Dance essays - THE TEN COMMANDMENTS FOR DANCE DISC JOCKEYS
This article is likely to be read by the wrong people. My guess is that if you are reading this, then you are probably someone already interested in partner dancing, especially swing, and so you probably already know what you want from a DJ at a dance. Really, I wish that DJs would read this and take heed of it, but the impression I have gained through bitter experience is that DJs are not the sort of people to pay any attention to what other people think or want.
You have probably been in this situation: you are at a dance where the DJ is not someone used to working with keen dancers. A common example might be at a wedding reception. The DJ is a man who has come along with his usual selection of recordings, and he goes into his usual routine, playing the tracks that he thinks will go down well. He is awful, for several reasons. What follow are requests I would make of DJs. If you are a DJ, then please take no offence from this stranger whose article you are reading, but instead do take heed, because this really is, despite what you might think, what dancers want from a DJ. If you are a dancer, you may get some satisfaction from learning that you are not alone in your frustrations.
1. Please remember that you are not the star of the show.
At a wedding, the bride and groom are the stars. At a dance, the dancers are the stars. You have been hired to play the music that your patrons want to hear, and to play it in the way they want to hear it. You are not being professional by doing things your way if this does not please your audience. Perhaps you dislike your audience's taste in music. That is not important. You are being professional, and you are doing your job well, if you are pleasing your audience. Disc jockeying is a skill. You can tell that you are doing it well, when people tell you how good you were afterwards. Never assume that people are happy with your work just because some of them are up and dancing.
If you think that you are the star of the show, then you are almost certainly wrong. If a friend asks me whether I want to go to the cinema, I do not ask "Who's the projectionist?" No, instead I ask "What film is showing?" Even the top named DJs, of whom very few people have heard, are not really stars. Their audiences do not watch them all night. Their audiences dance about and watch each other. It takes a few "top" DJs to make a difference to how many people go to a dance at a club, and even then they are going because these DJs make it seem that this club is the place to go and meet the right sort of people.
DJs who are under the mistaken impression that they are stars will make countless related mistakes. They will fail to play requests; they will annoy people with an arrogant attitude; they will make fools of themselves. There is little more pathetic than someone who thinks he's a star, and isn't. A humble DJ is a thousand times better than an arrogant one, and a thousand times rarer.
2. Find out in advance what your audience will want.
You may think that you have a track selection which will be well received by all the audiences you play to, but if so then you are probably wrong. I went to a wedding at which half the people attending were in goth fashions, but despite this, the DJ played no goth music until asked several times, and even then he only played a couple before putting on more disco hits. At another wedding, the bride had stipulated that under no circumstances should the DJ play "New York New York", a track she utterly hated. When she got up for her final dance of the evening, well, you can probably guess what she heard, and she wasn't happy about it. Perhaps the DJ thought he was being funny. He wasn't.
3. Monitor your audience to see what is going down well.
Amazingly, very few DJs do this. At another dance I attended, I entered to see an empty dance floor and tables crowded all around with glum-looking people. At the time, I was known for being a ska dancer, and some friends of mine requested "One Step Beyond" by Madness. Within a few seconds, the entire dance floor was crammed with people dancing away like fury. The track then ended, and some dreadful modern dance track came on, and the floor emptied completely. Most of an hour later, the DJ was persuaded despite his professional qualms to play "Night Boat to Cairo" and again the floor groaned under our pounding weight, and then became a desert. Any rational thinking human might have felt that the DJ should by this point have spotted the sort of music that was well-received, and that the sort he was playing on his own initiative was the wrong sort. Alas, a typical DJ had been hired for the night. Everyone was determined to have a good time. When it became obvious that the DJ was never going to play a decent set of music, people eventually, in dribs and drabs, got up and danced at half throttle to "YMCA" and other similar trash. Alcohol made this possible. I fear that the DJ went home unthanked, but nevertheless feeling that he had done a good job, because, as he might have put it, "It took a while to get going, but people had a good time in the end and that's what matters." He had in truth done a very bad job.
4. Learn something about dance.
Very few DJs seem to have a clue about which tracks are good for dancing to, and which are not. Most are happy to play 3-beat waltz time jazz to a room of swing dancers, and if they receive complaints, they wonder what the fuss is about and say "But it's got a great beat, I love this track". Learn what music is good for salsa, for swing, for tango, for cha cha, for waltz, quickstep, and the rest. Also, get a feel for what is fast and what isn't. Some tracks may sound slow to the untrained ear, but are cruelly fast to dance to, and vice versa. Be aware that a dancer can do very little with a track that goes thud-thud-thud all the way through. A drunken lout with two left feet may bob about to such music happily enough, but it gives nothing to work with to someone who wants to cut a dash on the dance floor.
5. Don't play at ear-shattering volume.
At night clubs, the dance music is played at a level which almost but not quite causes the ears to bleed. There is a reason for this. Night clubs exist to make money, and they make money by selling drinks. They do not make money from people talking or dancing. Indeed, people who talk might arrange to go somewhere else, and even if they stay, they don't drink as much. Night clubs play devastatingly loud music in order to make it impossible for people to talk to each other. If you are a hired-in DJ at a dance/party/wedding reception, then it is not your duty to silence the guests. You are not paid according to the takings at the bar. You are there to give people a good time. Yes, people want to be able to hear the music, but at a good dance it is possible to have a normal conversation even when standing next to one of the speakers.
