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May 22, 2009

djing for balboa... again, and not terribly well

Posted by dogpossum on May 22, 2009 1:52 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music

Last night I DJed for balboa dancers again. That makes three times, ever. I'm not sure I'm much good at it. I can't quite figure out what they like and whether they're really into the stuff I'm playing. They're very kind and thank me for my DJing, but I'm not quite sure I'm cutting it. There are a few challenges: I don't dance balboa very often and I've never attended a hardcore all-bal weekend or event. I don't lead bal very often at all, and I don't really understand the way balboa dancers use space or the music, so I'm not so good at reading the floor - it all looks small and tight and lowenergy to me. Because I don't go to balboa dancers, I have no idea which songs are 'popular' or favourites, so I have no careful 'safety song' list.
So far I've noticed they like: 'Jive at Five' - Basie (1939). Ellington's 'Rockin' In Rhythm' (1931) went down well last night, as did some Katharine Whalen (Just You Just Me). Mora's Modern Rhythmists' 'Tar Paper Stomp' has gone down well in the past, so I tested them with Wingy Manone's 'Jumpy Nerves' (1939). I've talked about all the songs that use the 'In The Mood' riff before, and 'Jumpy Nerves' is just one of them. It's a nice little song - it doesn't feel rough and fast or aggressive. It's about 177bpm, but it feels mellow. The familiar riff often makes people feel a bit more comfortable as well.

I also did a little shark jumping, playing some Bob Wills. I love 'Stay A Little Longer', but I'm fairly sure it won't work for lindy hop. It's solid western swing, and the the rhythms don't quite work for 8 count lindy. I was wondering if balboa dancers could do something with it. Well, people really liked the song (once they got over mocking me for the hardcore western-ness of it), but they did find it tricky to dance to. I don't know if I'll play it again.

I think part of my problem with DJing for bal dancers is that I've not seen lots of very experienced bal dancers social dancing. I'm thinking of the international doods who dance bal hardcore. I've not sat and watched a crowd of them dancing all weekend. Nor have I listened to a weekend's worth of music. So I have no clue about the 'elite' bal scene (ie, I have no idea of what to aim for). I don't know much about the history of the dance, either.
Look, here's a clip of two very famous olden days balboa dancers, Hal and Betty Takier. The 'balboa' bits are usually recognised as the stuff in closed. But bal isn't necessarily all in closed position unless it's (to use the nomenclature but not to imply any 'rules') 'pure bal':

I have done a bit of research and asked a lot of questions, but all I really 'know' is that bal developed during the 30s and continued. As with lindy hoppers, there was a preference for big bands (which I suspect was a consequence of local culture - big ballrooms (where most people danced) hired big bands to fill big spaces, and because big bands were mega popular). Swing was super popular in the 30s and early to mid 40s, and the 'dixie' sound of 20s New Orleans was considered a bit naff - sort of 'old news' - though it was popular withe NO revivalists. By the 40s bebop was developing and live music culture was changing a bit. All this means is that there were lots of things going on in the 30s and 40s, musically. And we can infer that this meant some of it was popular with some people. I suspect then, as now, there were different patterns of taste and influence, depending on the age, interests, location, class and so on of individual dancers and small pockets of dancers.

What do balboa camps or events in the US look like?

Asking people overseas, watching clips of famous bal dancers and hassling visiting dancers or well-traveled dancers isn't all that helpful either, really. While such and such might be very popular in LA at the moment, each local scene has different musical tastes. These are shaped by a range of factors a) the music teachers play in class, b) what teachers say about music in class, c) what local DJs are playing, d) dancers' exposure to different tempos and styles - what they hear in all these spaces - and whether they've danced to these different songs. The usual ideas apply to tempos - more experienced dancers are better equipped for dealing with (and enjoying) a wider range of tempos and musical complexity. New dancers are often happy to dance to anything, but they can feel too intimidated to try something fast if they're not dancing with someone they feel comfortable with.

So while I might be thinking 'I'll play X, because my friends overseas love it, I've seen it in dance clips from comps, so I'm assuming locals have also watched these clips and are into it too,' it's more likely that a small class group will only have heard music from their classes. The strongest influences on local music tastes are still teachers, particularly for dancers who spend most of their dancing time during the week at classes. This is particularly true of students with the local McDonalds dance school - I've noticed it in Melbourne, and here in Sydney, that their musical tastes are largely homogenous, mostly because their teachers tend also to look within their school for musical tastes and dancing influences. Which isn't really surprising - we do tend to keep to our peer groups and to the opinions and examples of people we admire and have contact with. Thing is, my knowledge of balboa and music for dancing to balboa is so limited that I don't even know what's 'cool' with this small group of local dancers.

