This past weekend I had the privilege of attending Rose City Blues in Portland Oregon. It was a bit of a surprise since up until the Monday before the event I did not think I would be able to make it. My pass of choice was FOR DANCE S ONLY the dance only one. I like staying up late dancing, but being able to sleep in, so I have stopped attending many of the workshops during weekends such as this. I did however get to sit in on several of them and was very impressed with what I saw. The dynamic teaching duos of Amanda Gruhl and Chris Mayer and Ruby Red and Ted Maddry were not only engaging to the students in their classes, but also those sitting on the sidelines. I was unable to attend any of the classes taught by Rachel Stirling, Catherine Walker, or Brenda Russell. The buzz I was hearing from fellow dancers made me sad that I missed some of those classes. From a purely bystander perspective my favorite class of the weekend was ‘How Lifts, Drops, and Aerials are like Kung Fu, and How They Aren’t’. It was fun, informative, lighthearted, and demonstrated that there are moves that can be done that are flashy and spectacular that keep both people dancing safe, and even better don’t endanger the dancers around them.
I must confess that I did not get to dance as much as I wanted to due to a sprained ankle that occurred on my way to the dance on Friday. All dances during the weekend were held at the Bossanova Ballroom. Like many older ballrooms this one is located down a hall and up a flight of stairs. The ballroom is still in excellent repair, with not one but two bars, a lounge area with ski ball, arcade games, and a pool table. It is always a pleasure to have a place to go to sit and talk, where you can hear the music, but also hear the voices of those around you. Many events I have attended only have the dance rooms and there is never really space to get away from the dancing if you need a break and want to be out of the way. I highly encourage more organizers to seek out venues that contain a space like that. It also provides a place to set out food that won’t disrupt the dancing, won’t be spilled on the dance floors, and lets the volunteers setting up the food have a place where they are not being constantly trampled. This last aspect is highly prized as someone who has done food for many events.
The music during the weekend was spectacular. There was a great balance of live versus Dj’d music, and a good variety of styles as well. Let’s cover the live acts first. Kevin Selfe and the Tornados opened the weekend with a joyous noise. A regular performer for blues dancers, Selfe knows what we as dancers look for in a song, keeping his songs moving, varied, and fairly short. Saturday night was headlined by The Curtis Saldago Band. What a sound! Not only did they play for the dancing crowd at large they also played for part of the competitions. I really enjoyed their music, my only problem was that many of their songs lasted far longer than the four minutes many dancers are used to spending on a song. When I’m listening to a blues band I have no issue with this, only when I take to the dance floor does brevity become an issue. I was very pleasantly surprised to see Vyasa Dodson playing guitar with Curtis. I knew him from his days with The Insomniacs and had not realized he had found such a great new gig. Kevin Selfe performed a special acoustic set late Saturday night that was dreamy, fun, and difficult to refrain from dancing to. David Keogh and Mr Moo gave a surprise performance Saturday night that packed the dance floor and had people begging them to continue their set. Sunday’s live act was The Rae Gordon Band. Wow, does she have a set of pipes. The music and the personality combination were a tour d’force. By Sunday I could barely dance, but boy do I wish I could have.
The DJ lineup was as spectacular as the live music. Some of my favorite DJ’s from around the country spun some sweet tunes. I also was introduced to some DJ’s who rocked my dance socks. They demonstrated how diverse blues is and played music spanning the decades and styles. I will be hounding a few of them for their set lists to expand my music library.
There were several competitions throughout the weekend, a Jack and Jill, a Strictly, and a Solo blues Competition. I must admit, I’m not really a fan of most competitions. Often I find that take way too long and detract from the dancing I’d rather be doing. This weekend’s comps were a bit different. The level of dancing was just insane. All of the competitors demonstrated why they are some of the best in the country. The highlight of the weekend for me was the solo blues competition on Sunday. There was no prelim round; anyone who wanted to enter the competition could do so at the dance itself. A circle was formed and anyone who wanted to gathered and people danced. They danced such as I have not seen in years. Several songs were played so the judges could have time to watch everyone and narrow it down to a final three who battled it out to the cheers of the attentive audience. I highly suggest watching the videos of the competitions. You will be impressed, you will probably be inspired, and you might learn a thing or two.
“How long have you been dancing?” I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times while dancing with a new lead. It’s always stymied me why that would matter. A much better question to ask a newly met lead/follow would be, “When was the last time you took a class? What did you learn?”
Years of dancing frequently equate to better dancing, but that is not always the case. Once the first rush of passion for this new hobby (or new style of dance) passes, many people stop attending classes, stop improving, and reach a plateau of dance quality. Often, it’s scary and difficult to learn new things, and without the excitement and interest generated by the freshness of a new hobby, there’s no incentive to move past the discomfort of learning something new. People become content to dance in the same comfortable way for years. Frankly, I can’t deny that I fall into the exact same rut myself every couple years. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the comfortable approach, there are quite a few reasons why you should fight inertia and keep working on your blues dancing, whether that’s through classes or in other ways.
