How to Get People Dancing

People Dancing

By Dave Austin, “Music Professor”

Scenario:  You’ve arrived at the venue, set up your gear, checked your sound and lights and you’re ready to rock the house.  As the guests begin to file in, you see that you’ve got a mixed crowd ranging in age from their late 20s to their 60s.

What music are you going to play that will get this diverse group excited and on the dance floor?  For some DJs, such a situation can pose a dilemma, and while there may not be a “formula” to approach this challenge, there are some guidelines one can employ.

Talk with Your Client Ahead of Time

Ask questions about their expectations of you, determine what type of event it will be (wedding reception, school dance, company awards dinner, etc.), get as much information as possible about the guests (age ranges, VIPs, etc.), any activities which are planned during the event and any special songs which might be required, is there a theme?  Simply put, do your homework before you show up.

Get Personal

At most of my events, I visit the guests’ tables before things get started, introduce myself and ask if they have any special song requests they’d like me to play.  Often, this gives me a preliminary indication of songs with which to begin or play early on.  As an added benefit, guests may feel that I’m more approachable and they won’t be reluctant to come up later in the evening with their requests.

Whether it’s a bride, a poolside party or a company event, try to “appoint” some outgoing guests who won’t be shy about taking to the dance floor right away – and let them know that’s their “job” at the event.  When they do, the ice is broken and other guests will follow their lead and join in.  It sounds simple, but it is an extremely effective method for promptly getting things underway.

Open with an Upbeat Track

So, now our guests in place, we’ve done our table visits, cocktails and dinner are over and it’s time to dance.  I’ll likely open with an upbeat track which appeals to the largest number of my mixed-age group. I select a song in the 100-120 bpm range which most everyone knows, regardless of their age.

Incidentally, if this song has some “sing-along” lyrics, that’s even better. With our hypothetical mixed age group, we could start with “Cecelia” by Simon & Garfunkel, “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys or “Grease Megamix” by Travolta and Newton-John.  Again, we’ll target our selections to fit and make sure that we’re playing something for everyone – from those 1960s “flower children” up to those “20 somethings” in our audience.

As an aside, you may often be surprised by a guest song request, such as when an older person asks for a current hip-hop track, or one of the younger guests asks for a 1960s tune.

Mix It Up

Over the years, I’ve developed a list of songs which have proven be dance floor favorites, and I use this list at almost all of my events.  Additionally, I have a notebook in which I have lists of the top 100 songs from each decade from the 1950s up to the present and a reasonably up-to-date list of the 200 most requested songs.  However, while helpful, these resources do not replace the necessity of being able to read an audience and tailor the music accordingly.  Put the guests into the mix.  Their song requests can be a key guide to their mood and the songs to which they’ll react.

Music Can Cut Across All Age Groups

I was reminded of this recently when I received an advance copy of Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams’ “Get Lucky.”

Upon my first listen to this track, I instantly identified the disco beat of the 1970s.  Now, the average 50-year-old party guest may not recognize this, but somewhere in their memory, they may make a connection between that song and the happy, fun days of their youth when they danced to the Bee Gees, Barry White or Donna Summer.

Understanding such subtleties can give the DJ a valuable insight in making his or her music selections when playing for audiences of varying ages.  Don’t over think this, but do give some thought to those connections which your audience might make to cross-generational songs.

Don’t Overlook the Element of Timing

If you drop a track at the wrong point in the evening, it may clear the dance floor.  However, the very same track later on may produce the exact opposite effect.  Most audiences have to “warm up,” get into the mood, and it may take some time to reach a point where almost everyone wants to get involved in the fun.

Fun tends to be contagious and if those guests at their tables or hanging around the bar see others having a great time on the dance floor, it’s only natural they’ll pick up on the vibe and want to join in.  Carefully selecting your songs and building an upward flow throughout the event helps generate this energy.

Tricks of the Trade

When it comes to dancing, ladies tend to be much less inhibited than men, and when you enlist them as your allies, they can help you get things going.  Also, such things as a special dance for couples who’ve been married the longest, those who traveled the greatest distance to attend, etc. can quickly engage folks who may otherwise be reluctant step out.  Use your own creativity to come up with starter ideas.

Obviously, no two events are the same and your music selections should vary in order to fit your particular audience, but some things should remain constant: pre-planning and preparation, knowing your client’s expectations, having a clear picture of the type of event you’ll be doing, understanding your audience and playing the right songs at the right time.

Practice incorporating the ideas I’ve shared here, and you can continue to raise your personal performance level from good – to very good – to great!


  • Dave Austin began his career at age 13 at a small, hometown radio station. He went on to graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi with a Bachelor’s degree in broadcasting. Since that time, Dave has been a mobile and radio DJ, radio station Program Director, and a TV news reporter and anchorman. He has also done voiceover work for documentaries and commercials. In 1986 Dave’s longtime passion for music prompted him to start “Southern Celebrations DJs,” a multi-system mobile entertainment company serving clients in Tennessee, Northern Georgia and Northern Alabama. You can email him c/o

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