Favorite songs for public dancing
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We’ve covered favorite songs to publicly sing along with, but we’ve never gotten into that other physical expression of musical approval: dance. What songs are most likely to get you out of your seat and onto the dance floor?
I love to dance, and can usually keep from embarrassing myself on the dance floor to most songs. (Or maybe everyone’s just too kind to tell me otherwise, which I’m fine with as well.) But the song that immediately came to mind when Tasha asked this question is Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” not because it’s inherently more danceable than any other song, but because my college roommate and I came up with a dumb dance for it years ago that I will still drunkenly inflict on anyone in my vicinity when the song comes on. (Warning: Shit’s about to get REAL dorky.) Calling this a “dance” is being generous, but the prominent, repetitive bassline of “Billie Jean” is the perfect template against which to do the “pizza dance,” a hilariously dumb routine that involves miming the steps to making a pizza in time to each loop. So, four hand-swishes above the head for spinning the crust, four circular smoothings-out of the sauce, four cycles of grating cheese, and so on. This continues through adding pepperoni, putting it in the oven, and eating it (followed by four optional “mmmm” belly-rubs, depending on how ashamed you are of yourself at this point). If you’re lucky, you’ll have finished enjoying your invisible pizza just as the chorus kicks in. I have no idea why this is so fun, but it almost always results in a group dance-along, the sheer stupidity of it uniting dancers practiced and reluctant alike. Yes, the pizza dance can be done to other songs, but none of them work quite as well as “Billie Jean,” and at least you’ll look cooler (well, relatively speaking) than that guy over in the corner trying to moonwalk.
I DJed an ’80s night for a few years, and for the most part, I was happy to stand back and not be on the dance floor during my umpteenth spin of “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” Once the obligatory hits were out of the way, though, I’d often have to stick my favorite songs at the end of my sets, so I could slip out from behind the decks and actually dance to some of my favorites—foremost among them being Joy Division’s “Transmission.” Yes, it’s the most obvious Joy Division song to play, at least from a DJ perspective; Ian Curtis himself commands you to “dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” But he does so in such a desperate, almost terrified way, it’s the antithesis of the feel-good new-wave dance anthem. Also, Jesus fucking Christ, that Peter Hook bassline. Simple, pulsing, propulsive, plucked from the realm of perfection.
Back when the Toronto arm of The A.V. Club was still a thing (RIP: 2011-2012), I used to tease the site’s nine Twitter followers every Friday with a weekend kickoff anthem. Gamely, and entirely for my own amusement, I would crowd-source suggestions, only to tweet a link to Patrick Hernandez’s “Born To Be Alive” every Friday around closing time, more or less without fail. There are a few reasons for this. For one, there are several videos on YouTube where a progressively more haggard-looking Hernandez lip-syncs along to his stupidly upbeat 1979 disco hit. With each one, he looks fatter, more leathery, and more like he’s performing aboard the open-air Lido deck of a Carnival Cruise ship. And so his infectious, tautological anthem about how we’re “born, born to be alive” becomes increasingly more pathetic and sinister. And hey, I find that stuff funny. Also, I remember a Buffalo radio station I listened to growing up playing this song every Friday. But mostly: fuck you, the song is amazing. I’m not much for dancing, unless it’s at an open-bar wedding or, I suppose, some sort of super-fun open-bar funeral, but for whatever reason, this disco trifle is enough to get me moving around my house like I’m leading a marching band filled out by other fat assholes living for Friday’s first Old Milwaukee tallboy. (Beer sucks in Canada. Leave me alone.)
As someone who was enrolled in some dance school or other from the ages of 6 through 20, Jevetta Steele’s version of “Calling You” was my favorite warm-up/cool-down song for at least 15 years. (The Céline Dion version is not an acceptable substitution; Jeff Buckley’s live cover is great.) But that’s probably not the type of dance we’re talking about here. I tried to trim the following list for three days, and I just can’t do it. Here’s a mini-playlist, because I couldn’t make up my mind, and they all make me get on my feet: “The Art Of Noise” from 2004’s Cee-Lo Green… Is The Soul Machine, Robyn’s “Indestructible,” MGMT’s “Electric Feel,” Jay-Z’s “Izzo,” Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” and Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as well as—extra points for being self-referential—“Blame It On The Boogie” by The Jacksons (YouTube the 1978 music video. You’re welcome.), “Into The Groove” by Madonna, and “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. Oh, when no one’s around, I also like to do that silly dance that happens during the chorus of Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks.” That was my upbeat song of the summer when everyone else seemed to be listening to “Call Me Maybe.”
