Advice for Dance Bands

[The following was written for West Coast Swing dances. Certain parts will not apply to ballroom dances, or Lindy/"neo-swing" dances. Many parts most certainly do. VE]

Dear Bandleader,
There are only two types of music gigs; concert and dance. When performing in concert, you can do whatever you want, any way you choose to do it. When playing for dancers, there are some things you should do for us and some things should not do to us. Because people who hire bands to play for WEST COAST SWING dancers often don't give instructions, I offer the following:


You are not working to entertain us but to provide music for our dancing. Of course we want to be entertained by good music. We understand, and hope, that you'll really swing. When you have the good luck to find yourselves in a groove, it's a treat for you that can also be a treat for us. Wail on!
If you see that fewer than half of the dancers are on the floor for the number you're playing -- unless they're eating someone's celebratory snack -- cut it short. Something's wrong.
Please avoid long verbal introductions to numbers or extended jokes, commentaries, etc. Yes, please do introduce yourselves, tell us about your up-coming gigs, and point out that you have recordings for sale.


The choice of numbers to play is yours. We hear the classics all the time, so try some obscure numbers or dance music that you've written on us. Please avoid long introductions unless they have a definite beat. And end your numbers on a beat. Many of us have endings to our dancing that we can do only if we know when the music ends. We don't have to hear it coming but it's always nice when we can.


The tempi for Swing dancing are moderate. Most numbers should be between 90 and 166 Beats Per Minute with an average of about 128-136BPM. During each set, you should also play something slower suitable for FoxTrot or nightclub TwoStep and something faster suitable for Lindy or Country TwoStep.


Most numbers should last about three minutes. The best way to accomplish this is either to avoid solos or to have no more than one per number. The faster the number, the shorter it should be. The very fastest no more than two minutes. No number should ever exceed four minutes unless it's a mixer or a jam.
Length is very important for at least three reasons:

  1. We're engaged in strenuous physical activity and we get tired;
  2. The levels of dancing skill vary widely. If we're stuck with a partner who can't dance well, we don't want to be in that uncomfortable position for a long time and, of course, vice versa.
    We don't want to stop dancing before the music ends for fear of offending either the musicians or our partner. And pride makes us reluctant to admit being tired even though our partner always knows when we are;
  3. No matter how skilled we are, we have limitations to what we can do. Doing everything we know up to three times during one number isn't too bad, but when it gets to the fourth time, it gets boring.


There's often a mixer or two when people change partners at a signal. Sometimes it's the blowing of a whistle or ringing of a bell. Sometimes it's stopping the music. The last change of partners is usually indicated by the person calling the changes. A mixer should be about 128-134BPM and can last as long as you wish except for the last segment.


Dances are very social events; we talk a lot. High volume of music is unwelcome. On the other hand, we have to hear you. When in doubt, turn it down, not up.


A jam is not likely to happen during your gig, but one might. What happens is a circle forms and individual couples jump in to the circle to do their thing. Jams usually happen at the higher tempi (140-166BPM). If you see one going down, whatever you do, don't stop playing until it dies down. An impromptu jam is a very high, perhaps the highest, compliment to the musicians. Take advantage of it and enjoy it. They're fun for everyone.


In addition to Swing, you should play one ChaCha each set. You should have ready, in case of a request, a Hustle, a Mambo, a Rumba, and a Tango. The next-to-last number of the night should be a Waltz. Kansas City would be a good last number.
At a Swing dance, non Swing dances are novelties. You should not play a novelty number unless it's preceded by at least two Swing numbers.


Don't be concerned about the lack of applause. Dancers consider the music, whether recorded or on stage, to be a tool similar to dance shoes, deodorant, mouthwash, or fans. You probably won't get much applause. It means nothing.

Icono Clast
Late 1992, Revised/Corrected August 2000