Although the piece incorporates several dance-like tunes, the word "dances" in the title is a verb rather than a noun. It is meant to depict Madame Mao gatecrashing a presidential banquet, hanging paper lanterns, and performing a seductive dance. The Chairman Mao descends from his portrait, and the two dance a foxtrot, back in time together. The piece ends with the sound of a gramophone winding down. Musical references of this piece can still be found in the third act of Nixon in China.
The work was also used by the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps as the opener for their 2008 production, "3hree: Mind, Body and Soul". Vanguard finished 7th at the Drum Corps International World Championships.
The Chairman Dances appears in the Modern Era soundtrack of Civilization IV, along with several other pieces by Adams.