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September 6, 2009

in which we ask 'why ya buggin?!' and then learn to whom the house actually belongs

Posted by dogpossum on September 6, 2009 5:18 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music | Comments (3)

Last night I did one of the most challenging gigs I've ever done. It was for a very large event - around one thousand punters and dozens of performers, including a large band, two troupes of swing dancers, heaps of burlesque dancers and some international MC talent. My role was fairly extensive: warming the room at the beginning of the night before the burlesque performers; handling the music for an hour's worth of burlesque and lindy hop performances; DJing a (very crowded) smokey back room full of non-dancers. I was also required for a couple of hours of rehearsals in the late afternoon before the event began.

The first bit - the room warming - was the easiest. I've done this sort of thing many times before, and it went well. I played the usual high-energy, hi-fi swinging jazz, so it's not worth giving you the set list, really. There was a designated dance floor with a series of graduated standing areas overlooking the dance floor and the stage. This bit went well - swing dancers (of all stripes) getting down in the usual way. I think I did a pretty good job getting a crowd of mostly non-dancers wearing full 'gangster' getup excited. But there were delays and the main act started half an hour late. This can be challenging, especially as I was being updated every five minutes: "one more song, one more song." So I was working on a song-by-song basis, and couldn't really manage the energy in a more complex way. Crudely put, if the performance was the climax, I was keeping these guys on the brink for an uncomfortably long time. If I'd known there'd be so long a delay, I'd have let them down a bit, then worked them up again. But then, that's the way these things go sometimes, and it taught me something.

The performances were nerve wracking. Me plus a light guy carefully managing a series of complicated lighting effects and music for ten different performances, with a bunch of spruiking and MCing in between each. The bit that made this so nerve-wracking was that each performer had a different cue - some entered with their music, some had the music begin after they were in position, etc etc etc. In itself, challenging, but not freak out stuff. But the running sheet I'd been given didn't include all these cues and some of the cues had been changed. These sorts of things could have been ironed out in rehearsals, but the rehearsals weren't managed, and there was no real communication between the performers and the tech doods (including me).

Watching the lighting guy (a young fella who obviously loved what he was doing) work, I was absolutely stunned by his skills. He was working with performers who ranged from those who really didn't know what they wanted to the super-professional. The first act included a shadow screen set up, which then transitioned to standard spotlight/varying light scheme set up. And he managed it marvelously. Though he turned to me with a 'omfg, that was tense' expression at the end. I was really impressed by the way this bloke synchronised the lighting, the music and the performance. He was literally moving along with the music and performer, the way he worked the lighting clearly an extension of what he felt in the music. As you might imagine, the performers' ability to articulate their creative intentions was absolutely pivotal here. But he was the type of young bloke who worked well with women, and also had really good people skills.

At this point, I have to say: I'm not keen on burlesque. Sure, some of those women (and there were all, but one, women) had some mad choreographic skills, some kickass technical movement/technique skills, but not all of them. And, ultimately, this was about revealing and displaying and exhibiting the female body for titillation. Only a couple really had control over the audience, really working the responses and manipulating them effectively. Only one really used more than one layer of meaning in their performance.
Having seen these women backstage in their pre-show jitters, then rehearsing, then finally performing, I was able to see a little more than the final 'product', and this gave me a bit of critical distance. While most of the acts really didn't have that sensual/provocative/erotic edge that makes you forget what you're doing and _respond_, having the distance of the tech booth/rehearsal process allowed me to step back and technically assess what I saw rather than to respond. I know there are arguments for burlesque as women reclaiming sensual performance or using bodies and femininity for control, and I am also very much aware of the fact that there is also a vast range of types of burlesque, but, ultimately, there is some seriously gendered shit going on here. And these are women's bodies displayed for an erotic gaze which is, essentially, male (for all the reasons Laura Mulvey described). And I'm not comfortable with this.
I am, however, far more comfortable with some of the blues dance and multi-layered performances of the jazz dance vernacular. There, humour is an essential defuser and complicator of the erotic frisson. The power dynamic is far more complex, and far more interestingly negotiated. I guess I'm also more used to women in lindy hop and charleston, where their bodies are displayed, but in acts of athleticism and strength, in partnership with men (who's bodies are equally on display). The historical context and content of these dances is also more complicated; while you might make an argument for burlesque today as decontextualised and potentially more liberatory or transgressive, its roots are -absolutely - in the objectification and commodification of the sexualised female body. And burlesque cannot, ultimately, easily escape this. At this point, I have to just signpost, briefly, the queer eye. Or rather, the awesomeness of badass dykes at this event, and their responses to the burlesque costuming and performance. 1) It was different; 2) It was less problematic. I also have to say: the women in the audience knew how to cheer the boy burlesque performer, but the response to the women performers was more subdued. I think it's the humour that makes the difference: it releases the tension of the eroticism.