First, and let’s be honest here, most of us aren’t as good as we think we are. Judging the quality of social dancing is a subjective undertaking, so what works for one lead/follow might not work for another one. Classes, particularly private or small group lessons, are a good way to get honest feedback on the areas where improvement is warranted. More importantly, professional or semi-professional instructors can teach you how to improve. The better you are as a dancer, the more people will want to dance with you and, chances are, the more fun you’ll have while dancing.
Perhaps you already have a humongous amount of fun dancing and everyone is always lining up to dance with you. If so, good for you! But wouldn’t it be neat to learn something new? Whether it’s a very old move reincarnated by a dedicated instructor who searched through archive videos for months or crossover styling introduced by someone who’s an expert in another type of dance, it is thrilling to throw in a new move just at that amazing moment when the music calls for it. Classes or dedicated experimentation with a partner are both great ways to expand your toolbox so you’ll never be left hanging, wishing you knew how to truly express your reaction to the music.
I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, which has developed a thriving blues scene over the years thanks to some extremely dedicated folks, but in my travels I’ve met plenty of people who live in smaller towns or places where blues dancing is a niche hobby, at best. For anyone in that situation, I strongly encourage you to travel to classes, workshops, or exchanges to learn more about blues dance and bring that knowledge back with you. Alternatively, you can work with the growing cadre of traveling instructors to have them bring workshops to you. Classes are a great way to revitalize a small dance scene and build a strong sense of community.
If traveling or bringing in instructors isn’t an option, the internet has a plethora of dancing videos. Watch them, imitate them, add your own style. To get a sense of where you’re at with your own dancing, get someone to make a video of you dancing with different leads/follows and study the tapes of yourself. Where do you look goofy? Does your lead/follow ever look like they’re just putting up with you to be nice? Is there anything that looks really good that you want to continue doing or a place where it would be good to add a little polish? Practice, practice, practice, and then repeat.
Other reasons to keep working on your blues dancing have to do with age and injury. Let’s face it: nobody is getting any younger. As you get older, it becomes harder to ignore the fact that gravity, genetics, old injuries, and life in general can work together to make it harder to dance like you used to. Even if you’re still young and spry, dancing is a full body pursuit. Whether caused by dancing or something else entirely, an injury to any part of your body can wreak havoc on your ability to do certain things while you dance. Don’t let age and injury keep you from the joys of blues dancing and the amazing community that goes along with it. Yet another benefit of taking classes or working with dance instructors one-on-one is that they have a wide variety of experience at teaching dancers how to adapt to their personal, physical needs. Some instructors will do this better than others, and it’s important to remember that they’re not doctors or sports therapists (note: unless they actually are). However, there is no group of people more knowledgeable about how to adapt and keep dancing. If you have a problem with some part of your body not working the way you think it should, they’ve probably run across it before and can give you advice on how to work around it.
Finally, keep working on all kinds of dancing, not just blues dancing. Learning other kinds of dance—swing, tango, hip hop, ballroom, African, and beyond—can have a measurable effect on your blues dancing ability, too. The stronger you are as a dancer and the more you work on the craft of dancing in general, the better your blues dancing will be. The best blues dancers I know are the best overall dancers I know, too. It’s not a coincidence.
And whatever you do, keep dancing! I’ll see you out there.
Okay, sure, there are some well-known blues DJs who don’t actually dance. And they are successful, right? Well, sometimes. However, it makes DJing blues MUCH easier if you actually do the dance yourself. You get a feel for what makes a song “danceable,” and what rhythms are interesting to dance to and which are not. You learn which songs are your favorites to dance to, and which songs make you and your friends want to leave the dance floor. It’s also good if you can try dancing to your own music that you are going to DJ – you can test it out and see if it is fun to dance to, and then if it is, maybe sneak a dance or two during your own set while DJing! Double the fun.
2. Get involved in the community.
Get to know the organizers of the venues and help them however you can. Invite friends to go dancing. Get to know your local blues dance DJs. Make friends in the community. If you have friends on the dance floor, it makes DJing a much more fun and comfortable experience.
3. Collect music, and know your music.
This is the obvious one, of course, but it is something that you have to take your time doing. And by time, I mean hours upon days upon weeks upon months. Research what blues music is defined as, and what types of blues music there are, as well as what styles of blues dance people may want to do to each kind. When you hear a song you like and you don’t know its name, find out what it is and write it down. Search for it later and download it. Use sites like Pandora to discover new songs that you might not have heard on the dance floor before. Find a way of organizing your music files to be easily searched and browsed. And listen to your music A LOT. You need to know your music inside and out, so that in a pinch, you can whip up a set without any prep time.
