In a viral clip that went on to dominate social media for weeks on end, Grammy-winning R&B icon Usher proceeds with business as usual at his My Way Las Vegas residency. He spots Emmy-winning actor Keke Palmer in the crowd, serenades her, and the two share a brief but respectful slow dance. His hand never goes below her waist, and her hand never leaves his shoulder.
And yet, following the video hitting social media, madness ensued. From misogynistic expectations of women’s self-presentation post-motherhood to discussions of the ins and outs of live performance etiquette, the clip unleashed a Pandora’s Box of discourse.
Millions of people inevitably shared their opinions, but an especially fervent disapproval of the interaction arose amongst straight men, particularly young straight men. What was once a key element of the American cultural fabric and a commonplace, uncontroversial practice had become the center of a firestorm of discomfort, disapproval, and outright rejection. What happened to the slow dance? How did this simple rite of passage and communal experience for young people come to mean and represent something completely different than what it did just one generation ago?
Most DJs agree that the dominant sound of slow dance songs has long been R&B, particularly soulful downtempo numbers that center romance and love as the chief emotions of the moment. But just as streaming has hyper-individualized music consumption and discovery, so has technology when it comes to the slow dance — at least according to DJ Stylus, a 30-year career DJ.
“I came into DJing because it was this magical thing that happened where you put music together in this interesting way that makes for a unique shared experience that is unique to that specific moment,” he says. “But what I’ve found is that technology … fragments the communal experience. So, it’s almost like people are having these performative moments through their devices, for people that aren’t even really sharing in what’s happening. We’re all together, but we’re alone.”
Much handwringing has been done regarding Gen Z and its relationship to the ever-quickening pace of technological advancement. There is also the fact that a significant portion of Gen Z has spent some of its formative social years — the end of high school and the beginning of college — isolated and alone due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns. Those years, which normally house key rites of passage like prom and many people’s first adult parties, were snatched from millions of young people. Slow dancing has proven to be such a culturally rich experience largely because of how the practice funnels heightened levels of intimacy and vulnerability into core memories — a phenomenon that is harder for Gen Z to cultivate because of the unprecedented omnipresence of technology in their lives.
“Dance has traditionally been a thing where you know you could just be walking on the dance floor, the music is groovy, and you reach your hand out and you dance with someone,” muses DJ Zoe Crazy, a 2022 FAMU graduate who specializes in DJing Atlanta proms. “With the cameras and the social media, it definitely takes some of that comfort away. You never know who you’re dancing with. You don’t know who’s posting what. Everything can be seen. I think it makes people a little more judgmental.”
Like every generation before them, Gen Z operates in a sea of juxtapositions and contradictions. While this is far from their fault, as much as social media has connected the world, it has also exposed the uglier side of society with more immediacy and a wider reach than ever before. Meme culture and reaction pictures and videos epitomize this; so many of those images are taken and circulated without the consent or knowledge of the subject, and no one wants to become the next meme on an Internet that remembers everything. Given that it has mostly grown up in the presence of phones, Gen Z is acutely aware of the dynamics at play when it comes to the convergence of social media and public spaces, and that hypervigilance undercuts the tenderness of the slow dance.
As with most things in life, the slow dance didn’t just disappear on a random Tuesday. “It wasn’t like it was an overnight drop off, but it’s been a combination of things that have kind of led to it,” says DJ R-Tistic, one of the DJs that helped jumpstart the recent wave of slow dance discourse on Twitter. Classic slow dance songs still get played at the functions young people frequent, and young people are still getting on the dance floor, so all the necessary elements are present. Nonetheless, the dominance of the traditional slow dance has steadily waned. “I actually did an event for Pretty Little Thing the other day, and that’s one of the younger crowds I’ve had in a minute,” says DJ R-Tistic. “There were a lot of 23–25-year-olds, and all they want to do is twerk.”
Just as the omnipresence of phones and cameras have stunted the ability to organically create moments of vulnerability to set the stage for a slow dance moment, so too has the evolution of the lyrical content of songs that sonically fit into the typical slow dance canon. “I feel like the content directly relates to it — to me, slow [dancing] goes with more romantic music,” DJ R-Tistic, who has been DJing for about 16 years, says. “Whether it’s [Jodeci’s] ‘Forever My Lady,’ a Luther [Vandross] song, or even, for the late ‘90s, a D’Angelo-Lauryn Hill ‘Nothing Even Matters.’ Those song are more about romance.” R-Tistic says around the turn of the century, he started to notice a transition: “I feel like the slow grind kind of started to take over … more sexual, slow-grinding type songs,” à la Ginuwine’s “Pony and “So Anxious.”
