Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘music’

An Open Letter to the Triangle Swing Dance Scene re: the Continuation of RDU Rent Party

Dear friends and fellow dancers,

I am writing to you today to seek your input and guidance on the future of RDU Rent Party dance events.  Laura Windley and I have been running these live music dances now for several years now to sometimes great success.  Lately, however, we have seen smaller numbers of dancers showing up at Rent Party events and smaller amounts showing up in the hat box.  This lull is starting to make it very hard to pay musicians a reasonable wage and as such we are currently considering whether or not to put Rent Party on hiatus.  We have always thought of RDU Rent Party as a community event and so we felt it best to offer an open discussion with the Triangle Swing Dance community before making any decisive moves on this subject.

A little back story

For those not familiar with it, RDU Rent Party exists as a labor of love for myself and Laura, we host bands for a pay-what-you-can dance, I pay for the space rental out of my own pocket, and all money collected is given to the band.  We frequently pick up travelling bands on tour because we can offer them an extra gig on an off night (typically Thursdays).  Laura and I started this at a time when the local swing dance society (TSDS) was in a financial crisis and typically hiring cheap bands over what we would consider to be good bands.  In the past year or two TSDS has started hiring what we think are more exciting bands and is back on solid financial ground and we have seen a slow decline in RP numbers in the meantime.  Whether or not these are related is questionable but it does leave us questioning if RDU Rent Party still has a role to play in the swing scene as it stands.

If you want a bit more backstory, you can check out this post I wrote a while back on the history of RP.

RP’s place as we see it

So approximately speaking, this is where we have seen the place of Rent Party dances in our local scene in past:

  • Rent Party has been able to bring in bands that often would not be here on a weekend, meaning we wouldn’t get to hear them play or dance to them unless they happened to get a bar gig of some sort.  Because TSDS only hosts Saturday night dances, we would miss many of these bands on tour because they are usually already booked for weekend gigs at exchanges and workshops.
  • Rent Party has at times been able to work with bands who are otherwise prohibitively expensive because we can work with them on an off night.
  • Rent Party has been able to serve as a testing ground for several bands which the local swing dance society would be hesitant to try untested.  Several bands like Bumper Jacksons, Clark Stern, and Hot Club of North Carolina have since gone on to play to larger crowds at our local Saturday night dances.  We also put on the first ever dance played by the now infamous Mint Julep Jazz Band.
  • Rent Party has kept a place for live music in the center of the Triangle area where dancers can still easily mix and pull from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  At this point, TSDS has only been able to find suitable venues in the far West end of the Triangle.
  • And finally, Rent Party remains able to host dances that simply would not fly at TSDS dances.  Having solo piano badass, Ethan Uslan, play alone for a packed house of dancers or Soul DJ, Ryan Thomas, spin a whole night of vintage vinyl, for instance would not happen anywhere else in the Triangle.

The situation as it stands

In the last year or so we have seen RP numbers drop in a not-insignificant fashion.  I would estimate we are seeing 2/3 of the numbers at the door and close to half of the money in the hat box meaning not only are fewer people showing up, but they are also paying in less.  While I’m happy to lose money on the event and put on an awesome show, the host in me can’t really continue to be excited at the prospect of underpaying the musicians we offer gigs to.  RP has slowly become a more stressful experience when we once easily paid 7 or 8 people a solid wage and now struggle to pay 4 decently.  Not only that, but it hinders our ability to bring in bands when the range we can reasonably promise them continues to shrink.  At the moment we have several bands from Philly and NYC who have asked to play but for whom the current RP numbers aren’t worthwhile.

We need your input

We put on RP for our own enjoyment and hopefully for the good of the community.  Laura and I are happy to continue to invest in Rent Party, and we think bands are happy to invest their time in it as well, so long as the community can match that energy.  We are also happy to let it rest and focus our energies elsewhere if RDU Rent Party has run its course.  But we don’t want to make this decision alone, so please let us know what you think, either in the comments or by emailing me.  If you want to see RDU Rent Party continue or if you have ideas on how we could make it more enticing for you both to show up and to show the bands some love, we are happy to hear them.  Or if you feel like in a sea of good options lately, that RP just doesn’t draw you like it used to and we should take a break, we’d love to hear that too.

