“Do you think dyslexic people have difficulty dancing to Y.M.C.A.?”
— Dave Sokolowski
Rock music has filled dance floors since Chuck Berry sang, “Go get your lover, then reel and rock it” in Roll Over Beethoven. No wonder dancing is the subject of so many songs.
Here’s our collection of the Top 11 Songs About Dancing. If we’ve missed any, you can write a little letter and mail it to your local DJ … or let us know in the Comments below.
- Dance the Night Away by Van Halen
When Van Halen was in the studio, they usually recorded songs they had previously demoed or performed on stage. Dance the Night Away was different, created in the studio as the band members stood in a circle humming to each other. Though singer David Lee Roth wanted to title the song Dance Lolita Dance, guitarist Eddie Van Halen prevailed and Dance the Night Away became the band’s first Top 20 hit, coming in at No. 15 in 1979.
“Dance the Night Away might seem like it’s just an AM offering, but it wasn’t planned that way,” Eddie told the Van Halen News Desk. “We didn’t think pop, we didn’t think AM song. It was just a riff that I had and we put it to use. And we just wrote it the way it sounded. I can’t help it if I come up with a poppy-sounding riff. We just do what we come up with, as opposed to forcing ourselves to write something commercial.”
“People say, I love that scream you do, Dave,” Roth added. “Where’d you get it? Deep Purple? And I say, no — the Ohio Players, baby.”
Dance the Night Away by Van Halen
- All She Wants to Do is Dance by Don Henley
Session guitarist, producer and songwriter Danny Kortchmar has worked with for some of rock’s biggest stars. In 1984 Kortchmar co-produced Building the Perfect Beast, a solo album by Eagles drummer Don Henley, and wrote the single All She Wants to Do Is Dance. The synth pop dance tune became a Top 10 hit for Henley in 1985. Kortchmar told Songfacts that when he received one of the first Yamaha DX7 synthesizers in the U.S., he created a sound that was innovative back in the ’80s.
“It’s a synthesizer keyboard, and I used it to get that sound that you hear the record starting with. I was fooling around with that and created a track at home while we were making one of those albums. The next morning I woke up and wrote the whole lyric in about 20 minutes — wrote the whole thing. It came very easily. I can’t really tell you the process, just that the music suggested to me what I wanted and then it just came out very quickly.”
Critics have questioned why Henley used electronic drums instead of his own drumming on the track. Contributing to the song’s success were backing vocals by the Motels’ Martha Davis and Scandal’s Patty Smyth.
All She Wants to Do is Dance by Don Henley
- Private Dancer by Tina Turner
Private Dancer was written by Mark Knopfler for Dire Straits’ 1982 album Love Over Gold. Knopfler realized that the song, about “a private dancer, dancer for money” was not suited to a male singer and dropped it from the LP.
Two years later Knopfler offered Private Dancer to Tina Turner. A demo was recorded with Knopfler adding a guide vocal track. “I wanted to do it just like he did it and I did, as close to it as I could, with the accent,” Turner told Paste. “We listen to it now and we go, ‘God, no wonder he wanted to give it to you,’ I mean the guys teasingly say it but I think that I sang the song just like he did. I mean that was hot. Because I didn’t want to change anything, it was just perfect for me.”
Members of Dire Straits recorded with Turner but Knopfler was unable to take part. Instead, Jeff Beck was recruited to play the guitar solo. “When Tina Turner’s name came up, I would have bicycled to where she wanted me to play,” said Turner in Musician magazine. “A long time ago I was asked who would I like to play with most, and I said Ike and Tina Turner. Ever since River Deep, Mountain High that voice was haunting me, how my guitar could fit in with that.”
Private Dancer reached No. 7 on the Billboard chart in 1985 and helped reignite Turner’s career.
