Backing tracks for ballroom dancing

(The original version of this article was first published on the Mp3 Backing Trax website circa 2006 – 2012)

Now and again as an entertainer you may be called upon to perform music for dancing – in particular strict tempo ballroom dancing. So, which songs suit which dances? It’s not an easy answer.

Some dances will require specially created backing tracks, but many of the more popular and flexible dances can use off-the-shelf backing tracks.

So here’s a guide to ballroom dancing and how you should approach a gig where you are expected to sing and provide music for a ballroom dancing crowd…

Ballroom dancing can be separated in to two categories as far as we entertainers who are going to be singing for the dancers need to be concerned:

  1. Dances which are flexible, where just about any song will suit as long as it’s close to the correct bpm (beats per minute) and feel of that dance.
  2. Dances which are not flexible, where the dance has a very strict tempo and requires a very definite drum beat, tempo, arrangement or the dance just won’t work.

Here are some examples.

The Tango is a dance that has a very particular tempo and feel to it so it’s NOT the sort of dance where you could just use any song that’s a similar speed/tempo and it would sound ok. Unfortunately dances like Tangos, Cha Chas, Rhumbas etc have such a specific tempo and feel to them which have been specially designed for those particular dances.

Even if you pick a song that has a vaguely similar type of beat, it just won’t work.

On the other hand, dances like the Foxtrot, Waltz, Jive, Quickstep etc are more flexible so you can use just about any song for them as long as it’s the right speed and the right time signature. For example, the Quickstep is pretty flexible. You can usually use any song you want for a quickstep as long as it has that kinda 2 in the bar type time signature and is around the 175 – 200 bpm range (I often used the old Carpenters song “Top of the world” for a quickstep and it works just fine).

One good thing is that we now live in a new era of ballroom dancing. TV shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” and “Dancing With The Stars” have made ballroom dancing fashionable again. They often adapt modern pop songs to suit old dances and it works fine….but only for certain dances.

If you find yourself getting a lot of gig work where ballroom dancing is something you are regularly going to be expected to provide, then it would be best to get some backing tracks specially arranged and adapted for these particular dances. For example, the old Al Martino song “Spanish eyes” (also covered by Englebert Humperdinck) is just a regular pop ballad, but it would probably lend itself quite well to a Tango style arrangement. I’m sure you could find many other modern pop songs which would “convert” well to ballroom dances too (the Drifters “Save the last dance for me” as a Rhumba maybe)?

Old Spanish songs are often good for Latin-American dances. A song like Besame Mucho would make a good Bossa Nova. Amor, Amor, Amor and Quando Quando Quando would make good Salsa’s. However, the essential thing to note here is that if you want to use pop songs for ballroom dances which have a very strict tempo and beat, then they will usually need to be re-arranged to have those particular dance beats put to them or they won’t work. For example you couldn’t just buy a Julio Iglesias backing track of “When they begin the beguine” and use that for a Beguine dance. That backing track version is actually a Disco beat so couldn’t be further from a Beguine if it tried so beware!

Despite the word “strictly” in the title of “Strictly Come Dancing”, the music they use for the dances is anything but strict. I’ve heard dance shows on TV use Queens “Crazy little thing called love” for a quickstep and Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” for a Jive. So nowadays ballroom dancing has become less regimented, less strict, and more fun (who remembers all those serious looking dead-pan faces of the contestants on TV’s “Come Dancing” with Terry Wogan all those years ago as they danced round the room with numbers pinned on the back of their chiffon dresses and long-tail suits)!

Thankfully today there isn’t so much pressure to use exact songs and exact beats for the more flexible dances like the quickstep, Jive, Foxtrot etc. A quickstep should really be around 196 bpm but depending on the age and agility of your dancers anything down to 175 bpm may suit them fine.

The more rigid dances like the Tango are not quite as flexible as dances like quicksteps and foxtrots so you would be better advised to have backing tracks created with these exact beats and tempos. You could still use modern pop songs but you would definitely need the proper beat put on them. For example you could (arguably) take the Stevie Wonder song “I just called to say I love you” and put a Rhumba beat to it or a Beguine beat to it. Younger dancers would be quite happy with that, however older dancers may find using modern pop songs for strict tempo ballroom dances a little bit of an abomination, so it all depends on your audience too.

The new TV dance shows get away with using modern pop songs for their dances because the dancers on the show are of a younger era. But I did a gig recently where the audience were rather old and they asked me to play music so they could dance the “Chicago Swing” dance. Any old jazz standard song like “I’ve got you under my skin” or “Fly me to the moon” suits this particular dance, but no way Jose….my old audience members were having none of this. I had to play the song “Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town” or they just refused to get on the floor and dance to the Chicago Swing!

This is quite typical of what an entertainer today is up against if he or she dares to venture in to the weird and wonderful world of playing for ballroom dancing. You will always get one dancer saying you played a dance too slow while another dancer will tell you you played it too fast. Not everyone has the same idea of what a particular dance should be or how fast or slow it should be played.

For example, did you know that an Empress Tango isn’t a Tango at all? It’s actually a dance that is danced to a shuffle type beat at around 120/130 bpm (a song like “Little old wine drinker me” would suit this dance perfectly). Arrrghhh!

Just one other thing to bear in mind if you ever are singing for an older ballroom dancing audience – it’s usually good practice to perform TWO rounds of every dance for the dancers (i.e. you would play two songs, one after the other).

Don’t be surprised if when you out at the dancers on the dance floor at the end of your song you see them standing motionless, arm in arm, staring at you on the stage in anticipation…waiting for you to sing another song for the “second round” of their dance!