DJing hubris, heirarchy and hokum

And so I return to the issue of how a DJ should regard their role, prompted in part by this discussion on SwingDJs.
Before I start in, I suggest you take a peak at that thread, not only for the content, but to see how posters use photos and their real names on this discussion board. That’s kind of unusual for discussion boards, though less so for swing dancers, who ultimately realise that being ‘honest’ or not using aliases online is relevent to a community which is ultimately embodied. Membership of this community is also heavily dependent on reputation and regard for etiquette (both online and embodied).
This is stuff that I write about in my thesis in great detail – the uses of online media by an embodied community, and the ways this online participation is informed by embodied practice and relationships.
But to be on-topic, and address the issue of DJs and their role…
Firstly, I should point out (again, in thesis mode) that I’m fascinated by the tension between ‘communitas’ or community responsibility and the DJ as ‘artist’. The two positions often seem at odds, though they are occasionally combined in the notion that a DJ should be in some way an educator (a role of great status in a such a pedagogically centred community), ‘exposing’ dancers to new and ‘historically accurate’ music.
As you might expect, these sorts of arguments are tied up with conflicting notions of aesthetics or cultural ‘appropriateness’, the relationships between music and dance, the power and status of a DJ in a particular local community, the way these DJs participating in a globalised community of interest (SwingDJs itself) bring concepts of ‘DJ’ and ‘DJing’ to their local discourses, etc etc etc. It’s all very complicated and interesting, which is why I wrote a chapter on it. But more on that later. Let’s look at the specific arguments raised on SwingDJs.
Here’s an interesting comment from one of the posters in that thread:

As a DJ, isn’t our responsibility to the dancers, not to an aesthetic about artistic expressively? In my role as an event producer -or as a DJ for an hour- I am indeed being trusted to “choose for everyone”. … I’m not saying that I’m even 1% of the artist whose music I’m playing, but I am the one who gets to decide what song, when it’s played and in some cases, how it’s played. My job is to watch the room and please the dancers …

(Greg Avakian Posted: Fri May 26, 2006 07:51)
And in response:

…As a DJ, isn’t our responsibility to the dancers…
…My job is to watch the room and please the dancers…

This is pretty much my approach, at least to the extent I’m running the event. I consider it a specific kind of party, rather than just a time for swing dancing. I work very hard to play music that people enjoy, and to play it in a way that helps them achieve an emotional- and social freedom that encourages them to dance. That’s my focus. To that end, I sometimes edit songs, or change the pitch/tempo, and I do it with the dancers – not the musicians – in mind.

(Matthew, quoting Greg Avakian, Posted: Fri May 26, 2006 15:16)
These discussions fascinate me. We have much the same talk going on on Swing Talk, the Australian discussion board, but on SwingTalk the participants are DJs and dancers, rather than DJs (who are also dancers), as on SwingDJs. The discussion on SwingDJs is also informed by a wider national swing dance discourse which is older, more complex, and far more sercurely focussed on social dancing than in Australia, particularly Melbourne. Here, we are continually working to ‘convince’ people that social dancing is essential to ‘good dancing’ and far more important than classes or competitions, let alone that DJing is actually a fairly demanding craft, requiring specific skills and resources.
…I should note here that I’m well aware of the fact that the latter argument is in fact self-serving, as well as contributing to the development of heirarchies of knowledge and cultural practice (very much as Matt Hills describes heirarchies of knowledge in fan communities…). And this of course begs the question, do DJs have delusions of grandeur?
Matthew’s point that he considers a DJed dance as a ‘special kind of party’ rather than ‘just a time for swing dancing’ echoes this.
How does all this fit in with how I regard my own role as a DJ in that community, and as a dancer?
I’d like to address that second point, as I’m fascinated by the way my attitude to dancing has changed since I started DJing, but I doubt I’ll have time for it here.
So how do I regard my role as a DJ in this community, considering the fact that I’m also reading criticallly, as a feminist with decidely Red interests?
Status and power
First, I’m well aware of the way being a DJ accrues status. It’s not a financially driven status (though I appreciate the $30/$25 deals, they’re certainly not enough to live on…though it does fund my yoga and (comparatively) modest cd purchasing). But it is certainly a social status which is quite interesting.
In Melbourne, status in the swing dance scene is largely determined by one’s standing within the largest dance school (things used to be different, but this school now dominates all embodied dance and online discourse, so…). If one is the school’s principal, one has highest status. Then come visiting teachers. Then come local teachers, then teaching cadets. Within the general body of the school (ie not within the rarified circles of teachers), being a member of the elite troop is the next level of cred, followed by being a member of the lower level troop. Now, if one does not have institutional affiliation, one’s staus is kind of amorphous. Because the school does not teach or endorse alternative dance styles (why promote another company’s product?), many students simply don’t recognise other lindy styles as lindy. Which is ironic, considering the oldest old school styles are in this ‘unrecognisable’ basket.
So if you want some status, outside this formal heirarchy, but through your dance ability, you have to be able to contribute to this embodied discourse in the appropriate ‘language’ (and now I’m thinking of Nancy Fraser and women’s participation in the ‘official’ public sphere). In other words you gotta dance ‘right’.
DJing, status and power
So where does DJing fit into all this? There are other roles which accrue status – being an MLX organiser is one (though probably not the way I do it – I need to cultivate an air of inaccessability, as per the school’s relativley inaccessible heirarhcy. Not sweat all over people, demanding a dance and throwing myself down stairs). But DJing is another.
Why? Well, for a start, and perhaps most imporantly, you’re ‘in’ with those who organise the events – teachers. So you got institutional affiliation. Secondly, you got distance – you’re up there on the DJ podium and relatively physically inacessible, but certainly socially distant (you’re literally not on the same level as the dancers).
Beyond that, you certainly gain status if you’re a ‘good’ DJ. Being a good DJ, however, is a matter of opinion and observance of fashion. Again, you have to speak the right ‘language’. One of the most fascinating things about learning to DJ has been figuring out how to affect linguistic drift on the local musical accent. In other words, convincing dancers that music other than hi-fi, groovey, funky late era jazz and soul is actually ‘good’ for dancing.
The most effective way of achieving this is to sneak alternative music song types into my play lists. Paving the way with hi-fi but ‘classic sounding’ recordings of new bands (thankyou Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Kansas City Band, late Count Basie and Mora’s Modern Rhythmists), you can prepare a crowd of dancers for earlier (and in my opinion, frequently superior) versions of these now-familiar songs.
Why DJ at all?
Can you hear the whole ‘educating dancers’ theme in there? I know I can. And it makes me uncomfortable. So why do it?

