odd beats, but my vestibular system can't keep up and I get dizzy (also, I'd need a wide-open floor, because I just can't process the not-running-into-people information at that pace).

Foxtrot gaily ignores the time of the music it's danced to, so you don't have to worry about that: Its basic cycle is three beats long (taking a 'slow' as one beat), and you can dance it equally well to songs in two or four (basic step covering three measures of a two-beat song or a measure and a half of a four-beat song). It's hugely flexible as to the tempo as well: A nice cool foxtrot clocks in at 60 bpm (again, 'slow' steps per minute), or a more lively one at 90, but I can dance it as slow as 50 or as fast as 120 before balance or choppiness, respectively, makes it too awkward.

Two-step, a.k.a. generic slow dance, a.k.a. "You know what? From here I bet you could pick up the foxtrot in about 30 seconds," seems a little more limited. 72 feels like a natural tempo to me, and 55 feels like a lower limit. 115 or so for an upper limit.

East Coast swing comes in so-called 'double swing' and 'triple swing' varieties, which have to do with the footwork of the side-to-side step and not with the meter of the music or the overall length of the basic pattern (which are usually four and three, respectively, so they precess against each other as with foxtrot). For me, a slow comfortable rhythm for triple swing is about 87, or 92 for double swing. For a model of a fast comfortable rhythm, I grabbed Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' (drums by Krupa), and it seems to be at 104, but I have heard both live bands and DJs (and neo-swing groups?) take it faster, seemingly about 115. (That is deadly! 104 is plenty, thanks; remember, it's nine minutes long.)

Cha-cha I find to be quite versatile, on par with foxtrot. As long as the music has a four-beat pattern, cha-cha is an option through a wide range of tempos. It's quite nice at 77, slow and sassy; but, unlike the previous dances, there doesn't seem to be any grace period between 'slow comfortable' and 'ridiculous'. Moderate comfortable is around 115. Proper hip action seems possible up to about 136 (but probably not for long). Someone who was (a) willing to convert the cha-cha-cha bit into a shuffle step a la triple swing and (b) quite athletic could conceivably hit tempos in the 170s, though the lead/follow would have to be really tight to keep the figures in sync.

scrutiny has inadvertently touched upon a holy war: the 'one, two, cha-cha-cha' count vs. the 'two, three, cha-cha-cha' count (maybe more accurately notated as '-cha, two, three, cha-cha-' but that does look and sound silly). I bring this up, of course, because he is in the opposite camp from mine, i.e., he's wrong. But he's correct about the four-beat rhythm.

You know what? I'll even allow 'one, two, cha-cha-cha' under certain circumstances. Namely, you have to do it to Latin music with a complicated rhythm section. Afro-Caribbean-type rhythms tend to have something going on for every single microbeat; you can figure out where you are in the measure from the timbre of the percussion you're hearing, but not necessarily from its volume. In that case, hey, 'one, two, cha-cha-cha' is just one more voice in the polyrhythm. But if you're dancing to pop music, or even to Latin music with a heavy downbeat, it doesn't work for me—with something like Santana's 'Smooth' the coincidence of all the beats just feels dumpy and overbearing: 'ONE, TWO, CHA-cha-CHA!. I need me some 'two, three' counterbeat to keep it in balance.

posted by eritain at 5:10 PM on October 22, 2009

Here's an anecdotal point from someone who has never done a waltz. I'm an electro kid, I go to a fair bit of shows, I club a little, and I listen to music arranged with electronic instruments and samples almost exclusively. Here's what I look for in a song to decide whether to hit the dancefloor running or sit it out and get a drink. Apologies if this is not very scholarly.

A) A Repetitive, Consistent Beat. Some good examples of genres that have have very consistent beats made for dancing are four-on-the-floor and crunk (both more hip hop genres than electronica). From Wikipedia:

Four-on-the-floor is a musical rhythm pattern used in disco and electronic dance music, characterized by a steady, uniformly accented beat played on the bass drum in 4/4 time.

It's made for breakdancing, hence the name. I actually learned how to dance on crunk; I'd put on 106 and Park on BET, lock the door, and listen to the very distinct phat beats and let them be my abusive ballet teacher yelling ONE TWO THREE FOUR ONE TWO THREE FOUR at me. Lil John didn't become one of the biggest names in the genre by yelling OH-KAAAAY, by the way. He's a good example of a producer than can consistently churn out beats that are just made for dancing, so if you want an example just look up any of his songs.

Two more examples are techno and house. They're not my favorite genres since some of it is pretty cheesy and generic and leans pretty heavy on the vocoder, but that's kind of like that for a reason. Everyone is always going to know how to dance to it. House music is often de rigueur at many gay dance nights/bars as well as occupying a room at raves.

B) Is this song actually made for dancing? Despite the record shops that file every electronic genre under the sun under "DANCE," not all electronic music is made for dancing. Think breakcore in weird time signatures like Venetian Snares, experiments like Matmos drumming with roses and using droning Indian electronic tablas, and erratic gabber songs (I've heard DJ Tacopunch mockingly inquire the "Oh, was that too fast for you? It was only 200 BPM!")

IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, is a very broad term for music that isn't actually meant to be danced to. It encompasses many styles but the most broad, popular examples I can think of are Aphex Twin and Squarepusher.

C) BPM.. 100 is pretty slow, I'm going to guess about 160 is about right, I'm not a musician, I just got my boyfriend to play me some samples of simple drumbeats at different BPMs on his iPhone. Too fast and I'm going to look like a spaz and have a heart attack.

