What do you mean you can’t dance to blues?

Someone recently told me that he had trouble dancing to blues. This was not the first time I’ve heard this sort of remark from a fellow dancer. And it’s not just beginners I hear it from, but even more experienced dancers too.

When pressed further as to what they mean by “I can’t dance to the blues,” there seems to be an unidentifiable culprit to their trouble, leading to answers along the lines of, “I don’t know. I just don’t get blues.”

What is this strange phenomenon? Is there an official diagnosis for this condition? Blues challenged? Selective musical genre disorder? Idontgetbluesia?

What don’t you get about the blues? It’s a straightforward musical form. It’s got a beat and melody and rhythm like any other song. In fact, blues by definition is grounded in acoustic instrumentation with a strong rhythm section, so more than much of the other music we dance to, blues has a clearly defined rhythm with a clear downbeat and upbeat.

And why can’t you dance to blues when you can dance to every other genre we dance to?  That category of music you dance to so easily that you call “contemporary” is actually several genres of music – R&B, pop, soul, funk, hip-hop, dance, alternative, and rap (and more). Each has a different kind of instrumentation and rhythm, and yet you seem to have no problem dancing to all of those.

Is it the swung rhythm that throws you off? Well, first of all, not all blues is swung. Blues is both a musical genre (or style) and a musical form (or structure). As a genre, blues is defined by its instrumentation, its themes, and a walking bass line. As a form, it is cyclical, meaning it is a repeating progression of chords (twelve-bar blues is the most common example of this but only one of many examples). So lots of blues are in song form (verse-chorus structure) and lots of blues have straight timing instead of swung rhythm. Heck, much of B.B. King’s music is song form and straight time, and he was the King of Blues. Coincidentally, there are pop songs with blues form (e.g. “Give It To Me Right” by Melanie Fiona) and some with swung rhythm (e.g. “Stutter” by Maroon 5).

As for having trouble with swung rhythm, a big part of the problem is lack of practice. Ideally, teachers are including blues and swung rhythm in their classes, to expose students to these forms. (Unfortunately, that probably isn’t the case. I’ve heard that in Europe there is a dearth of blues, though I was fortunate to hear it played in Germany…)

Of course, plenty of people might argue there’s no need to bother, that blues isn’t relevant or necessary, and we don’t hear much of it anymore anyway. (We probably hear more Latin rhythms in our music than swung rhythm these days…) But everyone should at least be exposed to blues and learn to dance to swung rhythms.

First of all, blues and swung rhythm are the foundations of West Coast Swing. It is this kind of music upon which this dance evolved and came into its own. So from a historical perspective, it’s important to understand where the dance came from.

Second, the instrumentation of blues creates a very downward feeling and the swung rhythm creates that pendulum or syncopated feeling – you know, what we and musicians call swing. Both the downward feeling and the pendulum feeling are integral to the foundations of this dance (and all swing dances) – they create the feeling we should have in West Coast Swing. Like learning to play Mozart before you play Gershwin, you should understand the proper feeling and movement of blues before you master the music that came afterwards.

Third, as dancers, you want to continue pushing the limits of your movement and your musical interpretation. We are constantly dancing to new music that challenges us to grow and develop our skill set. And blues is another genre of music that offers different musical rhythms and instrumentations that we can add to our toolkit. If the goal is to be able to dance to any music, then being able to dance to blues should be included. Blues can push you to apply and develop your musical interpretation skills in ways other musical forms can’t.

And if nothing else, competitions will continue to include swung blues music. This is in part because judges want to see that kind of music included, in part to showcase a more traditional style of the dance, and in part because they know that some people struggle with a swung rhythm and it can be used to separate the boys from the men. So if you want to succeed in competitions, you’d best get a handle on your blues.

I know I’m biased and fortunate to have had exposure to blues and swung rhythms early on, before I even started dancing (as a jazz musician) and before I started West Coast Swing (as a lindy hopper). So yeah, I guess I get blues – the feeling, the rhythm, the timing. But it’s not impossible to learn, nor is it even that difficult, if you simply pay attention and apply your swing fundamentals (body mechanics, footwork, timing) to the music. As with anything else you want to learn, it takes focus and practice.

So what is this nonsense about not being able to dance to blues? You’re very capable. Just put on some blues and dance!

Do you hear a lot of blues where you live and dance? Do you have trouble with the rhythm? Did your teachers expose you to blues in classes? Post your comments below!

 

 

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