Regardless, we are grateful for the approximately 3-4 year run that we have had, to all the dancers who made it possible, to all the bands who tried this crazy idea with us, and for all the amazing experiences it has allowed us to have.  Whatever decision we end up making, know that we are extremely grateful for the good times and happy to make our future endeavors whatever will serve the dance and the scene best.

Cheers,
Jason & Laura

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Engineering a Friendlier Dance Scene

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, and based on a recent discussion on Facebook, I figured I should go ahead and do this.

First off, I will say I see it thrown around a lot that a given scene or venue or event is more or less welcoming.  I’m not really convinced that it is an inherent trait of a scene so much as something very malleable.  Over the past 2 years, I have, on various nights at our Thursday night dance, received comments that people felt like it was the most welcoming dance they had ever been to but also seen people walk out within 20-30 minutes having barely danced or engaged with anyone at all.  I think the experience can be awfully subjective and all one can really do is try to improve on the overall experience.

I have been running the primary Lindy night in the Raleigh/Durham swing scene and playing with a number of options to turn the experience into one that is more welcoming across demographics.  Much like in my dancing, I tend to think a lot of the things new and returning dancers are looking for are relatively inherent but easy to trip ourselves up on.  The studio I run, The Lindy Lab, has given me a lot of opportunities to play with setting up a space to encourage socialization, so I want to share a few of the things I have tried, learned from, and am currently experimenting with.

Right Size Your Space

I have observed a curious phenomenon with dance classes where no matter what size the room is, the couples in rotation will always seem to move out towards the walls until they have as much space as possible between themselves and everybody else.  The same often happens with dances, where people will expand away from each other until they reach a sort of equilibrium of space.  Along these lines, I find there is “critical mass” of people that it takes to build energy in a space (without being too packed and going nuclear).  If the space is too large for the number of people, it becomes easy for everyone to just seek their own comfortable space or group of friends, but when the available space is sized about right, a curious chemistry starts to take over.

Right size the spaceFor most of 2012, our Thursday dance was in a space that was too large.  ~2000 sq ft. for an average of 30-40 people left a huge gulf of space that people would have to cross to go ask someone to dance, and made it more effort for people to interact.  To counter this, we simply moved the chairs from the back wall about halfway into the room, creating a more intimate space and the energy of the night improved.  This was an adjustment we had to make every week and sometimes several times in the night, but making sure the space was close enough to keep people from disconnecting tended to drive energy, not just on the dance floor, but also in terms of interaction around the edges.

Ask Me To Dance Table

I consistently hear people throw out the idea of having dance captains/ambassadors/courtesans/whatever to either seek out newbies or to be hunted down and asked for dances by them.  For me, I like to be efficient, and the idea of trying to assign ambassadors each week or weed out the right people to hold up as ambassadors, struck me both as a lot of extra busy work and the sort of thing that was likely to end up landing in the laps of a small handful of folks most of the time.  So rather than base the idea around people, I decided to base it around an area, specifically, a table with a sign on it that simply read “Ask Me To Dance Table.”

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well ;)

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well 😉

Not unlike a taxi stop at an airport, this creates a very egalitarian way to connect people offering a service (asking to dance) with people of any level wanting said service (to get a dance without having to ask).  Anyone of any level can have a seat and be sought after by anyone who feels in a mood to currently do the asking.  We put out “newbie guide to the swing scene” pamphlets as well, which offer tips on making friends in the dance scene and encourage them to try asking someone after they have been asked to dance.  There is a pretty brisk turnover, and I rarely see anyone sitting there for more than a song before they are asked to dance (the only exceptions have been people who were painful to dance with or solely relied on the table to get dances).  Plus if a few people are at the table together, it often emboldens one or two of them to ask one of their compatriots to dance.

