Mike gets a lot of compliments on the music he plays at swing dances. Of course, the real credit goes to the artists and musicians in the bands. For those interested in Mike’s methods, ideas and philosophy on DJing for swing dances, see the info below.
The DJ and the swing dance scene – Keep it Real!
It goes without saying that the DJ has a tremendous influence on that particular swing dance scene…or is that statement as obvious as it seems?
Could a swing dance scene develop good Balboa dancers if the DJ didn’t play music appropriate for Balboa? (Of course, if the DJ is not proficient at dancing Balboa, then that DJ probably doesn’t know much about good Balboa music.) If the DJ(s) plays mostly slow music, how will the swing dancers in that scene develop? How will the scene develop if the DJ plays mostly non-swing music?
All good questions, worthy of consideration and thought.
What makes a good Swing Dance DJ?
What makes a “good” DJ? In some ways, it shouldn’t be that important. Most people just want to go to a dance, have a good time, and dance to good music. And that’s okay; when I go to a dance, that’s what I want to do! It’s not surprising that few people appreciate the knowledge and expertise required to be a good DJ.
In fact, I’ve found that most swing dancers, from beginner to more experienced, and even those that “occasionally” DJ dances, have little or no idea on what it takes to be a “good” DJ: i.e. how to incorporate variety, flow, and contrast into a dance event, how to keep dancers of all ability levels happy, etc, etc, …..For those interested in the methods to my madness on this subject (or for the hardy soul thinking about taking on DJ duties), this information is for you.
Note: (1) This info is not intended to criticize any particular swing dancer, swing dance DJ or swing dance organization, but help bring more awareness to what should be the cornerstone of swing dancing: the music!
(2) This info is also obviously intended for those dancers/DJs in the Swing Dance Community. I’ve found that most “party”, “regular” or so called “professional” DJs have an appalling lack of knowledge about even the most basic elements of good swing music. Just because you’ve got Jump, Jive & Wail and Zoot Suit Riot (along with the Electric Slide) doesn’t mean you got good swing music. Sorry.
I believe a DJ at a Swing Dance should play….Swing Music!
I’ve traveled to lots of different swing dance scenes throughout the United States. I’m just not a big fan of scenes that play a lot of “non” swing music. I’m a swing-era Lindy Hopper and Balboa swing dancer and I like to dance to the great music of the swing-era for those great dances – it’s really that simple.
Play music that will make people want to get up and dance – you’re not playing for yourself!
Sounds simple. Seems obvious. Most people would agree that a DJ’s primary purpose is to play music that will make people want to get up and dance. But I can’t count the number of swing dances I’ve been to where the DJ was playing only one or maybe two type genres of swing music, most of it at the same tempo. There was no energy among the dancers or in the crowd in general. The people that were dancing were mostly going through the motions; or those not dancing were waiting for the next “same ole song”. The DJ seemed to be in his/her own little world. To the obliviously content DJ, everybody must be happy and having a good time, because the DJ was enjoying playing “his/her” music. If the DJ is happy, shouldn’t everybody else be the same? Ugh.
How to educate the scene about great swing music. As previously noted, it goes without saying that the DJ has a tremendous influence on that particular swing dance scene. So a good DJ can really educate the dancers about all the great music from the swing-era. But be careful…I once attended a dance where the DJ had just “discovered” 1950’s Be Bop jazz and wanted to “educate” everyone about that genre of music. Having to endure an entire set of 1950’s Be Bop jazz was not fun. Generally speaking, have a variety of songs for your playlist, those that are tried and true, and a few new ones you want to try out. If you want to discuss this topic more, feel free to contact me.
Good DJs are lifelong learners, always adding new songs to their collections. Indeed, there are lots of great songs “out there”, with some real gems undoubtedly waiting to be discovered. For a DJ, it’s a really good feeling to find a new song you were previously unaware of that turns out to be great for dancing.