Private Dancer by Tina Turner
- Come Dancing by the Kinks
Come Dancing was a No. 6 hit for the Kinks in 1983, their biggest success in over a decade. Despite its upbeat tempo, Come Dancing is based on the untimely death of Ray Davies’ sister Rene. On the singer’s 13th birthday in 1957, Rene went dancing at a local ballroom despite a heart ailment caused by a childhood case of rheumatic fever. “She was told she had severe heart problems, but she loved to dance and the doctors told her if she walked down the road, she’d probably have a heart attack,” Davies told NPR.
“The next morning we got a call from the police. She had died dancing in a ballroom in London in the arms of a stranger.”
Arista Records exec Clive Davis resisted the release of Come Dancing as a single in the U.S. “I tried to retain the Englishness,” said Davies in the Wall Street Journal. “That record, I remember Clive Davis didn’t want to put it out because it was too much of an English subject matter. I was singing in a very East End accent. Lo and behold, it became our biggest American hit for many years.”
Come Dancing by the Kinks
- Dancing in the Moonlight by King Harvest
Dancing in the Moonlight was written by drummer Sherman Kelly in the late ’60s while playing in the Caribbean with the Iguana Gulch Blues Band. “On a trip to St. Croix in 1969, I was savagely attacked and beaten by a gang who later went on to murder three American tourists,” Kelly explained on his website. “At that time, I suffered multiple facial fractures and wounds and was left for dead. While I was recovering, I wrote Dancing in the Moonlight in which I envisioned an alternate reality, the dream of a peaceful and joyful celebration of life.”
A year later Kelly joined the band Boffolongo and performed lead vocals on Dancing in the Moonlight for the album Beyond Your Head. The song was forgotten until Kelly’s brother Wells, drummer for King Harvest, introduced it to the group. With a lovely Wurlitzer electric piano introduction and lead vocals by Doc Robinson, the King Harvest version became a Top 20 hit in 1973. The band continued to record but never came close to the success of Dancing in the Moonlight.
Dancing in the Moonlight by King Harvest
- Dance to the Music by Sly and the Family Stone
In 1968, Sly and the Family Stone released an unsuccessful debut album, A Whole New Thing. The group’s brand of psychedelic soul didn’t click with audiences. CBS Records head Clive Davis insisted that their next single be more pop-friendly. The result was Dance to the Music, a blend of rock, funk and R&B that launched the band’s career.
The Family Stone’s lineup of male and female, black and white musicians was groundbreaking. Dance to the Music featured four lead singers and opens with trumpeter Cynthia Robinson’s shouted, “Get on up — and dance to the music!”
Incredibly, the group members were no fans of the song upon its release. In Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History, saxophonist Jerry Martini called the tune “glorified Motown beats. Dance to the Music was such an unhip thing for us to do.”
Dance to the Music by Sly and the Family Stone
- I’m Happy Just to Dance With You by the Beatles
While George Harrison would later become a prolific songwriter, he struggled in the Beatles‘ early days. “My main problem is trying to write lyrics,” Harrison said in a 1965 interview. “It will probably take me about three months before I finish one song. I’m so lazy it’s ridiculous, but I’d like to write more.”
Without a Harrison composition for the film A Hard Day’s Night, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote I’m Happy Just to Dance With You. “It was a bit of a formula song,” McCartney recalled in Many Years From Now. “This one anyway was a straight co-written song for George. We wouldn’t have actually wanted to sing it because it was a bit … the ones that pandered to the fans in truth were our least favorite songs but they were good. They were good for the time. The nice thing about it was to actually pull a song off on a slim little premise like that. A simple little idea. It was songwriting practice.”
I’m Happy Just to Dance With You by the Beatles
- Let’s Dance by David Bowie
Let’s Dance was a No. 1 hit for David Bowie in 1983. It was produced by Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic. The two met in New York and realized their roots were in the same music. “We started talking about old blues and rhythm & blues stuff and found we’d both had the same artists as strong influences,” said Rodgers in Musician magazine. “I guess that triggered me off thinking it might be fun working with him.”
