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Written by: Wallace Liggett, Author, Music Teacher, Performer
Publication: General
Date written: 26 June 1998

There are several dances that traditionally feature accordions in their characteristic music. These are covered in detail in this article. Accordion reeds may be effectively augmented by electronic and midi for all types of dance music if played in the correct style and tempo.

For most of these dances, Spencer and Hearn of England produce excellent dance teaching videos which also contain fine musical examples. Some other examples (CD's) are "The Best of Ballroom Music" and "Giants of Latin."


The tempo is possibly the most important aspect of music for the dancer. Not only must it be absolutely regular, but also at the correct speed to create the style and character of that dance. There is an optimum tempo, above or below which the dance becomes increasingly difficult to perform, and the characteristics which are unique to the particular dance are lost.

A quick way to establish a tempo is to count the number of bars in 10 seconds and multiply this by 6 to get a bars per minute figure. As well as bars per minute, a number of crotchets or quarter notes per minute will also be given as this can be used to set an automatic rhythm on many electronic instruments.

Most dancing competition organisations have a stated tempo with only a very small variance, above or below which, is not acceptable for their competitions. While social dancers are not as demanding as competitive dancers, they too will appreciate the correct tempo. An approximate rule for the musician is five percent above or below the optimum tempo. The only exception being where the dancers are predominantly elderly and may appreciate a slightly slower tempo.

Where dance music is being played as a solo concert item it will usually be played at a faster tempo than when being danced to. Be very conscious of this if you ever play one of your solo pieces for a dance. While on the subject of time values and tempo the question of time signatures should be considered. Most dances are danced to 4/4 time music, with three notable exceptions, the polka which is usually danced in 2/4, the Paso Doble also in 2/4 time, and of course the waltz in 3/4 time.

There are a number of beautiful songs and other music written in 6/8 time. Do not be tempted to play them for dancing. Save them for concert items as apart from the Viennese Waltz (where 3/4 time is preferred when played at the correct tempo) and possibly the Paso Doble (much better to use 2/4 time) and a few sequence dances, where simple times are usually better, it is impossible to metre dance steps into the music.

Most dances have steps that take minim, crotchet and in a few cases quaver time. A musician should readily appreciate the problem 6/8 time music poses to dancers. This writer has on numerous occasions seen competent dancers sit out a dance of 6/8 time music, while less experienced dancers have vainly and unsuccessfully attempted to move in time to the music.


The polka is a lively dance, usually in 2/4 time. It originated in Europe but is popular in America and all over the world. In the USA and Canada and to some extent in Europe the accordion is so strongly identified with this type of dance music that some people think it is the only music that can be performed on an accordion. When playing the polka as with all other dances, you must be aware that people are dancing and the tempo must be comfortable for the dancers. In 2/4 time, the polka should be 100 to 120 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 200 to 240

The names of several famous accordionists come to mind when thinking of the polka, Frank Yankovich is often called the Polka King in the USA and Wolmer and Kramer are popular in Europe. Will Glahe of Bavaria plays accordion with his orchestra and most of the polkas he has recorded are at about 100 bars per minute. Crotchet or quarter note = 200

Scottish and Irish Traditional Dances

Scottish dancing is usually accompanied by the bagpipes but the musette tuned accordion is also often used. Indeed such artists as Jimmy Shand and John McDonald have made the accordion very popular for Scottish dancing. The tempos Jimmy Shand uses for the various dances are:

Reel: 72 bars per minute in 4/4 time with a strongly accented 1st beat.
Crotchet or quarter note = 288

Jig: In 4/4 time, 28 bars per minute with a strong accent on 1st and 3rd beats. If in 2/4 time, the number of bars per minute doubles.
Crotchet or quarter note = 112.

Strathspey: In 4/4 time, 36 bars per minute. There is a strong accent on the 1st and 3rd beats to resemble 2/4 time. If in 2/4 time, the number of bars per minute doubles.
Crotchet or quarter note = 144.

Cajun Dances

These traditionally use diatonic accordions as accompaniment. The term Cajun is a colloquial shortening of the name Arcadia, the region of Eastern North America from which many of the Cajun people migrated. There are two main types of dances, a lively one in 4/4 time and a slow waltz. This may have a syncopated cross rhythm behind the main 3/4 beat. This freer style of music makes establishing an exact tempo difficult but normally the tempo of these dances is lively and would be around 40 to 50 bars per minute with the waltz being slower at about 30 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 160 to 200 for 4/4 time
Crotchet or quarter note = 90 for 3/4 time


We will now consider all the standard ballroom dances. The tempi quoted are those used by the orchestra at the British Championships at Blackpool. A video of this famous dancing event is sold each year. The writers years of dancing experience and acquaintance with a number of leading teachers and exponents of dance would strongly affirm the validity of these tempi.

