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What Is a Dance Orchestra?

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  • Written By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2016
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A dance orchestra is a musical ensemble that plays music to which people dance. They often specialize in a particular type of dance music. Smaller than regular orchestras, these ensembles are not quite as popular as they were in the first half of the 20th century.

The term "dance orchestra" implies that the musical ensemble includes some string players who perform on instruments such as the violin and double bass. This distinguishes it from a dance band, which is primarily made up of woodwind and brass players. The distinction sometimes gets blurred, however, with some dance orchestras advertising themselves as "dance band orchestras." Even when there are string players present, a notable difference between a dance orchestra and a regular orchestra often is the inclusion of saxophones, which makes it easy for the group to play jazz and swing.

Regardless of the exact orchestration a dance orchestra has, it usually is smaller in size than a regular orchestra and thus actually is a chamber ensemble. A typical size is about a dozen members, with just one or two players on each type of instrument. The small size of the dance orchestra is important given that the audience must have room in the performance venue to get up and move around to the music.

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Dance orchestras may perform anything from electric rock to classical ballroom music. They always perform music that the audience knows and favors, or which suit the style of dancing the audience prefers. Dance orchestras therefore are a specific type of pops orchestra.

Dance orchestras often perform at venues such as fundraisers, weddings and large parties. They usually charge a fee for their services, unless the orchestra wishes to donate its time and talent to a charity. Dance orchestras thus spend a great amount of time marketing themselves so they have enough jobs to make performing worthwhile.

In most cases, a dance orchestra performs locally, so in small towns and more rural areas, it's fairly common to see the same dance orchestras perform. Some dance orchestras, however, are at such a high level of musicianship and management that they are able to become nationally known and tour regularly. Perhaps the most well-known example of such an orchestra is the dance orchestra featured on the long-running Lawrence Welk Show.

Dance orchestras were particularly popular in the early 20th century, especially between 1920 and 1950 when big band and swing music was popular. They began to fade in popularity after the 1960s. This had to do in part with the increasing advances in technology, which allowed people to use electronic systems to play music in a variety of venues. People also became less interested in dancing as a form of regular entertainment because people sought other entertainment such as video games. Although dance orchestras still exist, it is somewhat of a novelty to find dance orchestras that perform regularly in clubs and similar businesses outside of large cities.

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