From the performances, I was to have a 30 minute break, but this didn't happen. I just ran for a toilet break, then it was off to the back room, where I was down to do an hour of DJing for a crowd of drinkers, 'casino' players and dancers. The DJ in there had the room in a frenzy. It was amazing. Within a song, I was mad keen to dance - I wanted to forget DJing completely and just dance like a fool. I wanted to jump into that crowd and go nuts. But the DJ had another gig to go to, and I was supposed to take on. But it was a real challenge. He was playing a range of 50s-70s soul/funk/early RnB, etc. All amazing stuff - nothing ordinary or really familiar. Etta James tracks I'd never heard. Freeking awesome original versions of songs I only knew in white-ified jump blues-made-into-rock-n-roll incarnations. In other words, fucking great music, but a difficult place to begin when you're billed as a 'swing' DJ.

I have tried moving from this stuff to jazz before, and it's really, really difficult. The flattened out tempos of swing - the swing - often feels too 'smooth' and laid back for the dancers after the jagged, up-and-down energy of kicking rock and roll. The melodies can also be too complex.
So I began with a bit of Etta James, then some Aretha Franklin. Sell out stuff - nothing new or unfamiliar. I had no idea where to go from there. So I tried my usual transition-to-swing stuff (a bit of funkified 50s/60s high energy groove). I felt the energy drop immediately. Then I went to the swing. Man, that floor emptied. Five songs later, I was desperate. I'd been asked specifically to play swing. But even neo swing wasn't going to work here. The good, solid chunking lindy hopping favourites weren't working. There were very few lindy hoppers in the room, but there wasn't room on the floor for them to dance. And when they did dance, the other non-dancing punters would clear a spontaneous circle around them, which wasn't what I wanted - I wanted 100% crowded-floor dancing action. And then I thought, 'hells, what's the jazz version of badass, kicking 50s/60s/70s RnB/funkity/soul rock-n-roll?'

It seems charleston is the best dance after all.

For the next hour I played nothing but hi-fi 20s-style hot jazz. Stuff that makes me want to charleston til I wish I'd worn two bras instead of one. Because that shit was the badassery of the prohibition era. The room was full of chicks in fringed dresses and blokes in suits and fedoras. And smoke. And there were blackjack tables and beer on the floor. It was a fairly skanky place, with a raised level where punters could sit and drink and watch. At one point the room was packed with chicks making up charleston, blokes who looked like they'd been reading The Sartorialist fancifying their footwork and badass dykes in awesome suits trying to pass me their number. It was the funnest of fun gigs ever.
I came in with Zonky, because I figured most people would know the 'Inspector Gadget' riff. And because the New Orleans Jazz Vipers do that sort of punk-street-jazz thing so well. It was a bit long, but it had the sort of chunky 1-2, 1-2 rhythm that makes me want to fling my arms in the air like I just don't care. People really, really liked it. It's 200bpm, which is twice as fast as your average pop song.
By this stage I'd realised that the sound set up was flawed. After the wonderfulness of the main room, I realised why the preceding DJ had pointed out the dodgy gain/master relationship. Information I passed onto the following DJ, who struggled even more than I did. This made me decide that I was only going to play hi-fi repro stuff. After the difficult earlier songs, I wasn't brave enough to try the lo-fi. But I didn't mind - I've been buying lots of repro stuff lately, and I wanted to see how it would go down. Vince Giordano, master of repro hot jazz, was the perfect option.

