Music for West Coast Swing

World champion ballroom dancer Tybaldt Ulrich logs a lot of hours teaching amateurs: priests, lawyers and dog walkers, between 30 and 70 years old. “Ballroom is good for your soul and breaks you out of your everyday life,” he says. “Plus, you learn more about yourself and how you work. It’s like doing a crossword with your body.”

West Coast swing evolved from the lindy hop. It differs from other forms because it is stylistically tighter in the body and is danced to a slower tempo. It’s also slotted, meaning partners usually keep to a long, narrow space, traveling back and forth within it. These qualities make the style good for beginners and those who want to try improvisation within ballroom dance.

Ulrich, who teaches open classes at several studios in New York City and New Jersey, knows that though West Coast is easily graspable, new students will still feel intimidated by the form. He breaks down hesitation by using popular music. “People come in scared and inhibited. If I play a song they like and can get them to sing along, they unknowingly begin to understand the underlying rhythms of dance while having fun with it,” he says. “They don’t realize that in my classroom, they’re experts the minute they walk in—with American popular music.” DT

Artist: Carly Rae Jepsen

Song: “Call Me Maybe”

“West Coast swing is a social dance, which means it started with people swaying around at a party. Taking something off the Top 40 list is really just continuing that tradition. Sometimes you need a huge pulse like this to get a class going. My students always get a kick out of this song.”

Artist: Brother Yusef

Song: “I Got the Blues”

“I’ll usually keep a playlist of songs looping during class, instead of assigning each exercise a song. This solo acoustic guitarist has an incredible presence—a great big sound and a sharp beat, so it’s great for beginner students who really need to listen for rhythms.”

Artist: R. Kelly

Album: Write Me Back

“I like to use songs from a newer recording artist who has an older soulful voice or sound. This album feels cool, not hot. It has a lot of mellow love in it and really takes care of you as you dance.”

Artist: Maroon 5 (feat. Wiz Khalifa)

Song: “Payphone”

“In swing, you’ll try to do moves that aren’t counted in eights over an eight-count song. The accents in this are so clearly on one and five that everyone can hear them and count along. Then you can layer steps that ride through the phrasing.”

Artist: James Brown

Album: Sex Machine

“Most of James Brown’s songs are great because he’ll sing a short phrase over and over. I’ll have people sing those underlying rhythms while dancing so they start to understand the structure.”

Artist: The Insomniacs

Song: “At Least I’m Not With You”

“This has a really relaxed swing—it’s a wonderful tempo. When beginners and intermediates are thinking, it can get in the way of moving. This also has a solid triplet feel, which is hard to find in popular music within the past few decades.”

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