The other day while at the hardware store, I heard The Girl from Ipanema, the song that defined the bossa nova sound. It's a classic, made famous by legendary sax player Stan Getz, but it was the fact that it is the canonical bossa nova song that got me to thinking.
It's often hard to pin down a style of music, at least to anything more general than "rock", "jazz", "country", and so on. One place where you can get a certain amount of specificness is in songs that are closely identified with a kind of dance. So I started thinking about what other songs can be called canonical for a given dance style.
If you're old enough to remember the Billy Crystal years on Saturday Night Live, you've probably heard Hernando's Hideaway, which may be the definitive tango song, though a good case could be made for Jalousie
as well. Hearing a tango leads me to the cha cha, as they have a very similar beat. I don't know of a song that is obviously "it" for the cha cha, but the song that really defines it for me is Brave Combo's version of O Holy Night (believe it or not).
Brave Combo, which also has a cha cha version of the Rolling Stones song (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, is probably the band I think of first when I think of the polka, since they call themselves a "nuclear polka" band and won a Grammy for their Polkas for a Gloomy Planet album. Songs like In Heaven, There Is No Beer and of course The Beer Barrel Polka would be the first ones to come to my mind (and say what you want about the polka, any musical genre that's this focused on beer is all right in my book).
Despite its accordion-and-lederhosen stereotype, the polka is actually a pretty versatile style of music and dance. It's a popular style of folk dance, for instance. I always think of John Ryan's Polka, which (to the best of my failing memory) was featured in the movie Titanic. It's not on the soundtrack, at least not by that name - the closest match is something called An Irish Party in Third Class - Gaelic Storm. Of course, it's common to combine two or more jigs/reels/polkas/whatnot into medleys, so who knows. In any event, the ubiquitous polka also shows up in country/western music - if you ever take a class in C&W dance, the first two styles you'll learn are the two-step and the polka, which have very similar footwork. Just about any up-tempo country song is likely to be a polka. My choice for the definitive country polka song is Lyle Lovett's That's Right (You're Not From Texas).
I suppose I lied somewhat in saying that any fast country tune is probably a polka, since that gives short shrift to western swing. The
aforementioned Hot Club of Cowtown and Asleep at the Wheel are the western swing artists I know best. I'd pick Wheel's cover of the Glenn Miller song Chattanooga Choo Choo as the standard for the sound, but I'm on less solid ground here.
Finally, I can't talk at such length about music and dance styles without mentioning that I think Glenn Miller's In the Mood is not only the greatest swing dance song ever written, it's one of the best songs ever. One of the many benefits of learning to play the saxophone in school is getting exposed to Miller's music. The recent swing dance fad has peaked somewhat, but the music will never go out of style.
By the way, in case you didn't know, the Girl from Ipanema is a real person.