Shake That Thing made people shake their things. As Skeets Tolbert said, "stuff's out, stuff that's never been out before". A room full of women in corsets and stockings amounted to a room full of boob-outage. It was awe-inspiring. There was a gang of dykes in a combination of formidable bosom/corset, suit/moustache costume who really dug the 20s thing and were actually very nice to me, cheering me on (which I needed in the early stages). There was a guy who had a Tesla moustache, an ivory-topped cane and bowler hat who was a whisker away from perfect cake walking awesomeness. There was plenty of high-action prancing and elaborate posing in the crowd, and it was just fabulous. At the beginning of that song a bunch of lindy hoppers burst into the room and charlestoned their stuff out. It was a definite high point in my DJing career: a room of mixed punters in hardcore 20s costume dancing like crazy maniacs to the hottest music I know.
Then I figured I'd ease off a bit, energy wise, and play some Midnight Serenaders, a band I figured would absolutely fit in with this crowd. Same sparse, 1-2 rhythm, spankin' trumpet solos, hot jazz action.
I wanted to go a little quirky here, and to break the 'no cheese' rule, so I played some Janet Klein, because I like the way the words of I ain't that kind of a baby contrasted with You Got To give me some. It's cutesy, but in a modern way; heavy on the retro, but with a punky aesthetic. And because I was talking dirty, I had to go with some Asylum Street Spankers and the ubiquitous Shave em Dry. It was a pretty dirty, dirtier than the crowd were expecting, I think. But some in the room knew the band, and the live recording adds energy to the room. The stomping beat is infectious and the mood is generally heaps of fun.
By then I'd been sitting a little lower on the tempos, and I wanted to kick the energy back up again, to capitalise on the boost Shave em Dry always gives. This version of Digadigadoo is absolutely rocking. It's super fast, and super fun. I've DJed it for dancers a few times before, and even though it's really long, it keeps them dancing like nuts. It worked a treat with these guys too. but they were absolutely shagged by the end. So Minor Drag for a rest. More NOJV. Yes, I played a lot of them. But that's because they rock. I wanted to do some Loose Marbles, but I didn't know their action well enough to risk it on such a chancy crowd. MD was a bit too long, and a bit too minor key to really work. So I went with If You're a Viper to use the drug references as a cheap win. But it wasn't so successful. Note to self: if you think a song tries a little too hard and doesn't quite win you over, it won't work on a crowd of non-dancers either.
I like this version of Stevedore Stomp (Duke Heitger). I wanted to see if a slightly swingier edge would work with this crowd. It went down well, but apparently they don't hold no truck with that new-fangled rhythm. They were really quite tired by then, though, so I dropped it down with another punt - the MS's version of Handyman. Which people liked, but I didn't like all that on-dance-floor snogging and sexing up. So I chunked it back up with some more Giordano. And teh orsm. By this stage the next DJ was ready to go, so I played one more to give him time to plug in properly, and then I was off. And went straight to the bar where a nice barman refilled my 2L water bottle, goddess bless him.

Yes, I did play two versions of Shake That Thing. I've done that a couple of times lately. Because I am, basically, lazy. And a bad DJ. But it's a really good song, and I like the two different treatments. I was looking for a version of Charleston or Charleston is the best dance after all, but I was, frankly, too fucking tired after six hours of DJing, to find it.

So, overall, it was a really fun set. Started really badly, was heartbreaking to bust that preceding DJ's fucking awesome vibe, but finished well. If only lindy hoppers would hack a set that fast. Guess it takes a bunch of alcohol, pin-striped suits and masses of magnificent bosom to bring out our inner badassery, I guess.

This is the (mini) set:

Zonky New Orleans Jazz Vipers 203 2006 Hope You're Comin' Back 5:06
Shake That Thing Vince Giordano 230 2004 The Aviator 2:59
You Got to Give Me Some Midnight Serenaders 190 2007 Magnolia 4:02
I Ain’t That Kind of a Baby Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys 159 2008 Ready For You 2:59
Shave 'em Dry Asylum Street Spankers 131 1997 Nasty Novelties 4:21
Digadoo Firecracker Jazz Band 247 2005 The Firecracker Jazz Band 5:20
Blue Drag New Orleans Jazz Vipers 181 2002 The New Orleans Jazz Vipers 4:23
If You're A Viper New Orleans Jazz Vipers 156 2004 Live On Frenchmen Street 3:57
Stevedore Stomp Duke Heitger And His Swing Band 239 2000 Rhythm Is Our Business 4:18
My Handyman Midnight Serenaders 95 2007 Magnolia 5:11
Quality Shout Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra 232 1993 Quality Shout 3:03
Shake That Thing Mora's Modern Rhythmists 227 2006 Devil's Serenade 2:58

If I'd had any idea I'd be playing this stuff, I'd have spent more time on it than I did on the neo. But I had no clue. If I could do it over, I'd come in loud and proud with some skankin' charleston. I'd stick to the hot stuff, lay off the swing and keep the tempos high. I'd use the same sort of stuff. In a perfect world, I'd use the original recordings as well as newer stuff. But the newer guys, the guys who're into the hot jazz - the punker-street-jazz guys - really encapsulated the energy of that event. The neo swing world has more in common with punk than swing jazz, and hot 20s jazz really has more in common with punk than swing, attitude-wise. It's just built for showing off, and doesn't have the shmaltzy edge some swing can have.