  • I like the music
  • I want more people to play that stuff so I can dance to it, so I need to contribute to a market demand for it (hey, go capitalism, go)
  • I really do feel that lindy hop works ‘betterer’ with this stuff from the 30s and 40s which prompted its development in the first place
  • there’s some bloody amazing stuff in those older recordings which people do like. Once they give it a go
  • diversity = good

So how do my goals as a DJ work in with the whole DJ status thing?

  • I gotta get the dancers recognising ‘my’ music as ‘good’ if I want to be able to play it. If they don’t like it, they won’t dance. If no one dances, I don’t get gigs
  • If I have a reputation as a ‘good’ DJ, then people are more likely to accept my choices in music

All this, as I’ve said, makes me uncomfortable. I do, really, want to make the dancers happy.
It’s like a drug – a room full of dancers totally going nuts on endorphines and adrenaline – you breathe it in from the DJ stand. And while it SUCKS to have have to stand there and watch, rather getting in amongst it, it’s still wonderful. I always have a moment of ‘I guess this is what it’s like to be in a cult’ when I’m DJing well and the room is really pumping. Talk about group emotional experiences and so on. There’s no more powerful a drug than a room full of people all feeling the same thing at the same time. And music is a wonderful tool for achieving that state.
So when I do a good job as a DJ, I not only get off on the vibe, but I also really enjoy seeing people having a great time.
How do I balance this ‘me’ stuff with my feminist politics… or how does a feminist swing dance DJ do ‘communitas’ in this environment?
Argh. That’s hard. But there are things that I try to do:

  • encourage women DJs or women interested in DJing. Heck, encourage anyone interested in DJing
  • share. Share knowledge, share resources, share networks. I don’t share copies of music, but I certainly share names of artists and songs. Not only because I’m a born tutor, but also because I want to share the love. And what could be wrong with hundreds of other people loving Benny Goodman as much as I do? And there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving names to other DJs so that they can thenplay the songs so I can dance to them!!. What a total score!
  • question inequity in the DJing culture. Not that there’s much I can do about it – it’s naturally an exclusive space (what with the money, technological and time resources it demands) – but I can try. And I can think about ways to improve things
  • be accessible to dancers I don’t know or who feel intimidated when I’m DJing. Be receptive to feedback, requests and comments. Juggling this with the demands of actually DJing on the night can be hard, but… It feels the same as seeking out new dancers to dance with, or always saying yes to new dancers who ask me. If you give now, you get. It’s a win-win situation, and you’re contibuting to a more inclusive, friendly, healthy community. Perhaps undoing some of that heirarchy bullshit
  • encourage people asking about song names to buy the whole album

This last point is becoming more and more important to me. Because it’s so easy to download songs (though I challenge most people to find half – or even a tenth – of the music we play on torrents or other illegal sources), people tend not to look for the whole album to buy. This sucks because:

  • you’re fucking over a whole bunch of artists and technicians in the music industry. Even if an artist is dead, their family isn’t. And the American jazz industry has a long, long, long history of fucking over black artists. Don’t be a part of that.
  • you’re not learning. When you buy a whole album, you’re learning about an artist and band and period in history that helps you understand who that one song fits in. It helps you find new songs. And because of the cross-pollitationy nature of jazz in the 30s and 40s, you’ll find new artists you love. And you’ll learn new stuff about the relationship between music and dance in that historical moment, your dancing will improve, and your DJing will improve!
  • I had to buy it, and I’m poor. So why should I subsidise your music collection? I’m giving the song to you free when I DJ.
  • when you download or copy or ‘steal’ a song from my collection, you’re screwing me over. Particularly when you DJ it at a gig later or (even worse), then trade it with your mates or sell it to your mates or students! Bad, naughty, wrong!
  • you can’t be a good DJ if you don’t love the music. If you love an artist or band or song, you seek out more of it. I believe that the best DJs are those with a passion for their music, and a thorough knowledge of an artist’s career, or a style or genre. And what could be wrong with learning shit?