As the Tango is one of the five ballroom dances used in competition, we will complete our comments on it first. The other four ballroom dances are the Modern Waltz, sometimes called the slow waltz or English Waltz, the Viennese Waltz, the Foxtrot and Quickstep. Ballroom or Slow Foxtrot is used in competition although there is a Rhythm or Social Foxtrot that is usually danced at social dances.

Tango: The bandoneon, invented by the German Heinrich Band is a square type of concertina that became very popular in Argentina, the country where the tango originated. In December 1996 the 50th anniversary of the Tango was celebrated. It is not surprising that the accordion sound is almost always heard in this dance. Even when orchestras provide music for the Ballroom Tango, an accordion is almost always included. There are two types of Tango, the Argentine Tango and the more formalised Ballroom Tango. The Argentine Tango can be played at 30 to 36 bars per minute in 4/4 time. Ballroom Tango is in 4/4 time, usually about 30 to 34 bars per minute, with a steady accent on all beats of the bar. It may be taken a little faster by very competent dancers.
Crotchet or quarter note = 120 to 136.

Modern Waltz: This is played in 3/4 time, tempo 30 bars per minute. Social dancers may prefer a little faster as they do not usually attempt rise and fall in footwork, but 32 bars per minute is the maximum. Often, very experienced dancers performing a display may dance at as slow a tempo as 28 bars per minute. There should be a moderate accent on the first beat and although experienced dancers may use a little license in the timing of their steps, the musician should provide a regular rhythm at all times.
Crotchet or quarter note = 90

Foxtrot: The Foxtrot is played and danced to 4/4 time music although many of the basic figures have only three steps in them. The musician should provide a slight accent on the first beat of the bar and keep a regular rhythm leaving the dancers to fit in the three steps in the time they have been taught. Tempo should be 27-28 bars per minute. The tempo should never exceed 30 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 108 to 120.

Social or Rhythm Foxtrot: This has much simpler dancing figures and is usually danced faster, about 36 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 144 or even slightly faster.

Quickstep: This dance has some Charlston in its origins and is a lively and comparatively fast dance. Music is in 4/4 time with about 48 to 54 bars per minute. A moderate 1st beat accent.
Crotchet or quarter note = 192 to 216.

Viennese Waltz: This is the original waltz where the dancers move in circles. It is faster than the Modern Waltz, 54 to 60 bars per minute in 3/4 time. Top dancers use a timing in their foot work like dotting the 1st beat. The music should be almost equal value on each beat but may tend a little towards the longer first beat.
Crotchet or quarter note = 162 to 180


The five competition Latin dances are the Cha Cha Cha, Rhumba, Samba, Paso Doble and the Jive. All except the Paso Doble are danced to 4/4 time, the Paso Doble usually to 2/4 time. The Cha Cha Cha, Samba and Rhumba have somewhat distinctive rhythmic patterns in 4/4 time.

Cha Cha Cha: This dance may have accents on beats 1, 3 and 4, or you may count 1 2 3 4+. Experienced and competition dancers commence their figures on beat 2 of the bar although social dancers will often commence on beat 1. Tempo is 30 to 32 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 120 to 128.

Rhumba: This is a slow dance, normally from 25 to 27 bars per minute in 4/4 time although some authorities recommend it be as slow as 22 bars per minute. Like the Cha Cha Cha, experienced dancers commence their figures on the second beat of the bar. To get your accents count 1+2+3+4+ or 1+2 3 4. Play a slight accent on the first beat.
Crotchet or quarter note = 88 to 100.

Samba: This is a lively dance in 4/4 time about 50 to 56 bars per minute. The dancing figures have several patterns which could be represented as a dotted crotchet followed by a quaver then either a minim or a crotchet and a crotchet rest. The figures are commenced on the first beat.
Crotchet or quarter note = 200 to 224.

Paso Doble: This is often danced to Espana Cani sometimes called Spanish Gypsy Dance. The Paso Doble has a driving rhythm in 2/4 time at 58 to 62 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 116 to 124.

Jive: This dance has quite intricate footwork and is danced in 4/4 time with conventional accent. Fast Jive is 40 to 46 bars per minute. Crotchet or quarter note = 160 to 184.
Slow Jive is about 34 to 36 bars per minute. Crotchet or quarter note = 132 to 140.


These dances may have syncopated cross rhythms that extend for one or two bars. They may be repeated or left out for a bar and then repeated. There are several you may be asked to play. They are all in 4/4 time. The next two dances are performed largely in a limited space and have some resemblance to the rhumba but faster and with more foot work and body movement.

Mambo: (50 to 52 bars per minute) Crotchet or quarter note = 200 to 208

Salsa: (about 48 bars per minute) Crotchet or quarter note = 194

Lambada: (50 to 60 bars per minute) Crotchet or quarter note = 200 to 240

Rock and Roll: This dance has some resemblance to Jive with less intricate footwork and partner coordination but experienced rock and rollers may incorporate more gymnastic type figures called lifts or jumps into their routines. These are not permitted in Jive. Music is 4/4 time with a fast Rock and Roll at up to 50 bars per minute and a slow Rock and Roll 32 to 36 bars per minute. There may be other tempos also.
Crotchet or quarter note = slow 128 to 144
Crotchet or quarter note = fast 200

Ciroc: This is a type of Rock and Roll. It has some Latin influence in it and its music is similar to Rock and Roll with perhaps some cross rhythms. Music is in 4/4 time, 36 to 50 bars per minute.
Crotchet or quarter note = 144 to 200


There are two main types of sequence dances, usually called Old Time or English Sequence dances and New Vogue dances.

