Live Music or DJ for Dancing?

empty dance floor illustrates effects of bad music

Lots of room on a Dance Floor when nobody likes the music!

Unless you’re a dance DJ, you might say this is a no brainer.  Of course everyone prefers live music to dance to.  It’s not always the case, however.  I’ve been to dances where the live music was either awful or just inappropriate for the dance.  The floor was empty during the sets and packed for the breaks when the DJ took over.  Just like the DJ, a live band has to know what kind of music is appropriate for the crowd.  It’s not the band’s fault if the organizers hired a blues band for a swing crowd, but they’ll still suffer the results.  Sometimes a band doesn’t know the difference between playing for dancers and for concert audiences.  Some genres of dance (like Swing) like the music to be short and varied in speed.  Others (like Salsa) are used to long songs that even blend together so the music seems endless.  A good DJ can keep everyone from bolting when the dancers don’t like the music.

On the other hand, there is nothing like the magic that can happen when the band and the dancers bond.  When I really like a band, I love to dance right in front of the bandstand where I can make eye contact with the musicians.  A band that likes to play for dancers will come alive under the appreciation of the dancers.  Enthusiastic applause after every number will always get you a superior performance.  It’s not just the polite thing to do.  It gives the band the energy to give back to the dancers.

Several years ago I was at a master class weekend for advanced Lindy Hoppers in Sacramento to study with two of the world’s greatest jazz dancers, Steven Mitchell and Ryan Francois.  Barbara Morrison drove from LA to play the Saturday night dance.  It was her first concert for dancers and she was great.  Steven, a musician himself, initiated enthusiastic applause after every number just in case some of us were too boorish to know how to show proper respect for musicians.  We loved her, though, and our appreciation was genuine.  She was so overwhelmed and energized by our enthusiasm that she played an extra set before the 8 hour drive home where she had another gig the next day.  It was a magical night and a perfect example of what happens when live music and dance synchronize perfectly.

Frankie Manning, one of the innovators of the original Lindy Hop in the early thirties, used to tell a story about creating the first aerial and performing it to everyone’s collective astonishment in a contest at the Savoy Ballroom against the famed Shorty Snowden.  I always wanted to make sure my students got to hear that story when Frankie was in town because of the way he talked about the way the band (Chick Webb, the Savoy’s house band) played for the dancers.  When they popped that first aerial, Frankie would say “And Chick caught it!”  Frankie was a master storyteller and you could feel the electricity of the moment when the musicians were synchronized perfectly with the dancers.  That’s the kind of connection that makes live music unbeatable when the musicians and dancers are at the top of their game and dancers are making musical instruments out of their bodies and jamming with the band!

By LaurieAnn Lepoff

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