Imagine you’re out with friends. Music is playing and everyone is in a great mood. You’ve had some dance lessons and you’re ready to try out your new skills. A song comes on that you really like and … Uh oh, you have no idea what dance to do! If you’re new to dancing you’ve probably already had questions about how to know which dance is appropriate for a particular piece of music. Heck, even if you’ve been dancing for a while you may still have questions. So how do you know which dance to do?
The short answer is, it doesn’t matter! Do whatever you feel. Dancing is personal, and as long as you’re having fun, any dance will do. When you first start you’ll probably only know a limited number of styles anyhow, so use what you’ve got. I’ve been at dances and seen couples happily doing swing to every song that played. Maybe they just loved swing, or maybe they didn’t know any other dances, but they were up and enjoying themselves. And the truth is, you aren’t going to fool anyone, so don’t worry about it.
First, determine the time signature. Most music that we dance to is in 4/4 time, meaning that the beats come in clusters of 4. There are a few exceptions however. Samba, paso doble, merengue, and polka are in 2/4 time, but unless you are very familiar with music theory, you may not notice the difference between 4/4 and 2/4. One time signature that should be relatively obvious though is that of the waltz, which is the only popular dance that is in 3/4 time. Listen for something that sounds like Oom pah pah.
Next, consider the speed of the music (tempo). You can look up charts of beats per minute (BPM) if you want to, but basically some dances are faster and others are slower. For instance, bolero music has 96 – 104 BPM (slow) compared to East Coast Swing’s 136 – 144 BPM (fast).
Tempo alone isn’t enough though. American style tango, foxtrot, and cha cha can all be danced at 120 BPM, but they are very different dances. Related to tempo is rhythm. There’s a reason dance teachers spell out T-A-N-G-O or cha-cha-cha when teaching the basic steps of these dances. You can hear it in the rhythm! So contemplate whether the beat is steady or has syncopations (single beats split in two). Ask yourself if there more whole notes (4 beats), half notes (2 beats), or quarter notes (1 beat) and how they are arranged. Listen for a clave (a distinctive syncopated sound made with hollow wooden sticks), which lets you know that you are dealing with a Latin dance (salsa, cha cha, rumba, etc).
Each dance also has its own character, which is the result of some magical combination of timing, tempo, and rhythm. Can you imagine Cinderella at the ball doing a flirty cha cha? Of course not. That image is reserved for the elegant and flowing waltz. Likewise, Gomez Adams danced the tango with Morticia because of its fire and passion.
Finally, how does the music make you feel? Do you want to sway, glide, bounce, or shimmy? Is it romantic or playful? Does it fill you with yearning or joy? Notice that we’ve essentially returned to the short answer. Because again, dancing is personal and how you interpret a piece of music is up to you. As Michael Stern, director of the IRIS Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony once said, “Tempo is about more than just clicks per minute – it’s about the character of the music itself, and about pulse, and how that pulse connects to the beating of our hearts and the rhythm of our breath. It’s about what makes music come alive.”
A Few Tips & Notes
Listen to a variety of music and try to feel what your body wants to do.
Watch other dancers on the floor to see what they are doing. Don’t be surprised if two or more dances look equally good.
Ask more experienced dancers how they would interpret the music.
Use the annotated playlists provided at many dances as a guide.
Waltz – elegant and flowing – Moon River
Foxtrot – smooth, big-band sound – Fly Me to the Moon