Dancing With the Orchestra

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Dancing at the Palladium, 1940
Dancing at the Palladium, [1940]. Photo credit: Gil Harris, Herald Examiner Collection

Every now and then, a friend who knows that I enjoy classical music asks me where they should start. There’s so much of it, they say, that it’s overwhelming and intimidating. And it’s true; there are hundreds of years of symphonies and operas and string quartets to choose from. Picking one starting place can seem impossible.

One of my favorite answers to the “where to start” question is to start with dances. Our image of classical music is that it’s stuffy and stodgy, meant to be politely listened to from your seat in the concert hall, but classical composers have been writing music inspired by dancing for centuries.

Suites of dances can be a good entry point for a variety of reasons. The individual pieces are usually short; if you’re not enjoying one, another will be along in just a few minutes. Dances are rhythmic—you can’t dance to it if it doesn’t have a good beat—and tuneful, and they’re often cheerful; even the slower ones are more likely to be wistful or romantic than they are to be tragic or gloomy. And they seem to bring out the most colorful side of composers; dances offer opportunities for virtuoso displays, and every instrument gets a chance to shine.

There are collections of dances for all combinations of instruments, but today, we’re focusing on music for orchestra. We’ve created a Freegal playlist that provides an hour-long sampling from orchestral dance suites. They may be Hungarian, Swedish, or Spanish Dances; Ancient, Urban, or Symphonic Dances; Full Moon or Gazebo Dances. They range from the gentle sway of the “dance for an aging couple” from Wolf Kerschek’s “Trumpet Dances,” to the manic bounce of Malcolm Arnold’s Scottish tune.

Enjoy! And since you’re not in that stuffy concert hall, you just might find yourself moved to get up and dance along.

Book cover for Orchestral Dances
Orchestral Dances