Dancing without soul

Earlier this month, I went to my favorite event, Boogie by the Bay. The reasons I like this event are many, but the most important one is that I always leave the event feeling better about dancing. The event this year was a particularly good refresher for me, shifting my perspective and maybe even my dancing itself.

One thing I particularly enjoyed this year was the music. I tend to really like the DJs at Boogie – not all, admittedly, but most, especially the amazing Beth Bellamy. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but what I like about her most – other than the fact that I like her taste in music – is that she plays a great variety of music, mixing genre and tempo so that every song is something different from the previous. With such a wide diversity of great music out there, few people explore that range and few do so in a way that keeps you dancing.

I also have to give a shoutout to Arjay Centeno, who very pleasantly surprised me with his set. It was like the “groove and soul” hour, with an amazing mix of soulful songs, new and old. Motown, old soul, classic R&B, modern R&B, neo-soul, top 40 with a beat – it was all good. I talked with several people who expected a faster, more club-heavy experience from Arjay, but loved his mix (and I hope the NextGen committee keeps him for next year!).

But his set, along with much of the music I enjoyed that weekend, made me wonder: Where has the soul gone from our dancing?

I moved to California last year, so maybe it’s just the trend here, but it seems like there’s more and more fast top 40 dance music (and endless covers and remakes of said music) and less blues, classic R&B, Motown, or anything with real soul (as in, deep feeling and emotion). Where’s the Al Green? Aretha Franklin? Sam Cooke? Eric Clapton? Susan Tedeschi? Where is the drippy music, the groovin’ music, the music that is best served with a glass of whiskey, or the music that two people should really only dance to in private?

I’ve written before about the important role music plays in shaping our dance, and this new shift in music has me thinking – and somewhat concerned.

Is it just me? Is it just the places where I dance? Are you guys hearing good blues, soul, and R&B where you live? Do you miss it? Is this just a trend, since fast dance music is popular on the radio? Or is WCS moving in a new indefinite direction?


  1. I for one love alternating genres and tempo, it's spicy so I want to stay on the floor. It's like good relationship, fine wine or cafe excellente the variety is what adds substance and zing! Off the cuff, you have mentioned Motown, old soul, classic R&B, modern R&B, neo-soul with less soulful deep music played here than on the east coast– I'm not portending to be a guru in this area, but, does this suggest west coast people might be attracted to superfluous allegro tempo lending itself to cool tricks, snappy moves and less vulnerable? Are we setting ourselves up to disengage from the deep soulful music, i.e. deep inner expression & emotion with others on the floor? Or is it just plain taste & style differences period? Sheryl

  2. I was surprised and enjoyed Arjay's playlist too. I think one of the reasons we are overloaded with contemporary music, has do to with the age of dancers now into WCS. It was mere 5 years ago that we were concerned here in California with the lack of young dancers and worried about how long we could continue to keep venues open. The dance was getting old and boring without them, and the attendance to the dances was low. They helped create a energized and healthy boost in attendance to our dance that was needed. I can't imagine the dance without their energy. BTW, I think Yenni has done a good job of force feeding the Tuesday crowd at WNY a combination of music. It is unfortunate in that growth, the past has been ignored to please the new generation of dancers. Your posts Eric, will help generate enough interest to address the lack of soulful blues and hopefully we can get back to dances that reflect everyones choice of music. Crystal

  3. Thanks for your comments, Sheryl. You raise some good questions.Crystal, I think you make a really good point, but I can't help but feel like we as a community put too much weight into that "excuse" – that it's the young people who are driving the music. Sure, I think there's some truth to it, but I have a hard time putting all my metaphorical eggs in that basket. For one thing, young people (for my purposes I'll refer to 25 and under) aren't DJing, and they aren't running dances and events. Moreover, while this top 40 music may appeal to them most, it seems strange that people would think we need new, fast music to attract them, given that so many young people dance lindy – which is danced to music of their grandparents' generation. (And I was young once, and I like easy, groovy music!) Plus, younger DJs like Arjay and Ben McHenry do play a good mix of tempos and styles, old and new. And one more thing: I know lots of older people who seem to like dancing to the latest music because it makes them feel young…So are we jumping to conclusions? Are there other things we're missing because we defer to the "youth story" too quickly? And if we're playing that music to draw in younger dancers, are we driving the dance in a certain direction as a result? Do we like that direction?

  4. About the amount of contemporary music being played these days, I think another contributing factor might be that dancers and DJs are always looking for new music constantly. And new music to dance to *usually* comes from the new music that's being recorded recently and what's on the radio.Especially in the last few years, I've gotten the sense that when there's a cool new song out there, it then becomes overplayed at dances [e.g. every week at the same local dance; or sometimes as much as 3-4x in one night at a convention (say, if each DJ plays it in their set and doesn't realize previous DJs just played it a few hours earlier)]. Within a few months, the song has been overplayed so much, that people are tired of dancing to it, and then they want different music. The DJs want to please the dancers, so they may also be caught up in the urge to discover a new song that people can dance to, and staying "current" with the latest songs coming out on the radio. It's as if the entire dance community "consumes" music too quickly. So perhaps this has contributed to why our music seems to be more heavily-weighted in fast, contemporary songs. I also wonder if maybe the community would be equally or better satisfied by a more diverse set of music–consisting of some fast, slow, old, and new music. The variety of music would keep the majority of the people happy, and we could gradually introduce new music at a steadier pace that would allows us to not "consume" it so quickly.

  5. Having the young crowd involved in the dance is wonderful as it adds new energy to the dance. Over the years we have been the youngest at a dance by 20 years just because we wanted to dance and that was all that was available in the area.That being said, having such a wide variety of dancers will always lead to complaints on the music, I don't envy any of the DJs today. The young crowd definitely encourage the fast dance music and the older gen wants the slower, groovier tunes. Like Cami said, there is such a wide variety of music out there but we tend to play the same tunes over and over. Even when DJs play a variety of music in tempo and era there are those that will always complain and the DJs and organizers will be sensitive to that…..shall we say squeaky wheel?….

  6. Which radio stations do you listen to? Depending on what you call "soulful", it might actually be played on some SF bay area radio stations, but might not appeal to the teens and twentysomethings that come to the WCS conventions.In my experience living here in the SF bay area, these things run in cycles. However, the SF bay area is a somewhat atypical radio market, due to terrain, demographics, FM transmitter power, and a few other things. As a result, some formats are not quite as (commercially) viable as the formats you heard on the east coast.Also, about five years ago, I had heard that overall radio listening was down, compared to what it was, say, ten years ago. More people have just turned to downloading mp3s or streaming media services. But the very popular contemporary dance/hip-hop acts such as Pitbull and Taio Cruz are also popular on streaming media sites, iTunes, etc.I'm actually curious if there have ever been any focus groups or even informal surveys asking people, especially young adults, if there are other contemporary songs besides dance/hip-hop songs that they like and would be interested in dancing WCS to.

  7. Being a young person myself(21) I personally live for the blues, soul, jazzy music. I actually am not the biggest fan of contemporary music although it can be fun to dance to. Blues music just has a lot more depth and it's what it was a big part of the music that I was brought up with. A lot of other people my age or around my age learn to appreciate blues but don't come into the dance appreciating or even having a familiarity with the genre. So it could be tough to play that music when it doesn't meet the youth where they are. As with everything though the best option is a mix. How we find that well…that's a great question. I'm also in the Northeast and have found a lot of top 40 being played here although we do have the music that you seem to find missing on the West Coast. I guess we have a better mix than I thought we did! I'm interested in what the mid-west's(Illinois or Texas) scene is like.

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