"Dancing in the Street" is musically representative of the "Motown Sound." Company founder Berry Gordy bet that a large mainstream market existed for rhythm and blues, if only it were packaged and marketed appropriately. At the center of his musical formula were three key ingredients: an overstated backbeat often punctuated by a tambourine, prominent brass and sax arrangements, and strong background vocals, often in a call and response pattern borrowed from the gospel tradition.
All of these elements are evident in "Dancing in the Street." A baritone sax sets up an introductory fanfare from the horns. The drums offer a driving beat that becomes even more pronounced with the addition of a tambourine, and, according to varying accounts, either a floor-pounding crow bar or tire iron, once the vocals begin.
The melody carried by the vocals is relatively simple, reaching its most dramatic moments when it climbs into the chorus ("Oh it doesn't matter what you wear, Just as long as you are there . . ."). But the power of these moments is made possible by the exchanges that precede them, between Reeves, as she calls out cities, and the Vandellas, as they respond with "dancing in the street."