Have a Seat, Make a Friend Area

While at any given time, most of us have periods of “OMGIWANTTODANCEEVERY SONG!!!!”, most dancers’ typical night goes something like “do some dancing, do some chatting, grab some water, rinse and repeat”.  And sometimes we want to be among friends but don’t want to dance for one reason or another or are new and just want to observe, etc.  So for a while, I tried out having a “Just Feeling Chatty Table” which did OK, gave newbies a place to hide for a bit without being total wallflowers, and gave the tired or overstimulated a place to crash but still be at the dance.  This worked for a bit until I saw this video:

So, based on this video, I have changed the goal of that table from “feeling chatty” to “Have a Seat, Make a Friend” and am starting to stock the table with things which I feel engage a sense of childhood while also giving people something to do together (not all of of us comfortable just holding a straight conversation).  So I have been getting things like Legos, Lincoln Logs, Puzzles and games that can be played a couple turns at a time and paused readily (like Connect Four or Checkers).  This idea has just started to come together over the winter break, so I don’t have good data yet on whether or not it works, but I can say that generally when I have mentioned it, people are excited by the idea, and this has generally helped elevate the appearance of the dance from just being another “here’s music, now it’s up to you” dance to something that offers a sense of community.

Let People Make it Their Own

My goal as an organizer is to try to take things like the idea of an ambassador program and make occur in a way that feels seamless and natural.  In essence, I believe that most people are naturally friendly, given the right circumstances, and my job is to try and create those circumstances, rather than asking people to be more friendly.  By finding ways to lower the barriers to entry to talk or dance with someone, everyone can become an ambassador for the scene, including the new dancers themselves.  My feeling is that if I empower people to be outgoing rather than tell them they need to be outgoing, there is less chance of people feeling singled out or burdened with trying to make someone else’s experience enjoyable.  Rather, my aim is to try to even the playing field so that each experience becomes a shared one and each person’s input (regardless of their level, age, race, etc.) becomes an important and integral part of the stew.

As the name of my studio, The Lindy Lab, implies, all of this is an experiment and I am eternally playing with these ideas: putting tables in different places, feng shuing the room to fit the vibe of a given night and any number of other versions of poking at variables to see if they have any effect.  I encourage anyone who is looking to make a scene better to think about the things you think will help, and then try to think of things you haven’t thought of before.  I have seen the discussion of how to make dancing more accessible come up year after year and it often devolves into placing blame on one group or another.  I will admit to having felt that way at times myself, but the more I have expanded my view and tried different things, the more I think that this is a challenge that is best solved by making it enjoyable for people to engage with each other and leveling the playing field to include everyone as equal partners in creating the community.

Losing My Collection

high_fidelity_rob_with_tapeTwo days ago while I was parked in downtown Durham for a show at a local bar when my car was broken into and my laptop was stolen, so I’m writing this from a friend’s laptop. While this loss is  distressing on a number of levels, it has been interesting to realize that the greatest feeling  of loss is for my collection of MP3s.  It has been approximately a 10 year project amassing my DJ collection of swing tunes and the amount of work that was just stolen in my cheap laptop is hitting me pretty hard.

My collection has been with me through 4 homes, 3 laptops, 3 cars, a radical career change, and a half dozen or more romantic relationships. I can remember when I first decided to convert my collection to  MP3 and after ripping everything at a lower quality, chose to start over and spend my free time for an entire week patiently sitting at my desktop transferring CD after CD in and out of the drive, hitting rip MP3s, and waiting to start the next disc.  Since then, I’ve spent countless hours acquiring music, ripping CDs, tapping out BPMs, and cataloging, tagging, and organizing my collection.  As much as I found the process tedious at times (and honestly, I think I had only managed to keep up with rating and tagging about 20-30% of my collection), I am realizing that it also created a bond that I didn’t fully recognize until now.

It has been a bit of a High Fidelity moment for me to realize how much of a role my music collection has played in my life.  If I hadn’t jumped into collecting music when I started, I’m not sure Rob Moreland would have ever asked me to start DJing so many years back.  When I was a year into dance and starry-eyed about Paul and Sharon’s dancing and teaching, my music collection was a way to connect with that and Sharon was the first DJ I emulated in style and collecting.  This lead to Chris Owens dubbing me “Bluesberry Muffin” when I DJ’d which lead to a great number of formative conversations about energy and drive in music.  Then there are forays into tango, getting deeper into vintage music, etc. etc.  I can effectively trace the 11 years of my dancing (even my burned out year) through my music collection.

