Rule 1: It's about inspiration, not winning.Read More
It's several minutes past 8 at the Balboa Experiment and I should be two or three songs into my DJ set already. Except nothing's playing. There's no music at all. I'm plugged into the mixer and Djay shows the song is playing with a spinning digital turntable but there's only silence. Kyle Smith, head DJ and INTERNATIONAL MUSIC CHAMPION, leans over my shoulder as I press every button I possibly can, trying to get the damn thing to work.
This is my second time DJing for a crowd.
Okay, second real time.
I haven't even started playing music yet and I'm already failing.
At this point, I'm not even looking up. I don't know how many people are waiting to get on the floor to start dancing. I don't know how many of them are watching me panic. I reconfigure the audio, push a couple buttons. Am I actually pre-cueing instead of playing live? I don't even know what happens, but something finally starts playing out of the speakers. I still don't know what went wrong. The song's already halfway over.
Easy fix, at least. I press a button and it goes back the beginning. I breathe a sigh of relief and look up.
No one's interested in dancing anyway.
Give 'em what they want.
I DJed a little bit for my college swing club, and by DJing, I mean I made a playlist before coming to the dance and then just pressed play. It cycled through my collection of the "40 best big band and swing songs!" as well as a few singles from Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Sure, those bands carry a certain stigma to purist ears, but at the time, damn I loved "Beyond the Sea" way more than I should probably admit.
But those were my college days. I didn't actually DJ again for a crowd until very recently at Yehoodi.com's Frim Fram Jam for their DJ debut night. With an hour-long set for a pretty casual crowd, if you play the hits, you'll more or less get away with being enjoyable, if not predictable. A little bit of Chick, a little bit of Fats, a whole lotta Benny and Count Basie will do you good.
More on that experience in a later post. I want to talk about flailing around and utterly failing.
If you play it, they might not dance.
The Experiment, I'm on record saying, is the best dance-related event I've gone to. For a week, you're put into a beautiful house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with a cohort of like-minded dancers and professionals and mentors all interested in helping everyone push their limits. And then there's all the antics.
Some folks offer extracurricular activities. Kyle Smith, head DJ for our week, offered DJ workshops and "mixerships," where he'd sit beside you during a DJ set and be the Yoda to your Luke, if you were a newbie DJ.
I am a newbie DJ.
A few days later, I'm sitting down for a half-hour DJ set with Kyle. After all the flailing to just get the music going, no one's dancing anyway. Not a single person even seems interested in dancing.
I can think of a few reasons for this. It's the beginning of the night and everyone's tired from the classes earlier. There's a lot of conversations going on, and people are still deep into socializing. Some are playing games elsewhere in the house.
Kyle sits back and crosses his arms. I'm playing a Benny Goodman small combo song with a lot of Charlie Christian noodling in it. Kyle asks, "Why this song?"
"Um. It's the beginning of the night and I dont think people are gonna dance and I don't want to play something too hot."
"Why don't you want to play something too hot?"
"Because I think I need to warm the floor up a little first?"
The song ends. No one's on the floor.
I try again, a similar song to the one before. More small combo, very laid back.
"Why this song?" Kyle asks again.
"Um. I'm trying to entice people onto the floor."
"And you think this song will do it?"
"I hope so. It's not too fast and it's still pretty laid back."
"So people want to dance laid back right now?"
I don't know.
The song ends. I start another one. The same question. Another similar answer. I'm trying to get people onto the floor with cool music that's arguably danceable in balboa. It goes on for half my set. The same response each time. No one's dancing.
"Okay, fine," I say. I queue up another song. Little John's Special. It's hot, it's fast, and it's loud.
"Why this song?"
"Because it's got a lot of energy in it and if no one's responding to the cool stuff, maybe they'll respond to the hot stuff?"
"Don't you think this is a very abrupt jump from what you've just been playing?"
"Maybe." I reconsider that answer. "Yeah."
The song ends again. And no one's dancing.
The best song you've got.
I'm having a nightmare and I'm wide awake. I'm playing music for dancers who really like dancing, and there's not a single foot on the floor. I like to think that I have okay taste in music, but the sheer disinterest in what I'm playing is uncomfortable.
I switch over to a Lionel Hampton song.
"Why this song?" Kyle asks again.
"Because it flows a lot better from the last song I played. It brings the energy down but it's still got a little bit of punch to it. No one's on the floor, so I want to play something I know people enjoy dancing to."
"That's a better answer than you've given all night."
And there's one couple finally dancing.
Something Kyle says sticks with me while we talk: "Play the best song that you possibly can for the moment that you're in." It seems awfully general, but that's the beauty of it. The situation is constantly changing, and you need to be paying attention to it.
Sometimes it's going to work, and sometimes it really isn't.
After the fact, I can think about the beginning of the night and how I could've done it differently. Maybe if I started off with well-known, well-liked danceable songs at the start, it would've drawn more people in. Maybe if I went with a straight up Benny Goodman song with his big band rather than one of his small combos, more people would've been interested. Maybe it would be dancing music rather than just background music.
