June 22, 2010

DJs and Dancing – The Role of the DJ in an Evening of Dance

DJs tend to play the part of the band at the majority of dance events, and DJ’s music selection really can affect how a dance community flourishes.  The song selection, variety and tempo of music each DJ chooses shapes a dance evening. Fortunately, in the swing community most often the DJ is also a dancer, giving them the advantage of knowing which kind of songs are ‘danceable.’ But being a good DJ and creating an enjoyable dance evening is about more than just playing songs the dancers enjoy.

One of the most important responsibilities for a DJ is to pay attention to the crowd and respond to the energy the crowd is giving off.  This means speeding up the tempo and energy of song selections when the mood of the crowd demands and knowing when to change the mood of the music to flow with the ebb and flow of the evening.  This is not an easy thing to do, it takes hours of practice and a little instinct.  To become a great DJ there are three main responsibilities.

DJ’s have a responsibility to play music that is:

  • danceable
  • enjoyable
  • inspiring
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Playing music that is danceable.


This is a highly subjective phrase. A song that one group or individual may consider to be the holy grail of dancing could turn out to be a song that is the bain of the dancing world for another group or individual. How does a DJ successfully interpret this? First, you do not have to only play songs that keeps the dance floor full. I have never subscribed to this philosophy. Playing a song where only 10% of the dancers are on the floor is not necessarily a failed song. If that 10% are having a great time, fully enjoying 3 minutes bliss, then the song is a success. It’s ok to let those others who aren’t excited by that song sit and rest a bit; get some water, socialize with friends, and get ready for the next tune. Now, this does not mean that a DJ should be happy filling the floor with 10% of the dancers the entire night. Not by any means.

A successful DJ will find a balance throughout the evening, playing songs that fill the floor, then on occasion, play a song that cleanses the dancers pallet. Know your community. Satiating the minority with their preferred musical selections is an acceptable practice. That 10% minority can grow to an 80% majority from being exposed to alternative tracks.

[warning_box]**Disclaimer:  There are some venues that specialize in specific types/styles of music. I am not advocating a DJ to play a 280bpm Big Band tune at a Blues venue and vice-versa. Understand your venue and pay attention.[/warning_box]

Music should be enjoyable

There are some really amazing songs out there. Being a Classic Big Band Swing fan, I am a huge fan of Duke Ellington. One of my favorite albums is The Duke at Fargo, 1940: Special 60th Anniversary Edition. That album has one of the most amazing versions of Cottontail of all time! However, the recording quality is quite…interesting. It was as if they recorded it using a potato and a jar of marbles. The song sounds amazing in my headphones. But I would hesitate to play it at a dance event because of this poor sound quality. Poor sound quality can turn into an unenjoyable dance experience, despite how much awesomesauce the song has.

Let’s further consider song quality.

Just because a song isn’t recorded in HiFi doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it. There are plenty of LoFi tracks that have some cracks and pops, and are wonderful to dance to. Dead Man Blues by Jelly Roll Morton, is by no means a modern marvel of exceptional recording technology. However, these pops and cracks add a rich, vintage quality to the song that translates into a highly enjoyable dance. Again, the DJ needs to understand their community, the tolerances of their crowd, and playability of their music.


DJ’s should be inspiring.

First and foremost, the DJ has to encourage dancing. Play music that the crowd loves and enjoys dancing to. You are not out there to stream your ego directly into the PA.

Second, a DJ has the ability, and when used wisely, to inspire the community to try new dances. Is balboa new to your scene? Play a balboa song to encourage it’s growth. Don’t just satiate those moaning bal dancers with a song that is 300bpm and is technically ‘jazz.’ Play a great balboa tune that is in the danceable range for the entire crowd.  This will inspire and encourage your community to get on the dance floor and help grow the community.

Great swing music is exciting, dynamic, and most of all inspiring to its listeners.

DJ’s have the responsibility to be responsible.

[fancy_box]There is one reason, and one reason only, that you were asked/hired to DJ a dance event :To play music for people to dance to and have a good time.[/fancy_box]

That it’s it. It’s simple, understated, and possibly the most abused. You are not there to try to show off your musical prowess with ultra rare B-sides from artists that no one has ever heard of. You are not there to flex your e-peen to your friends and stump them on a game of ‘Name That Tune.’ If dancers wanted to play a game, they would be at home playing Farmville. They are there to dance.

You have a responsibility to play danceable music. Playing standards isn’t the end of the world nor your career. They are called standards for a reason. I most certainly wont get tired of hearing Swingin’ The Blues, Segue In C, Blue Drag or Business In F. Nick Williams will never tire of Rigamarole by Mora’s Modern Rhythmists, and Chris Owens will never be seen sitting while What A shuffle by Chick Webb is being played. Sure, play your rare tracks, they could be the next Joshua Fit, or At Sundown. But what if they aren’t? Are you ready to come back with a solid tune? Do you have a recovery plan?

One of the first lessons I got in the school of DJing was from a local DJ in San Francisco, Marc D’Olimpio. To paraphrase:

Ok, you have a song that you want to play, but aren’t sure if the crowd will respond to it. This is what you do: Have two tracks ready to go. One track that is the risky track, its not a standard, but you like and hope the crowd will too.  The other track should be a solid go-to standard (in his case it was Now You has Jazz by Louis Armstrong). Be prepared so that if the first song fails, you can immediately play your go-to song, and quell that rising tide of disgust from the previous track. So if your new song missed, you can immediately erase that bad taste, and move on.

The whole DJ process is about learning. As a DJ, if you are not learning and educating yourself you are only doing a disservice to your community and your venue probably won’t be around for long, and neither will your career.

As a DJ for too many years to count, I have embarked on a never ending quest to perfect the art of DJing. So I ask of you: What are your thoughts? What do you think are the responsibilities of the DJ? How do you define a ‘danceable’ song?


  1. I wish I lived in a scene where Now you has Jazz is a standard go to song.

    • That song was a super standard in the San Francisco scene many years ago, and I think it should make a comeback. Such a great song!

  2. Thank you~!! it will be very helpful~!!

  3. Hey Kyle, great read. Thanks a lot for posting it, it definitely gets my mind thinking about DJ’ing in my own community. The only thing I would add, and maybe this is just unique where I dance, is that a DJ’s responsibility is also to… DJ. We often have a case of “dancer-dj’s” out here who load an itunes playlist then proceed to dance to the songs that they have pre-chosen. Often times I would look around to see who is on the DJ “booth” to find no one there for an extended period of time.

    • Yah, I can see how that can be a problem. I don’t have any problems with a DJ/dancer per se. Set up a couple songs, go dance, and then come back and keep DJing. But, I would hope that a DJ has more sense than to set up a playlist and let it go for the whole night. How is that paying attention to your crowd?

  4. I think that the act of being a conscious DJ goes beyond just “picking songs” but are only touched on above. There are things like futzing with your EQ or your compressor to get the right sound in the hall. Pay attention to the actual volume of the room. Make sure in social dances to let songs breathe for a moment in between each selection. Download a goddamn copy of audacity and learn to do things like normalize and remove his as well as cut out sections that are bad for dancing. Your role is to not only curate a personal tune selection and aesthetic, but to produce and present those selections in the best manner possible.

  5. great thoughts on the responsibility of the DJ. Thanks for sharing this!

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