Or less provocatively named –
DJing Music for Balboa-swing Social Dancers
Firstly, yes, I agree, there is no such thing as “Balboa music” and therefore no “Balboa Music DJing Guidelines” can exist for such a non-existent thing. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, moving right along…
Ideally you should play the actual dance music of the Swing Era (1935-1946) that inspired the evolution of the Balboa-swing dance, or modern recreations of the style. This era of music is typified by having four similar sounding beats to a bar (usually from a double bass or drum or rhythm guitar or a piano or a combination). This 4/4 beat drives dancers to step or pulse four times every bar (or 8 times every 8 counts in dancer lingo). Written down it looks like:
| * * * * | * * * * |
This gives a very different feel to the Charleston era music from the 1920’s, which should be avoided when playing for Balboa (and Lindy Hop). Pre-swing music also generally has a 4/4 time signature, but the bass notes (usually from a tuba or sousaphone) are played half-time, also referred to by musicians as “cut time” or “2 feel”. In cut time there are only two strong beats per bar, each followed by a rest:
| * – * – | * – * – |
and sounds like:
| oom – pah – | oom – pah – |
This makes a dancer feel like stepping on the floor only 4 times per 8 counts, which matches the Charleston footwork pattern.
Balboa can be danced most comfortably when you play:
- Big band swing
- Smaller jazz ensemble swing
- Some Gypsy jazz (manouche).
There are thousands of recorded dance tunes to choose from in this Goldilocks zone, so good DJs will be able to find a variety of melodies and tempos to keep things interesting, while maintaining 4/4 dance feel.
Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw are “the two” big artists that are heard very frequently at Balboa events and for good reason. If I could only take the recordings of two musicians to a desert island, it would be those two. Here are a few other artist that have some excellent music for Balboa: Charlie Barnet, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, and Django Reinhardt. Glenn Miller has a bunch of killer dance numbers like ‘Community Swing’, ‘Snafu Jump’, and ‘It Must Be Jelly’ that are not typically found on his greatest hits collections. If you are looking for hi-fidelity modern recordings, Jonathan Stout has been producing stunning examples of the classic swing dance style of music.
A good DJ will know the tempo of every song they play and will vary them while paying close attention to the energy levels of the dancers. Remember it is not a listening party for the DJs ears only. It is primarily a dancing party for the dancer’s feet. If you play three songs in a row above 200 beats per minute at a local dance, don’t be surprised if all the dancers leave the floor at once to get a drink and don’t dance your next few songs.
Intermediate balboa dancers are comfortable from 170-200 BPM and so the majority of your songs should be in that range. Advanced dancers will begin to struggle at 230 so anything played above this should be carefully considered in the context of the songs you play around it. If there are beginner level dancers in attendance please keep an eye on them and make sure you have some slower songs 150-170 ready to play to encourage them onto the floor.
You may also play some 70-110 swing tunes for Slow Bal if you think some dancers will enjoy it.
Balboa can be danced at every tempo, but if you play songs between 120-150 BPM then some people will switch to Lindy Hop and start swinging-out, because Lindy is more comfortable than Bal at those tempos for most people. So save those songs for when you are DJing specifically for Lindy Hoppers or a broader cross-section of swing dancers.
Please do not play:
- Pre-swing (New Orleans Trad Jazz, Hot Jazz, Ragtime, Dixieland, anything with a washboard, banjo, or tuba)
- Jump Blues
- 50’s Rock or Rockabilly
- Non-swing jazz music (Bebop, Crooner, Vegas, Lounge, Smooth, Elevator, etc)
Edit: Yes, I do believe that people CAN dance Balboa to just about any type of music. I don’t mind shuffling along to a little bit of death metal on the odd occasion. However you can go to any other venue, any day of the week and dance to all kinds of music that did not inspire the evolution of the dance we call Balboa. What is really hard to find is a slick dance floor with a fabulous DJ, such as yourself, laying down some of the swingin’est swing that ever was swung.
Edit: For accuracy and clarity I’ve updated the bit about time signature and dance feel. Many thanks to the musicians who provided some extra info. I mistakenly suggested that pre-swing music was in 2/4 time signature. There may be further complexities that could also be delved into, but I want to keep this relatively concise. Hopefully what I’ve written now conveys some distinction of the type of music that works the best for Balboa swing dancing.
The basic philosophy is this: It’s the music that inspired the dance, not the other way around. You play different music, you get a different dance.