Tango DJ

by: Jay Aland

I love to DJ. I have DJ’d over 400 dances, and I am always ready to do another one.

My purpose in life is “All the World Dancing”. I want everyone to have the chance to dance, and I want those who try it to find that they love it. I encourage people to try dancing; I organize dances; I teach dancing; and I DJ. Good DJing has a huge impact on how well people dance, and how much fun they have doing it. When the music is right, the dancers dance with more skill, more intimacy, and a magical energy; they go home feeling like they had a wonderful evening, and I love being part of that.

Years ago the quality of dancing was controlled by the band playing.  If the band was good, the people danced well, and came back.  In today’s world of easily accessible digital music, the DJ makes the dance.  The DJ controls the experience of the dancers, the mood of the dance, the satisfaction which each dancer feels for his own skill, and , most of all, the energy flow of the whole evening of dancing.  A good DJ creates the dancing experience while staying out of the limelight; you may have no idea what the DJ is doing unless he makes a mistake.  While there is a special feeling in dancing to a live band, many dancers have come to prefer dancing to recorded music because of what a good DJ can provide.  The dancers’ expectations have grown, however, and a DJ must provide things that a band never could.

My main criterion when I DJ, is to play the music that the dancers want. Of course I have my own favorite songs, but I have 10 times as many favorites as I can play at one dance, so I forget about my favorites and play the dancers’ favorites. It’s easy to do that when I am familiar with the group, or have a good idea who will come to the dance, and it also helps when I know individuals who will be there and I know their favorites. When a couple dances to their favorite song, they lend an energy to the whole dance floor which pumps up everyone who is dancing. My measure of my success is the portion of the people present who are on the floor dancing, along with the quality of their dancing. I look to see if they are exhibiting great skill and connection with their partner and respect for all the other dancers. If I see people sitting, or practicing their new dance steps, or bumping other dancers, I check to see where I have failed.

When I DJ, I like to dance also, so I prepare thoroughly in advance so I don’t have to sit in the DJ booth much. Here is a compilation of DJ techniques I have learned, and use whenever I am the DJ, and reminders for myself, and distillations from classes I’ve taken, and DJtips from Richard Powers.

Music Selection

Beat – Good dancing depends on hearing the beat of the music. A DJ can always hear the beat, and so is at a disadvantage – what counts is the dancers hearing the beat. Dancers scowling, bumping, practicing ganchos, or out-of-sync with their partner, may not be hearing a good clear beat.

Some tango music is not good dance music, because the rhythm is unpredictable, or the singer is off the beat and louder than the band. Some recordings are muddy; some computer sound cards are muddy; some sound systems are too boomy or screechy; some venues have too much echo – any of these make the music unacceptable. I go through the program, and adjust each tune for volume and equalization, knowing the sound system where it will be played and compensating accordingly. If a tune is too “boomy” or “screechy” for this venue – equalize, or delete it. During the milonga, I move about, listening to the music and watching the dancers, and making adjustments as necessary. I notice whether the dancers are on-the-beat, or not. If the beat will not be heard by these dancers in this venue – get rid of that song. There is no shortage of good music.

Familiarity – Select music that these particular dancers already know and like. The dancers – especially the most skilled dancers – have judged each tune for the qualities that make it desirable to dance to (interesting beat?, clarity of the recording?, quality of the orchestration?, demonstration of this orchestra’s best qualities?, whatever) No need to second-guess the dancers.

Even more importantly, a dancer does the best dance to the tune they know and love. The leader knows what’s coming, and how to interpret it in a way that will thrill his partner. The follower can interpret familiar music in a full conversation with her partner, rather than just doing the steps he leads. Dancers all seem to dance better when they know the music. They may not recognize that it is the music that makes the difference, and may ascribe their virtuosity to their ability, mood, or partner – but if they dance better, they will be back.

At the same time, the dancers want to hear a tanda which is brand new and exciting, they want a tanda or two which is challenging for them, and they want a few songs which catch their attention.  The same old music every time gets boring.

Variety – Each tanda quite different from the last: Lyrical vs. rhythmic, different bands, vocal or instrumental, tango/vals/milonga, different periods, etc.

Avoid 2 tandas in a row that some people are likely to sit out (milonga, Pugliese) so that no one will ever sit out 2 tandas in a row. Alternate vocal and instrumental tandas, and alternate lyrical and rhythmic tandas. Play as many different orchestras as possible.

Energy – Tunes vary in energy, by being vocal or instrumental, by being rhythmic or lyrical, by playing staccato or flowing, by the quality of the band, by the style of the singer, even by the interpretation of this particular group of dancers. To maintain excitement throughout the milonga, create energy ebb and flow within each group of 3 or 4 tandas. Build energy to a peak, and then let it decline. Within a whole milonga, build the energy slightly higher with each group of tandas, to a climax, and then fall to a denouement. The climax may occur at the end, or earlier.

Rising and falling energy level gives the dancers a good opportunity to sit out sometimes, and dance at other times. Flat energy feels boring – dancers may feel tired, or dislike their partners, or go home early, and not even recognize the flat energy. When too many dancers are sitting, playing a vals will usually get them up. When too many dancers are getting sweaty and tired, it may be time for slower or more lyrical or romantic music. When dancers start practicing their ganchos, they may be bored.

Tanda Construction – Pick tunes for a tanda that are similar, but not the same. Usually similar means: by the same band, with the same singer, recorded in the same period, of similar mood, and of similar tempo. Dancers want to pick a specific partner for a certain kind of music, and have similar music throughout the tanda. Don’t sabotage dancers with a change in tempo or style within a tanda.

Start each tanda with a tune that will let the dancers recognize the band – a very familiar tune. End each tanda with the best – most popular – of the tunes, so that the dancers can have the best dance. Less familiar tunes go in the middle (but don’t play junk). In a vals tanda, it helps to start with the slowest, and end with the fastest.

Balance – I prefer to play 3 songs per tanda (some DJs prefer 4), and I organize tandas by: tango, tango, vals , tango, tango, milonga. Late in the evening, I play fewer milongas, and more vals, as the energy level of the dancers changes.

Preparation – I prepare a full playlist in advance, including options, possible deletions, a supply of potential additions, and alternatives, so that I can quickly modify the program to match the mood of the dance floor. I burn the program to a CD and preview it, listening for familiarity, variety and energy, and save the CD as an emergency backup in case of computer failure.

General Observations: What has been most obvious when I am dancing to the best DJs is that: 1. I know almost every tune; 2. If I sit out a song, the next song compels me to dance; 3. The energy in the room never dips for long. What I sometimes see with other DJs is: 1. Dancers get tired and leave early; 2. Dancers get bored, and use the time to practice new dance steps;

Most important to me is playing music that causes the dancers to dance better, rather than:

  • Playing my personal favorites
  • Playing a recent acquisition that excites my imagination
  • Playing beautiful but rarely heard tunes
  • Playing orchestras that deserve to be heard more often
  • Letting everyone know that I have a huge collection of tango music

When testing a great tune that is not well known, play it in the middle of a tanda, or when the more dedicated dancers are there, usually very early or very late. When testing an unfamiliar tanda, play it between 2 popular tandas, at a time when the dancers might need a break.

Equipment and Preparation

Final Preparations:

Listen to the whole program – Ensure that song endings are intact (with 3 seconds of silence); Adjust volume if it is too loud or quiet; Feel the energy flow. For songs where I’m not sure of the dancers’ reactions, I Include alternative songs, or tandas, left unchecked or bunched right after the program.

Pack backups for any hardware which might fail (this varies a lot from place to place). I bring an extra computer, already set up with the same playlist, ready to play.