It was a long, hard night, I didn't do quite as well as I would have liked sometimes, I worked really hard in challenging conditions, and I realised my DJing skills were quite specific: I can work a room full of people who know how to dance. But I'm challenged by a room of non-dancing drinkers, especially as my music is so unfamiliar. Non-swing dancers are challenged by the swing, I think. Another small, but very important thing I learnt: lindy hoppers like space between the songs to stop and talk and change partners - at least 5 seconds. Non dancers don't know what to do with the gap. Though I ended up getting applause at the end of songs they liked, which was weird, but I guess that's what you do with some dead air when you like something.

Posted by dogpossum on September 6, 2009 5:18 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music


Posted by: Lexi at September 7, 2009 1:31 PM

Re: burlesque.

I'm interested in how men actually respond to it... I know that it is interpellating them into the position of the voyeur, but in my experience watching burlesque, it seems to make many men very uncomfortable.

Women are comfortable hootin' and hollerin' as female performers strut and show their stuff, where men often aren't. So does this support the burlesque as liberation/reclamation of sexual identity idea? Or no?

Personally I am not a fan of burlesque as it does seem to be constructing the female body in an erotic mode that is only to be consumed. I can see how people would feel it as empowering, but I think not really.

Interesting thoughts...

Posted by: Lexi at September 7, 2009 1:31 PM

Posted by: dogpossum at September 7, 2009 2:02 PM

Hey Lexi, good to hear from you.

I'm still a bit conflicted over burlesque. I mean, I have seen burlesque performers do some really arse kicking stuff. But then I've also seen some dodgy stuff.
After the weekend, I'm particularly interested in the economic context: I'm interested in working conditions for these performers (dressing rooms, rehearsal times and spaces, pay, hours, breaks, protection from sexual harassment, safe work places, etc etc). I think these things are very important in framing the meaning of the performers' final 'performance' text.
I also think the 'framing' on stage is important - how are they introduced? Who MCs their performance? Where in the room are they performing? Are they showcased or 'time fillers' ? Are they the only burlesque performer? Is the only type of female performer we see on that stage a burlesque act? Are there lindy hoppers involved? Or other types of dancers?
And then I'm interested in their framing in promotional material: are they listed by name on posters, etc? Are there links to their websites on the event website?
... not to mention issues of representation and agents.

And all that before we even get to analysing the actual performances.

RE the responses of the crowd. I think that a good MC sets up a burlesque performer in a way that signals to the audience how they should respond. I also think the ordering of acts is important - eg a slow, sexy, quiet 'serious' burlesque tease probably shouldn't follow a loud, raucous comedic acrobatic act, at least not unless the MC has reworked the energy in the room to get them ready for the change in pace.
I like to compare the reactions with the reactions to belly dancers. When I did some belly dance, there was discussion of how the audience responds, and about crowd participation. One of the comments I remember was that 'men always look ridiculous when they join the belly dancer and dance, but women don't' and that this was important because the belly dancer bringing the man on stage, or dancing with him in the crowd was a way of reducing his power and ... not humiliating him, but enforcing her power and status through their comparative abilities. But this of course relies upon crowd participation - on our seeing another body on-stage with the belly dancer. And this doesn't happen with all burlesque acts.
I'm also interested in the differences between queer audiences and straight audiences for burlesque. Something different happens when you destabilise the heteronormativity. Something different happens when you put burlesque - with all its hyper-sexualied, hyper-gendered performance - into a setting where gender is already the subject of debate and negotiation and transgression and subversion.

So the gender of the audience is as important as the gender of the performer.

Ultimately, I have trouble with burlesque. I'm not comfortable with it, politically. I mean, I often enjoy the actual acts, and I can appreciate a good performance/performer. But these things don't exist in a vacuum - they're framed and presented on particular terms.

I think male burlesque is more transgressive than female, if only because we are doing a little commutation test: how is the text and meaning changed when the body under the erotic gaze is male?

I keep thinking about it, and I need, ultimately, to see more burlesque before I can even begin to speak authoritatively about it.

Posted by: dogpossum at September 7, 2009 2:02 PM

Posted by: kait at September 11, 2009 7:48 AM

interesting stuff, especially since the burlesque and pinup stuff seems to be just now really taking off among the lindy hoppers here. (i didn't go to this year's southern belle dance weekend, but a lot of people seem to have come back raving about burlesque.) i admit to being a little puzzled by it all.

and whee... i usually defer "swing" sets for mixed lindy/non-dance crowds to other DJs who have more soul/funk/motown/neo/etc. so hearing that your 20s-style set went down so well = pure vicarious joy!

Posted by: kait at September 11, 2009 7:48 AM

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