4. Learn the ropes.
Like I said above, get to know your local blues dance DJs, and if you can shadow a friend who DJs, this will help you learn things that you need to learn before actually DJing other than how to pick out songs. There are knobs to be turned and wires to be familiar with. Of course, each venue will have its own set of those that you will have to become familiar with, but it does come into play every single time. Being familiar with all the technology you need to use definitely helps in keeping a set running smoothly.
5. Ask to DJ!
Once you’ve collected a lot of music, gotten comfortable with it, and done some practice sets at home and at friends’ houses or house parties even, ask around at venues to see if they will let you DJ a short set. New DJs usually don’t get paid much if at all, so don’t expect much for a while, and you probably won’t get much more than a 15-minute or half hour set starting out. Take what you can get, and remember, stay humble and thankful for the opportunities you get! Even though DJing is work, it is work to be earned. Once people see that you know your stuff, you’ll be asked to DJ more. And don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and just ask! Venues are often looking to keep a good variety of DJs.
6. Know your dance venue and its expectations.
If you are going to DJ at a venue that always just plays traditional blues, then ONLY play traditional blues in your set! If you’re DJing somewhere that allows you to play some blues and some alternative stuff – turquoise, fusion, whatever you want to call it – take that freedom, but also follow what the venue outlines for you. If they ask you to play half blues and half fusion, keep track of how many songs you’re playing that are fusion and don’t go overboard. If you are DJing at a venue that you know lindy hoppers frequent, choose some blues songs that might also be appropriate for lindy. It’s all about knowing your venue and knowing the dancers.
7. Watch the crowd.
DJing takes constant vigilance. Watch the expressions on people’s faces, watch how they are dancing. This is when being a dancer yourself also comes in handy, because you know what people’s facial expressions or body language during dancing might mean. Watch to see what kind of mood people seem to be in, and whether they are into the more energetic, jukin’ songs, or if they’re feeling a more subdued or slow-drag mood. That said, it is important to also change things up and not stay in one song type for long. Choose songs that share one or two elements to be played next to each other, but make sure there is also enough variation and contrast. Keep it interesting, but not jarring! This is when knowing your music is very important.
8. Ask for feedback.
Ask your friends who were on the dance floor what they thought, and ask for a completely honest opinion. People will like your music or not, and you will have to get used to people talking about your sets behind your back. Hopefully they will talk to you directly and let you know if they really enjoyed it, but if there were songs that weren’t so great and you didn’t realize it, you won’t necessarily find out unless you ask. Get on blues DJ forums or groups online, so you can test out songs on blues dancing audiences before taking them to the dance floor.
9. Have fun!
If you are not enjoying DJing or playing blues music, or if you decide that you just hate sitting around playing music instead of dancing, then maybe DJing is not for you. It can be stressful at times, and it is work, but if you breathe and take every hiccup or failure as a learning experience, DJing will get easier and more fun with time.
Go to other towns and visit their dance venues or dance events. DJ or don’t. But it is good, regardless, to get yourself out of your comfort zone, and out of your local scene, where you can hear some different music and see how it’s done elsewhere. Learning different perspectives and meeting more people will help you relate with your crowd more and understand better how to DJ in different scenarios. Don’t be afraid to ask in advance, if you know you will be travelling somewhere, to see if you can DJ at one of their local venues for a set. It’s refreshing to be the “out of town” DJ and be surrounded by different dancers who might respond differently to your music. Proceed with caution, but have confidence in your knowledge of your music and ability to read the crowd.
Last words: It is a combination of humility and confidence that can help you succeed in anything, so keep that in mind. It is very important to have both of these as a blues DJ!
Connection and self-improvement. That’s it. These two things are the driving forces behind a person’s transformation from casual dancer into lifer. When blues, or any activity, continually provides people with opportunities to feel connected and feel that they are improving themselves, those people (provided they are not getting more of these things from other sources) will be hooked. Great, but what actual actions do we take, what areas do we build up, to continually reinforce these feelings for ourselves and for others?
Social dance venues are places where people gather together at least once a week. (Think: church or writing group or community center.) Everyone has people they hope to see whenever they go out dancing, people they have wonderful, playful, or deep dances with, people they would say they care about. These connections form a community, and the relationships in this community often transform into real friendships as people find themselves chatting over a breakfast platter and milkshake at 3 a.m. at Denny’s after a long night on the social floor or in someone’s empty dining room. Maybe someone has a birthday party or just feels like socializing, so you get together for board games or cocktails or an art walk or Super Smash Brothers. Social dancing is social. The more a person can build up and integrate themselves into a community of dancers, the more devoted they will be to dancing.