I don't want to slag off the local bal teachers, mind you. I've always found bal dancers and teachers to be particularly welcoming people, and to be very supportive of my DJing (far more than lindy hoppers) and also to be most prepared to experiment with new music and new dancing ideas. Part of me, though, suspects that the small, specialist/fanatics pond which encourages such a nice, friendly and supportive culture also inhibits a broader overview of music and dancing styles. But I also suspect that idea is bullshit: often the most hardcore fans have the most hardcore knowledge of the object of their fanaticism. And balboa - as with blues to some degree - is pretty specialist in Sydney and Australia. These dancers are also disproportionately well-traveled; many of them travel overseas to balboa festivals.

Of course, the easiest solution to my balboa DJing quandary is to get out there and dance some freakin' balboa. But there are a couple of impediments here: my injured foot is in no way ready for hardcore balboa learning and dancing, and I'm just not that into dancing bal. If I had to choose between bal and lindy, I'd choose lindy every time. And because my dancing is so limited (as in non-existent) these days, I can't imagine 'wasting' a dancing opportunity on bal. In fact, if I had to choose between lindy, bal or jazz these days, I'd be 100% jazz; I just find it most interesting and challenging.

All this just goes to show that to be an excellent DJ for dancers you have to:
a) dance the dance they're into, and dance it frequently;
b) travel a lot - as a dancer and DJ - and pay attention to the music and dancing you see going on around you;
c) learn a lot - watch video clips, read about music and dance, eavesdrop on discussion boards and take classes;
d) keep your finger on the local community pulse; just cause it's cool in the US, doesn't mean it'll fly in Sydney;
e) make changes slowly and gradually, don't assume you can just drop in and change dancers' worlds;
f) be prepared to be wrong most of the time. Keep your eyes and ears open, and be prepared to change your opinions and ideas about DJing as you DJ;
g) accept that though there's some underlying logic and some consistencies in how people respond to music and how you can manipulate the responses of a crowd, at the end of the day, you have to stop thinking and just go with your instincts and feel what's going down. Just like dancing.

I'm enjoying learning how to DJ for balboa dancers because it is so challenging. It's making me rethink everything I've assumed about musical tastes and dancer/DJ responses.

Right now I'm working with these assumptions:
a) Bal dancers in Sydney are more comfortable with a range of tempos than local lindy hoppers are: bal doods are happy in the 160-250bpm range, and will happily have a bash at anything faster. Lindy hoppers in Sydney are most comfortable in the 120-160bpm range, though they will stretch if you're sneaky and take care to not overwork their energy/fitness (hopefully we'll see an increase in tempos, but only if teachers in class get the tempos above 115!!).
b) Bal dancers can work with lowenergy/high tempo combinations, but lindy hoppers have more trouble (I find experienced dancers are ok, but newer dancers need to be fired up with higher energy to work with higher tempos... but that could just be how I work as a DJ; the theory needs wider testing).
c) Bal dancers are more interested in the type of music I currently love - early 30s stuff. They like a variety (as most rooms full of diverse people do), but they're interested in exploring this earlier stuff. Most of this earlier stuff is a bit faster, so they're happy with the stuff play.
d) Some stuff just screams 'lindy hop!' But I'm not quite sure where the line is - when something stops being bal and screams lindy hop. I suspect it's entirely subjective. But I'm also fairly sure it has something to do with the rhythms and the horizontal feel of the music. I can't really explain that further beyond a feeling that bal feels more like early swing and hot jazz than like later swing that's super swingy. I could be wrong there, but I just don't have the experience to judge that yet.

Anyways, here's the set I played last night. It was a small crowd, with only about six leads to about twelve follows. It was a small, after class gig (and people've been dancing and learning intensely for a couple of hours already), so the emphasis was on 'practicing', low-stress dancing, socialising and touching base with people. After-class gigs also have a stronger focus on the teachers and a group of people who know each other quite well, so the social dynamic is a bit different to a general en masse social dance. It's a pub venue, so people are also buying drinks and drinking. The sound system is decent, the floor is small.

