Can I dance Balboa to this song?


Lindy-hop and Balboa are two styles of swing dancing that I’ve been getting into over the past couple years, although admittedly I’ve spent more time on Balboa lately. One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that even though both dances are done to similar music (swing-era jazz), dancers tend to like certain songs for Balboa and other songs for Lindy. Common dancer wisdom says that faster songs are better for Balboa and slower ones for Lindy, but it seems like it should be more nuanced than that, since most dancers can also come up with slow songs that are great for Balboa or fast songs that get a Lindy dancer moving.

The jazz musician in me thought that there must be some characteristics of the music that could predict which dance is more appropriate for a given song. The programmer in me thought data might be able to give us some answers.

I gathered a group of 11 swing dancers, each with varying degrees of experience in both Balboa and Lindy (from 2 years of experience all the way up to those that travel internationally for dance events and competitions). A couple of them are DJs and local swing band musicians as well. I had them listen to a list of 29 songs, varied in tempo, style and size of band (full list at the end of the post) and mark each song as “Balboa”, “Lindy”, “both”, or “neither”. At the end of our listening session, we had a short discussion on what everyone thought were characteristics of music good for Balboa versus Lindy.

The output of the discussion was pretty varied. Most seemed to have strong opinions on which music lent itself more to one dance or the other. A couple of the theories floating around were that “smoother rhythms” or “strong rhythm sections with a consistent beat” were good indicators of a Balboa song. Others posited that a stronger backbeat (accents on beats two and four) were good for Lindy. Some thought that a smoother melody lent itself to Balboa whereas a melody with hits and accents were great for Lndy swingouts.

So what did the results look like? 32% of votes cast were for a song determined to appropriate for both Linday and Balboa. 39% were for songs deemed Lindy-hoppable, and 24% Balboa danceable. The remaining 5% of votes were for songs that the participant wouldn’t dance either to.

But did dancers agree with each other? First, I collated the results of the survey and ran Fleiss’ kappa, a statistical measure for how well study participants agree. Participants agreed moderately on whether or not a song was Balboa danceable, with a kappa score of 0.43. They were in slightly less agreement for Lindy-hop, with a score of 0.41. So, there were general trends, but it looks like opinions differ.

Next, is tempo really a good indicator of which dance is more appropriate? For each song, if most votes were for “Balboa” or “either”, I marked the song as Balboa appropriate. Similarly, if most votes were “Lindy” or “either”, I marked it as Lindy appropriate. Then I compared against their tempos. The songs marked as Balboa had a mean of 217 bpm with a standard deviation of 44.3. The songs marked as Lindy had a mean of 174 bpm with a standard deviation of 36.9. No surprise here, Balboa songs are on average faster, but there’s significant overlap in tempo. For example, “Any Old Time” by Artie Shaw clocked in at a low 115 bpm, but about half the participants marked it as appropriate for Balboa anyway. Similarly, the recording of “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” by Count Basie burns hard at 290 bpm, but most participants agreed that it was appropriate for Lindy hop anyway.

Finally, are any of the characteristics we discussed good predictors? I labeled each of the songs for three different attributes and tested them against the majority vote determined above.

Triplet-swing: The swing feel in a lot of older jazz had a very strong triplet feel in the eighth notes. Later swing tended to smooth even out eighth notes but maintained a hint of swing. Using triplet-feel as an indicator for Lindy got a whopping 83% accuracy. Using even-swing as an indicator for Balboa was only 62%.  It seems that balboa dancers care a little less about this, but lindy-hoppers really like their triplet swing.

Strong backbeat: Songs with strong backbeats will accent beats 2 and 4 heavily, but those that don’t will be more even across all 4 beats. Some participants seemed to think that a strong backbeat was a good indicator of Lindy hop appropriate music, but the data resulted in only a 45% accuracy. Lack of backbeat got 72% accuracy for predicting Balboa music, though.

Accented melody: This one was a little hard to define. Some participants called this “strong horns” or “staccato melody” and thought it was a good indicator for Lindy. I marked this for any song with syncopated hits in the melody. Lack of these hits only predicted Balboa music with 59% accuracy, but got 86% for Lindy.

In conclusion, it looks like there are definite trends in preferences for music between the two dances, but it’s not clear cut. Not only was there no killer characteristic that definitely divided the two dance styles, but agreement between participants in the survey was not the strongest.