I'm too lazy to make a million links, but if you're not familiar with any of the names I dropped, check Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music for genre definitions and YouTube for samples of what artists sound like.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:35 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and because I didn't specify what KIND of dancing here, you can lump the dancing I see to the music I listen to in two camps:

A) hip-hop inspired clubby booty shaking, bumping, grinding, etc

B) metal kid slow head rocking shuffles

If you think of all the music I described on a spectrum, with very dancy music with steady clear consistent beats on one end and too-fast/too-slow erratic beats and drone on the other, the dancier songs get the first kind of clubby dancing and the weirder you get the harder it is going to get to do anything but B, all pumping the air with your fist.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:43 PM on October 22, 2009

A couple of nitpicks:
Triple rhythm, of course, is the giveaway for the waltz. ... For me, the break-even point on that is the tempo of Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," which I have just measured at 137.
That song is a slow 6/8, not a fast 3/4. You could still waltz to it -- some waltzes are in 6/8, but 3/4 is what's more commonly thought of as "waltz time." 3/4 is three groups of two -- three quarter notes which can each be subdivided into two eighth notes. So it goes ONE and TWO and THREE and. 6/8 is two groups of three -- two dotted quarter notes which each can be subdivided into three eighth notes. So it goes ONE two three TWO two three. In "I'll Be," the beat goes KICK hat hat SNARE hat hat. 6/8 is a compound time signature, so the tempo is given in terms of the dotted quarter. So in 6/8 that song would be about 45 BPM.
From Wikipedia:

Four-on-the-floor is a musical rhythm pattern used in disco and electronic dance music, characterized by a steady, uniformly accented beat played on the bass drum in 4/4 time.

It's made for breakdancing, hence the name.
The very same paragraph on the wikipedia page says:

The original term four-on-the-floor was widely used in the disco era and referred to the fact that the bass drum sat directly on the floor and the drummer stamped on a pedal with his/her foot in order to play it.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:07 AM on October 23, 2009

You are pretty much correct. But I didn't say "I'll Be" was in 3/4; I said it was in triple rhythm. And of course, we could go back and forth all month on precise distinctions between 3/4 and 6/8, in light of the fact that even 3/4 usually has stronger downbeats on odd measures than on even ones: Where does that stop being phrasing and start being compound time? But for practical purposes, a piece is in 6/8 if it's faster and 3/4 if it's slower—so when "I'll Be" forces the dancer to take 137 steps per minute, we have good reason both to call it 6/8 and to trade in the plain waltz for the Viennese.

Actually, that's looking more and more like a legitimate, if somewhat nebulous, answer to the question: Plain waltz for songs in 3/4, Viennese for songs in 6/8 (cases of ambiguity to be judged by the dancer). Yeah, sounds all right.
posted by eritain at 7:14 PM on October 27, 2009

Very brief characterization with random semi representative song:

Waltz: should be in 3/4 (although 6/8 often also) and relatively slow. Think slow, flowing, pretty, dramatic.

Vienesse Waltz: Like a waltz but much faster. Less romantic and dramatic. Instead think graceful and flowy.

Tango: Less defined by tempo than by the "sound" of the music. I think you just have to listen to enough tango's to get a feel for it.

Foxtrot and Quickstep: Both are songs in 4/4 but quicksteps are faster. A Foxtrot might be around 120bpm while a quickstep is more likely to be closer to 200 bpm. There is difference in feeling also. I quicksteps tend to have a bit more of big band swing sound to them and are very upbeat. A Foxtrot is a bit more luscious sounding.

Lindy hop, East Coast Swing, and Jive: These also have a lot of overlap with foxtrots and quicksteps, since all can draw from similar types of music. Most of these dances could be done to the same set of songs, but Lindy tends to use a bit slower of songs (maybe 120-190 bpm) while east coast swing and Jive are a bit better for faster songs (160bpm-210bpm). There is a bit of difference in feel, but I don't know quite how to express it, since people disagree about what counts as a true song for any one of the dances. Jives tend to be a bit more linked with competitive ballroom dancing and more standardized in tempo at around 160-170bpm with a very sharp beat.

Samba: Should have a "latin" sound to it with a very syncopated beat (shortest explanation listen for beats that are not evenly spaced). There is a very distinctive samba beat that a song either does or doesn't have. Some hiphop also has a samba beat to it.

ChaCha: Almost anything between 90-130bpm could probably work as a cha cha. Bonus points if it sounds "latin" or if it has a beat that goes "Boom boom ta ta ta" (2,3,4 and 1). Most pop music also works as a cha cha (and as a lindy)

Rumba (international): Slower and sexier than a cha cha. If a song feels like doing cha cha steps would be too slow then it might be a rumba.

Paso Doble: There is only really one real paso song Espana Cani although there are many versions of it. (In competitions they always use songs with the exact same phrasing and exact same musical hits) Other songs with a flamenco like sounds also work. If want to stretch other songs with a very strong "marching" beat also work.

West coast swing: About the same tempo range as lindy (although ont he slower side), but more of a tendency to use pop music and sexier songs rather than big band swing music. West coast swing and Lindy have very similar basic steps.

Hustle: Disco sounding music.

Nightclub-2 step: Pop music with a bit of a tendency towards more country-ish music
posted by vegetableagony at 9:37 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

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