(title artist bpm album length)

I've Got To Think It Over Willie 'The Lion' Smith and his Cubs 164 Willie 'The Lion' Smith And His Cubs 2:37
Call Me A Taxi Four Of The Bob Cats 175 1938 All Star Jazz Quartets (disc 2) 3:13
The Wedding Samba Bob Crosby and the Bobcats 187 1950 Bob Crosby and the Bobcats: The Complete Standard Transcript 2:30
Flying Home Benny Goodman Sextet with Charlie Christian 167 1940 Charlie Christian: The Genius of The Electric Guitar (disc 1) 3:16
You'll Wind Up On Top Bus Moten and his Men 182 1949 Kansas City - Jumping The Blues From 6 To 6 2:47
We're Muggin' Lightly Leo Mathisen's Orkester 227 1942 Leo Mathiesen 1942-43 Terrific Rhythm 3:03
Jive At Five Count Basie and his Orchestra 174 1939 The Complete Decca Recordings (disc 03) 2:51
Jumpy Nerves Wingy Manone and his Orchestra with Chu Berry 177 1939 Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Disc 5) 2:53
The Mayor Of Alabam' Frankie Trumbauer and his Orchestra with Jack Teagarden 206 1936 King Of The Blues Trombone - 2 3:14
Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, Part 1 Benny Goodman Quartet with Martha Tilton 176 1937 RCA Victor Small Group Recordings (Disc 2) 3:27
Just You, Just Me Katharine Whalen 181 1999 Jazz Squad 3:22
Stay A Little Longer Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 232 The Tiffany Transcriptions (vol 2) 3:07
Let's Misbehave Boilermaker Jazz Band 196 2006 You Do Something To Me 2:52
Zonky New Orleans Jazz Vipers 203 2006 Hope You're Comin' Back 5:06
Minor Swing Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five 202 2003 Jammin' the Blues 3:24
My Blue Heaven Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra 170 1935 Swingsation - Jimmie Lunceford 3:16
Rockin' In Rhythm - Take 2 The Jungle Band with Duke Ellington 190 1931 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 05) 2:53
Twenty Four Robbers Fats Waller and his Rhythm 196 1941 Last Years (1940-1943) (Disc 2) 2:43
Charlie the Chulo - Take 2 Duke Ellington 225 1940 The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition: Complete RCA Victor Recordings (disc 10) 3:10
Stomp It Off Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra 190 1934 Swingsation - Jimmie Lunceford 3:09
Honeysuckle Rose Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys 180 The Tiffany Transcriptions (vol 7) 2:12

As you can see, I have - once again - some music without dates. Back to the discographies. I find I'm having to go in there regularly to update my collection. I could just pay for a subscription, but I quite like visiting the library - free student shows in the cafeteria or in the concert hall, books, vinyl collections to raid, human beings to meet, and it's right near the FREAKIN' OPERA HOUSE in circular quay. Win!

I am currently obsessed with Willie the Lion Smith. He didn't head up too many bands, but he was an important pianist in lots of other people's bands. I'm also coming out of a Bob Crosby fad. More NO revival stuff, but it's sweet. I need to see the Australian Bob Crosby 'tribute band' the Ozcats real soon, so I can compare. Those two Crosby songs are quite different in sound and style, so they don't sound too 'samey'.

That Benny Goodman small group stuff is very popular with balboa dancers, I've noticed. The teachers played some in class, and I've heard other Australian bal DJs/teachers talking about it. I'm suspecting it's perhaps a fad; I love it and think it's marvelously complex, but it can be a bit lower energy. I prefer Willie The Lion Smith for that sort of feel, partly because he's higher energy. At any rate, that particular song is a V-Disc recording. Or so Benny Goodman says in the intro. But the wikipedia entry says that VDiscs weren't started until 1941, so either the date on that recording is wrong (which is from a large, fancy Charlie Christian boxset who's accuracy I hesitate to question) or the wikipedia entry is wrong. Whatever. I like the live intro. This song was played in class and drew people onto the floor immediately.

I love Bus Moten. I play a few of his slower songs for lindy hoppers a lot. This song has a lovely, cheery feel and feels nice and bouncy. Bus' vocal style is mellow and laid back, and he has quite a nice, light voice. The lyrics are way dirty, but you can just pretend he's singing about ... well, something else. People liked the song. I haven't played this for dancers before.

I love that Mathisen song. I haven't played it for dancers before. Mathisen is a Danish pianist who sounds like Fats Waller. This song starts out sounding a bit like Goodman - kind of tinkly and 'chamber jazz', but it has a bit of an edge and is a little hotter. A minute in the vocals begin, and the tone changes completely - it feels hot and more like Fats Waller with lots of silly chuntering vocals that actually feel wonderfully rhythmic rather than obscuring or impeding the beat. Some of the lower sax parts remind me of MBRB and that brand of New York early 30s hotness. Though Mathisen is a pianist, the song doesn't focus on his playing the way Fats' recordings tend to.
I don't know if this worked for balboa dancers. I think I'll test it on lindy hoppers. I know I'd love to lindy hop to it.

