Saturday, February 20, 2010

The importance of Names Within the Culture of Dance

One of the most helpful lessons I learned from mentoring was to choose words that communicate descriptively or speak the true names of things.

We’ve all heard people say, “This band or DJ sucks”, but that doesn’t provide any information that an empty dance floor isn’t already revealing. By contrast, when a friend asks, “Can you listen to my set and give me your honest opinion?” you’re forced to rise above easy subjective labels or snap judgments.

I’ve recently read several notes about “dance scene culture” and asking what contribution individuals are making to keep their local scenes vibrant. I was reminded of Chris Crawford once describing the southeastern Virginia dance scene as “not so much a dance scene as, more correctly, a social group, like a fraternity or sorority, where people interact and may dance 3 or 4 times on any night.” At the time, I felt the statement was extremely negative; however, I’ve recently realized it isn’t necessarily judgmental.

Here’s the crux (says the person who embraces being called a music snob): is a weekly dance for 40 people who favor a mix of novelty tunes, hard bop, early rock and roll, straight jazz, contemporary R&B/disco and slow ballads any better or worse than a scene of 40 lindy hoppers? Absolutely not… it’s just a different culture. However, the trouble starts when people incorrectly label this a swing or lindy dance... or when "Willow Weep For Me", slow crooner ballads and west coast standards are called blues just because they're tempo is slower than what is played at lindy dances.

In fact, there would be far less confusion or frustration if organizers were knowledgeable enough to communicate, “Our culture is to play easily accessible, cute music that amuses and makes new dancers feel comfortable, even if it’s not swing. It doesn’t matter if songs are in laid back straight time (as opposed to swing time) that make dancers want to roll their centers of gravity back over the heels with their weight split and just chill. Our goal is to just get bodies in the room and on the floor for a couple songs and we’ll get around to teaching them the mechanics later.”

There’s power in words, in names… and in music. When I was growing up listening to my Beatles records, my dad would yell at me to turn that noise down till the point where I’d hear his Tommy Dorsey in the background and then get a lesson on why Big Band Swing was real music. My dad used to say, “I have to wonder what music you’re going to be listening to when you’re my age; certainly not that crap!”

Dad and I didn’t get along very well for about 15 years until I started DJ’ing swing music and we found a common ground by talking about his favorite artists, with words that meant something to him. We suddenly enjoyed talking about who was playing trombone or when something was recorded and he’d share stories about what was going on at that time that gave the music context. So, at my dad’s age, I’m now listening to his music and when I hear a DJ or band play a Beatles song at a swing dance, I hear his voice calling it crap.

Speaking of words that matter, consider the DJ. When I first started dancing, our local scene used to announce who would be DJing that week, which meant sometimes the dance was packed and sometimes it was sparse because some people were playing for dancers and others were playing music for the social club that Chris Crawford described. Rather than analyzing why some DJ’s made you pack 3 extra shirts and left your worn out at the end of the night, a decision was made to stop announcing the DJ’s so everyone got the same attendance and there were no longer any crowd favorites. Now anyone with a laptop is able to come down and play music they want to share. But again, words are important… there’s a difference between an LO (laptop owner) with a collection of songs and a DJ, who has a skill at shaping the rhythm of a dance and taking dancers on a musical journey. Again, the music snob says, if you’re comfortable with LO’s and you want a mix of easily accessible music that crosses genres, why not just put an iPod on shuffle?

Similarly, just because a local marketing group is promoting a musician “as swing or blues you can dance to for free” doesn’t mean you should necessarily call it a swing dance or a lindy bomb. It’s been said that some people will dance to the rhythm of their windshield wipers on the car; which is the perfect definition of straight time… 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2. There’s nothing swinging about that, even though you could do swingouts to it. It seems to me that those who call themselves dance instructors have an obligation to teach an understanding of straight time vs. swing time because it’s the easiest thing in the world to look at a dancer’s posture and say he’s moving in straight time and he’s swinging!

That's not to say I'm not in favor of live music; in fact, I'm frequently asked why I'm so vocal about encouraging road trips and supporting professional musicians who play swing music. The truth is, Lady Gaga or Timbaland aren't going to go broke if their music isn't played at one or two swing dances a month. However, getting 4 or 5 friends out to see Solomon Douglas, Glenn Crytzer, the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn or Acme Swing Manufacturing might mean money for a tank of gas that get's them to their next show... and makes them more likely to come back again.

Anyway, that’s how this music snob sees it. Knowing the terminology and names of things are vital to creating a culture that balances the enthusiasm of the new dancer who wants to learn aerials and dance big with the subtlety of the experienced dancer who has a greater appreciation for music that is more traditional and contextually relevant. Both elements are vital for a scene to survive and grow-- but without the ability to speak a shared musical language with the correct words, there’s no way to bridge that gap and you’re left with only, “this music sucks.”

In truth, if you’re going to use incorrect terminology you’re probably better off just calling a dance a kumquat because there’s no frustrating confusion of terms and it’s a darned amusing word all by itself.

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