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?

The Power of Music

It probably doesn’t come as any surprise, but (hang on to your hats!) music is important to dance. After all, dance is the expression of music through rhythmic, bodily movements. The whole idea behind musicality is trying to express the music as much and as accurately as possible.

In fact, dances are born and created in large part because of new forms of music. For instance, swing dancing itself took shape to a new musical form known as jazz, and mambo and cha-cha came about as musicians in the Caribbean began merging American jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms. Throughout history, dancers have created new dance forms in response to new musical forms.

We sometimes forget, too, that dances change and evolve in response to music. This may be especially true of dances like West Coast Swing, which is danced to a wide range of musical genres and receives a constant flow of new music. If you watch videos of West Coast Swing dancing twenty or even ten years ago compared with today, you’ll certainly notice the difference in the music (perhaps with a bit of nostalgia, perhaps with fear) but you’ll also notice a difference in the dancing. This makes sense, of course: as the music changes, so should the dancing since, after all, the dancing should reflect the music.

Curiously, although dance is ultimately the physical expression of music, there are many forces operating in a social dance world that may have a greater influence on the dance than the music. For instance, how instructors teach the dance can have a significant impact on the dance – both how it’s done and our collective understanding of it. And, of course, as people with knowledge of different dances come into the community, they bring their knowledge of other dance forms with them. Certainly over the past few years the West Coast Swing community has seen Hustle, Hand Dancing, and Carolina Shag – among others – shape the dance. Moreover, dancers with a background in classical forms of dance or who have studied kinesiology (study of movement) and related fields also contribute to our collective understanding of the dance and of dancing as a whole. Particular individuals can also set new trends in patterns, stylings, or even the music we choose to dance to. These trendsetters may influence others either through social dancing or through choreography and competitive dancing. Competition itself can often drive changes in the social dance scene, as the winning dance will set the standard for what “good” dancing is (another discussion for another post… or two or ten!).

So just how much does the music really influence the dance? There are some in the community who are not happy with the current trend in music – the dance/urban/hip-hop genres of music that are predominated by heavy and repetitive rhythms. Some of them argue that the move away from faster, swung rhythms (found in a lot of blues and swing songs) and towards slower, “contemporary” music has led to the loss of the anchor in the dance, and that West Coast Swing has lost its “swing” element. Others argue that the loss of connection and related technique stems not from the music, but rather from a lack of proper instruction and from the misguided emulation of talented dancers by those less skilled. (Personally, I agree with the notion that the music certainly influences the dance, but I think in this particular argument I would side with the latter argument. Then again, I would argue that one can anchor at slow speeds and without a swung rhythm. But again, another post for another day…)

I have had the pleasure of speaking with a particular experienced and respected instructor about this topic, and he advised me to think about what music I play when teaching my students. Am I playing “contemporary” music with straight time or blues music with swung rhythms? Am I playing repetitive songs or songs with variation? Are they really slow, medium tempo, or fast? The idea is that the music we learn to dance to can greatly influence how we dance – as well as our understanding of what the dance is.

Ironically, in some way, the influence of the music is circular, since the dancers – sometimes a select set of trendsetters, instructors, and DJs – are choosing the music to which we dance. In the case of West Coast Swing, dancers are taking the music they hear on the radio that they like and then playing it at dances where they adapt the dance appropriately. So the influence of the music becomes a (sort of) chicken-and-the-egg type debate: does the music influence the dance, or do the dancers influence the dance by way of the music?

What do you think? Has the change in music been the main reason for the change in the dance? Have you witnessed any evidence that suggests the music has directly changed how we dance West Coast Swing? Or do you think social factors like instruction, trendsetters, competition, and the influences of other dances has driven the evolution of the dance? What kind of music do you hear in lessons and has that influenced your understanding of how to do this dance? Instructors, what kind of music do you play in lessons and why?

Fade to Black

I admit it: I’m a music snob.

That comes as no surprise to those of you who know me. I like some music and other music, I just don’t like. I admit it, I realize some people may not like it, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. In fact, it’s sort of a rite of passage for some – when you pass from loving any song you can dance to to being selective about which songs you want to dance to and which you find completely uninspiring, either because you’ve been around long enough to hear them one too many times or because you’ve developed a sense of taste that reflects your personal preference and dance style.

Anyway, there’s a whole Pandora’s box to be explored concerning music, and for the moment, I’d like to pick just one item: cross-fading.

Cross-fading, as any user of iTunes knows, is when the end of one song overlaps with the beginning of the next – one fades out as one fades in. Personally, I really, really dislike it.

As a dancer, I like a beginning and an ending to my songs – a complete story to my dance – and cross-fading deprives me of both of those. Plus, I like time to finish with one partner, thank her and escort her off the floor, and ask another partner and guide her onto the floor before I’ve missed too much of the next song.

Honestly, I don’t know who thought or still thinks cross-fading is a good idea, but every now and then there’s a DJ who does it, and it irks me to no end. (Of course, waiting more than a second or two between songs irks me as well – where’s the music? why are you letting the energy die?)

So am I alone? Anyone else out there snobbish enough to care about things like cross-fading? Anyone have a personal preference for song transitions? (Song selection? Another topic for another time…) Anyone out there a DJ and have an opinion on this?