Having dee-jayed, taught, and hosted swing dance parties for many years, as well as observed swing dance parties put on by (well-meaning) folks new to swing dancing, parties that are meant to cater to "us", I've come away with two major conclusions about how non-swing dancers think they can cater to our needs...that often doesn't pan out.
These are the two major ones that I've observed, but I am sure there are a lot more. (Feel free to add yours in the comments section, a not-so-subtle hint.)
If you are new to swing dancing and are either hosting an event, geared for swing dancers, or are dee-jaying at a swing dance party, please do keep my observations as suggestions that you can choose (or not choose) to follow.
I readily admit that in addition to my first hand experience, my observations are also colored by my personal biases (though I firmly believe in my personal biases!)
"The best swing dance music is always fast, so if you want to please a swing dancing couple, play the fastest vintage 1940s or 1950s song that you can find, preferably something extremely mainstream, or the fastest late 1990's neo-swing song that you can find, which of course, was mainstream."
If it were possible to sigh and shake my head in writing, I would do that right now at this first mistaken idea. While it's true that many of us do the dance styles Balboa and Collegiate Shag, speaking for myself, and from what I've observed while dee-jaying for many years, mid-tempo songs are usually what many of us like to dance to. I have also noticed that mid-tempo numbers that have a shuffling type of rhythm tend to really get people up on the dance floor. A song’s mainstream “familiarity” is actually irrelevant when it comes to getting people up on the floor to swing dance and in some cases, can actually be a deterrent!
In any case, we certainly don't want hours of hyper fast music (we'd either be too tired or we would die of cardiac arrest!)
Mid-tempo shuffles give us more time to play and improvise. It makes us sweat a lot less(!) which is more pleasant and less uncomfortable when holding each other close, and, as someone who has both observed and actually hosted and dee-jayed swing dance parties for years, mid tempo songs tend to get more people up on the swing dance floor then hyper-fast songs.
I also mentioned the word "mainstream", because I feel that it's important for non-swing dancers to realize that many of us who are swing dancers (and who also live the vintage lifestyle, that is), are into the most collectible vintage dance music. The more obscure, the more interesting it is to many of us (admittedly, that doesn't apply to all individuals but it does apply to a lot of us who also teach, dee-jay, host parties, compete, or are just plain obsessive about our swing dancing.)
Though there are a good number of swing dancers who like mainstream ‘40's Big Band hits or ‘50's “oldies hits" (and as a serious Rockabilly and Do-Wop collector, that's a phrase that I personally can’t stand!), or 1990’s neo-swing bands (bands such as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy), there are actually even more vintage swing dancers who are not into all of that, and who would actually favor the collectables that most mainstream non-swing dancers would never even have heard of.
Many of us were misfits to begin with, and so finding songs that feel exclusively “ours” gives us our identity, making what we do a unique subculture.
I personally know serious swing dancers who are more into collecting the most obscure, yet the most energetic and danceable, Kansas City style Swing, Western Swing, Lounge, Gypsy Jazz, or (among my closest colleagues and also for my personal interest) mid-1950’s to very early 1960’s Rock n’ Roll.
In other words, playing “In The Mood", “Jump Jive and Wail", the “Jive Bunny" oldies dance mix, or the 1990’s song “Zoot Suit Riot", though stereotypically geared for “swing dancing” in the mainstream mindset, will often make many of the most hardcore swing dancers cringe(!), rather than feel like dancing.
"Swing dancers require big bands, and any and all jazz music, provided that is played by a big band, is geared for swing dancing."
I love jazz music and I love the Big Band era of the 1930s and 1940s. My personal favorites are Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa with Anita O'Day. I love that music because it was intended for dancing. In other words, it makes you want to dance, it fills you with the joy of swing dancing.
Having said that, not all jazz music was intended for dancing.
I'm also a huge fan of Thelonious Monk, Shelley Manne, and Dave Brubeck. But, their styles of jazz were not intended for swing dancing, or dancing of any sort, for that matter. They were intended for listening.
Another style of jazz that I like is bebop. That's also a listening style and there are pictures from the late 1940s of bebop clubs that have signs up saying "No lindy hopping." With signs like that up, it's obvious that style of jazz was not intended for dancing at all, since dancing was actually discouraged!
Is it good music? Absolutely. Is it dance music? Absolutely not, at least, not in the sense that it was intended for dancing. (You probably could force yourself to dance to those jazz styles, to “make yourself dance outside of the box", if that's what you personally enjoy, but it won't come naturally.)
I recently attended a swing dance party where the organizers hired a 17 piece "big band" jazz orchestra out of one of the local colleges. I thought they were very good musicians. But I was disappointed to observe that the majority of their numbers actually kept most people off of the dance floor, since they were playing non-dance jazz numbers, jazz music that as a musician, you can appreciate for the complexity, and as a jazz fan, you could appreciate for the beauty of it, but as a vintage swing dancer, you actually just end up standing around, waiting for the number to end!
There are modern big bands that do a great job catering to swing dancers (The Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra being the one that comes to my mind.)
But just because a band is huge and plays jazz doesn't necessarily mean that they are "good" for swing dancing.
It has been my personal observation that another type of music, which is closely related to jazz and also comes from the African American experience, more often than not, is very danceable. That music is blues.
Just as with jazz, there are many styles of blues and not all blues is (easily) danceable for swing dance styles. But I've attended many local blues festivals and almost all of the bands that they have had up were highly energetic and very danceable!
A few examples of energetic danceable blues (for swing dancers) would be Jump Blues, Boogie Woogie, New Orleans and the closely related Louisiana Blues styles.
In my opinion, getting a danceable blues band would be a better call for a first time swing dance party for novices, than a big jazz band whose numbers are usually geared more for listening appreciation rather than dancing.
On a final note, I am making a clear distinction between vintage swing dancers and modern swing dancers. West Coast Swing is the modern descendant of Lindy Hop, specifically Smooth Style. Folks who dance West Coast Swing certainly are swing dancers, but they generally are not into the vintage lifestyle and the music tends to be modern contemporary. So the above misconceptions, as much as they shouldn't apply to lindy hoppers, certainly does not apply to “westies.”
I am sure that there are many other misconceptions about vintage swing dancers that I might have overlooked, but these are the major ones that I have observed.
If you know of someone who is not a swing dancer but is organizing a “Swing Dance Party”, I would recommend that those observations that I have not listed be included in a list of “suggestions", along with the two that I just mentioned(!), to that event organizer, to help ensure that the event has a stronger chance of being successful in getting folks who attend, up and out on the dance floor.
After all, if the guests enjoyed the party because they were able to dance for most of the time, there is a stronger chance of those guests returning, for the second or third party that the organizer plans on hosting.