How to Be a Better Dance DJ
Guidelines for playing recorded music at a social dance party

Richard Powers


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:

          Matching the dance's energy
          Clearly audible beats
          Danceable tempos
          Songs of the right length
          Variety and pacing
          Novelty vs. familiarity
          Spaces between dances
          Pre-selecting your playlist
          Monitoring volume level
          What not to do
          Where to find the best tunes
          Knowing if a tune is a good choice for a particular dance
          Sweet Spot ideal tempos
          Disclaimers




         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 one or two notches 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,               B) Some of your tunes have a driving high
    above and below the sweet-spot tempo for             energy, and some have an easygoing low energy.
    each dance form.

    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, or Pearl Jam's cover of it.  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 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.

    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/men 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 bring the song down to three minutes.  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 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) 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 even 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 blending 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 seconds (or so) between tunes, or make many ten-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.


    8) Pre-selecting your playlist versus choosing tunes at the moment.
        I believe this topic makes a big difference in the success of a dance party.

    Some DJs assemble their playlist for a dance ahead of time, especially if they play their music from their laptop or iPod.  Others plan out their general rotation of dance types but wait until the moment to select the song itself, watching the dancers' energy to see what the perfect tune for that moment will be.

    Both approaches are equivalent to creating a lesson plan for teaching a class, so therefore my advice is the same as on my
    Teaching Tips page, for the same reason.  I recommend creating a good plan, then improvising on it at the moment.

    When you assemble a playlist in the quiet of your office or home, you can try to guess what the mood of the dance will be at each moment, but you can never be sure.  It's easier to accurately guess the rotation of dance types... a calmer tango after a fast exhausting swing, for example.  So you can draw up a playlist of dance types.  But the variables for selecting the best tunes are so complex that it's far better to use your intuition, in watching the energy of the dancers at that moment, to choose the perfect song.

    Have you ever pre-assembled a playlist of tunes then thought, "It seemed like a good idea when I wrote the playlist, but that tune just didn't work very well."  Yes, that will happen at least once every night, and more likely several times.

    You can say, "oh well, that's good enough" if you want to be a "good-enough" DJ.  This page is suggestions of how to be a better DJ, maybe a great one.

    An ideal compromise is to plan out your playlist ahead of time, including the song titles, then re-evaluate your choices right before you get to each one, during the dance.  "Was that really the best choice for right now?"  You'll probably find that most of your preplanned list is okay, then occasionally you'll make a substitution when you feel that your first guess wasn't really the best choice for this moment, or if you come up with a better choice which didn't occur to you during your prep time.

  • Here's a specific suggestion to help come up with the perfect tune for the moment.  Have second music player (not the one playing music for the dancers) with headphones, to hear your possible song choices during the three minutes when the previous song is playing.  Our memory of our music collection is often sufficient, but actually hearing the next tune, in the real context of the moment, is usually better.  (This method works better with CDs and MDs than with laptops and iPods.)


    9) 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.


    10) What not to do.

  • Don't choose tunes primarily because of the lyrics, title or clever name of the band.  Most dancers don't listen to the lyrics when they dance.  Dancing is a very 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 admire how well the DJ strings together a series of songs on 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.

    So 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.


    11) Where do I find the best tunes?

  • Ask your dancers to bring in their favorite tunes, on CDs or music files.  Don't play them blind, because many aren't danceable (see the above criteria), but collect them for your future programming.

  • Search through Spotify, iTunes or Amazon mp3s.  If you buy tunes, you can deduct them as business expenses if you're a professional DJ or teacher.

  • Many complete tunes are now posted on YouTube, often with just a single image of the cover art as the visual.  Then there are several online sites that convert the YouTube videos to mp3s, and a hack using Safari, giving you the entire song for free, but the monaural sound is often too low quality for a dance.

  • Try the listening stations at record/CD stores, before they completely disappear (oops, too late).

  • 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.

  • I posted this page of song suggestions, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.


    12) 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 that individuality.  The suggestions on this page are just to help increase the percentage of tunes that make the dancers happy.


    13) Sweet Spot ideal tempos

         DANCE TYPE  SWEET SPOT   ACCEPTABLE RANGE
     Moderate Waltz         144  138-160 beats/minute 
     Fast Viennese Waltz         168  160-190
     Cross-Step Waltz         114-116  108-120
     Slow American Ballroom Waltz         100  86-110
     Lindy Hop & Triple Swing          75 (150)  58-82 (116-164)
     Fast East Coast Swing          92 (184)  80-100 (160-200)
     West Coast Swing         110 (55)  106-120 (53-60)
     Street Swing (Bugg)         130 (65)  110-150 (55-75)
     Hustle         118  110-130
     Club Two-Step          82  76-88
     Cha Cha         118 (59)  112-126 (56-63)
     Salsa          94  86-100
     Merengue         120  112-138
     Rumba          68  58-75
     Social Tango          66  60-80
     Tango Argentino          62  Wide Range
     Polka         114  104-124
     One-Step         118  108-132
     Slow Fox-Trot (box step)          64 (128)  60-76 (120-152)
     Faster Fox-Trot (magic step)          78 (156)  68-92 (136-184)
     Quickstep         100 (200)    90-110 (180-220)

    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, and some Lindy Hoppers as 220.  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 dances, often (but not necessarily) with partnered dancing.  Some of these suggestions may not apply to other kinds of dances.


    More thoughts and musings