I have been to a couple of weddings where the people around the tables off the dance floor have sat in glum silence. Some of them had flown from the other side of the world to attend, and would be returning in a day or two, but they had no opportunity to talk to their friends and relatives whom they hadn't seen for years, because some git of a DJ insisted that the only good music was the sort so loud that it dimmed one's vision. Your guests will be perfectly capable of enjoying moderately amplified music, and will almost certainly want to be able to communicate without shouting themselves hoarse.
There seems to be a law in Britain which requires all music amplification equipment, no matter how powerful, to be over-loaded. A DJ has one system, and cranks it up as high as it will go, until the music distorts horribly. Later, he gets a more powerful system which can play at the already-loud volume of the previous system, but without the distortion. That, though, would break the law. Instead, the DJ cranks the new system up so loud that it too distorts horribly. Later, he gets a new system, and the process continues. Please, dear DJs, be aware that a powerful system will play music pleasantly loudly without distortion, and that this is its forte. Any system will be over-loaded if you turn all the dials right up to the top.
6. Have a wide selection of music.
A common reply to complaints or requests is "I don't have any of that sort of music." Well get some. If every DJ had a couple of compilation albums of each major style of music, then the world would be a happier place. People are stuck listening to the usual load of cheesy 1970s hits and modern chart classics, because that's what DJs carry. DJs carry these recordings, because that's' what normally gets played at the sort of event DJs get hired for. It is a vicious cycle. Break it. A truly good DJ will surprise an audience by playing something it likes but doesn't know. If people come up and ask you "what's this music?" then you are doing well. They wouldn't be asking if they weren't interested, if they didn't like it, or if they already knew it.
7. Play the ends of the tracks.
Dancers want to dance until the end of the track. True, many tracks end with a dismal repeat and fade (A request to producers of recordings here: please avoid repeat and fade endings if at all possible - they are bad), but most good ones don't. Any track written for dancers to dance to will come to a proper end, and dancers will try to come up with something to do at the end. In a lot of partner dance styles, the dance will end with a dip. When dancing in couples, it is enormously more satisfying to come to a definite conclusion to a dance, than to stumble to an uncertain halt when a DJ cross-fades in music with a different beat over the ending of the number. The end of a track not only offers an opportunity for a flourish, but also the opportunity to get away from a partner politely. If I am dancing with a woman whom I don't like especially, and my feet are hurting and I want to sit down, then when the end of the track comes, I can execute my end move, bow to my partner, thank her for the dance, and walk away. If the DJ has cross-faded in the next track, then in order to break away and rest I have to be impolite.
8. Appreciate that pauses are good.
Many DJs seem to feel that it is a matter of professional pride that their music is non-stop. In truth, a few seconds of blessed silence between tracks is good. They give the ears a rest, and they make the end of one dance clearer. During this tiny pause, dancers have time to find new partners. Without a pause, dancers are either stuck with their current partners, or else will miss the start of the track while finding new partners, and many tracks are at their most interesting in the opening bars. Many dancers will have said something like "I'll have the next dance with you", and such deals often go wrong when one track merges with the next. If anyone wants to call out an announcement, they can do it during a pause, without interrupting a dance. Otherwise, they'll have to fight their way to you, get you to turn down the music, and spoil the fun.
9. Don't play three fast ones on the trot.
Bear in mind that you are just standing there looking smug, occasionally perhaps playing the tambourine or saying unintelligible things into a microphone. This takes a lot less energy than dancing. At a rave, where people are drugged up to the eyeballs and oscillating on the spot, people may manage to keep going for many fast tracks. At a dance, where people are in couples and travel over the floor and whisk each other around, even a fit dancer will be finished off by three fast dances on the trot. Play two together at the most, then play a moderate or a slow number to give everyone a rest, and to put some valued variety into the dance. There are many dance moves which work well only when done very fast or very slowly. Give the punters a chance to dance them all.
10. Don't make speeches.
As I said before, no one is interested in you. You are just the guy who puts the records on. If you do your job well, people will thank you. They really will, and you will be booked again. If your PA system is anything like 99% of DJs' PA systems, then no one in the hall will be able to hear a word you are saying anyway. Even when they can hear you, if you have nothing important to say, then say nothing. The last dance of the evening is a special one, and many dancers will have been saving themselves for it, and making sure that they get their favourite partner. Too many times I have heard the last dance ruined by some Tom-fool of a DJ who turns down the music and booms over the top of it with a speech like: "Thank you everyone for coming this evening. It's been a wonderful evening. I think we've all had a wonderful time. I wish you a safe journey home… [etc.]" Imagine this speech at a wedding reception. Why is he thanking us for coming? We didn't come to listen to him. We were coming anyway to celebrate our friend's/relative's marriage. Don't tell us that we've had a wonderful time. Perhaps we have, but that's no reason to curtail it now. Perhaps we haven't and we are seething with resentment that you are largely to blame. Your wishing us a safe journey home will make no difference to how carefully the taxi driver drives, nor is it of any interest to us whatsoever, so don't say it. We are interested in the person in our arms, and in dancing with them well.
Here are links to my other dance essays: