How to Be a Better Dance DJ
Guidelines for playing recorded music at a social dance party
Popular DJs used to be the ones with the best music collections, or had access to hard-to-find discs. That was before iTunes and then Spotify made large music collections available to anyone. Now that this playing field has been leveled, we can look at the finer points of being an effective DJ.
They may forget what you played, but they'll never forget how you made them feel.
Great DJs know that they are there for the dancers, not for showing off themselves. The focus is on how the dancers feel, not on how cool the DJ is. Therefore the best DJs are primarily concerned with what the dancers want.
What do dancers want?
1) Dancers want music which drives their dancing, physically and emotionally.
Some dances require much energy to dance, like swing, hustle, salsa, fast waltz and polka. When the music supplies this energy, their dancing will feel fun and effortless, like driving a turbocharged car. When the music doesn't give this energy boost, fast dancing can feel like hard work.
Other dance forms are gentle and lyrical, and dancers love music which sweeps them emotionally through those dances.
There's a huge difference between the questions, "Is it possible to waltz to this tune?" and, "Does this music totally embody the feeling of waltzing... does it make them want to waltz?" The second question is far more important than the first. (It's the same question for swing, salsa and every dance form.)
If you only have a few tunes for waltzing (or whatever the dance form is), then play whatever you have. But when you have dozens of possible tunes, then choose from the second category above, not the first... does this tune make you want to waltz, or is it merely a tune in 3/4 time? Does it embody the spirit of waltzing? Does it energize that particular dance form? (Again, it's the same question for swing, salsa and every dance form.)
There's a huge tendency to ask ourselves, "What could I dance to this tune?" We all do that. But when DJs only answer that question with something like, "Hey, I could polka to that!" they may be heading for trouble. The really important questions come next, which are the topics of the first four pointers on this page. Especially questions like, "Does this tune have the driving energy required to move the dancers?" Or, "Is the beat clearly audible?"
2) Dancers want to hear the beat.
Most dance forms are easier to dance when the beat is heard clearly, usually played by the rhythm instruments (drums/percussion, guitar, piano, techno rhythm tracks, etc.).
On a rhythmic intensity scale of 0 to 10, most dance music wants to be in the 4 to 10 range, depending on the type of dance. Concert music for listening can have a quiet rhythm accompaniment or none at all, but the rhythm of most dance music should range from a gentle but clearly audible rhythm (4) to a strong driving rhythm (10). Even quieter dance forms like rumba and club two step should have a clearly audible beat. With only a few exceptions, avoid the quietest scale of 0 (no rhythm instruments at all, only melody) to 3 (still not clear enough to hear in a room full of dancers who might be shuffling and talking).
Shuffling and talking? Yes, dance parties are usually noisy. One of the common mistakes DJs make is to listen to a tune in a quiet room and think that the quiet rhythm accompaniment will be heard at a dance. Then they find that the rhythm is lost in ambient noise of a dance party. So if you're test-listening to music in a quiet room, aim for music with a bit stronger rhythm than you think will be needed.
When I hear dancers complain about a DJ, the most common complaint is, "I couldn't hear the beat." The second most common complaint is about tempos...
3) Dancers want danceable tempos.
Each dance form has its "sweet spot" perfect tempo for those steps. Music which is too fast often makes dancing difficult (if not impossible), while too-slow tempos can feel lethargic or boring. At the bottom of this page is my list of tempo sweet spots for each kind of social dance. The general rule of thumb is to keep the tempo within 10% (above or below) of the sweet spot, no more.
• Next, here's one of the main secrets of being a great DJ:
A) Your tunes come in a range of tempos, above and below the sweet-spot tempo for each dance form.
B) Some of your tunes have a driving high energy, and some have an easygoing low energy.
A and B must correspond. Tunes with tempos above the sweet spot must have correspondingly higher energy, to support the extra effort required to dance faster, and vice versa for tunes below the sweet spot tempo. This is a straightforward calculation. (1) Get a metronome (click for an online metronone) or beat-checking software and find the tempo. (2) Look at the sweet spot chart at the bottom of this page. If the tempo is significantly above the sweet spot tempo, but it's one of the quieter, gentler tunes you have for that dance form, then don't play it.
Take a rotating (Viennese or rotary) waltz for example. The sweet spot for intermediate dancers is around 144 bpm. A common DJ mistake is to play a quiet ballad or gentle waltz that happens to be a fast tempo, say 160 or 170 bpm. A good example is "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" by the Beatles. To the dancers (especially the Leads) waltzing now feels like hard work — more effort is required at that fast tempo than the gentle music is providing. But a powerful driving rhythmic tune at the same 170 tempo would be fine.
Conversely, playing a highly rhythmic driving waltz tune that happens to be a slower tempo, like 130 bpm, will fell terribly slow, while a gentle lyrical waltz at that same 130 tempo will feel perfect.
This is true for most dance forms — swing, salsa and others. Match the higher or lower energy with correspondingly faster or slower tempos.
• What do you do if you really love a tune and it's not at a good tempo for that dance? Consider slowing it down or speeding it up, without changing the pitch. There are many ways to speed up music without changing pitch, both with software and firmware. Speeding up music is easy. However slowing down music beyond 8% is technically much harder, without it sounding warbly or watery. I recommend using Amazing Slow Downer software, available for both PC and Mac. Music slowed down 20% or even 50% still sounds natural.
However this approach of slowing down or speeding up recordings is debatable. I heard of a conservative dance group where some dancers protested if a tune was slower or faster than the original version they knew. They complained with, "How can I like something that I'm not accustomed to?" So if you live in a very conservative area, this is your call.
• The danger of the DJ being an experienced dancer:
You may be so adept at dancing that you forget that it's often difficult for a beginner to dance at a fast tempo that you find comfortable. Some of the worst dance DJs I've seen are often the most adept dancers, because they don't know what's hard for the average dancer. If you have many new dancers at your party, keep their comfort level in mind.
4) Dancers like songs of the right length.
You usually don't have to worry about your tunes being too short, but in the rare instance of having a favorite tune that's only one minute long, you can make a double or triple-length version easily, splicing together repeats of that tune, into one longer version, while maintaining the beat. Music editing software is a good way to do this. Audacity is the most popular free cross-platform software for music editing.
The far greater problem is a tune lasting too long, usually meaning more than three minutes. It's a twofold problem. (1) Most social dancers would prefer to have four 3-minute dances with four partners than two 6-minute dances. Variety and contrast are good. (2) Many Leads feel that their repertoire of freestyle dance figures is exhausted after two or three minutes, and they would much rather move on to something else.
Since many recordings are longer than three minutes, you have two choices: fade the song out at about three minutes, or edit out a central part to retain the original ending. I always listen to the original ending to see if it fades out, as much popular music does. If so, then I'll know that an earlier fade-out at 3 minutes is okay.
But if there's a definitive ending (which is especially important in swing and tango) then I'll edit out some central strains to shorten it to three minutes, keeping the original ending. If the song is four minutes long, I'll listen through the piece several times, searching for the minute which I can remove from the center without harm to the song, usually a verse and chorus among many repeats of that verse-chorus. If the lyrics are telling a story, you might worry about removing an important middle part of the story. Don't worry — dancers are too occupied with dancing to be listening to the lyrics. Once again, there are plenty of software options for editing middle sections out of music to make a 3-minute dance version.
Exception 1: Some fast and exhausting dances might want to be shorter than three minutes, like a fast techno polka for instance.
Exception 2: Some dance traditions favor long songs, like salsa. And some groups are so specialized, like West Coast Swing clubs, that the Leads know hundreds of variations for that one dance form, and are happy with longer songs. Good DJs ask what the dancers prefer, including song lengths. Dancers' wishes always come first.
5) Variety and pacing
You want to give your dancers a contrast between high and low energy. Obviously you don't want to play two tunes in a row for the same kind of dance, at the same tempo. Have you ever danced to a big band that played three swing or foxtrot tunes in a row with the same tempo? The bandleaders were clearly not social dancers.
Be aware that dancers will want to catch their breath after a fast tune, so maybe follow it with a slower one. And they don't want to be lulled to sleep with too many slow songs in a row. But you don't have to strictly alternate fast and slow dances. Some DJs like to build the energy over several dances, bringing the dancers higher and higher but without exhausting them (yet). Similarly, a string of several quiet dances can effectively set a deeper mood while also building up a desire to be hit with a high-energy set.
The art is to find the perfect pace, without too many fast or slow dances in a row. If you want a safe rule of thumb (which has exceptions), don't play more than one or two really fast tunes in a row, and don't play more than two or three slow tunes in a row.
6) Novelty vs. familiarity
Do you play mostly familiar favorites, or mostly new music that hasn't been heard before? Or a mix of both?
I strongly recommend a mix of both. Every group of dancers is different, so this isn't an absolute rule, but most dancers prefer a mixture of familiar favorites and new music.
Everyone has their favorite tunes that make them happy. And people love having a chance to dance to popular tunes they've heard. So don't leave those out. Furthermore, the better Leads want to match their variations to the breaks in the music, which only happen when they know the break is coming. Similarly the better Follows like to add stylistic flourishes and footwork modifications to match the musical changes. So the more experienced dancers, both Lead and Follow, have a strong preference for familiar tunes, for these reasons.
Then new music is always exciting for most people, including the experienced dancers, so also include those in your mix.
DJ's more often err on the side of not enough familiar favorites (or worse, none). Those are usually the DJs who are grandstanding, showing off their immense music resources. That's their version of "Look at me! Look what I have!" instead of selflessly giving the dancers what they want. Then they wonder why the dancers don't come back. But erring the side of only old favorites isn't much better, in my opinion. Give them plenty of both.
This recommendation is specifically for social dance music. If you're a psy-trance or techno DJ, then your following will want the latest music they've never heard before. Conversely some dances have period themes, like all-fifties, disco or all-eighties. And a wedding couple may request only their old favorites at their reception dance. Each situation is different.
7) Monitoring volume level.
The volume level of your music presents a pair of tricky problems. (1) With only a few high-tech exceptions, the volume level can be too loud directly in front of the speakers but too quiet at points farthest from the speakers ("I can't hear the beat"). (2) And as your song alternates between its loud and quiet sections, ambient party noise usually drowns out the quieter passages, then blasts your dancers painfully during the loudest parts. This doesn't happen in the quiet of a concert hall or at home... it's a dance party dilemma.
Because of these two problems, there's a very narrow range of acceptable volume. Any louder and it's hurting the ears of those closest to the speakers; any quieter and it's inaudible for other dancers. Then as most tunes decrescendo and crescendo, your music quickly goes from inaudible to painful, because of the very narrow range of acceptable volume.
Your responsibility as a DJ is to constantly monitor the volume level, lowering it during the loudest parts and raising the volume during the quiet passages. A concert purist might complain that acoustic music doesn't do that, but here music is functional and inspirational to dancers, and must be modulated to best support the dancers.
This responsibility as a DJ might involve some self-sacrifice — foregoing the pleasure of dancing yourself. I'll often be at a DJ'd dance and be surprised that the DJ let the music suddenly get painfully loud, or ineffectively quiet. Sure enough, each time the DJ is out having fun on the dance floor, away from the volume control. If you want to dance, ask someone to take over the volume control for you. My solution, if it's one I know I'll want to dance, is to record a version in which I've adjusted the volume peaks and valleys ahead of time.
You already know this next point, but just to be thorough, the DJ often sits in an acoustic shadow behind the speakers, so the music doesn't sound as loud to the DJ as it does to the dancers. During your first song of the night, go out onto the dance floor to make sure the sound isn't blasting those closest to the speakers, and not too quiet for those at the far end of the hall. Check again when the floor becomes more crowded, since bodies absorb sound and change the acoustics of the dance floor.
8) Spaces between dances
I've found that this topic has the widest divergence of opinions, but it's still worth mentioning. How long of a space (silence) do you have between dances?
Some dancers prefer to linger with their last partner for a little bit, if only to assure them that they had fun dancing with them, instead of rudely dropping them to search for someone new. That might be as long as a one-minute break between songs. Those who prefer this pace mention the sociability of lingering with your last partner. In the days of live music, the break between dances was much longer.
Other DJs like to keep a party moving so they space about ten seconds of silence between songs. They feel that ten seconds is enough time to say thank you, then dancers can start looking for their next partner as the next music begins. They say an advantage with the ten-second timing is that the dancers then know what kind of dance it's going to be, upon hearing the music, before they start looking for their partner for that dance. I would agree.
Personally I recommend avoiding any formula, and instead, truly watching the dancers as they're finishing a dance. You'll be able to tell how much time to wait before starting the next song.
The pacing to avoid, at a social dance party, is no break at all, with one song crossfading into the next. The reasons not to do this are so obvious that you might ask why any DJ would ever do that. And the answer is often iTunes and other laptop playlist software. The default setting is based on raves and other nonstop dances that segue tunes together. DJs who play music from their laptop find that just as one song on their playlist is finishing, the next tune is commencing, before the first one is finished.
To turn this feature off in iTunes, go to iTunes Preferences (under the main iTunes menu), click the Playback menu at the top, then uncheck the "Crossfade Playback" square. If you play from a laptop or iPod and just let the playlist run, consider software that automatically adds ten or twenty seconds between tunes, or make many ten or twenty-second blank mp3s and place them between the tunes on your playlist.
Crossfade beatmatched music is great... for grinding. Social dancers would much rather know their dance is over, have a chance to say thanks to their partners, catch their breath, and look for their next partner without being rushed into it.
Exceptions: Some dance groups like segued dance music, like retro seventies disco for example, so as always, find out what your dancers prefer.
9) What not to do.
• Don't choose tunes primarily because of the lyrics, or a song's title, or a party theme. Most dancers don't listen to the lyrics when they dance. Dancing is a non-verbal activity, so choosing a tune primarily because of its lyrics has almost zero value to the dancers. Besides, dancers come to have fun dancing, not to notice how well the DJ adheres to a special topic.
• Don't choose a tune primarily because it's unusual or weird, at the expense of it being an effective dance. Don't get me wrong — weird music can be great when it's danceable, but the first priority is meeting the above requirements, motivating the dancers and having tempos perfect for their energy level. If these are met then yes, obscure is fine, and weird is fun.
The key word here is "primarily." If tunes have a special theme and are wonderfully compelling to dance to, then there's no problem. But too often a DJ's quest for special themes or lyrics leads them to dig up tunes with undanceable tempos and hard-to-hear beats.
All suggestions have exceptions. Occasionally (rarely) the words will be important, like song lyrics about a father and his daughter, played for the father-daughter dance at a wedding. But in general, lyrics aren't the reason to choose your dance music.
10) Where do I find the best tunes?
• Search through Spotify, iTunes or Amazon mp3s. When you buy tunes, you can deduct them as business expenses if you're a professional DJ or teacher.
• Many complete tunes are posted on YouTube. Then there are several online sites that convert the YouTube videos to downloaded music files.
• Ask your dancers to bring in their favorite tunes, on CDs or music files. But don't play them blind, because many aren't danceable (see the above criteria), but collect them for your future programming.
• Trade favorite tracks with other dance DJs.
• Listen to the radio, including Pandora and internet stations. Stations often post their playlists. Internet and satellite stations (like Sirius XM) also give metadata of the current tune.
• Go to dances spun by your favorite DJs and identify your favorite tracks with Shazam.
• I posted this page of song suggestions, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.
11) How do I know if a tune is a good choice for a particular dance?
I believe that coming up with songs appropriate for each dance form is up to the DJ's experience as a dancer. "This sounds like a cha cha to me." His/her intuitive hunches are what make every DJ different. There are no correct answers, and each DJ will have his/her unique sense of whether their tune choice works well for that dance, or not. Then the dancers each have their unique sense of whether their dance choice works well for that tune, or not. Everyone is following their hunches, but a part of this process is also objective:
After we come up with an intuitive guess, then we can easily check the tempo, to see if it's within 10% of the sweet spot tempo (below).
We easily tell whether it has a driving high energy or if it's gentle/lyrical, to match to the tempo being above or below the sweet spot.
But coming up with that first intuitive guess is what makes each DJ unique. My tips don't want to influence your individuality. The suggestions on this page are just to help increase the percentage of tunes that make the dancers happy.
12) Sweet Spot ideal tempos
Dance tempos are significantly different for noncompetitive social dance, versus competition ballroom / dancesport / International style. (Both forms are equally valid, as explained on this page.) Competition ballroom dance DJs already know their standardized tempos for each dance form, so I mostly receive dance tempo requests from social dance DJs. Here are some suggestions.
Note 1: These tempos are for a room of average-skilled or mixed-level social dancers. If you're playing for a floor of expert dancers (Lindy hoppers or experienced waltzers for example) you may want to raise some of those sweet spots significantly. Conversely, many exhibition ballroom dancers prefer some of the tempos to be slower, to give themselves more time for body sways and arm flourishes. Others simply have different personal preferences. So if you disagree with some of these suggestions, that's to be expected.
Note 2: Musicians work with tempos in beats per minute (bpm), while some ballroom dancers specify measures per minute. Since musicians and band leaders also follow these suggestions, I use bpm. If you prefer measures/minute, you can usually divide these numbers in half, occasionally by four. For waltzes, divide by 3.
Note 3: The tempos that musicians choose are still based on the mechanical (Maelzel's) metronome, which is inaccurate at the higher numbers because the weight is too close to the fulcrum. So if musicians had a choice between counting 90 or 180 bpm (beats per minute), they would choose the lower one because it was more accurate.
Furthermore, the range of the original scale was only 40 to 208 bpm. Even many electronic and online metronomes retain the 40 to 208 range. 210 is off the scale, so we would recommend calling it 105 bpm instead of 210 bpm.
Note 4: Whether we choose to say 60, 120 or 240 beats per minute depends of the traditions of that dance form — it depends on what someone consider to be a beat. Musicians might count a slow swing tune as 55 bpm while West Coast Swing dancers would count it as 110 bpm. The tempo chart lists some of the alternate countings, such as 60 (120). This doesn't mean 120 is less correct — it's merely a way of distinguishing two different-but-equal counting traditions.
Regardless of the counting system you prefer, the entire range of that dance form must fall within the 40 to 208 bpm range of a standard metronome. Swing goes from about 52 bpm (slow triple swing), through Lindy Hop at about 75, through faster east coast swing at about 88-94, to really fast ECS at 116 or more. The entire spectrum fits on the scale. If we began the scale at 116 for slow triple swing, then we'd end up at 232 bpm or faster, which is off the metronome scale. So we have an objective reason to prefer the 52-116 scale for swing. But West Coast Swing dancers would count slow swing as 110 instead of 55, because WCS arose in a dance club environment based on disco's 120 bpm standard. So each to their own. It's always wise to respect and accept others' truths.
13) The disclaimers
In giving these guidelines, I don't wish to convey an impression of superiority over any other DJ. We're all working on becoming better and we all have room for improvement.
These are mere suggestions, gathered from years of observations and from listening to many dancers praise (or complain about) dance DJs, but they're not absolute rules. Some of my approaches may differ from the ideals of other DJs.
This page is tailored for social dance. Some of these suggestions may not apply to other kinds of dances.