'Jive At Five' is a safety song, and filled the floor again after that last, faster song. It also feels laid back. It's an old favourite with most lindy hoppers who've been around a while. It makes me think of Frankie Manning.

'Jumpy Nerves' I've discussed above. It was a nice transition from the mellow JaF, and kept the mellower vibe that's quite important for smaller after-class gigs I've noticed.

I freakin' LOVE 'Mayor Of Alabam''. It's the combo of Teagarden vocals (he's my MAN), the bouncy, sprightly rhythm and melody. Another example of vocals working with the rhythms rather than drowning out or obscuring the beat.

'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' is an old bal fave from Melbourne. I love this version for Martha Tilton's vocals and the laid back, slightly minor treatment by the rest of the band. It builds and builds energy but doesn't quite explode. It's a good builder to follow with a high energy song. Also, it's a good version of a song which is overplayed in a poorer, horrible version.

The Katharine Whalen song was a strange choice for me. I'd listened to it in the afternoon and thought it might work for bal, whereas it's not so great for lindy. This is, essentially, the Squirrel Nut Zippers (some of whom are in the Asylum Street Spankers and the Firecracker Jazz Band). I chose it for the good, hi-fi quality, the chunky beat and Whalen's vocals to follow on from Tilton's (Whalen's a bit like Madeline Peryoux, but BETTER). I wanted to pump up the energy, and hi-fi is a good way to go. I was priming the room for the Bob Wills song, which is high energy, but perhaps too tricky for bal.

Then the Boilermakers as a 'recovery' song - they're popular in Sydney and the sort of music people've been dancing to bal to in Melbourne... not sure it works for this crowd, though.
'Zonky' was perhaps a mistake. I was flogging a dead horse - too much of the same, hi-fi, hot stuff. It's too long a song, too. But I love it and didn't think people could hack the McKinney's Cotton Pickers' version. Also, I was talking and not 100% focussed.

'Minor Swing' is a bal fave and was a calculated floor filler.

'My Blue Heaven' because people were getting tired, but still wanted to dance. This is a good song, but the vocals aren't properly mixed - the rest of the band goes really quiet, which sucks. Otherwise, it's quite mellow and nice, and people know the melody.

'Rockin' in Rhythm' is the fushiz. I love this sort of Ellington stuff. It went down ok, but people were kind of over hardcore dancing by then, and the leads were buggered.

The Fats song is quite well known, and someone requested some Waller. Which wasn't hard to accommodate.

'Charlie The Chulo' is my passion. I keep coming back to it. I don't think it's so great for lindy hop (though I've seen some great dancing to it). I thought I'd test it on the bal dancers. But perhaps it was too full on for too late in the night. Some people liked it.

The last two were really just fillers til we ended the night. An early night at 10.20pm, but an hour's worth of DJing was really all I was up for. I love 'Stomp It Off' and it always goes down well with dancers. People liked that version of 'Honeysuckle Rose' as well. It's a dancers' fave, but I never play it, ever, mostly because I HATE that late Ella version with all the scatting. This Wills one is nicer. Though I did get more ribbing for the western guitar.

Then I rode home. I love riding to and from DJing in Leichardt - it's a quick, 15minute ride on a safe route, and it gets me warmed up for DJing and then lets me work out my post-DJing excitement on the way home. I managed to dodge the rain last night and had a lovely ride home in the cool, quiet evening. Sydney rainy season rocks: it's not bitterly cold and windy as it would be in Melbourne on these sorts of days.

Generally, it's a set of music I really like, but I think there's a bit too much experimentation in there. I really DJ bal like a complete bub DJ who's a new dancer - I just don't know what's 'familiar' and 'safe', I try too many 'new' songs that I love and which don't necessarily work for dancing. But they ask me back for DJing, so I mustn't suck that much.

If you're interested, here are a couple of bal clips I quite like:
AnneHelene and Bernard 2006 Bal Rendezvous. I like this couple's dancing. They're French, and very nice people. I really like his relaxed, fluid upper body. A lot of bal leads (who happen to be men) tend to carry way too much tension in their upper body, so they look stiff and uncomfortable to dance with. I don't know how to just the quality of this couple's dancing, but I like his relaxed, flowing style. It makes me want to dance balboa.

Marcus and Barbl in 2003. An oldie but a goody. They stuff up a few times, but I don't mind. No one can strut like a camp German man with a moustache.

Posted by dogpossum on May 22, 2009 1:52 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music