bands for dancing

What should a band playing at a ‘swing dance’ sound like?


DCLX (The Washington DC Lindy Exchange) featured some seriously wonderful bands this year. I’ve never seen a line up like that here in Australia (though MSF and MLX have featured some really good bands). They’re not only historically appropriate, they’re also culturally and socially appropriate – the bands are engaged with the dancers.

This is the Campus 5, another band at DCLX:


The two bands battled it out in this:


Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band gave the Campus 5 a good pwning in the battle, and it’s really interesting to read the account of the battle by one of the musicians in Jonathon Stout’s band in The Power Of Jazz: DCLX 2011, and to read Crytzer’s take on what constitutes good music for dancing.

I did have a much cleverer post written up on this, but I lost it :D

I do want to say that I rarely see bands this good at Australian dance events. There are some really good bands here, but very few of them are actually connected to dancers. They’re used to playing for an elderly crowd of jazznicks, all of whom sit quietly in the audience, clapping solos. They may get up and dance, but they’re not actually all that good at connecting with the band. They’re also much older, and not really dancing the sorts of dances that the music was originally composed for, or in reference to.

I also have a feeling there’s some historical/cultural confusion going on here. Australia banned black American musicians from touring here between 1928 and 1954 (or so). While we did have bits and pieces of lindy hop happening in Australia during that period, we didn’t really have the sort of strong lindy hopping craze that they did in the States. People simply didn’t dance the same way here. And if they did, most of the biggest events were in Sydney and Melbourne. There was dancing in every other Australian town, though, and the international dance crazes did get here. But I think it’s a mistake to try to recreate 1920s and 30s American jazz dance culture here in Australia as though it was a ‘natural’ recreation of Australian dance culture during that time. It simply wasn’t. So we should approach this as transplanting music and dance traditions from another culture. When the oldies get up on the dance floor here, then, we shouldn’t expect to see ‘authentic’ Harlem style lindy hop. These guys are not only a lot older than the people in Hellzapoppin’, they’re also from a different dancing culture.

When jazz bands who do play for non-lindy hoppers and non-dancers do play for lindy hoppers – young, sweaty, crazed dancers who don’t stop to applaud solos, and usually take ages to applaud at the end of songs – they don’t really understand what they see on the dance floor, and they’re kind of resentful of the delayed applause. It’s a bit sad, because most dancers – most experienced, good dancers – let you know they’re enjoying the music in the way they suddenly get creative or energetic or enthusiastic. A lot of musicians don’t know how to read this dancing body language.

I also see a lot of musicians in jazz bands existing in their own little world. They don’t look at the dance floor, they rarely look at each other. They sit on stools or chairs, eyes locked on the score, or they kind of sink down into their solos. Solos which go on for hours. Hours and hours. Complicated, fiddly solos that show off dextrous fingers, which are too difficult for dancers to follow on the floor. They often build up the energy in the song then suddenly kill it with a complicated solo or a sudden change in pace. I don’t know what nondancing jazz fans think of this, but as a dancing jazz fan, I’m always disappointed. You’re telling a story here, bud. Don’t shaggy dog me. Don’t build me up to a great punch line then sort of mumble it then ramble on afterwards explaining why it’s funny.

I know dancers can be quite blunt objects. A lot of dancers aren’t much good at working with bands. They don’t clap enough. They just dance on and on like they’re dancing to a metronome. This can be because they’re rubbish dancers. It can also be because they’re not enculturated – they don’t know how to respond to bands. But it can also be because the musicians aren’t reaching out to them. The band asks the question, the dancers respond. Call and response, yo.

So a band can be really really good, great, historically accurate dancing music. But still be rubbish for dancing.

The best bands for dancing do these things:

  • They don’t use scores, but if they do, they’re still looking up and interacting as a group, with solos passed around and choruses repeated or skipped on the fly.
  • Someone actually leads the band. That person calls the solos, cuts things short, adds repetitions, and generally keeps it all together. This is important when you’re improvising, or when you’re responding to the room. I have no evidence for this, but I suspect a good band leader is like a good DJ – they watch the room, they keep an eye on the way it feels – as they work through the songs and juggle the musicianship.
  • They have dancers in the band or they work with dancers in close relationships. This is the most important part. Bands that work with dancers in putting together shows from conception to execution, or who work on putting together set lists for performances, and do it on a regular basis, tend to have a better understanding of how music-for-dancing works. They know how to tell if a dancer is exhausted, if they’re really feeling the music, if they’re interested in what they’re hearing.
  • They are historically accurate. This is a tricky one. But many of the developments in jazz from the 50s on saw a shift in jazz as music for dancing, to music for listening to. There are lots of reasons for this. But it meant that the music changed, and many of these changes made jazz more difficult to dance to.
    One of the most obvious is that the beat changed from being solidly chunk chunk chunk to a little more slippery. The rhythm section as a whole started doing different things. This isn’t a big deal if you’re a phenomenal dancer, or dancing slow, or in a small club. But in a big dance hall, packed with people jumping up and down, at higher tempos, a good, solid beat is really important.
    The musical changes in jazz were exciting and interesting, and no doubt made the music more interesting to play. They certainly reflect the shift in the way jazz worked culturally, from popular music for dancing to ‘art’ music for listening. Playing dance music no doubt feels a bit workmanlike. A bit plebian. But then, that’s what popular music is – it’s uncomplicated, it’s functional, it’s accessible. The trick is being exciting and interesting and innovative within those simple forms.

I think that the dancers organising events and booking bands should carry some of the fault when a band fails to rock at a dancing gig. Many event organisers don’t have the experience or musical knowledge to know how to ask a band to make the music work for dancers. How do you explain all these things to a band leader without being patronising or rude? I mean, you want to hire a band because you really dig their sound. So why ask them to change it?
Developing a good working relationship with bands is important. Bands need to see dancers at their weekly gigs. Dancers need to put DJed music in second place, and to seek out bands, and to make friends with musicians. I’ve been surprised by how important Faceplant has become in this regard: dancers and musicians – friends!

I also think event organisers need to get out and listen to lots of bands, and to dance to lots of bands. It’s too easy to just hire the same old stooges each year. This also means nurturing relationships with bands: getting phone numbers, shaking hands and buying drinks at the bar. Do you have musical tastes in common? Can you spend time talking about favourite musicians and bands and songs with the musicians and really communicate? When you say “Count Basie”, do you both mean 1930s new testament Basie? If you say “Glen Miller”, does the musician say “Chicago!” or “String of pearls”?

….at any rate, there’s plenty more to be said on this. But I have things to do!


  1. Mike! I was thinking of your excellent band(s) when I was writing about great Australian bands. I know the work you’ve done with the Rhythmakers with dancers has been very exciting for those dancers involved. And I LOVE dancing to the bands! I was particularly sad to have missed out on the Hot Jazz Collective. Waaaaahmbulance!

    The historical stuff is interesting. I’m actually looking over my shoulder whenever I write anything about dance history, because I’m not a dance historian at all. I’m actually quite ashamed of some of the things I wrote in published journal articles and said in conference papers, because I’ve since discovered I was wrong. But at the time – and now! – there is no reliable, well-researched historical work documenting the social jazz dance in Australia in the 20s and 30s. There’re some (a very few) bits of work on social dance spaces, some stuff on stage dance. But there are no contemporary lindy hoppers – dancers with a sound dance knowledge, as well as researchers – doing solid, well-documented work in this area. There is no reliable body of work we use to reference the way people actually moved their bodies. There are lots of newspaper articles and bits of writing talking about dance – charleston, black bottom, big apple, lindy hop, etc – but there are very few films.
    There are some dancers in Australia who’ve done the beginnings of work. But they are not published, not well documented, and in many cases are what I would call dodgy scholarship – from either an academic perspective, or a dance historian perspective. Where a ‘dance historian’ is someone who researchers dances, learns how to do them, works with dancers from the era and generally combines work with primary sources, real people and actually moving their bodies.

    I don’t know much about jazz in Australia historically, either. Even though every day I walk past a huge mural photograph of the first jazz Conference, which was held here in my home suburb, parading through Ashfield in the 1950s. I was put off working with university-based Australian jazz history scholars because I’ve found them conservative, difficult old bastards, for the most part. I’ve been thinking about doing some decent work, but I need some sort of funding. Girl gotta eat, yo.

    Enough! I have to go dance right NOW!

  2. Great post. I feel like it’s only fairly recently that there’s been this singularity occur in the US. I think that there’s 3 essential ingredients that we’re largely missing here in Australia:

    1. There’s enough dance events occurring that there’s a growing number of bands that can earn a quid playing many of their gigs for dancers.

    2. There’s jazz musicians that are learning to lindy hop

    3. There’s lindy hoppers learning to play jazz (many of whom could already play another style – but hey)

    Problem is, we’ll never have enough events to get #1 going and though I’ve seen a bit of 2 and 3 outside of Sydney I can probably count on one hand the number of people who would fit into these groups in this town.

    Having said that though I’ve had plenty of conversations with musicians in Sydney who are pretty keen to find out what the dancers want – crazy thing is, event organisers aren’t briefing bands – there seems to be some sort of expectation that the bands will know what to do. I find that of late in Sydney there’s been better dancing music being put on by non-dance event organisers.

    As for history we are lucky to have a lot of searchable press which is improving as more are added. It appears that the National Film and Sound Archive does have a lot of stuff on file – accessing it is doable if you’re in Canberra but copying the footage and putting it up online seems next to impossible. Here’s the list I put together list.

    From what I’ve read it appears that dance schools played a big role in spreading lindy hop and other dance crazes the first time around – in fact their role then is probably greater than it is today (with youtube and many more dancers travelling). I’d be interested to see if there are any parallels between Australia and some of the more out of the way parts of the US, away from the major dance centres like New York and California.

    It would be good to track down some of the old winners of the Australian Jitterbug Championships and see if any of them are still around.

  3. A thought – musicians get the most out of dancers when they treat them like they are PART OF THE BAND, rather than a separate entity, i.e. the audience.

    Come to think of it, musicians get the most out of AUDIENCES when they treat them like they are part of the band as well…

  4. Ben: there’s some sort of styles problem in the comments – I’ll fix it STAT.

    Mike: I’m liking your thinking. I saw Tommy DeFrantz do a brilliant paper on call and response in black American music videos a while ago, and he looked at the importance of call and response between audience and band in black music since Africa. He talked a bit about James Brown, who’s a really excellent example. But blues is another good example.

    To take your point a little too literally, I’m sure you’ve read that stuff about early tap dancers working with bands, not just as dancers but as musicians in the band? Tap has suddenly leapt in popularity with lindy hoppers all over the place, and Herrang has featured a tap week for a while. But there are a few bands around the place, in New Orleans especially, that are featuring tap dancers as well as lindy hoppers as part of the band itself. Smoking Time Jazz Club is the first to spring to mind: youtube link.

    I’m pretty interested in dancers and dancing as percussion, hence my excitement about StepClapGo vimeo link. I have no tap skills, and hip hop has just won my heart, so I can’t see me getting to tap classes any time soon. So I’ll just have to settle for clapping along :D

    …. but I think jazz has some problems in its contemporary setting as ‘art’ music, or as ‘culture’. White, middle class conventional ‘high art’ performance requires a fourth wall, and there’s a distinct separation between audience and performer. Which I don’t think is good for jazz. Or at least for people recreating jazz from the 20s and 30s.

    My favourite band gigs are where you can get up close to the band. Not a big, echoey town hall.

    I’m always interested to see how dancers in Australia learn to interact with bands and with other dancers performing. They start off being rubbish at it (just sitting quietly and watching, applauding at the end), and end up learning how to shout out with excitement or in encouragement before, during and after a performance. And I think dancers performing learn how to better engage their audiences.

    …incidentally, the very BEST part of an old recording is hearing someone in the band shout out with excitement.

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