By the end of my half hour, I'd succeeded in getting a grand total of 3 couples on the floor, and not all at the same time. Disappointing, and a little ego-deflating. Again, maybe it's because everyone else was happily distracted with something else. Or maybe my song choices really just sucked that much.
Kyle asked me if I wanted to do it again and I said, "Yes. Definitely." I wasn't going to let one bad set be the thing that defined the rest of my experience as a DJ.
Play the best song you possibly can in the moment that you're in. Okay.
Two nights later, I'm DJing one of the later sets. This time I've got another half-hour set and damn if I'm going to blow it.
The floor's already warm, and everyone's been dancing for hours. We're all tired, and a lot of dancers have been sitting out for a lot of songs in a row. Some are retiring for the night.
But I want to keep everyone on the floor.
Another snafu. My music's not playing, but I get it under control a lot quicker. I've already got the song I want to play ready to go.
The brass section flares. The drums go thump. I'm playing "Carioca."
And hey! People are dancing.
Let the swing geekery begin.
I've been teaching the past several weeks over at Brooklyn Swings. Even though I've been teaching pretty regularly for the past couple years now, it's been a little while since I've been able to teach a really big class of beginners, fresh to the whole dancing experience, ready to embark on this crazy little thing we call Lindy hop.
If it isn't abundantly clear already to everyone who knows me: I geek out. Hardcore. And when there's people around me who are excited about the same things I'm excited for, a torrential downpour of awesome ensues.
Some things I wish I knew as a beginner.
I still remember sitting in my dorm room in sophomore year, typing "Hellzapoppin" into the YouTube search bar, wondering if that was actually how you spelled it, and watching that entire clip for the first time. Same thing for "Buck Privates" and watching Jewel's magnificent swivels. This was already months after I'd started learning how to do East Coast Swing (sigh, yes). No one had told me about these clips before. I didn't even know who Frankie Manning was.
Let me repeat that. As a beginning swing dancer, I had no idea who Frankie Manning was.
Yeah. This guy.
Somewhere, someone failed. (Probably me. I'm terrible at listening to other people sometimes).
As a teacher, I like to really emphasize the important things new dancers should know about that aren't about dancing technique itself. Don't get me wrong—you take a lesson from me, you're going to get a lot of technique drilled in. But the history of it all is so important—Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the movies, the evolution of the dance from Charleston to Lindy hop, the bandleaders, and all that.
Partly, it's because these are things that I wish I knew about when I was just starting to dance. When I was a beginner, I figured East Coast Swing was its own thing and that the people who did Lindy hop were strange magical beings who were way more coordinated than I would ever be. Today, I'm a little bit more coordinated than before but probably not magical. Strange, though. Definitely strange.
I didn't know how deep that history ran. I never really got an appreciation for it until years and years later, when I started delving deeper into that stuff myself (blogs like Swungover and Wandering & Pondering were major factors in that, plus all the random folks who assembled classic clips on YouTube).
Getting to teach beginners now, though, my love of the dance and its history is something I want to spread. It's the same thing with how I'll geek out about movies and TV shows and comic books to anyone who'll lend an ear to listen. Or how obsessive I get about certain musicians (Edmond Hall is the best you guys). Geeking out about swing and everything about it is something I never thought I'd get to do as a job, however part-time it may be. And man I'm happy I get to do that now.
You're one of today's lucky 10,000.
A little while ago, after one of my beginner lessons, several follows came up to me and asked about "that crazy side-to-side swivel-y thing that good follows do."
"Um. You mean swivels?"
I'm hardly qualified to teach proper swivels myself (though, seriously, my man-swivels are ... something). But I could talk to them about how so many follows develop their own signature ways to put swivels in their swing outs. The conversation turned to older clips and I mentioned Jewel McGowan.
Congratulations. You're one of today's lucky 10,000.
I pulled up YouTube on my phone and showed that clip from Buck Privates. Sadly, YouTube won't let me embed it, but if you're reading this far, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about anyway.
There's something amazing about seeing people experience that clip for the first time. Everyone's wide open eyes, the exclamations of "holy crap" when Jewel launches into her swivels. I imagine it's empowering for follows, a clip that shows that you're not a slave to whatever the lead's doing but rather that you can put your own stamp on the dance and own it.
I'm geeking out again. But that's the point.
Beginners are the best. They're the ones beginning this journey. They get to experience all these amazing things for the first time. They get to struggle and triumph through their first swing outs. They get to learn the Shim Sham. They get to watch the old clips of Frankie Manning, of Dean and Jewel and Al and Leon and Norma and Shorty George. They get to see the new clips of Skye and Frida and Jeremy and Laura and Kevin and Jo and Kevin's badass mustache.
A lot of the time, I wish I could experience all that for the first time over again. I'll settle for being a helpful guide on their journey.
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