Note: I am not a statistician. Sample size of the survey was pretty limited, so results may be biased.

List of songs used in survey:

Song Title Artist
Rigamarole Willie Bryant
Fine and Dandy Benny Goodman Quintet
Three Little Words Teddy Powell
Opus One Tommy Dorsey Orchestra
Just a settin’ and a rockin’ Duke Ellington
Splanky Count Basie
Yacht Club Swing Fats Willer
Jump Session Slim and Slam
After you’ve gone Benny Goodman Trio
Minor Swing Boilermaker Jazz Band
Minor swing Django Reinhardt
All that meat and no potatoes Fats Waller
C Jam Blues Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra
Any Old Time Artie Shaw
Smoke Rings Glen Gary and Casa Loma Orchestra
Jumping at the woodside Count Basie
Gangbusters Cats and the Fiddle
Head over heels in love Tommy Dorsey
Coquette Teddy Wilson
Lavender Coffin Lionel Hampton
Go Harlem Chick Webb
Jubilee Swing Chick Webb
Lindyhopper’s Delight Chick Webb
Manhattan Jam Cab Calloway
Twelfth Street Rag Lionel Hampton
Ain’t she sweet? Bunny Berigan
Posin’ Jimmie Lunceford
Cement Mixer put-ti put-ti Jimmie Lunceford
Christopher Columbus Benny Goodman

13 thoughts on “Can I dance Balboa to this song?

  1. You can swing dance to swing music. Style preference is purely based on experience and comfort level in each style, as historically both dances were done to exactly the same music. I try to discourage songs being labeled as one or the other.

  2. This is really cool! I think it’s always interesting to learn about or ponder why people might dance differently during different songs and what the underlying reasons are in the music. I think the most important thing about this is that the results of these studies are descriptive rather than prescriptive (which is where the dangers of preaching what kind of music to dance to arises).

    1. I absolutely agree! I am simply trying to see if I can find patterns in preferences for what dancers prefer. It looks like that there’s quite a lot of disagreement in song preference, though.

  3. Stephanie It may help all to learn about the history of Balboa Dancing . It was named after the Balboa Pavillion in Newport Beach California . The original building was built over the water supported by many wooden piers . Starting in the 1920s the piers and the building began to weaken and sink slightly because of age and it was so close to water . It was a popular dancing spot and the owners decided to help the building by not allowing Lindy Hop or other dancing on the floor .this decision lead to the smoother shuffle or sliding steps included in Balboa . Jumping or hopping was not allowed . This in turn was best danced to a shuffle rhythm= and 1,and2,and 3,and 4 as opposed to Lindy = 2,4 in 4-4 time or ragtime = 1,2 in 2-4 time .
    It’s all swing but different time
    Good dancing to all

    1. Bob, not sure where you got that info from but… well, I suggest you seek out Peter Loggins videos where he gives a history of Balboa & Bal-Swing at Tiny Balboa in Grenoble.

  4. Even too technical for me but very interesting research Kyle! Thanks for this kind of infos, I’ll try to go deep inside because I’m very interested as balboa dancer and as dj too. Cheers, Davide.

  5. I’ve found a whole lot of personal preference in matching songs to the most suitable dance style, and a lot of overlap. But from a musical theory/history perspective I’d add that swung notes or triplet-based swing are central to non-Charleston Lindy Hop. The swung note is the musical justification for the triple steps. No surprise, given that this type of music took off in Harlem in the early 30s, when Lindy morphed away from partnered Charlie/breakaway. In California in the 20s, when Balboa was getting going, swung notes weren’t really a thing yet and the music had a more partner Charleston feel. What triple steps that do sneak into Bal seem to be footwork flourishes. Similarly, I bet you’d detect a difference between music preferences for Charlie- and non-Charlie-based Lindy. While you do get swung notes in post-20s Bal-focused music, they seem to be just in the melody not the underlying, propulsive swing. / And kudos to geeking out on music, dance and data!

  6. Lindy Hop by its nature requires a swing beat.

    Balboa doesn’t. We do bal to swing music only because that’s how we were taught and that’s the history of the dance.

    I’m sure you can find plenty of analogous situations, where something is done with a certain style not because that style is essential to the activity but because that’s how it’s always been taught.

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