I know that a lot of these arguments also justify not sharing playlists or song titles or artists. I imagine that as I get more experience and develop a larger (and more esoteric) collection, I may become more reluctant to share knowledge. But it’ll be interesting to see…
DJing as art
And while I feel uncomfortable with the idea of a DJ as art (is this some sort of Australian tall poppy cultural cringe hangover from high school thing – should I be over feeling self conscious about wanting to be artistic and creative in a public context?), sometimes it feels like art. Or at least creativity. It feels like the natural partner to dancing. As a dancer, you feel the way the music affects mood in the room. The longer you’ve been dancing, the greater your dancing stamina, the more you learn about musical structures, the more susceptible to this you, and also the more aware of it you are. But as a DJ, as I’ve said elsewhere, you have to step outside a little, to understand with your conscious brain, how it all works.
Ironically, the incontrovertible rule is that you cannot be a decent DJ if you are not also a dancer. And you cannot, possibly, ever, do a decent DJing job if you don’t also have ‘one foot on the dance floor’, keeping an eye (and your emotions?) on the mood of the dancers.
I also wonder if you can be a half-decent DJ if you don’t have empathy going on. I’m beginning to wonder if being a good DJ is like being a good dancer – you gotta have good social skills. You’ve gotta be a good observer, to be know how to make people feel good about themselves, and to find pleasure in making people happy.
Can you be a crap person and a good DJ?
Or is that just another example of DJ hubris – implying that all (good) DJs are good people?

bubs blues dj. down around the river

I’m doing my first ‘public’ blues set* at the blues pit this Sunday, and’ve been going through my music to sort out stuff I might play. I  got to thinking about how I may handle it, as a DJ. My feeling is that the deal will work much as with lindy hoppers – combine tempos, careful transitions, manipulate energy levels.
But I’ve noticed a few things that make it a bit different to DJing for lindy hoppers:
the tempo range is far smaller. While I’ve been reading that varying tempos is actually more important in blues dancing in the States than one might expect, the range is actually fairly limited. With lindy, I tend to think that I’m working between 115 and 250bpm (pretty much – give or take). With blues, I’m looking at a range between about 45 and 115bpm.
I know that there are other DJs who may vary the tempo range a little more for blues (but I can’t really talk more about that), but from my experiences at the Blues Pit, I reckon this is the safe range.
the energy levels are more important as a result. Working with such a small tempo range, I think you have to be a bit more aware of how the music makes you feel.
I’ve seen blues DJs get up and play a series of songs seemingly at random – it feels like they’re just playing ‘their favourite songs’, one after another. Just being ‘slow’ isn’t really enough to make songs work together. The problem with blues is that the tempos are so low, the vibe in the room can be so mellow, that it’s all too easy for the crowd to sit down, start chatting, and not get up again. So I really do think you need to work the energy levels and mood of the room. Just as with lindy, I guess.
there’s a greater tolerance for a wider range of musical styles in blues dancers than lindy hoppers (in Melbourne atm, anyway). I know there are purists who won’t tolerate ‘non-swing’ or ‘non-jazz’ or even ‘non-blues’ in blues dancing, but I’m tending to lean towards the camp who feel that ‘blues dancing’ is such a wide and flexible notion, that we can really borrow ‘blues music’ from a wide range of blues styles: 20s blues, slow drags, 12bar blues structures and the ‘blues key’, rhythm n blues from the 50s (60s, 70s, etc), etc, but even move into stuff like funk and soul. Not to mention the more ‘arty’ piano- and small combo- driven instrumental stuff (like Junior Mance, Oscar Peterson, Jay McShann, etc).
My personal feeling as a dancer is that ‘music for blues dancing’ feels best if it has a solid beat. By solid beat I don’t mean insistent beat, but that kind of deep, solid and low-down bass that makes you move your hips. So I’m happy with a kind of hip hop beat as well.
Having said that, it makes complete sense to me to play mostly from the jazz and blues genres, not just because it suits blues’ positioning within a swing dance community which favours lindy and other jazz dances, but because that stuff is simply often so much more musically interesting and challenging than some of the newer or non-jazz stuff.
I also feel that you can’t really do, say 20s charleston without doing slow blues or drags – it just feels like you’re leaving out half of the musical and emotional story.
the lyrics seem more important with 12 bar blues (in that traditional form) than they do to lindy. So I think that playing more songs with vocals is perhaps more workable than lindy. I really like this style of blues music, mostly because I like the combination of humour, sadness, longing, desire and irony. In his book ‘stomping the blues’, Arthur Murray talks about how ‘singing the blues’ isn’t just about singing sad songs. it’s also about singing (and dancing) to drive out the blues. So you get these interesting contrasts between sad, sad lyrics and upbeat, energetic melodies and rhythms. Or you get seriously slow, saucy rhythms and melodies with funny, sarcastic or ironic or just plain funny lyrics. All this hung on a relatively simple musical structure (A, A, B or whatever it is).
So it feels like the lyrics are especially important, and encourage us as dancers to move in these layers of meanings – not just sexy all the time. Not just super-slow.
Having said that, I think it’d be a bit dull if we left out other musical styles, such as slow drags, which have all those other wonderful musical and social meanings.
-> I think that all of these points are a result of the fact that (or contribute to) blues dancing is less ‘structured’ than lindy (well, not when you do lindy the way I do: “structure? What, you can do lessons in this shit?”), so people feel free to experiment and innovate.
In addition, blues is so slow, you really have time to work on expressing all these feelings and contrasting emotions. So you can do technically difficult steps which aren’t possible at higher tempos, and you can really milk every musical iota out of the songs. Because you’ve got the time. So it really helps if the music is more interesting.
Other things I’m thinking about as a DJ:
the set is an after-class set, and most of the dancers will be new to blues dancing (as regular blues dancing nights are relatively new to melbourne), but most of them will be familiar with swinging jazz or blues music (from their lindy).
I’ve only got 45 minutes, which is tricky, as blues dancing takes a while to warm up to, good blues nights last late into the night, it feels right to take longer with each partner (more than the 2 song rule for lindy, definitely right for loooong songs), and it takes longer to work through moods – the curve or wave is kind of longer.
the room is seriously crowded – it’s small, there’s far, far, FAR less room for each couple than in lindy rooms. And I’m standing at floor level to DJ, so my view of the dance floor will be limited.
As per usual, I’m set on avoiding the ‘teach dancers about music’ thing or ‘expand their minds’ thing, or ‘be historically accurate’ thing, even though it’d be nice to really get into some old scratchy blues, eg. As with lindy, if I go in there with a mission, I will almost certainly stuff up. It’s always best to work with the vibe the room is giving off.
It’s going to be really interesting: I’m wondering if these ideas I have about the similarities between DJing for lindy hoppers and blues dancers will hold up in practice.
I’d be interested in any feedback from people who’ve DJed for bot …
*ie not a private party
…yes, you have read this post before. but not here. here

simple pleasures

The best part of looking at site stats today was finding my site was a hit for a search for “how nanna would make pumpkin soup”.
That pleases me.
I wish I had more to offer in the gastropod way of things. But I don’t. Buggered if I can remember what I’ve eaten this week. I’ve been so busy with the thesis, and I DJed three nights straight over the weekend (Thu, Fri, Sat), including my first after party. Which I was happy with, though I guess it’s hard to stuff up a 45 minute set, isn’t it?
My DJing issues are continuing with a search for a media player to which I can drag songs from itunes (using itunes as my library), but which also produces useful play lists. I mostly want to be able to preview songs on headphones before I play them, and for this you need two media players as macs can’t understand why you’d want to have two versions of one application open at any one time. Sometimes this rocks, but sometimes it sucks. This is one of those times. I think I’ll settle for a combination of DJ1800 (about $AU70) for previewing (no sensible playlist option), the usb headphones (plugged into the imic I need to buy from Brian, or into the usb directly) for listening to the DJ1800 songs, and itunes for actually playing to the sound system, searching, creating playlists, etc.
But if you’re looking for gastropod action, I have a little tub of nice bocconcini in our fridge atm, and some nice hydro tomatos on the window sill (I was in bed when the potato man came this week – 8am is TOO early!) and some sweet rocket in the garden. Make of that what you will. I choose to make nice salad.
I am also going nuts with mandarins and apples at the moment. It’s that time of year. We have a bowl full on the coffee table, and I push segments down The Squeeze’s neck every evening while we watch Buffy and Angel. Soon he will have strange Buffy-citrus dreams.
Meanwhile, I had a dream where I was stabbed by a platypus with its poison spur. It was also a dream about the house I lived in in Brisbane, and also about houses generally. I know that if I’m having house dreams, it’s anxiety season. And of course, the source of this anxiety would be the thesis. And the fact that my supervisor goes away 2 weeks from now, for 3 weeks. Arriving back one week before I’d planned to submit. Yes. Isn’t that nice?

cab calloway (vol2) – 1935-1940 – on JSP

Cab Calloway (vol2) 1935-1940 on JSP
That’s some hot shit. 4 discs of Cab goodness. Almost every single song I’ve listened to so far (starting in 1940 and working backwards, for a change) is danceable, and every song rocks. I love this man. I love his kick-arse band during this period. Oh, this is SWEET.
…this is the second set from Cab on the JSP label, which is cheap, but better quality than the Proper stuff. I also adored the first one, Cab Calloway the early years, 1930-1934.

mills blue rhythm band/Henry Red Allen/Don Redman/McKinney’s Cotton Pickers

I want this (Mills Blue Rhythm Band 1933-34 (chron. classic)) SO badly.
Everyone else has it, I have to too.
Then I want this (Henry Red Miller and his Orch 1929-30 (JSP)).
And to be absolutely clear, I also want this (The Band Don Redman Built – McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (RCA).
All scratchy, all the time.