Non-dancers in the crowd. It should not be forgotten there are often some non-dancers (or brand new beginning dancers) in the crowd at swing dance events. Great swing music played at events allows non-dancers to have a good time and perhaps spark their interest in swing music and swing dancing. (Good swing music also helps “hook” the beginning dancer.) A lot of people will start taking swing dance lessons because of the high energy swing music they hear at swing dance events.
“You’ve got to know the territory”
Knowledge about swing music genres. A DJ needs to have a certain amount of knowledge of the many different types and genres of swing music, and of course, have the actual music on hand to play (although no DJ could possibly have every swing song ever recorded!). A DJ must have a feel for swing music genres and specific songs in order to provide a good variety of tempo, flow and contrast in the music selection. A DJ has to understand the differences and nuances of the many varieties of good swing music: 1920’s and 30’s “pre-swing” swing music; classic 1930’s and 40’s Big Band; 1940’s and early 50’s Big Band; Jump Blues, early Rhythm & Blues, etc, etc…
Music for both Lindy Hop and Balboa. A good DJ will have a feel for and play music for both Lindy Hop and Balboa dancers. Granted, if a DJ is not a proficient Balboa dancer, that DJ may not understand what is considered good Balboa songs. Too many times I’ve asked a DJ to play a good Balboa song and what you get is something really fast, but not necessarily good for Balboa. If you’re not proficient in Balboa, talk to a good Balboa dancer that also DJs and get some advice from them on good Balboa music.
Beats Per Minute (BPM). A good DJ will know the beats per minute (bpm) of the songs they play in order to ensure they have a balance of tempos in the music selection. (There is lots of free software on the web that calculates BPM.) Let’s not get too technical: we all know that tempo is the speed of music. BPM is the unit used to measure the tempo or speed of music, i.e. how fast the song is played. Ever to been to a dance where the DJ seem to play a bunch of fast songs all right in a row, followed by a bunch of slow songs, all right in a row. Maybe you said to yourself, “Why couldn’t the DJ mix it up a little?”
I’ve known some DJ’s to say “I don’t need to know the actual BPM, I can get a feel or estimate for that from my knowledge of the song.” In my experience, that doesn’t work real well.
On occasion, I’ve asked DJs (and experienced swing dancers) to estimate the BPM of some very well known songs often played at swing dances. Their answers were almost always wrong, sometimes by as much as 25-100%! The estimations were normally on the low side, i.e. a song that was actually 175 BPM was estimated to be 140 BPM, etc.
The bottom line is that as a DJ, if you don’t know the BPM of the songs you’re playing, you can’t do your job properly.
Plan, Prepare, Execute
No, it’s not a military operation, but a DJ needs to do a little planning and preparation before the dance.
Plan. What will be the general audience for the dance? What type of venue? What will be the ability level of most of the dancers? Regardless of the audience, a DJ should always keep the music upbeat and energetic. As noted above, as Balboa becomes even more and more popular in the swing dance community, really good, hard swinging songs with faster tempos should be played for the Balboa dancers in the crowd.
In other words, know your audience; and keep in mind that the vast majority of people prefer variety. As they say, variety is the spice of life.
Prepare-the Music. I prepare a Playlist with specific songs already selected before each dance I DJ. For every dance I’ve DJed, I’ve always varied from that model to some degree. For example, I might choose not to play a certain song at that point in the dance, or I might want a song that’s faster, or slower, or a different genre, etc.
But having a model gives me a good starting point and ensures that variety, flow and contrast is built into the Playlist. So rather than try to “wing it” at the dance, I think it’s best for a DJ to prepare a Playlist beforehand and then make adjustments as necessary.
Prepare-the Sound System. Make sure you know how to operate the sound system, whether it’s the facility’s sound system or a system you set up. I’ve been to some Swing Dances where the DJ shows up about 10 minutes before the dance is supposed to start, and then spends the next half hour trying to figure out how the sound system works. That is un-good.
Execute-Punctuality is important. Start playing the music when the dance is scheduled to start. If there’s a pre-dance lesson that goes over it’s allotted time, there’s not much you can do (unless you were the instructor!).