You really can’t go wrong with Michael Jackson songs, especially anything off Thriller, an album whose iconic videos taught a grateful world how to dance like a zombie and/or step rhythmically on light-up dance floors. But I’m going to be all trendy and new and contemporary and go with a song that’s only nine years old: Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” There’s a very good reason Andre 3000’s breakout solo smash is a staple of just about every wedding, bar mitzvah, and, I would imagine, Quinceañera throughout our great land. The song is pure, uncontrollable joy, a sassy Little Richard-goes-new-wave rave-up that somehow never loses its charm no matter how much it’s played, or overplayed. It’s impossible to deny or resist Andre 3000’s timeless gift to the dance floor, and futile to try.
I know it’s not a terribly original choice, but I’m always a sucker for The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” at weddings. It’s a song that gets people of all ages out on the dance floor and that’s a lot more fun, to me, than watching the kids only dance to Lady Gaga or someone like that. More generally, I don’t think I’ve ever danced more at a concert than I did at Prince’s: “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “U Got The Look,” and—I’m feeling dirty—“Cream,” will all do the trick. And Robyn, to steal her lyric, will always get me dancing on my own. A friend of mine once pointed out that her music makes you feel like you’re in high school again—but in a good way, and dancing in your room with the door closed was definitely one of the less traumatic parts of being a teen.
I’m not a kid, Claire, but Lady Gaga gets me out on the dance floor. I’m a sucker for anything that makes my friends sing along, which covers a pretty wide range, from “Bad Romance” to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” to Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” to Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer” to Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.” For some reason it’s just more fun to dance on a floor full of people engaged enough with the music to sing as well, or maybe I enjoy sing-alongs more than I enjoy dances. But it does mean my get-on-the-dance-floor impulse correlates strongly to catchy songs with clear, simple, memorable (meaning probably repetitive) lyrics, more than it correlates to actual danceability. For instance, I was at a wedding this past weekend where everyone under 50 poured onto the dance floor to sing and dance along with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I would have considered undanceable if asked. And normally, that song drives me out of the room, but I couldn’t resist the sing-along energy.
Not that I danced that much before, but these days, I almost exclusively dance at weddings. (Not that anyone’s complaining about the absence of Keith Phipps dancing.) If you were to ask me my favorite memory of wedding dancing, that would have to be either Nathan Rabin getting down to “Rockit” at my wedding, or watching Tasha Robinson storm the floor at the first notes of “You Give Love A Bad Name” at Scott Tobias’ wedding. Outside of weddings, I’m mostly moving to encourage my daughter to dance. Her signature move currently is an almost-in-time head nod to Rob Base And DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two.” So I guess that’s my favorite dance song, at least right now.
It honestly doesn’t take a lot to get me in the dance floor. Sadly, my enthusiasm for dancing is inversely proportional to my skill. Still, if there’s one tune that will get me up and moving, it’s LCD Soundsystem’s “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House.” The dual bass/synth hook is infectious, the lyrics are silly yet sincere, and come on: COWBELL SOLO. What’s more fun than the idea of somehow booking a band in your own basement? Maybe Daft Punk wouldn’t be my personal choice, but the spirit of the song moves me (literally and figuratively) nonetheless.
I went to my first school dance in 7th grade, right around the time Prince’s 1999 came out, so I tend to connect the simultaneous joy and embarrassment of dancing publicly to the songs on that album: not just the singles, “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette,” but also “D.M.S.R.,” which someone somehow slipped past the chaperones. It’s all bound up together: Prince’s sexual innuendo, being at a social function with members of the opposite sex, and that little electronic squiggle that ran through Prince’s songs back then, making the sound of modern life seem delightfully unseemly. Even now, if I’m at a wedding and the DJ plays one of the songs from that album, I’m an awkward, overexcited adolescent all over again.