benny goodman the vampire slayer

Today I picked up the complete RCA Victor Benny Goodman small group recordings (3 cds, $45, see ya later DJing money) and it ROCKS. I love early Benny Goodman so much. And this trio and quartet stuff makes me want to weep with joy. I also really really like the Sextet stuff, but, well, they’re not on this awesome collection. It really rocks: Lionel Hampton on vibraphone (!! I LOVE Hamp a crazylot), Gene Krupa on drums, Teddy Wilson on piano and Goodman on clarinet (of course). This stuff was so radical and amazing at the time – musically it was unique and exciting, socially the group was way radical, with 2 black doods and 2 white in the one band, on stage together, at a time when segregation was legally enforced in much of the USA. We’re talking about the 30s here, and the group were edited out of the films they starred in for films screened in the south of the US.
Musically, it’s fascinating stuff. The way those doods work together is awesome.
Yeah, so I’m loving this set. I was describing its wonderfulness to The Squeeze here, while he lay under the chenille bedspread reading a book about computers and I counted bpms: it’s a nicely packaged set, with nice black and white photos of the band. Krupa and Hamp are grinning like crazy people and Goodman and Wilson are more reserved. There are even photos of the band on the cds. Which prompted The Squeeze’s statement “like Buffy. Benny Goodman the vampire slayer.”
Well, I guess so. Into each generation a chosen one is born.

variety show

Name – Artist – Album – BPM – Year
Fine Brown Frame – Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra – Walk ‘Em – 113 – 1945
Undecided Blues – Count Basie and His Orchestra with Jimmy Rushing Cutting Butter – The Complete Columbia Recordings 1939 – 1942 (disc 03) – 120 – 1941
Spinnin’ The Webb – Chick Webb and his Orchestra – Stompin’ at the Savoy – 134 – 2002
Don’t Falter At The Altar – Cab Calloway Are You Hep to the Jive? – 138 – 1994
Jersey Bounce – Benny Goodman and His Band – Benny Goodman the Collection – 137 – 2004
Shoutin’ Blues Count Basie and His Orchestra Kansas City Powerhouse 148 1949
I Love Being Here With You – Ernestine Anderson – 135
Bli-Blip – Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Live in Swing City: Swingin’ with Duke – 134 – 1999
Nice Work If You Can Get It – Sarah Vaughan – Ladies Sing the Blues (volume 1) – 145 – 2000
Love Me or Leave Me – Jennie Löbel and Swing Kings – He Ain’t Got Rhythm – 128 – 2001
Every Day I Have The Blues – Count Basie – Breakfast Dance and Barbecue – 116 – 1959
C-Jam Blues – Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis Live in Swing City: Swingin’ with Duke – 143 – 1999
Shufflin’ And Rollin’ – Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra – Walk ‘Em – 153 – 1952
Four Or Five Times – Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra – Tempo and Swing – 189 – 1939
Apollo Jump – Lucky Millinder – Apollo Jump – 143
Lavender Coffin – Lionel Hampton, etc – Lionel Hampton Story 4: Midnight Sun – 138 – 1949
Be Careful (If You Can’t Be Good) – Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra – Walk ‘Em – 121 – 1951
Til My Baby Comes Back – Ella Johnson with Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra – Walk ‘Em – 118 – 1952
Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby? – Dinah Washington – The Swingin’ Miss “D” – 140 – 1956
Blues In Hoss’ Flat – Count Basie – Big Band Renaissance Disc 1 – 142 – 1995
Till Tom Special – Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra – Tempo and Swing – 158 – 1940
Flying Home – Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra – Lionel Hampton Story 2: Flying Home – 197 – 1942
Tippin’ In – Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra – Tuxedo Junction – 144 – 1942
For Dancers Only – Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra – Swingsation – Jimmie Lunceford – 154 – 1937
That’s my set from last week (Thurs 11th May, first set, 8.30-10pm). It went down a treat. After analysing it in painful detail here, I notice how frequently I repeat myself. So I played a total of 24 songs. Four were by Basie, 4 by Buddy Johnson (of the one album, no less), 4 were by Lionel Hampton. That’s scary. 12 songs by only 3 artists. I mean, I did wander all over their careers with these jobbies – they’re not all from the one year or anything. But still. I need more variety.
That issue of variety has been cropping up on Swing Talk a lot lately, mostly from a couple (literally 2) of dickheads demanding we play ‘more variety’. By variety they mean Royal Crown Revue

taking a cat for a walk: DJing and phenomenological media studies

I’m addressing some interesting points Brian raise in the comments to the unexpectedly entry from a couple entries ago.
Brian writes in that comment:

That of course leads on to the big question is: “Is playing a small amount of non-swing music at a swing event a major problem.” The smarty pants answer would be, just play some Neo. My real answer is I don’t know. What I to know is that to put a non-swing song in your set and for it to go down will with all the dancers takes a lot of skill. I find you must first make sure all the classic hard core dancers are happy and maybe even some of them left (gone outside) the room. Play some hardcore classic songs in a row of upper tempo and you should achieve this. Then it’s a matter is checking if those “non-swing mood group are in the room and ready to dance. You then need to make the transition and then comes the non-swing song. And hey the songs selection is like bringing a cat for a walk.