Execute-Taking requests. I generally try to play requests if I have the song and, most importantly, the song will fit into the overall flow of the playlist.
Keep variety, flow and contrast in mind
Perhaps the toughest job for a DJ is to ensure that, along with variety of tempos and genres, there is also the proper amount of flow and contrast in the Playlist.
A DJ should not want the entire Playlist, or even large portions of the Playlist, to sound similar. If a lot of the songs in a Playlist tend to flow, i.e. the BPM is raised or lowered too gradual, songs are played together that have a common sound, theme or genre, then the DJ ends up creating one big long, “flowing” song. Dancers end up thinking, “Didn’t I just dance to a song like that?” Therefore, flow must be balanced with contrast.
Contrast is that feeling you get when you hear a song that’s different from the last song and you say, “Wow, I’ve got to dance to that one!” By playing a variety of genres and keeping flow and contrast balanced, you can keep the dancers inspired and dancing song after song. They end up leaving the dance happy, with a gentle feeling of fatigue, but ready and eager to come back for the next dance!
A note on specific song selections. In general, I try to keep the songs I play under 4 minutes. Dancing is a social activity. If the songs are too long, that means the dancers will not be able to dance with as many people throughout the event. In addition, the longer songs tend to be of a slower tempo and tend to have lots of instrumental solos, which can lead to the dancing becoming introverted and overcooked. And that can sap the energy right out of a dance event.
Depth in the playlist/your music collection. Keep in mind that it is possible to have a certain amount of variety, flow and contrast in your playlist, but your music selections could still lack depth.
Depth in a music collection is just what it implies. For example, if the “variety” of the selections for your Big Band songs is from Glenn Miller, Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey, then you don’t have depth (and you’re probably not very knowledgeable about big band music).
It is almost impossible to obtain depth in your music collection if your primary source of music is “free” or shareware downloads from the internet. If you want to be a good swing dance DJ with depth in your music, then you’re going to have to spend some bucks and purchase good music. The vast majority of really good swing dance music cannot be obtained for free on the internet (for a variety of reasons).
My three basic guidelines
Of course, a DJ is just like any other person, with certain preferences and areas of emphasis in their music collection. The information below is provided so you may get an idea about what factors I consider when developing a Playlist for a swing dance. I have three basic guidelines I use when developing and choosing songs for a Playlist.
(1) Variety and balance is key. That means variety in both musical tempos and musical genres/styles and balance in flow and contrast of the songs.
Unless one is DJing a special type swing dance (i.e. a Balboa event), the dominance of a narrow music tempo or of one music genre over another creates problems.
For example, some dancers like to dance to “slower”, “groovier” or “bluesey” type music (I’m not one of those dancers, by the way). Since the music is so slow, it’s much easier for these dancers to display their dance moves, and cover up their bad technique. However, if too much “groove” or “slow” or “bluesey” type music is played at a dance, the dance soon lacks energy and the dancing can quickly become introverted and overcooked and, quite frankly, the dance event becomes boring. That kind of quiet, subdued “groovy” feeling can be a real turn-off to many dancers, especially new and less experienced dances.
On the other hand, playing too much “fast” music also quickly becomes monotonous, and leaves dancers feeling drained and tired, especially for dancers that are not proficient in Balboa (or fast Lindy Hop technique).
As previously noted (but it bears repeating), a good variety of music played at a swing dance event allows non-dancers to have a good time and perhaps spark their interest in swing music and swing dancing. A lot of people will start taking swing dance lessons because of the high energy music they hear at swing dance events.
Indeed, when it comes to the music for swing dance events, it’s all about variety and balance!
(2) Does the song “swing”? I admit the definition of what is “swing” may certainly differ among people. For me, Swing is best described as the particular way a piece of music is played that gives it a certain vitality and energy. Note that I don’t necessarily equate “energy” with tempo. “Slow” songs can be energetic just as “fast” songs can be dull and boring.
Speaking of tempo, some people think that the tempo of the music is what basically defines whether it is good for dancing or not, i.e. that song is “too slow” or “too fast”, etc. I tend to disagree. I believe it is the underlying rhythmic feeling of swing music — that rhythmic pulse, that differentiates swing music from music that just happens to be in 4/4 time. In fact, there is a lot of music played in 4/4 time that people “swing dance” to, but that doesn’t make it swing music. (Go to a West Coast Swing, Ballroom, or a Bop Club event and you’ll see what I mean.)
Good swing music does not make you think, ponder, or scratch your head as you attempt to figure out how to interpret and dance to what you hear. With good swing music, you just want to get up and dance!
(3) Will the song make people want to get up and dance? As noted above, the energy from good swing music often comes from an underlying rhythmic pulse and feeling that makes you want to get up and dance. For some of the truly great swing songs, it’s almost impossible not to get up and dance!
My music preferences
Dislikes. I really don’t have any real dislikes. I keep an open mind when it comes to music for swing dancing. I’m willing to consider any type swing song(s) as long as it generally meets the three basic guidelines noted above. I do have a couple of preferences that may make me not play a song at a swing dance. As noted above, I’m generally not inclined to play songs that are over 4 minutes in length. I also generally like songs that have a full and energetic feeling about them. I’m not a big fan of songs that are “jazzy” and “smooth”, but don’t really swing (such as Trio type jazz songs, i.e. songs with only a Bass, Piano and Drums for instrumentation, etc).
Once again, I’m not saying I won’t play a song that’s over 4 minutes in length or one that’s really jazzy; it just has to be a really good song.
My Main Likes
My “likes” revolve around genres of swing music that I personally think should be genres of the majority of swing music played at swing dance venues. These genres of swing music also have a rich history in the development of swing dancing and swing music: (1) Swing-era Big Band (2) with a bit of Jump Blues and (3) a smattering of early Rhythm & Blues and early Rock & Roll.
I like swing-era Big Band music. Most people have heard of the Big Band sound, a music style primarily from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Unfortunately, many people (even some swing dancers) associate the Big Band sound with the “champagne, mayonnaise and white bread” music of Lawrence Welk, the New Year’s Eve broadcasts of Guy Lombardo, or the commercially successful but stiff and bland music of Glenn Miller.
Simply put, the classic swing-era Big Band music is the music that was played as swing dancing, in the forms of Lindy Hop and Balboa, and big band jazz developed simultaneously in the U.S. in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Generally speaking, I think swing-era Big Band music should be well represented at swing dance venues. It sometimes seems one hears the same few Big Band songs played at various swing dance venues.
I believe there are a couple of reasons for this.
First, good, high quality recordings of Big Band music are not as well known and marketed as heavily as “mainstream” swing music. Of course, there are numerous Big Band recordings on the market; however a great many of these recordings have an inferior sound quality due to the recording technology (mono) of the 1930’s and 40’s. These CDs are often released by lesser known record labels that buy up rights to various versions of older big band songs. These record labels then release poor quality big band CDs or “collections” with no digital re-mastering and normally no liner notes. So, how does one find good quality big band music? There are two basic options: digital re-mastered versions of the original 1930’s and 40’s recordings, and 1950’s and 60’s Hi-Fi re-recordings/re-creations.
Digital re-mastered versions. Although it takes more searching and trail and error, there are some good songs out there from the 1930’s and 40’s that have been digitally re-mastered and have excellent sound. I don’t like to play a “scratchy” sound recording unless it’s a great song and I can’t find it in a better re-mastered version. The major music labels normally have the best re-mastered versions, although there are exceptions to that. Once again, stay away from the low-priced budget collections of big band music. They are almost always a waste of money.
Re-mastering tracks with your computer. If you really get into DJing, you’ll need to learn some basic programs that will allow you to “re-master” tracks on your own. It’s not hard to do, especially if I learned how to do it! Just something as basic as removing the hiss from a recording will often make the track sound a lot better.
Big Band re-recordings. With the advent of stereophonic Hi-Fi technology in the 1950’s and 60’s, many Big Bands re-recorded their standard numbers, primarily with Capital Records. These recordings were big hits when released as LPs in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Beginning in the mid 1990’s, many CD versions of these Big Band hits in Hi-Fi have been re-released. Like any CD, some go out of print, although they can often be purchased used. These CD recordings provide some good Big Band music for dancing (and listening!).
A second reason I believe more Big Band songs are not played at swing dance venues relates to music tempo. Many people are only familiar with a few of the well known Big Band classics that are on the fast side, such as “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”. While Big Band music is generally on the faster side, there are a lot of Big Band songs at a variety of tempos, both instrumentals and songs with vocals, that are really great for swing dancing.
Overall, I think Big Band music is the best genre of swing music that allows one to “transport” themselves back in time to the 1930’s and 40’s and get an appreciation for what it “may have been like” when dancing in that era.
One last note. There are some very good contemporary bands playing great swing music in the big band genre, such as the Kentucky Jazz Repertory Orchestra, the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, the Jonathan Stout Orchestra, just to name a few.
I’m not sure why more Jump Blues music is not played at swing dance events; it’s the most often neglected genre at swing dances. Jump Blues music is just a whole lot of fun to dance to! It was the bridge between the big band swing and jazz sound of the 1930’s and 40’s and the later rhythm and blues (R&B), primarily in a small band context.
Usually featuring a vocalist in front of a large, horn-driven orchestra or medium sized combo with multiple horns, the style is earmarked by a driving rhythm, intensely shouted vocals, and honking tenor saxophone solos, all of those very elements a precursor to rock & roll. The lyrics are almost always celebratory in nature, full of braggadocio and swagger. Lots of CDs by Jump Blues artists such as Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, etc are readily available (man, if you don’t like to dance to music by Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner, etc.: Jack, You Dead!). And Jump Blues is a genre that has lots of songs in a variety of tempos.
Late 1940’s/early 1950’s music
There is a lot of music from the late 1940’s and early 50’s that is great for swing dancing. Just a brief mention of a few genres.
Early Rhythm & Blues. Before it eventually metamorphosed into soul, early Rhythm & Blues music had a variety of artists that play some great music for swing dancing, such as Ray Charles and Ruth Brown.
Early Rock & Roll drew from a variety of sources, to include Jump Blues, Rhythm & Blues, country, gospel, traditional pop, and folk. All of these influences combined in a simple, blues-based song structure that was catchy and danceable: Bill Haley & the Comets and Chuck Berry immediately come to mind.
1950’s Rock & Roll music includes such artists as Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even some early Elvis Presley.
A note on “history”. I believe it’s impossible to separate Lindy Hop and Balboa from swing music, from both a historical perspective and from the contemporary perspective of how the dancing and a swing dance community continually evolves.
I further believe that an understanding of the historical development of swing dancing and swing music has an inherent artistic and educational value that allows the dancer to better understand the rich culture of swing dancing and swing music and understand the context for their particular swing dancing style.
So make sure the music you DJ takes into account and contributes to that rich historial culture. If it was good enough for all those swing dancers of the swing-era, it should be good enough for us!
Misc. Info – DJing for a competition; sharing; compliments and complaints
DJing for a competition. If you’re DJing for a competition, the best rule to follow is to keep it simple and don’t get creative. Pick songs that really swing hard, but follow standard swing music phrasing. Remember, the competition is about the dancers dancing with each other to great swing music, and not about trying to figure out what kind of music the DJ is playing.
Share your expertise and information. Some people may be interested in particular songs you play, the name of the artist, etc. I’m always willing to share information with those interested in the music.
Compliments and Complaints. Be gracious when people compliment you on the music selection. Of course, a good DJ knows the real credit goes to the original artist of the song. Likewise, if someone has a complaint about the music and they offer constructive criticism, give it due consideration.