Of course, we can’t forget about the dance itself. Within each and every dance we have the opportunity for self-improvement and connection. When people go out to dance socially, they are not there to judge one another. They’re there ready and planning to have fun; this gives you a safe space to play in. As long as you follow basic tenants of dance safety, you have immense freedom to play around, to try new, maybe goofy or ridiculous or unintentionally not-so-smooth things, the freedom to improvise. If you do something you think looks stupid, laugh at yourself. Your partner is more likely to laugh with you than at you. Each person is just trying to express him or herself. It’s through this experimentation and the practice of those moves you kind of learned in that workshop you were in yesterday that you will learn and improve your dancing.
As for connection, well, you can connect with your partner and the music and the floor. Heck, you can reach up toward the ceiling. There are all kinds of options. It’s that connection with your partner that is often seen as the core of the dance. For many, maybe most, people, this is why we go out partner dancing. Blues gives us the opportunity to connect with a complete stranger or a friend in a way that can feel intimate for a few minutes. Then, the song is over. Maybe you dance to another one; maybe you don’t, but there are no expectations. You exchange a polite goodbye and move on to the next exhilarating experience, sharing the emotions of the song or what you’re going through with your partner, being vulnerable, connecting with someone.
Exchanges are those usually weekend-long social dance gatherings filled with people from around the greater region or the globe. These are opportunities for you to meet new people and see what other people are doing with the dance. If you’ve been getting into a rut, these give you the opportunity to mix things up and not so much be lifted out of it by others as be inspired by them to lift yourself out. These are opportunities to maybe take a road trip with other dancers from your scene and bond with them and with people who live in a place you might otherwise never have traveled to. Exchanges are opportunities to host out-of-town dancers or be hosted. These can be opportunities to wake up in a platonic pile of people and then dance with one of them in the living room as the smell of bacon wafts in. The cuddle piles are optional and not always present, but regardless, these are chances to be involved in something active and exciting, and if you want to be more involved and ensure that you’ll meet people, you can usually sign up to volunteer your way in.
Workshops are your opportunities to learn tangible new things, whether these are new ways of thinking about musicality, methods to get yourself to relax into that connection, or actual moves you’ve never encountered before or have never known quite how to do yourself. Workshops push you. They are one of your best resources for improvement as a dancer. Go out, try new things, take notes if that is part of your learning style, watch video recaps later if the workshop included them. Workshops are opportunities to see something, watch it broken down, hear it explained, try to put it into your own body (usually with mirrors in front of you to show you how that process is going), and get instructor feedback (as they address problems they see the group is having or answer individuals’ questions). If you or someone you know sees a workshop they think is beneath their skill level, encourage them to take it in their non-dominant dance role. Try to get your feet in every workshop you can. It can only help.
Practicas and Labs
The practica is a simple idea that doesn’t exist in every dance scene. A practica is basically a group of people getting together and working on improving their dancing. Want one? Start it. Invite people over, clear out a space to dance, pull up YouTube, and go for it. This is your opportunity to break things down with the aid of a partner, practice, and learn. Have spotters if necessary, be safe, and push yourselves. Not feeling inspired to learn something you’ve seen? Then, just dance with someone there with the agreement that one person will give feedback to the other. This is called a blues lab. Practicas and labs build communities and improve the quality of the dancers in those communities. Best of all, assuming you don’t have to rent a venue, they are entirely free!
Private lessons can be pricey, so maybe you can’t afford them all the time, but they can feel like a godsend when you’re up against a wall and nothing else seems to be working to move you forward. Look at the people you wish you could dance like, give them some money, and ask them to teach you how they do it. Be specific if you can. What is it you want to learn? Or what is it you want to unlearn? Ask for strategies. You’re not going to come out of it as a carbon copy of that admirable instructor, but that’s not what you really want anyway, and you will almost definitely come out of the experience with at least one revelation about how you dance or what you can do to improve your dancing. Instructors are people too, so this is a social experience as well, and maybe (hopefully) you’ll be less hesitant to ask this instructor to dance next time you see him or her on a social floor. (Side note: Always ask the instructors to dance. They are there to have fun too. They are not “out of [your] league.”)
Learning Different Dances
This last bit is especially useful for fusion dancing (also known as blues-fusion or alt blues), but it can be useful for traditional blues dancing as well. If you feel like you’ve hit a ceiling and can’t seem to progress to the next level in your dancing, go take a class in another style. If you are a fusion dancer, you may be able to fuse the new moves you learn into your dancing. If you are a traditionalist, you may learn or find more enforcement of fundamentals of posture, balance, floorcraft, body alignment, or other useful skills. Going out and learning something new allows you to look at your primary dance form from a new vantage point.
All of these areas are simply options for some of the ways you can build yourself and those around you into lifers. I’m sure there are more possibilities out there, so go out, discover, do!