The Power of Music

It probably doesn’t come as any surprise, but (hang on to your hats!) music is important to dance. After all, dance is the expression of music through rhythmic, bodily movements. The whole idea behind musicality is trying to express the music as much and as accurately as possible.

In fact, dances are born and created in large part because of new forms of music. For instance, swing dancing itself took shape to a new musical form known as jazz, and mambo and cha-cha came about as musicians in the Caribbean began merging American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Throughout history, dancers have created new dance forms in response to new musical forms.

We sometimes forget, too, that dances change and evolve in response to music. This may be especially true of dances like West Coast Swing, which is danced to a wide range of musical genres and receives a constant flow of new music. If you watch videos of West Coast Swing dancing twenty or even ten years ago compared with today, you’ll certainly notice the difference in the music (perhaps with a bit of nostalgia, perhaps with fear) but you’ll also notice a difference in the dancing. This makes sense, of course: as the music changes, so should the dancing since, after all, the dancing should reflect the music.

Curiously, although dance is ultimately the physical expression of music, there are many forces operating in a social dance world that may have a greater influence on the dance than the music. For instance, how instructors teach the dance can have a significant impact on the dance – both how it’s done and our collective understanding of it. And, of course, as people with knowledge of different dances come into the community, they bring their knowledge of other dance forms with them. Certainly over the past few years the West Coast Swing community has seen Hustle, Hand Dancing, and Carolina Shag – among others – shape the dance. Moreover, dancers with a background in classical forms of dance or who have studied kinesiology (study of movement) and related fields also contribute to our collective understanding of the dance and of dancing as a whole. Particular individuals can also set new trends in patterns, stylings, or even the music we choose to dance to. These trendsetters may influence others either through social dancing or through choreography and competitive dancing. Competition itself can often drive changes in the social dance scene, as the winning dance will set the standard for what “good” dancing is (another discussion for another post… or two or ten!).

So just how much does the music really influence the dance? There are some in the community who are not happy with the current trend in music – the dance/urban/hip-hop genres of music that are predominated by heavy and repetitive rhythms. Some of them argue that the move away from faster, swung rhythms (found in a lot of blues and swing songs) and towards slower, “contemporary” music has led to the loss of the anchor in the dance, and that West Coast Swing has lost its “swing” element. Others argue that the loss of connection and related technique stems not from the music, but rather from a lack of proper instruction and from the misguided emulation of talented dancers by those less skilled. (Personally, I agree with the notion that the music certainly influences the dance, but I think in this particular argument I would side with the latter argument. Then again, I would argue that one can anchor at slow speeds and without a swung rhythm. But again, another post for another day…)

I have had the pleasure of speaking with a particular experienced and respected instructor about this topic, and he advised me to think about what music I play when teaching my students. Am I playing “contemporary” music with straight time or blues music with swung rhythms? Am I playing repetitive songs or songs with variation? Are they really slow, medium tempo, or fast? The idea is that the music we learn to dance to can greatly influence how we dance – as well as our understanding of what the dance is.

Ironically, in some way, the influence of the music is circular, since the dancers – sometimes a select set of trendsetters, instructors, and DJs – are choosing the music to which we dance. In the case of West Coast Swing, dancers are taking the music they hear on the radio that they like and then playing it at dances where they adapt the dance appropriately. So the influence of the music becomes a (sort of) chicken-and-the-egg type debate: does the music influence the dance, or do the dancers influence the dance by way of the music?

What do you think? Has the change in music been the main reason for the change in the dance? Have you witnessed any evidence that suggests the music has directly changed how we dance West Coast Swing? Or do you think social factors like instruction, trendsetters, competition, and the influences of other dances has driven the evolution of the dance? What kind of music do you hear in lessons and has that influenced your understanding of how to do this dance? Instructors, what kind of music do you play in lessons and why?


  1. I think that music is just one factor that has contributed to the evolution of West Coast Swing. I definitely think that instruction is the major influence…but also, something that's probably not even thought much of – what we WEAR I think has had a huge impact on the look of the dance. From flat shoes, to ballroom heels, to practice shoes, to practice sandals, and from skirts to pants, all have an impact on the way we move in them – you're just not going to get that grounded look in a pair of ballroom heels!

  2. I feel like the artists follow a trend and this affects dancers' choice if they want to use something new. I can remember a time when the C&W scene didn't put out anything but ballads for nearly a year. It forced folks to stay with "older," overplayed music. Part of the wcs scene is all about "the toys" in the music (the accents/sounds/words that can be displayed through interpretative movement/posing). When you see a champion-level routine performed to a specific song, and all those toys come out to play, no one wants to do the same song themselves and find themselves wanting in ability or skill level. So, yes (in my humble opinion), in the competitive arena, new music equals a chance to shine. For example, I will never think of Cold Play in the same way ever again. LOL Or how can I hear "I'm The Only One" by Melissa Etheridge and NOT think of the skill of Brandi's movements (and find myself wanting) — and that was over 6 years ago now!!!In order for your "clubs" to not die out, you have to entice the youth. The youth are not necessarily listening to songs from 10 years ago … unless it's mixed in. They're predominantly going with Top 40. Now you're stuck trying to get "swing" out of your non-rolling sounds. Can't do it, so the dance has to change/evolve.Moving with the times sometimes is very hard. I fell in love with west coast BECAUSE of how the slow roll looks — and stretching through the 2& … not in spite of it. I find myself anxiously awaiting a Top 40 "nightclub two step" in order to get something at least a LITTLE like what I fell in love with … and then I don't want to NC2 to that song, I adapt my wcs to it instead (at the risk of looking goofy). Can't seem to do that with a faster hip hop. Feel like either doing hip hop or even hustle instead. I guess the only solution is for me to go up and request an older song once in awhile. Esp. after 10 contemporary non-swing but we're doing some other swing to it anyway type song. As for teaching … I try to mix up the music as much as possible. New and old. And let people adapt as best they can.This really should be signed as "frustrated with the music."

  3. Personally, I have long despaired the general public's lack of musical knowledge. So many folks these days have never *played* music, so they don't recognize the parts they should be responding to. I remember several classes where you asked people to listen to the music and name the instruments – most of them couldn't. How could someone hope to translate a piano interlude without even realizing a piano is playing? What results is a kind of "by-the-numbers" dance that focuses on pre-fab moves rather than music. (I have the opposite problem – I hear the music but lack the dancing chops to do much with it.)-Eric Mattison

  4. There's always that schism between things changing and things staying the way the were; that fight between new and old. WCS's ability to be danced to contemporary music (that may or may not have the "soul" of the past) will bring new blood to the dance, younger dancers. I hate to be the doomsday-naysayer, but that's vital to keeping the dance alive… lest it fall into the fate of most ballroom dance styles, which have mostly become the leisure activity of the senior 60+ generation.

  5. Maria, I got frustrated with the music years ago and dealt with it by taking up Blues dancing, where the music is almost entirely Blues and closely related genres (and the dancers average *much* younger than WCS – so much for the theory that top 40 is required to attract them). Interestingly Blues had its own traditional/modern music argument about 5 years back but the result was a clear split into Blues and "Fusion" dance scenes, rather than the continuing tension as WCS seems doomed to having (or enjoys having, depending on how you look at it).

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