I 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.
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.
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.