Old Time or English Sequence Dances: There are many Old Time and English Sequence dances. They are usually based on a ballroom dance and are in 4/4, 3/4 or 2/4 time. Popular at social dances are the MAXINA and the VALETA, the first in 4/4 time the other in 3/4 time. The Old Time are included in competitions less often than New Vogue but are more usually danced at clubs. A few are danced socially also. They follow a set sequence of usually 16 or 32 bars which is repeated once it has been danced.

A general rule for playing for these dances would be to play at a slightly slower tempo than the ballroom dance they are based on. As there are many old time sequence dances (hundreds of them) and they are based on several different dances, no attempt to state a specific tempo is made. However, the dance they are based on provides some guidance.

Also remember that many of the dancers performing these will be older people who may appreciate a slower tempo. Your observation of the skill and physical fitness of the dancers should indicate your tempo.

New Vogue Sequence Dances: These are not so numerous, there are 12 better known ones and a few others. Developed in Australia they are popular in that country and in New Zealand where they are often included in dancing competitions as well as danced at some social dances. They are also gaining some acceptance in Europe and Asia, especially in Japan. They can be divided into the following categories.

Those with a 32 bar sequence in 3/4 time at 52 to 54 bars per minute. Swing Waltz, Palmer Waltz, Twilight Waltz and the Lucille which should be played a little slower, than the others at about 48 bars per minute. Those with a 16 bar sequence based on the slow foxtrot, in 4/4 time at approximately 28-32 bars per minute, Barclay Blues, Merrilyn, Charmaine and Excelsior. The Evening Three Step has 32 bars of 4/4 time at about 52 bars per minute. The Gypsy Tap has 32 bars of 4/4 time at about 52 bars per minute. The Tangoette and La Bomba, are 16 bar sequences, based on the Tango so are in 4/4 time at about 30-34 bars per minute. Most dancers appreciate 4 to 6 repetitions of the sequence so you will have some idea of how long to keep playing, although longer spells may be called for.

Disco: This type of dancing (sometimes called Disco Shuffle) has little established figures or forms and the dancers move more or less as they please, more or less in time to the music and with little co ordination with a partner. It may be danced individually. Those dancing it usually like a strong rhythmic beat and you may imply cross rhythms with straight or syncopated effects. Tempo may vary but about 36 to 44 bars per minute is normal. Slow tempos are usually not appreciated if people are dancing with out any physical contact with a partner.

Line Dancing: This dancing is done in a line, does not require a partner and follows a set sequence of moves which are repeated a number of times. It is usually danced to Country and Western music in 4/4 time. Tempo should be adjusted to the dancers but about 30 bars per minute should please most. The dancing is some times done to a slow Rock and Roll.

As most dance bands and disco groups rarely attempt music other than rock and roll and disco types, any accordionist familiar with the tempos and characters of the dances should make themselves an excellent reputation among dancing circles.


The accordion is often featured in Tango music and you can also be successful in other ballroom and Latin dance music. Here is some useful getting started advice.

The accordion can be used to lead a dance band or play solo. You need to decide how you wish to perform (solo or with a group) and if in a group, you will need to choose and find suitable instrumentalists. Two who will be necessary are a percussionist and either a bass guitar or double bass. In addition, some combination from among the following: vocalist, saxaphone, trumpet, violin, xylophone and possibly clarinet would be ideal, but availabilty may determine your choice.

Should unavailability or financial reasons limit the number of players you can employ for an engagement, some of the suggestions in the following paragraph can be utilized to compensate for such instrumentalists as a drummer, brass players etc.

Playing on your own has the advantage of relieving you from the possible problems of keeping a group together. The modern MIDI accordion or even an electronic accordion with reeds when combined with an electronic rhythm machine can produce orchestral and band effects that enable you to perform solo. A similar instrumental combination further augmented by pre-recorded sequenced tracks played through a sythesizer can produce a remarkable variety of sounds and this may all be operated by a solo accordionist.

When you feel confident with whichever combination you decide on, contact local dance studios or any friends you know who are part of the dance scene and you should be able to secure a few performing engagements that could lead to a successful career providing music for dances.

Good Luck.


Casa Musica presents "The Best of Ballroom Music, WRD Ltd, 282 Camden Road, London NW1 9AB, England. "Giants of Latin," Dancelife Worldwide, Schaardokl 51-55, 3063 NH, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

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Hearn and Spencer Limited, House of Dance, The Courtyard, Aurelia Road, Croydon, CRO 3BF, England.
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