Here are 10 Songs that every new swing dancer should strive to learn how to dance to . . . or at least this is the list that I wish I had had when I started dancing. (List and reasons are provided below.)
#10 - Shiny Stockings - Count Basie (120 bpm)
When I first started swing dancing, I, like most people, had the impression that "good" swing music had to be upbeat or uptempo. Shiny Stockings is a perfect contrast to this idea. It's the antithesis to this mind set, showing that swing can be cool and smooth, and that one's dancing can also be cool and smooth. Aside from the fact that the song has an easy tempo for practicing triple steps, the phrasing is so fun to dance to that even a well traveled and experienced lindy hopper will find things in the song to play with. There's a reason this song was one of Frankie Manning's favorites.
#9 - For Dancers Only - Jimmie Lunceford (150 bpm)
With this song, it's right in the name . . . For Dancers Only! This song is unapologetic with hits and breaks that really makes a dancer realize they can't just do swing outs to this song and not do something more (and its not easy either). Learning how to dance to this song well requires repeated listening outside of social dancing in order to ingrain the changes into your consciousness. The reward is so great when you finally get it and can hit everything like you're dancing your own choreography.
#8 - Lavender Coffin - Lionel Hampton (140 bpm)
I think this was the first song that I knew the first time I competed in a Jack and Jill Contest. Dancing to the song gave me a lot of confidence in my dancing because I understood the energy of the song and it has a reasonable tempo. Not to mention that any song with clapping in the recording has good energy that dancers of any level can pick up on. What's great about this tune is it's simplicity. There's not a lot of musical elements to play with, but this song is great for learning restraint (or "dancing before you start dancing"), since the song doesn't really kick in until 47 seconds into the recording.
#7 - Jump Session - Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart (160 bpm)
This is a great example of how you can have a song that swings, and its not a big band, jump blues, or neo-swing song. The song's simple feeling and sound strips away all of the bells and whistles of swing music and reveals the core of what we dance to . . . that solid four beat rhythm. Understanding this and finding the pulse in swing music is essential for progressing as a dancer. It's also another example of how swing music can be uptempo, yet relaxed and laid back at the same time.
#6 - Watch The Birdie - Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day (165 bpm)
Ok, yes, this song is annoying to some people, and as my music tastes have refined over the years, I would agree with that opinion, but when I was first learning how to lindy hop, this song was perfect to dancing. One of the first choreographed lindy routines I ever saw was to this song, and that choreography has always stuck with me. The breaks in the song are easy to understand and to hit, plus the song has a nice high energy feeling without being too fast. Plus, how can you knock a song that was in Hellzapoppin' and that Dean Collins danced to? Every time I dance to this song, I have to do the "Dean Cuddle", a rhythm circle, and switches. Hooray for nostalgia!
#5 - Love Me or Leave Me - Sammy Davis Jr. (145 bpm)
Not everyone likes scatting in their dance music. I know I get tired of it in a lot of songs when I'm dancing, but I think this song has just the right amount to make the song fun without being too annoying. There's also an added nostalgia factor with this song, due to the routine by Kevin and Carla followed by the parody/tribute by Max and Thomas. I put this song on the list, because this song has an interesting contrast. It's smooth and laid back, but the brass hits in the song are like punches to the ear drums. Similar to For Dancers Only, this song doesn't let you just to swing outs, you have to do something more.
#4 - Savoy - Lucky Millinder (165 bpm)
I added this song to this list for personal reasons. During the first Pro-Am competition I ever competed in, I got this song for a spotlight, and it was the ONLY song in that contest that I didn't know by heart! This is just one of those songs that you have to know. It's got a weird fanfare intro that doesn't have an obvious tempo and there's a section with talking before the chorus comes in, and both of these things makes the down beat very difficult to find. Additionally, this song doesn't follow the normal musical phrasing of most swing songs, and actually has phrases consisting of 6 and 12 "eights" instead of the usual 4, 8, and 16 "eights". (If you didn't get any of that, don't worry, I'm going to do a blog post on swing music structure soon.)
#3 - Gangbusters - The Cats and The Fiddle (190 bpm)
A lot of people complain that all of the Cats and The Fiddle songs sound exactly the same. Like that's a bad thing? Just like Slim and Slam, this group has a really simple sound, with that solid four beat rhythm chunking along to every beat. Do their songs sound similar? In terms of rhythm they do, but the melodies are different. There's actually several other Cats and the Fiddle songs like more than Gangbusters, but this particular song is what allowed me to discover this group, who tend to play a little faster than Slim and Slam. The faster tempo definitely makes swing outs more of a challenge for a beginner, but really help improve form because of the relaxed feel of the song, and if you want to learn how to dance fast, you have to learn to relax.
#2 - Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho - Sidney Bechet (180 bpm)
This is another song that tends to have a polar reaction in the swing community. Some people love this song, and some people hate it because they think its repetitive. I'm the one of the former, rather than the later. The song is repetitive in the sense that its verse, chorus, repeat throughout the song, but if all you can hear is the repeating melody, then you're missing the subtlety of how each verse and chorus is slightly tweaked from the one before. Yes, the song has clapping in it, which gives it a high energy feel, but the subtle changes are what makes the song great and important to listen to when dancing to it.
#1 - Jumpin' At The Woodside - Count Basie (240 bpm)
What else could it be? The song has the potential to be overplayed in the Lindy Hop community, but it hasn't worn out it's welcome. Its the song's intro that grabs you and makes you want to swing out. Everyone wants to learn how to "dance fast" and even though there are faster songs out there, I think this one is a pretty reasonable goal. The phrasing is what makes this song great, which is why its often used for phrase battles in contests and jam circles. Plus there's the added bonus that the song was the original inspiration for the infamous Whitey's Lindy Hopper's Routine in the movie Hellzapoppin'. I think this song is definitely one that separates the experienced dancer from the inexperienced dancer, so if you want to work on dancing to one song, this one would be it.