This section really interested me. That’s a really clever approach. I’d been thinking “there’s no way I’m every playing neo because I hate it”. But this scheme offers me a new approach. It reminds me of Trev’s comment here on Swing Talk where he says:

Yes, the ‘wave’!
I was using it last night (will post set soon) – although lately i’ve been more brutal with my tempo changes – it’s great for shaking things up, and avoids things “sounding all the same”.
Don’t be afraid to drop in a fast, high energy one when you have the floor full at medium. I’m not talking crazy fast, but something around 190-210bpm. The folks that are into it will be hanging out for it, and if you keep the tempos too low (to keep the floor full) they will get bored/lazy. Even if you only get 2 couples dancing to a fast song, you get the benefits of:
a) lifting the energy/enthusiasm of the room even if they don’t dance; b) inspiring others to get better go they can do it too. It’s not the same for everyone, but when I was new watching a high-energy dance motivated me to keep at;
c) sending people to the bar to spend their $ on the venue!
If you do it right, the room will be buzzing, and you can follow up with something at around 150 and everyone will be right back into it.
I generally wouldn’t play more that 2 fast tempo songs in a row. People start getting pissed if they don’t want to/can’t dance fast, and tired if they’ve been dancing to it.

(NB the setlist he’s referring to is here, though I’m not sure which setlist he means)). For a description of ‘the wave’ check out this thread on swingdjs.
… ok, so now to address the point.
Basically, both Trev and Brian are suggesting that the DJ use the ‘wave’ – which is a way of describing the general ‘flow’ of mood in the room, to provoke a particular response from dancers. It’s hard to explain how it works with dancers, but
I’ve just been reading some fascinating articles referring to David Seamon’s book A Geography of the Lifeworld where he describes exactly this phenomeon – people making a space ‘place’ by repeated actions and social interaction. So, everyday a man makes a coffee shop ‘place’ by rising at 8, walking to the coffee shop, buying a paper, ordering a poached egg and coffee, eating and reading til 9 when he walks on to work. The man comments that he is only made aware of how ‘comforting’ and ‘warm’ this cafe space is when the series of actions is interrupted by something like the paper being sold out.
Seamon talks about this as people becoming aware of their ‘precognitive’ behaviour only when it’s interrupted. In other words, he’s interested in what happens when people are made conscious of the stuff they do habitually in particular spaces to make those spaces a ‘place’.
This phenomenological stuff really makes me laugh, because they write like no one has ever thought to investigate what happens when you make people aware of their unconscous habits. When of course, any physiotherapist, yoga instructor or dance teacher spends all their working hours helping people develop a ‘body awareness’, where they become conscious of the things they do habitually with their bodies and muscles.
but anyway…
That theory seems particularly relevent to this discussion of DJing, because DJs are basically people who develop the skills to manipulate the mood of a room full of dancers so as to get them all dancing. I’ve been absolutely fascinated, as a noob DJ, by the way the choices I make in playing songs and combining songs can affect the mood of a crowded room. While, as a dancer, I respond unconsciously to the music, either getting really ‘high’ with uptempo, upenergy music, or getting really ‘low’, and moderating my dancing (my unconscious movements and social behaviour), as a DJ, I’ve had to become conscious of this process and figure out how it works.
It’s important to note that ‘precognitive’ behaviour is essential to skilled partner dancing. I’m frequently reminding myself ‘stop thinking!’ and ‘just follow!’. It’s like driving a manual car – you suddenly reach a point when you’re learning where the combination of accelerator, clutch, gear stick, etc becomes unconscious. And when you’re suddenly made conscious of this process, it often stuffs up.
Leading, however, can be more comfortably ‘cognitive’ than following as you are planning and determining the course of the dance. I have found, though, that the best dances, the most effective ones, where I really use my centre to move their centre, are the ones where I relax and ‘just move my body’ naturally, rather than ‘trying to lead’ in order to effect weight changes which in turn move the follow’s weight – effecting their weigh changes.
So when Trev talks about manipulating the wave (ie developing a ‘mood’ or ‘vibe’ in the room, or, to use Seamon’s approach, making a space ‘place’ through playing music which will provoke particular social responses through dance), Brian talks about exploiting the wave/dancers’ response to the wave to sneak in songs which are potentially going to ‘break’ the wave. So he plays ‘risky’ songs (like neo) after a couple of faster, old school swinging jazz traacks, so that he can exploit the old school fans’ taking time out for a break to slip in some neo. So the potential ‘risk’ of playing the neo stuff is ameliorated.