You know the Dead Milkmen song “Instant Club Hit”? I am almost the exact opposite of the person that track was written about, as I am invariably very, very aware of how ridiculous I look (or at least how I’m convinced I look, anyway) when I’m dancing whenever I’m forced onto the floor. As such, there are very few songs that will actually draw me out of my shell enough to move my feet… unless there’s alcohol involved, in which case it’s surprisingly easy. When I’m sober, though, the short list of songs that can get me dancing is… Well, actually, it’s pretty long when you consider that just about anything the Bee Gees recorded (or wrote for someone else to record) from 1975 to 1979 will do the trick. Also, as I discovered when I went to see them on my birthday last week, it is impossible to stand still during Duran Duran’s surprisingly effective cover of “White Lines (Don’t Do It).” Lastly, while I’m a sucker for Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” as well, if only for the sheer silliness of it, my single favorite dance song of the last five years is also by Mr. Jones: “Stoned In Love,” a track which came courtesy of a collaboration with Chicane. No kidding, it’s a floor-filler of the highest order, even for me.
I once read a profile of Mikhail Baryshnikov, written when he was visiting Russia in the 1990s, and there was a description of what it looked like when he took the stage and, after performing with the stately dignity befitting a distinguished artist of his years, he suddenly decided to show the audiences of his native land what they’d been missing: “He exploded,” the reporter wrote. That’s a pretty good description of my style on the dance floor, except that when that word was applied to Baryshnikov, it was probably meant to evoke a beautiful fireworks display, whereas with me, the appropriate image is more along the lines of a meth lab on the day the cook’s hangover finally gets the better of him. I probably do my best work to the Spinners, especially those songs, such as “Mighty Love” and “Then Came You,” where the other guys and/or Dionne Warwick spend half the record painstakingly clearing a space so Philippe Wynne can come in and have himself a wall-eyed fit of passion. When I just don’t have it in me to wait for the build-up and need to explode from beginning to end, my first choice is New Order’s “True Faith,” but most people agree that it’s better that this song and I don’t connect in public unless fire marshals need to clear the building.
Nobody wants to see me dance. Like many respondents here, I limit my dancing to weddings, where only my closest friends and family members can witness a dancing style best described as a giant chipmunk with rigor mortis. But some songs are too exhilarating to deny—and if I’m not actually dancing, then there are certainly fireworks in my head. M83’s “Don’t Save Us From The Flames” is one of those songs—moody yet propulsive, like a My Bloody Valentine song you could play at a club—but the first to spring to mind is David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” specifically as performed by Denis Levant in Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. Nobody spazzes out to popular music quite like Levant (see also: Beau Travail), and that sequence makes me connect with the feeling of music compelling the body to move, even if I’m not actually going to do it myself.
My answer to this depends entirely on how we’re defining dance. I will dance to almost anything, but my go-to dance involves locking my knees together and bending at wild angles roughly in time with the music as if I don’t know shame. Save for brief, embarrassing flings with swing dancing and ska, I do my very best to never move like a human being in public. I have no rhythm, a lot of limbs, and I grew up with a best friend who is an incredible dancer. That said, if I’m tightly enough packed into a venue that no one can see my movements, I will occasionally try to dance without intentionally looking like a dummy. Right now that means I only dance to Doomtree, because they will fill up a club, and they are so incredible, it seems like an insult not to dance. I’ll dance to anything they play, but for the purposes of this AVQ&A, I’ll narrow it down to “Bangarang.” It’s not so fast that I tire myself out, and it includes the helpful cues of “wings” and “teeth,” which are shapes I know how to make with my hands. There’s nothing like acting out the lyrics to keep it from looking too smooth.
Ever since falling in love with house music in the ’90s, I’ll dance to just about anything with a reasonable beat if I’m in the mood. Before that, it took some special reason to drag my ass out on the floor, but when special reasons weren’t available, New Order’s “Blue Monday” would get the job done. Even in high school, when dancing seemed about the least-cool thing I could be doing, that song’s propulsive beat and interlocking synthesizers all but commanded me to let go of inhibition and get my ass on the dance floor. Decades later (yes, more than one—I’m old), it still has the same effect, no matter how tired I am or how many untold times I’ve heard it. The bottom line is, “Blue Monday” wants me to dance, and who am I to argue with the (supposedly) bestselling 12-inch dance single of all time?