Gen Z is less sexually conservative than every generation prior, and that attitude has extended to the dance floor. Twerking is king at most functions geared towards young people; conversely, young people’s normalization of dance moves previously deemed as sexually explicit has left a hole in the experience they have gathered in the realm of slow dancing. “If you’re in an era where you’re sexually free and you’ve had therapy and you’re shaking off the shackles of previous generations, all of a sudden, [slow dancing] is too intimate and scary?” questions DJ Stylus. “You don’t mind if people’s phones are on you, but a slow song with phones out is scary.”
In a way, as younger generations helped destigmatize twerking on the dance floor, there has been a related shift in the approach to slow dancing: Ironically, the once-chaste act of slow dancing may now be more taboo among young people, because of the intensity of its intimacy. When you are slow dancing, you are face to face with another person, staring into their eyes for an extended period of time. That is a stark difference from most approaches to twerking, where a woman’s back is to another person’s front, as a song that emphasizes the casualness of sexual interactions blasts in the background.
DJ Printz, a 13-year career DJ, connects dating app culture to the change in approach to slow dancing. “People are no longer beating around the bush, and we all know that we are sexual beings and overt sexuality is just something that we don’t have to hide,” he says. “We’re way more vulnerable when we’re allowing somebody to share much more intimate moments. It’s a harder thing to manage because technology has made it more difficult, and we don’t practice those things as often.”
Gen Z’s penchant for naming and changing unfair and unwelcoming cultural practices is well-documented. The traditionally binary-gendered exercise of slow dancing leaves out many people, especially for Gen Z, the most openly queer generation yet. While major cities like Los Angeles and New York are a bit more hospitable to open displays of queer slow dancing, that is not the case in many places around the word, especially with anti-LGBTQIA+ attitudes on the rise. Meanwhile, predatory men have made the dance floor feel unsafe and unwelcoming for women for decades due to harassment and groping, and Gen Z’s dancing attitudes have shifted to start reflecting safety as the standard.
DJ Zoe Crazy notes that “You’re very likely to see two women dancing” on the floor these days, partly due to the that prioritization of safety. “As far as two men dancing, it depends on the setting. At most venues you probably wouldn’t find it, but at places where the LGBTQ community feels safe, it’s very much likely.”
The evolution of slow dancing also goes hand in hand with the evolution of mainstream R&B. From Marvin Gaye to Mario, popular R&B had traditionally been an endlessly renewable resource of reliable slow songs. Most importantly, these were also love songs: Sure, some of them may have alluded to sex, but the focus was primarily on the wonder of romance.
In comparison, a sizable number of contemporary R&B songs are decidedly devoid of romance, despite their tempos and sonic motifs lending themselves well to the slow dance canon. While ‘90s R&B songs like Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk” still enrapture younger audiences, albeit in the form of sing-a-longs as opposed to slow dancing, as both DJ Kosi and DJ Zoe Crazy note, some DJs have found it difficult to include many contemporary R&B hits in the slow jam section of the night. “They trend on social media, but then it’s short lived,” says DJ Zoe Crazy. “I feel like if I play both [Normani & Cardi B’s] ‘Wild Side’ or [Muni Long’s] ‘Hrs & Hrs,’ it’s like ‘We’re over that, let it go.’”
When it comes to today’s biggest R&B stars — Summer Walker, Jhené Aiko, Ari Lennox, SZA, The Weeknd, etc. — pure romance often takes a backset to more heart-wrenching stories of betrayal and admissions and appraisals of toxic, emotionally immature behavior. Songs like Summer Walker and Jhené Aiko’s “I’ll Kill You” or SZA’s “I Hate U,” aren’t exactly the moments of lyrical sweetness that promote the doe-eyed vulnerability of a slow dance. Up-and-coming Gen Z DJ and music producer Kosi, agrees: “The lyrics and the content of the songs are important, and I don’t think these songs are as essential or intimate in a positive way,” he says. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of songs that feel right for slow dancing. The vibe is different.”
For DJ R-Tistic, the combination of contemporary hits with lackluster staying power and an influx of toxic lyricism has made incorporating contemporary R&B songs into the slow dance canon a bit of a challenge. The major exception he cites from the past decade is Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,”: “It’s slightly childish and sophomoric because of the lyrics, but it’s still more on the romantic side.”
While the landscape of contemporary R&B certainly seems less hospitable to proper slow jams, that isn’t to say that this generation is completely lacking in those kinds of ballads. “There’s a canon of slow songs. Every generation has a canon, and every generation adds to the previous canon,” says DJ Stylus. “So, what is the modern slow dance song? I feel like it’s Daniel Caesar’s ‘Best Part.’”
DJ R-Tistic agrees, saying that Daniel Caesar and H.E.R.’s Grammy-winning duet is “one of the only songs from the last seven years that [he’s] been requested to play at a wedding.” DJ Zoe Crazy also cites “Hrs & Hrs” as a similar new-age R&B slow dance song, in spite of its more sexually minded lyrics. (DJ Rose Gawd, who hosts artist-specific “R&B Nights,” even says that she’s found some songs by Summer Walker and SZA can work as slow dance anthems — particularly the latter’s “The Weekend.”)
To offset this imbalance of proper low-tempo romance-focused songs in contemporary R&B, some DJs have turned to Afrobeats. “I think it just it just works well, it’s a global sound,” says DJ Zoe Crazy. DJ R-Tistic notes that some Afrobeats songs have begun to serve the purpose of your typical R&B slow dance song. “‘Essence’ [Wizkid & Tems] is technically pretty fast, it’s 104 BPM, but it still kind of serves that two-step face-to-face type deal,” he says.
While a two-step is still a bit removed from a proper slow dance, it is still closer to the practice than the barrage of TikTok dances and nondescript bopping motions most often inspired by contemporary hip-hop hits. DJ Printz loves Afrobeats because the genre “replaced the lack of energy from hip-hop when it comes to these danceable songs, on top of the fact that the energy they bring with the content of the song is also upbeat… it’s loving, like an R&B song, but it’s not necessarily an R&B song.”
While there are obviously Afrobeats songs that are just as sexual as contemporary R&B and hip-hop, the genre seems houses more current songs that are simply about love and romance — and DJs are turning to those tracks to fill those voids in their sets, while still accounting for contemporary music trends. DJ Stylus likens Afrobeats’ current dominance to that of dancehall in the mid-late ‘90s and early aughts; “It’s like this lingua franca of moving your ass that connects us across the diaspora from New Orleans to Accra.”
The seismic changes in technological innovation and musical evolution converge in streaming, which has, in many ways, upended our previous collective understanding of the cultural zeitgeist. As a result, younger Gen Z audiences, as well as Gen Alpha, now must grapple with reconciling infinite choice based on their personal taste with a setting where a DJ is in (almost) complete control of the experience.
“Because everything is so hyper-individual on command, what happens is people come into what is supposed to be a social and communal space trying to impose individual demands with no regard for context or anyone else,” argues DJ Stylus. If you are going to a function with the expectation that the DJ will play all your specific favorite records, the battle for the slow dance, or dancing at all, has already been lost. With fewer contemporary R&B hits reaching and remaining in the cultural zeitgeist, Gen Z’s relationship to slow dancing gets even more precarious. “I think we’re really selfish,” DJ Kosi says. “People go to parties to only hear songs that they want to hear.”
However, the hyper-individual nature of contemporary culture has also allowed those seeking slow dance moments to find events and DJs tailor-made for those feelings. DJ Rose Gawd notes, “There’s room for everybody. And there’s also a need for those people who do just know how to keep things simple or who do know how to slow it down.”
DJ Rose Gawd’s artist nights have proven to be rousing successes, dating back to her first Aaliyah-centric event back when the pandemic’s peak had first started to wane. Events centered on a specific genre or artist have become increasingly commonplace in recent years, a simultaneous symptom of the surplus of choice induced by streaming and an acknowledgement of the fact that people of all ages are still craving experiences that may no longer be the cultural norm.
“I did have some students come up asking for slow jams so they could dance with their significant other, which might be surprising to some,” says DJ Zoe Crazy about this spring’s Atlanta prom season. “There’s definitely some young teens that, when they go to prom, want to have those moments.”
In that word — “moments” — lies the root of slow dancing’s curious evolution. Gen Z lives in a world and culture predicated on the idea of moments and capturing them, coupled with the increased aestheticization of life in the TikTok era. In this world, moments are meant to be captured, not experienced, or lived in. Thus, the slow dance has become tied to specific events to fulfill the “moment” each event should look like, whether that be a wedding or a prom. Slow dancing is no longer something that is expected to happen at any random party, because then it no longer becomes a moment that completes a specific aesthetic. Now, because slow dancing has become increasingly tied to stable partnerships and major events, when it does happen between two strangers at a standard concert — even strangers as famous as Usher and Keke Palmer — the concept reads as foreign.
Of course, a good DJ can still swing some level of slow dancing out of a crowd, but changing attitudes and behaviors have made that part of their job quite different than it has been in the past. Slow dancing hasn’t died, it’s just going through a phase — one that leads longtime DJs to wonder how exactly the culture will continue to shift in the era of Gen Z.
“Cultural norms and cultural signposts do evolve and change,” says DJ Stylus. “But what does that mean when it comes to certain types of music and how it creates human connection and human experiences?”