Trev also talks about ‘breaking’ the wave constructively by making quicker transitions between tempos – dropping in a fast one, even if the floor was full at slower tempos, then dropping the tempo down again to ‘recover’ and pick up the dancers who’ve stepped off the floor for that fast song. And, incidentally, giving those who danced the faster song a break.
This is fascinating shit, because it all reveals how important it is as a DJ to be a dancer, but perhaps more importantly, to consciously recognise how dancers respond to combinations of songs and musical moods to manipulate the mood of the room, but also to ‘please everyone’. I adore this approach because of the way it contrasts with the comment “you can’t please everyone” a DJ (whose work doesn’t impress me at all) said to me recently. This comment ‘you can’t please everyone’ seems (in the case of this DJ) to serve as justification for not attempting to work the room and ‘wave’. Or rather, to me it seems like this DJ made this comment because they are simply unaware of these issues. Which holds true with their dancing, where they are similarly ‘unaware’ of other dancers in the immediate vicinity, unable to ‘feel’ their partners’ weight changes, and have a propensity for rough leads.
In my own DJing, however, I’ve recently discovered that I can actually keep the floor full for the entire set, at a 100% strike rate. This usually means playing mid-tempo songs, and not taking any ‘risks’. Yet one of the results of this approach is that some of the dancers (mostly that hardcore, experienced group), while they’re dancing every song and enjoying themselves, really want me to play some faster songs as well.
I’ve been a bit tentative about doing this, as the numbers on the floor immediately drop when faster songs are played (though I have noticed that they pick up or don’t drop if the song is very swingy and good quality). One thing I have learnt, as Trev has pointed out, is that it’s ok to drop the numbers for a song or two. I’ve also found that if the floor does empty (for any reason, whether the song was fast, or you’ve played a dud) there are ways to fill it again – I have a few ‘safety songs’ which will always fill the floor. So it’s ok to play fast songs, empty the floor, and then fill it again. As Trev has pointed out, playing the odd faster song will, while people stand out for a song or too, actually pump up the energy in the room. And, as Brian points out, it also gives you an opportunity to play something that group of experienced, old school faster dancers wouldn’t dance to anyway, even if they weren’t standing on the sidelines strugging to breathe.
Another trick that Brian has noted before, is that if you do take the tempos up really high, you can actually raise the overall tempos when you play the next song. So if you find the room is stuck at about 140bpm, playing something at 200, while it may clear the room for those 3 minutes, will actually make it possible for you to follow up with something at 160 or 180, because it feels so much slower, comparatively, people get out there and dance. So allowing you to up the general tempo of the room, and change the overall wave.
I have noticed, however, that while you can raise the tempos generally, you will have to bring them down again eventually, as people’s energy and stamina wears out. I had previously been obsessed with getting tempos up and keeping there, as if 200bpm was my ultimate goal. Now I realise that it’s about varying tempos over the course of the night – the wave is a wave, and not just an incline. The trick is, of course, managing these crests and troughs without dropping the energy and tempos prematurely.
So DJing is a really interesting way of putting into practice that phenomenological approach to media use in everyday spaces.
NB when we say ‘bpm’, we mean ‘beats per minute’. The average speed of house or ‘dance’ music is 120bpm. The average tempo for dancing lindy in the 1930s was 180bpm. I can follow comfortably up to 180bpm, then I have to work harder. I can lead comfortably up to about 160. 20s Charleston, however, requires faster tempos – over 200 is average. Over 300 is ‘fast’. We can dance to such high tempos in lindy because the music ‘swings’ – it doesn’t feel like you’re rushing, and in fact really swinging songs feel slower than they are. Which helps to keep you relaxed, as you can’t dance fast if you’re freaking. 20s charleston, however, is usually danced to ‘dixie’ or jazz from the 20s, which predates swing, and has a different timing – 1-2, 1-2, 1-2 rather than 1-2-3-4, 5-6-7-8.
FYI: 180bpm is more than 3 steps per second, as we actually make 10 weight changes (or steps) in the basic lindy rhythm and Swing Out (fundamental step of lindy).