And it’s not just a matter of my music mirroring my DJ trajectory, it has also driven my dancing.  As I found music I liked, I felt driven to learn to dance to it too.  It drove my dancing into trying to make my movements sharper or softer, helped me figure out pulse, and has recently been driving me to play with Charleston again.  My music (and a few excellent historians) have inspired me to learn more about the musicians who do these incredible recordings which in turn inspired me to start running RDU Rent Party dances with Laura Windley and to love just sitting and watching musicians play when I’m not dancing.  My music has shaped not just my movements, but where I have gone as a person.

In the last 2 days as I’ve shared my distress, a great number of DJs have offered to help by giving me music.  As much as I appreciate the support, it’s interesting to note how wrong it feels to think about accepting that help.  As much as I don’t relish the thought of re-ripping all the CDs I still have, that ritual seems like an important piece of rebuilding.  And the thought of DJing off someone else’s music seems akin to taking a friend’s girlfriend  to prom.  And while it’s nice to know I have the sort of friends who would make that offer, it occurs to me in a very visceral way that if I DJ with someone else’s music, then it’s no longer telling my story with my words (or songs, as it were).

At this point, I’m adjusting to the idea that I’ll have to redo all this work, that it won’t ever be the same, but I can rediscover myself and my music again.  I’ll plan better for backups and keep one in a separate place, get a chance to rethink how I organize things, and get to play things I may not have played in 8-10 years.  It’s a great loss in some ways, but it is also an opportunity to try new things and see what from my past fits me and what I have moved on from.  And it seems appropriate to end on a quote from High Fidelity:

Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth

Video

Jamming

This is a really well put together video on jazz as a metaphor for sex and using lessons from musical jam sessions as a way to inform how we approach sex.  Anyone who’s been in my classes for very long knows that I use dance & sex as crossing metaphors a lot.  So, to me, this video makes perfect sense for dance as well.  You get better with practice (both solo and partnered), just because you danced once doesn’t mean you get to dance every time, and it’s not ok to force a move.

This ties into something I’ve been noticing in dance lately too that people seem to think social norms don’t apply just because someone agreed to dance with them.  For instance, it’s generally considered not ok for me to berate a woman into doing something for me, yet I’ve come across plenty of leads who seem to think it’s ok to just crank up the power if a follow doesn’t do what they expected on the first attempt to lead a move.  I think the more we view music, dance, and yes, sex, as a collaboration instead of a give and take, the more amazing things can happen.

And perhaps my favorite idea in here is that pleasure is a renewable resource. 🙂

This Music Sucks: Personal Movement Style in Dance Music Appreciation

SwingSucksAlbumCoverI recently DJ’d a 20’s themed holiday party where my partner and I had been hired to teach a Charleston lesson and follow up with 20’s music, eventually transitioning into modern pop music. Due to a  few delays, and performances running long, we were eventually asked to scrub the lesson and move straight into playing music. Within the first song or two of 20’s music we immediately had people coming up to not-so-subtly ask when we would start playing modern music. The subtext of the request was pretty clear “We think this music sucks.”  We scrambled a little bit, threw on some club type music and the once empty floor was suddenly packed.

The variety of perceptions people have for the same tune was always been intriguing to me. It amazes me that someone could love the Cupid Shuffle or hate Jumpin’ at the Woodside. I was aware that I started dancing liking Neo-Swing but as my dancing grew I started to prefer first groove, then vintage, but I didn’t have a solid reason why. I’ve heard some great talks on this subject, from a musical perspective, by DJ and historian, Kyle Smith, and I’m in absolute agreement that there are a lot of factors to how we perceive music. For this post, I wanted to pick out one that I see as a particularly strong influence in what people will or won’t dance to: their own default movement.

All of us have our comfort zone and at the center of that comfort zone is our default. If we count ourselves off, we each tend to count off at a certain speed, syncopate a certain way, use a particular energy, etc.  If every song sounded the way that default song does, we would kill it every time we hit the dance floor.

Of course, not every song fits our comfort zone.  The vast variety of music defies our comfort zone, falling somewhere away from our default towards uncomfortable, or even inaccessible territory.  And this is where I think a breakdown occurs for a lot of people.  When the music no longer supports the way your body wants to dance, you have two choices, recognize the limitations of your body or blame the music.  I think the common “I don’t like this music,” is often an indication of people choosing the latter.

This isn’t to say that all music preferences are based in this, but whether or not the music supports your movement is something I don’t see many people pay attention to.  So in an out of sight, out of mind sort of way, it makes it easy for our comfort zone to flavor a lot of our stated musical tastes.  If your movement and the music don’t have a common thread to them, it begins to make dancing feel like an inappropriately soundtracked movie scene.

From the musical side, this is how I tend to approach things when I am DJing and want to fill the floor regardless of what music it takes (as opposed to wanting to play within certain genres).  I watch the way people move, particularly when they aren’t dancing, and try to figure out what would make an appropriate soundtrack.  I think most DJs do this to some extent when they talk about reading the floor.  Coming up with someone’s soundtrack is just one of the ways I conceive it and a way I have found translates well when helping new DJs develop their own feel for the floor.

Sometimes the music is just bad.  But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

Sometimes the music is just bad. But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

As a dancer, I certainly have the option to just stick to my guns that X music sucks and not dance to it.  But I would prefer to dance more and dance better to the music I already like.  So from that perspective, my goal becomes expanding my movement repertoire and getting better at moving based on the music rather than moving based purely on my preexisting habits.  It can be a challenging process at times, but I find a great deal has opened up in my dancing as I developed a willingness to move with the music and move to more types of music.  Here are a few things that helped for me:

Stop and Listen

One of the things that locks us into old patterns is jumping the gun because we feel like we have to move immediately.  When they connect with a partner, most people will start in dancing almost immediately because waiting could create the dance equivalent of an uncomfortable silence.  Starting simply with pulsing to the music and letting the music fill that silence does a lot, both for the musicality of the dance and for making the partnership feel like you are on the same page.

Move By Yourself

In dance classes, when I put on a swing song and ask people to move on their own, inevitably, some percentage of the class will start doing nothing but 6 and 8-count footwork in place.  The whole of the music is there for the taking but they have become so deeply patterned that the first instinct is to do something completely by rote.  As you spend time just getting used to moving alone, you can put more focus on deepening the relationship between your body movement and the music.  The stronger that relationship gets, the more you will be able to take it back into a partnership.  This tends to involve a lot of trial and error and may be uncomfortable at times, but the dance rewards are well worth the effort.

Find Transitions

If I’m DJing a mixed genre night and I want to go from funk to charleston, it would be a rather jarring transition in most cases to do so in one song.  If I find an intermediary song or two that allows me to shift the genre over time rather than a straight change, the energy of the night can be maintained and dancers are better primed for the genre I’m heading towards.  The same goes for your body and your own dance development.  Knowing where you are and working towards other styles of movement piece-by-piece allows you to make use of the resources you already have.  If you like dancing to neo-swing and want to get a feel for vintage, try starting with neo, moving to more modern swing bands, and then working your way back to vintage music.  Whether or not your dancing “feels right” to the music or feels jarring will be a good indicator of when you’ve got it and are in a solid position to expand your comfort zone further.

So the next time you think the music sucks, take a minute and consider how your dancing may or may not line up with the music.  You certainly don’t have to like anything you don’t want to, but if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone you might find that you can enjoy dancing to something that didn’t grab you at first.  And if you’re of the “I’ll dance to anything” variety, you can use the same tools to deepen your connection with a variety of musical genres and find deeper inspiration in the music.  Whatever your choices, just keep in mind that your musical taste is often as much or more about how the music makes you feel than it is about the music itself.  And whatever makes you feel like you want to dance, start there, and you can use it to grow beyond.

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