5 of the best: songs about dancing

“Dance like there’s nobody watching”, said William W. Purkey. “Dance is the hidden language of the soul”, said Martha Graham. “It’s your sister’s wedding and you’re embarrassing the whole family dancing like that”, said my mum.

There are plenty of reasons to boogie, and most celebrations in most cultures include some amount of dancing. There’s research suggesting that dance was so valuable a communication tool in early human societies that being a smooth mover today means you’re genetically disposed to be more empathetic and cooperative.

There are songs for dancing and songs about dancing, and here are five of the best lyrics about when and why to get down. Starting with:

5: David Bowie: Let’s Dance

The Thin White Duke gave us plenty of encouragement to get on the d-floor, but never with as much force as in the immortal ‘Let’s Dance’. Bowie and producer Nile Rodgers spent weeks mining pop and rock history for ingredients that were ‘positive, emotional and uplifting’ as well as just funky as all get-out.

What the pair landed on is a dance hall stomper with the groove of a chic bass line, percussive flair borrowed from African and Caribbean traditions, and a crowd-pumping ‘Ahhhh…..ahhhhhhh….ahhhhhhh!’ beginning straight out of ‘Twist and Shout’. Try belting out that opening without feeling the need to throw some shapes when the drums kick in.

As one would expect from Bowie the lyrics here are not exactly carefree. Rather than a call to cut loose entirely the idea is to ‘sway through the crowd to an empty space’, and perhaps whisper some serious words under the ‘serious moonlight’. As much as the music of ‘Let’s Dance’ might be for the whole room, the words are for lovers.


4: Robyn: Dancing On My Own

The shock of seeing an ex on the arm of new lover may be a right of passage in the partying world. You’re six vodka and lemonades in, half your friends have disappeared home or to the bar, and then you see that familiar face attached to a new one at the lips. Abject horror.

That’s the scenario Robyn tackled in her 2010 hit which gained traction as much for its painful familiarity as for its potential as a club hit. In fact the original was eclipsed in popularity by a weepy cover that more clumsily pokes at Robyn’s themes of jealousy and rejection.

‘I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home. I keep dancing on my own’. It’s brutal stuff, but the lyrics suggest dance as a cathartic way to punch it out when there’s no easy answer to the situation at hand. Robyn has cited her love of ‘inherently sad, gay disco anthems’ as inspiration for the song, and that lineage is one aspect of what makes ‘Dancing On My Own’ so effective. A night out on the town isn’t always smooth emotional sailing, but doubling down on the dance floor can be fine therapy.


3: Madonna: Vogue

Madonna was introduced to Voguing in the late 80’s by friends from the underground New York gay dance scene. The resulting song and David Fincher-directed video introduced the form to a worldwide audience and cemented Madonna’s place as a gay icon. It’s remained one of Madonna’s most recognizable hits and a must-have for any daggy dance party playlist.

‘Vogue’ is an inclusive call to complete abandon through dance, ‘It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl. If the music’s pumping it will give you new life’. Beyond the social particulars of the NY House Ball scene where Voguing was born there’s a universal joy to Madonna’s lyrics, ‘Soul is in the music, oh that’s where I feel so beautiful’.

That sentiment bursts through in the song’s bright production and cheesy spoken word shout out to style icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Statements of self-worth are a part of what the Voguing style is all about; ‘ladies with an attitude, fellas that were in the mood’ are beautiful, and so are you. ‘Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it. Vogue’.


2: Martha and the Vandellas: Dancing In The Street

Sticking with socially minded tracks, this Marvin Gaye-penned Motown gem has had the power to inspire everything from a carefree head-bop to civil rights momentum in King-era U.S.A.

Interrogated on the controversy surrounding the song as it became associated with inner-city riots and race relations, singer Martha Reeves remarked, ‘My lord, it was a party song!’. That might have been the idea in the studio, but themes of community and action ring so clearly in the song that it took on a second life as a flag of unity among community organizers and activists.

‘It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there’, sang Mickey Stevenson to Marvin Gaye in a Motown studio. Stevenson was trying out a ballad based on an image of Detroit fire hydrants opened to cool off sweltering families who danced together in the water. Gaye instead heard the genesis of a dance track and the song took shape with that unforgettable horn line and irrepressible beat.

‘Every guy, grab a girl, everywhere around the world’ is the elated call to move on a personal level, and the roll around from ‘Chicago, down in New Orleans, up in New York City…Philadelphia P.A., Baltimore and D.C now’ taps into dance as community action unbound by city limits or race. The enthusiastic rallying cry of the track has survived numerous cover versions and appearances in film and TV, and it’s still guaranteed to get toes tapping today.


1: LCD Soundsystem- All My Friends

The trick of ‘All My Friends’ as a dance anthem is that the wish of the songs’ lyrics comes true as the track blooms. The party starts, builds, and crests as James Murphy skips from lounge room record choices to years spent forgetting what really matters only to finally come back to it as the band hits full volume behind him- ‘I can still come home to this…if I could see all my friends tonight’.

LCD Soundsystem was the all-night house party that started in Brooklyn and blew across the worldwide festival circuit. Among the thousands at their farewell Madison Square Gardens gig Aziz Ansari can be seen having the time of his life crowd surfing, Donald Glover sweated it out in the pit, and ‘Crying Boy’ shot to internet fame after being captured in pure dejection as the house lights finally came up. Such is the high of LCD’s version of a dance party, and such is the magic of ‘All My Friends’.

The building blocks of the night are familiar: ‘if it’s crowded all the better, because you know we’re going to be up late’, ‘if the sun comes up and we still don’t want to stagger home…’ There’s the mess of a long night too, when ‘it comes apart the way it does in bad films’. The unplanned and uncontrollable threaten to derail the party, but ‘where are your friends tonight?’ is Murphy’s mantra and a reminder of what a night out is all about.

This performance of the song in a thunderstorm is edifying, but the spirit of the song will come on just as strong at your next living room throw down. Is it pouring rain at a gig? Fuck it, say LCD; get out in it and dance. Did you say something stupid and cop the consequences? Last group night out before a buddy moves away? Hug someone you love in the crowd when the song climaxes and you can shout the question and answer it at once, ‘where are your friends tonight?’ Then do what James Murphy does – look your mates in the eye, smile, and keep dancing as they shout it back; ‘I can see all my friends tonight’.


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