I should probably explain some of the more exclusive language at work in this entry, but I had planned on posting it on Swing Talk, so I reckon we should all just be grateful I posted it here instead of starting a shitfight over there. Let it be known, though, that these comments are partially in response to repeated comments by some ignorami that all DJs are in fact carp, except perhaps for Gary. I beg to differ with this somewhat limited observation and perhaps add that there is really only one truly carp DJ in Melbourne. And that’s enough about that…
So, read on. Or go do something else.
Expectations of DJs
I’ve been thinking about our expectations of DJs – mostly because I’m now having a bash at this gig I’m having to rethink many of my old ideas.
Perhaps the biggest deal for most dancers is what a DJ plays – they want to hear ‘more of X’ or ‘less of Y’, for whatever reasons (it’s more authentic, it’s less authentic, it’s more interesting, it’s faster, it’s slower, it’s whatever’). Now that’s all well and cool – we like to hear songs we like when we go out dancing. And perhaps, more importantly, we like to hear songs that make us dance like a crazy person. But there are some issues, here.
1. How do we let the DJ know what we want to hear?
There are a few options. The simplest and most effective is ask. But how? Frankly, asking for a song at a dance and then expecting it immediately is ridiculous. To even expect it that night is asking a lot – I mean, we have DJs rather than a juke box because we think that DJing itself involves some special skills, more than just wacking a CD in the player. We trust their judgement. So why not do that – trust the DJ to make the choices while you get on with the business of dancing?
But that fairly obvious point aside, hHow else might we request songs? Swing Talk? Sure, not a bad option. But I’ve noticed that some people tend to forget their manners, forget that they’re actually dealing with real people when they make requests on Swing Talk. I think it’s best to remind yourself that the ‘DJ’ is not some nameless, faceless, iron-constitutioned person we don’t know. They’re usually music nerds, who really worry about pleasing the crowd and doing a good job. And usually without any advice or training or constructive feedback. And at the end of the day, if you want something, it’s best to play nice, to say please and to not feel that you’re owed that song. Because the DJ owes you nothing if you don’t give them some love.
2. Should the DJ feel obliged to play songs specifically because they were requested/they know a particular person (note the singular there) likes it, etc?
On the one hand, they could do their best to put together a set that ‘pleases everyone’, specifically including songs they know people like. Or they could go with the flow on the night, mixing up new stuff, old stuff, favourites, wacky new stuff, etc etc. I prefer the latter approach, as a DJ and punter, particularly if the song(s) requested suck. And perhaps, even more importantly (and speaking as someone with a limited budget), I think about what it means to request songs from a DJ, or to expect them to have ‘everything’ in their collection. As someone who has very little money to spend on CDs, I make very careful choices in the music I buy. I mean, let’s remember – a DJ is usually forking out at least $30 a pop on music. If you’re me, living on my budget, $30 is a once-a-month deal at best. And when I go to buy that CD, should I choose a) to buy something that I really really like, b) to choose something I’ve carefully researched and found is excellent for DJing, c) choose something I hate because I know that 5 people love it? I’m looking at options a and b, here as most-likely.
3. To what extent should we expect DJs to pander to our tastes when they’re buying their music?
Personally, I’d feel like a poop if a DJ on a tight budget went out and bought some Vince Giordano which they loathed, just because I’d said I love it and want to dance to it. I’d much rather they went out and found an artist they adored and spent their money there. I like the idea of having a number of DJs, each with special interests, so that when I go to hear them play, I know what to expect, and I know I’ll be hearing X type of music, probably played by someone who’s devoted time to becoming a specialist in that type of music. I don’t expect one DJ to play everything – if they do, I’m damn impressed, because I know how hard it is to do ‘everything’ in one set.
4. How should the DJ play requested songs?
Do they just slap the CD in then and there – immediately, or do they work it in gradually? The first method is kind of problematic – sure, that one person who requested Sidney Bechet’s ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ will be happy, but the rest of the room will no doubt look up at the DJ with a puzzled look that seems to say “dood, we were digging that mellow 110bpm groove vibe you had going”. I like to assume that the DJ will have (or will soon develop) the skills to make the decision about when to play the songs, without my help. And if I want to choose the songs and in what order they’re played, then, hell, I’ll get up there and do it. You can’t DJ and dance on the same night.
5. Because a DJ is being paid, how much should we expect of them?
Firstly, let’s have a little look at how much DJs are paid, exactly. Now, if you’re lucky enough to live in a city where DJs are paid (and not everyone is), what’s the deal?
In Melbourne, I’ve been paid $25 for 2.5 hours at CBD. I’ve also been paid $25 for 1.5 hours at CBD. I’ve been paid $30 for 1.25 hours at the Funpit. I’ve DJed for free at Camberwell, and DJing at the Blues Pit is $25 (or $30 – I forget) for a 45 minute set.
Now, if I chose to work a shift at Safeway, I’d be better paid. And the working conditions would no doubt be far better – I could handball difficult customers to a manager, I wouldn’t have to spend hours, days, weeks researching my work, and there’s very little take-home work.
If you’ve read the discussion on DJs’ pay, on Swing Talk, you’ll see that any ‘profit’ from DJing is actually eaten up by things like buying music and equipment, dealing with APRA, travel and so on. Add to that the fact that DJs don’t get to dance, and….
Just how fair is it to demand that they then also spend their money buying music you like so that they can play them for you at a dance? And how cool is it, then, to heckle and harangue DJs for not playing the music that you want to hear (and let’s remember – you’re just one kid in a crowd of dancers, all with different tastes, which don’t necessarily coincide with yours)?
Sure, there are other benefits and advantages to DJing. DJs may get into a venue for free (so, you may actually be paid $36 at the Funpit, for example). They get the respect and accolades of their peers… no, wait, what was that about being hassled by dancers for songs…? Frankly, once the initial thrill (and fear) of DJing wears off, the fringe benefits of DJing are remarkably slim. The satisfaction of filling the dance floor and making people happy? Sure, yeah. Getting to hear music you love for hours on end? Hm. And not dancing to it? Assuming you get to play it at all, if you’re not busy dealing with requests…
And let’s not forget the other side of DJing – having to be at dancing exactly on time for your shift (add 15minutes for set up), and then if you want to do any kind of decent job, actually being there to hear the first DJ’s set to be sure there’re no repeats. Dealing with arseholes giving you a hard time (heckling online, in person at the doo, via email, etc etc etc). etc etc etc.
So, at the end of the day, next time you consider slanging off a DJ, or demanding they play your music, why not stop and think a minute. Cut them some slack. And if you really hate the music, why not DJ yourself?
I DJ because I’m enjoying the challenge of learning the skills of playing to a crowd. I’m interested in the music – I like the challenge of researching and hunting down affordable and excellent music. I like the thought of giving back to the scene a little – I’m volunteering my time and energy for other people’s fun. And I think of it as pay back for all the times I’ve had a fantastic night dancing to a fantastic DJ. And I DJ because the more DJs there are in a scene, the more variety of music there is, and the more chances the DJs get to dance!
BTW: please feel free to add comments to this article. Spamming and sledging will of course be triumphantly, gloriously and satisfyingly deleted arbtrarily, with the righteous and highly likely possibility of rubbing it in.