Getting into the Swing: A DJ's Guide

person, using, black, turntable, man, dj, mixer, technology, recorder, sound


Swing DJing is not just about playing recorded music; it's an art form that can make or break a dance event. As a DJ, you have the power to set the mood, read the crowd, and provide an unforgettable experience for dancers. In this guide, we will explore valuable tips and tricks to help you become a better Swing DJ.


Understanding Your Role as a Swing DJ

Before we dive into the specifics, it's essential to understand the two main categories of DJing in the Swing community:


  1. Being the Primary Source of Entertainment: In situations where a live band is not feasible or available, you become the most important person in providing the entertainment. Your job is to bring energy to the dance floor, read the crowd, and curate a wide variety of music throughout the night.
  2. Complementing the Band: When there is a live band, your role is to maintain the energy and crowd interest during the band's break. You should be a compliment to the band, facilitating overflow dancing and keeping the crowd engaged and receptive.


Whether you're the primary source of entertainment or complementing the band, your goal is to get the crowd high on jazz music. You want to play music that is deeply felt on a physical and emotional level, representing the essence of Swing dancing.

Developing a Passion for Swing Music

To become a great Swing DJ, you need to develop a genuine love for the music. It's not enough to like it or enjoy it casually; you need to "like like" it. This means having a deep connection to the music and wanting to listen to it all the time. Take the time to explore different Swing artists, albums, and sub-genres to expand your musical knowledge.


Here are some steps to help you develop your passion for Swing music:


  1. Invest in high-quality headphones and spend time listening to your favorite Swing tracks. Pay attention to each instrument, the solos, and the rhythm. Immerse yourself in the music and try to feel the emotions behind the players' intentions.
  2. Explore different sub-genres of Swing, such as Small group swing, Swing from the 1930s, Swing from the early 40s, Modern swing bands that sound authentic, and more. The key is to have a comprehensive understanding of Swing and its various styles.
  3. Listen to live recordings to experience the magic of the moment. Live recordings bring a rich and energetic feel to the music. However, be cautious of long songs, as they may affect the flow of your DJ set.


By developing a genuine love for Swing music, you'll be better equipped to curate a fantastic playlist that resonates with dancers of all skill levels.


Crafting a Well-Structured Playlist

Creating a well-structured playlist is crucial for keeping the energy flowing and the dancers engaged. Instead of following a rigid tempo roller-coaster, focus on choosing songs that make sense in terms of their feel and the overall flow of the night.

Here's a breakdown of primary, secondary, and tertiary styles of Swing music to help you structure your playlist effectively:


Primary Styles

  • Swing
  • Small group swing
  • Swing from the 1930s
  • Swing from the early 40s
  • Modern swing bands that sound authentic
  • Songs that are unmistakably Swing


Secondary Styles

  • Early vocal jazz, like Billie Holiday and early Ella Fitzgerald
  • Jazz that swings, such as the Lincoln Center Orchestra
  • Western Swing
  • R&B (Early recordings, like Buddy Johnson)
  • Vocal Swing (e.g., the Mills Brothers or Delta Rhythm Boys)
  • Jump Blues
  • Trad Jazz
  • Stride Piano
  • New Orleans Jazz
  • Gypsy Jazz
  • New Testament Swing (recordings from the 1950s and later)
  • 1940s pop (Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, etc.)


Tertiary Styles

  • Gospel Swing (e.g., Sister Rosetta Tharpe)
  • Soul Jazz (groove)
  • Soul
  • Crooners (e.g., Frank Sinatra)
  • 1950s Swing (e.g., Big Joe Turner)
  • Dixieland
  • Boogie Woogie
  • Vocal Jazz (later Ella Fitzgerald)
  • Rockabilly


While it's important to explore different styles, always remember that Swing is the heart of the dance. So, make sure to spend most of your time in the primary style group and occasionally dip into secondary and tertiary styles.


As the night progresses, pay attention to the crowd's reaction and adjust your playlist accordingly. Stay in a sub-genre if you're getting a positive response, but don't be afraid to switch things up if the set feels stagnant or misses the mark.


The Art of Tempo Variation

Many new DJs fall into the trap of sticking to a narrow tempo range. However, opening up your tempo range can push both the dancers and yourself as a DJ. It's more true to the music played by bands and adds depth to your playlist. Don't shy away from hitting the ends of the spectrum tempo-wise. Occasionally, surprise the crowd with a quick or slow song. These variations can be well-received and clear the palette for more songs in the middle range. Remember, a well-timed burner can leave a lasting impression on the dancers.


Utilizing Your Go-To Songs

Every DJ has their go-to songs that they know will get the crowd going. Don't be afraid to use them when needed. These songs have worked in the past and can work again, as long as you don't overuse them. Your ultimate goal is to keep the dance floor full and energized.

However, don't rely solely on your go-to songs. It's important to think through why you're playing each song and not just follow a predictable pattern. Be a DJ, not a metronome.


Understanding Consensus Reality

Consensus Reality refers to the tendency for dancers to agree on certain songs or styles without an objective basis. This is especially true in isolated scenes with limited exposure to different Swing communities. As a DJ, it's important to strike a balance between familiarity and quality. Play good music that other scenes are also playing, rather than relying solely on what is familiar to your local dancers.


Reading the Crowd

The ability to read the crowd is an essential skill for any DJ. A dancing crowd is a happy crowd, so pay attention to their reactions and adjust your playlist accordingly. Notice what type of songs make them dance and keep up the energy. Vary your selections and see how the crowd responds. If necessary, return to songs that have proven to be successful in keeping the energy high. One important tip is to avoid preparing too many songs in advance. By selecting songs on the spot, you can truly read the crowd and create a dynamic and tailored playlist.


The Power of Requests

Requests are a valuable way for dancers to express their preferences and desires. While you don't have to fulfill every request, it's important to consider the deeper message behind them. Requests can indicate a desire for more energy, familiarity, or a specific style. It used to be a pain to get and sort through song requests, but there are now new digital tools such as that you can use.  Your audience can use a simple QR code to submit a song request to you and the platform gives you the ability to see and sort requests by genre, BPM, energy level, and more.  You can even import selected song requests into your DJ software using


Use these requests to build your fan base and take them constructively. There is always a song that can please almost everyone in the room while still fulfilling the request.



Being a Swing DJ is both a skill and an art form. By developing a genuine love for Swing music, crafting a well-structured playlist, understanding the art of tempo variation, utilizing your go-to songs, and reading the crowd, you can become a better Swing DJ. Remember to embrace requests, understand consensus reality, and most importantly, have fun with your role as the maestro of the dance floor.


So, get your headphones ready, explore different Swing sub-genres, and let the music take you and your dancers on a swingin' journey.