“David summed up rock ‘n’ roll, or what this album was going to be, by a picture he found of Little Richard,” Rodgers told the Red Bull Music Academy. “Little Richard getting into his red drop-top Cadillac with the pomp, and David held it up and said, ‘Nile, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.’ And he showed me the picture and I said, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it.'”
Rodgers discussed his concern about the track in the film David Bowie: Five Years. “If I don’t make a record that makes people want to dance, and we call the song Let’s Dance, I’m gonna have to trade in my black union card.”
Let’s Dance by David Bowie
- The Loco-Motion by Little Eva and Grand Funk Railroad
Before “Little Eva” Boyd recorded The Loco-Motion, she was Carole King’s babysitter. Songwriters King and Gerry Goffin discovered she had a great voice and recruited Little Eva to sing the dance tune. When the song became a No. 1 hit in 1962, Little Eva had to come up with the dance steps.
Grand Funk Railroad rediscovered the song in 1974 and also topped the charts. The band was recording the Shinin’ On LP, produced by Todd Rundgren, and were without a potential hit single. “Rundgren was in the control room. I walked in singing Loco-Motion,” recalled guitarist Mark Farner on KOOL-FM. And then the other guys would do the backgrounds. As I walk in, they’re standing in the hallway singing the backgrounds.
“When I’m singing, Rundgren walks out of the control room, he says, ‘What the hell is that?’ I said, ‘That’s Little Eva, what do you mean what the hell is that? Little Eva, man, that’s Loco-Motion.’ He says, ‘Man we gotta do that!’ He says, ‘We just gotta do that like right now! We gotta go record this.'”
“So we got the lyrics and it was Todd’s kind of idea to make it sound like a party going on,” drummer Don Brewer told antiMusic. “Sort of like the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann. Sounds like there’s a big party going on. Of course with Todd, Todd’s attitude is more like a big rock arena party. And so we just went out and started fooling around with the chord changes and stuff, and Todd worked his magic on it, and that’s what happened.”
The Loco-Motion by Little Eva
The Loco-Motion by Grand Funk Railroad
- Mary Jane’s Last Dance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Mary Jane’s Last Dance became a Top 20 hit for Tom Petty in 1993. The chorus, “Last dance with Mary Jane, one more time to kill the pain” has led fans to think “Mary Jane” is marijuana.
But the song was originally titled Indiana Girl and didn’t mention Mary Jane. Producer Rick Rubin suggested the change to Petty. “That was one I wrote during the Full Moon Fever sessions,” Petty said in Performing Songwriter. “I wrote all but the chorus. I just had the loop going around and around and really had most of the words and everything. And I played that tape for Rick and he liked it a lot and suggested I write a chorus. So I tried to finish it up while I was making Wildflowers, and there were maybe five years between the writing of the verses and the chorus. I don’t think I was writing about pot. I think it was just a girl’s name.”
Mary Jane’s Last Dance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
- Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol
Billy Idol was inspired to write Dancing With Myself while a member of the band Generation X. Idol and bassist Tony James were in Tokyo on a promotional tour when the singer got the idea. “If you went into a discotheque in 1978 in Japan, they were all dressed like Saturday Night Fever,” Idol recalled in Rolling Stone. “But the one thing they were doing that was different than in England and America was they were dancing to their own reflections in the mirror and not really with each other. They were just looking at themselves.
“I happened to say to Tony James, who always usually came up with the song titles, ‘Hey Ton, they’re dancing with themselves.’ He went, ‘Dancing With Myself, that could be a song title.'”
Back in the studio a few weeks later, Idol began to write a chorus based on the image of the dancers. “When Tony arrived, I showed him what I had, and we started to work on some lyrics, detailing a night on any club floor in the world, where a lonely dancer fills the mirror with his or her own sensual movements,” Idol wrote in his autobiography Dancing With Myself. “That day the words and arrangement just flowed out of us both, and we scribbled them down as fast as we could, pencil to paper scrap. I know the difference between something I thought of and something I was given.”
Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol