Thinking from Herräng. Post no.3

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I’ve been thinking about the point made in that DJ session at Herräng, that ‘micromanaging’ dancers by spending a lot of time on selecting and combining songs isn’t such a great idea. The follow up suggestion was that a really good collection of music should stand on its own – that you could just press shuffle and it’d make for great music. And the implication (and actual statement) is that you shouldn’t baby dancers – you should encourage them to dance to all sorts of music.

I think this is kind of an interesting approach. I do like the idea of playing all sorts of music (and all sorts of tempos), because it does make better dancers. But I also think that you need to teach students how to dance to all sorts of things, and to skill them up with good basic technique, so they can actually enjoy all these different songs. I’m all for dancing however you like, but I’m also a bit of a fan of good, solid dance skills. To avoid injury if nothing else. So you mightn’t be micromanaging the dancing through music, but you’re still managing the dancing through teaching.

So how do I feel about the idea of ‘micromanaging’ dancers through DJing? It’s an interesting one. On one hand, I agree. Dancers should be ok with handling different types of songs and tempos, randomly. But I don’t hold with argument that bands don’t bother about that stuff, so why should DJs. I think that good band leaders do think about the way they combine songs, and they do think about the way the crowd responds – I’ve seen and heard them. And every good performer understands about working a crowd, and how this can help their financial bottom line.

Personally, I enjoy the challenges of ‘working a crowd’ (or micromanaging through song selection). I find it creative, I find it intellectually exciting, and I find it emotionally and socially satisfying. But part of me is reminded of the avant garde movement’s criticisms of narrative cinema. Perhaps working a crowd is like narrative cinema: it’s too easy for audiences. But I wonder if a non-managing DJ will end up like an avant garde artist: critically acclaimed, but reaching only a tiny handful of people. You can get away with that if you’re a rock star DJ, playing big events and being paid, as these speakers were. Not such a cool option if you have to play the same local gig each week and keep the numbers up so you can pay the bills.
Part of me wants also to think about Laura Mulvey, and her discussion of the male gaze in relation to this point. Is a DJ micromanaging the crowd a product of or vehicle for patriarchy? Is it better to have dancers ‘challenged’ by the music, and so more self-aware, and more critically engaged with music, so better able to engage with patriarchy and dismantle it?

Even I can’t quite come at that point. But I think it’s worth thinking about. Particularly as I spent some time in the Duchamp exhibition at the Stockholm museum of modern art just before I went to Herräng. And the avant garde movement does have its roots in the 1920s. Perhaps we can’t properly be jazz dancers, if we aren’t also properly engaged with the radical artistic movements and thinking of the day? Or perhaps its enough just to be a crazy solo dancer, throwing off the confines of partner dancing narrative structure, with its heteronormativity.

Hm. Even I’ll need a bit of convincing on that one.

2 Replies to “Thinking from Herräng. Post no.3”

  1. I’m a little curious about the “don’t micromanage” statement – I feel like I’m missing a some context on it. While the point about a good collection of music is true, I believe that a load of great songs played in random order doesn’t necessarily make for a great dance set, even if all the music is great dance music. Who said it? (sorry if it’s somewhere else on your blog that I missed)

    A few points:
    I have some tracks in my collection which go down an absolute storm if I get the moment right. Get it wrong and they can fall flat.

    Why should micromanaging be about babying the dancers? It can just as easily be about pushing them – subtly encouraging less able dancers to dance to music that would normally have them running for their seats (for example).

    If as a DJ I can’t get more people dancing and having fun by carefully selecting songs than I could by putting it on shuffle…. well – I might as well give up now.

    Finally – and perhaps this is a little selfish of me – I love DJing – I love managing the atmosphere and feel of a floor, and the relationship between DJ, music and dancers. Take that away from me, and I lose too much of my own enjoyment and energy, and we need that on those late nights….

    Like you, I think I’d need a lot more convincing.

    Andy

  2. Andy! Good to hear from you!
    Yes, it’s a tricky one. The point RE micromanaging: it’s a short way of saying that DJs manage the energy or flow of the dancing by making song choices (or thinking a lot about song choices). The argument is that good music should be able to just stand on its own, regardless of song order, so you should just be able to press ‘shuffle’ on a collection and end up with a great set of dancing music.

    I actually find it a really provocative and interesting idea. I know I’m a micromanaging DJ. I think a lot about DJing. Not so much when I’m _actually_ DJing, though. When I’m up there, playing music, I tend to go with my instincts. I just play the next song that feels ‘right’. I do put some thought into what I see happening in the dancers’s bodies – if they look exhausted, I chill it out, if they’re totally peaking and crazy, I line up a bit of an emotional break in the near future, etc etc. Mostly because I want them to have the stamina to go the whole night.

    But what if you did just put your collection on shuffle?
    I think that I’d probably winnow it down to a smaller subset of my music first. But then, that’s pretty much managing the music too – just on a smaller scale.

    And what about bands – did they/_do_ they think about what the dancers might want to hear next? Did/do they ‘work the crowd’? I don’t know. I know that some artists did and do. Watching Pokey Lafarge play live, and then listening to this: http://www.npr.org/2014/07/21/333726463/pokey-lafarge-live-in-concert-newport-folk-2014?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=nprmusic&utm_term=music&utm_content=20140731 he’s clearly paying attention to what the crowd feels and wants to do. He’s not just walking through a static play list; he’s tailoring the set and his performance for the audience.

    I think, really, that you have to be _extremely_ good to get away with ‘just playing the music’. Which I guess is at the heart of this: are you that good? Is your music that good?

    Of course, if you are a rock star DJ (or even a teacher doing a one-off set), traveling all the world and with a heap of promotional power behind you, and set up in the prime sets, dancers are predisposed – primed – to like your set. But if you’re a DJ playing a weekly gig to a smaller crowd (without the critical mass, energy, and full on stamina of an exchange or large event), you don’t have these advantages. And if you fuck up, you don’t get to just hop on a plane to the next city. You have to wear the bitching online and face to face for the next few weeks. And hope like hell you get another set.

    At any rate, this is an idea I keep coming back to. Is the music enough to stand on its own? Do we over-value DJs?
    My experience says no. Good DJing is a skill, and the simple fact that jazz and swing aren’t familiar or everyday music for most dancers (especially new dancers) means that we need DJs with skills.

    I’m also wondering what role dance classes, performances and competitions play in setting up dancers so they can ‘dance to anything’. This was actually an issue that came up in that DJ session at Herrang: how do you get dancers ready to dance a) to anything, or b) to know how to dance to different types of music. I guess the distinction (made then, and I’m trying to make here), is that lindy hop isn’t a one-size-fits-all dance. To be able to dance to all sorts of music, we have to a) be able to recognise the difference between song and musical styles, b) have the skills and willingness to dance different types of dances, with all sorts of people, and c) to approach dancing as a chance to explore music, and connect with other humans, rather than as a pass to a ‘good lindy hop dance’.
    If we are going to be part of a historical project, we can’t stop with lindy hop. We need to have a much broader set of dance skills, from the 20s (or whenever) ’til _the current day_.

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