Recently, I went into the studio (Soundworks Studio, to be exact) and recorded 10 tracks with my lovely band. The choice of songs and the tempos/feels of at least 8 of the pieces were chosen specifically for the purpose of Lindy-Hopping.
I started Lindy-Hopping in January 2011, and providing music for lindy-hoppers in the February/March of that year. It wasn’t a far stretch really, given some of the music I had already been performing, and it seemed like a great way to incorporate a new-found love of Swing Dancing, with my soul mate and long-term lover, the Singing of Jazz Music.
Recently, there have been many programs on the BBC about the Swing Era, the development of Jazz Music and dancing, and the 1920s-1940s, which have been rather wonderful. There has also been a great deal of discussion in my local dance scene (and beyond) of what makes music good to dance to, what we should (and shouldn’t) be lindy-hopping to, and why.
These discussions fascinate me, and I have been able to partake in some of them, whilst hearing about others second-hand.
What jumps out firstly is the passion with which people speak their opinions – as a musician, as a dancer, and as a passionate individual, I love this! It is a far better place to come from than indifference. I love the fact that Swing Dancers are so clear about what they love and that they will try and express why that is, even whilst recognizing that it is, to an extent, subjective, and will vary through personal taste.
But the ideas I am toying with at the moment do not come from my lindy-hopper brain, but my musician’s (and scene-builder’s) one.
In our scene, we don’t have a great wealth of local live bands that play specifically for dancers.
Even whilst typing that, it seems like a ridiculous thing to say, as we have a VAST amount of live music in Leeds: a regular trad Jazz night every Tuesday with a different band each week, at least 4 big bands rehearsing/performing regularly (mostly weekly) in the area, the music college students and alumni who study Jazz Music at a degree level and beyond, and numerous city centre venues who regularly put on live music for us. In fact, I know literally HUNDREDS of musicians who are more than capable of playing the music required/desired by swing dancers.
And yet, I say it again – we don’t have a great wealth of local live bands that play specifically for dancers.
Let’s start with me. (Because I like to think I’m special 😉 )
The reason I work hard on my dance sets is because I dance. I understand what is required from a band for the scenes I play for/dance in, and I pick my tunes, write my arrangements and choose my tempos accordingly. More importantly, my love of the music is why I dance. And dancing to live music is what I love most of all.
LCS also have the benefit of a dancer in the ranks, so although I can’t speak for David, I would imagine there’s a similar thing going on there…
Then we come to the Louis’ – I love this band. Their energy is unlike any other 4-piece that I see in Leeds, and I have regularly booked/suggested them for dance events. They can play pretty up-tempo, and perhaps a touch too fast/long for some, but they are incredible musicians playing fun, energy-filled music, and they make me smile. And, as they are still new to playing for dancers, the more opportunities they have, the even better they will become.
And there in lies my point.
I have noticed, in many situations and from many dancers, that the first move on discovering/discussing a potential new band for events is ‘are they danceable?’ sometimes followed with discussions on how to (verbally) direct the band in the ‘right’ direction.
Now, don’t get me wrong – obviously, you want the band to play music you can dance to, and there are very obvious (and objective) points to make sure are covered: time signatures, tempos, song lengths, swung rhythms… but there are other factors at play here too:
Back in the day, (the day in which we all wish we could have danced), the musicians and the dancers developed this swing thing together. The music and the dance grew together and there was a constant dialogue between both parties – they were both reading from the same page, if you will.
We don’t have this luxury any more. I had played music in Leeds venues for YEARS, I had been to jazz gigs/venues almost every night of the week whilst at LCM between 2004 and 2007, and I had even played a regular gig on the same night at the same time as Lindy Fridays (our regular Lindy class) in the same building (about 20 metres away) and I had NEVER seen Lindy Hop. It wasn’t even introduced to me by a musician, but a non-dancing, youtube-trawling, barman!
As I said, I know hundreds of talented musos more than capable of playing what we, as dancers, require. One reason they don’t? They don’t have the chance. Most of them don’t even know that there is a Lindy Hop scene (and are shocked when they are introduced to it) and so playing for dancers is not a skill they develop. Instead, we’re taught to master our instruments, focus on music for the ears, push boundaries and take the art form further (in directions generally away from dancing).
You can’t expect bands to play perfectly for dancers from the get-go if they haven’t experienced what it’s like to play for dancers. The same way you can’t expect dancers not to make mistakes when they are learning to dance to the music.
Imagine, if you will, the roles reversed:
A group of dancers wish to book a band. Before the band accept the booking, they want to check that everyone will be dancing ‘correctly’ to their style of music – no one is to drop a beat or miss the 1, and NO ONE is to dance Rock and Roll or Jive, because they are a Swing Band for Lindy-Hoppers. The band will judge all the dancers on the floor regardless of their experience and will dictate whether you get to dance to their music again; you only get that one chance. The Saxophone player might even stop playing if he doesn’t like the style of what he sees.
Sounds ridiculous, right? But yet the opposite is commonplace.
My question is why, when the music and dancing developed together, is it now skewed this way?
I know that Swing Dancing, though obviously still developing in certain aspects, is no longer a hugely evolving art form, like it was in the 20s-40s. I also recognize that great dancers and established scenes require that same level of experience from their musicians to have the best time that they can when dancing to a live band. But we have to face facts: many of us don’t have those musicians. They moved on; they learned bebop, or Fusion, or other progressive Jazz genres, where perhaps the dancers didn’t (or couldn’t) follow… And though there are some still out there playing ‘our style’, they’re probably geographically quite far away from us, or too far out of our regular price bracket to have visit as often as we’d like.
So, as dancers, we have to nurture the musicians in our scene the same way we nurture our beginner dancers. Give them a chance to learn-on-the-job: no one can be perfect without practical experience. Time to throw in one of my favourite teaching analogies here, just for good measure: You could memorise the Highway Code word for word, and have a full understanding of the mechanics of a car, but that doesn’t mean you’ll pass your test first time without driving experience…
Playing for dancers is a different skill, I know this – I’m practising it as often as I can! So let’s help other bands learn it too. 🙂
If a band actively want to play for your scene, then not only is that a great sign that your dance scene has a great reputation, or potential for one, but it can only lead to the betterment of that band in playing for dancers, whatever their experience. Obviously, pick your bookings carefully – I’m not advocating booking a newbie band for your international camp! But little dances, smaller events; give them a chance! Being a ‘scene builder’ should be inclusive; it’s not just dancers that you want to encourage – our musicians are important too!
In my opinion (as this whole post has been), but also one I know is shared among some of my peers, it is better to dance Swing to live swing music than a recorded track – it does heaps for your dancing, and is the closest we will ever come to those joyous days back in Harlem when this whole thing kicked off. And isn’t that really what this is all about; the relationship and interplay between the 2 improvised art forms?
The truth is, no matter how much you may want to only dance to the BEST live bands (the same way you might want every dance to be with the best lead or the best follower so it can be the most awesome dance ever), you can’t always have it that way. We have to accept that even the Skyes, Fridas and Gordon Websters of the world started off as beginners, new to Lindy Hop, and they had to practice to be as highly-regarded as they are now in their respective fields. And I would bet that Mr Webster did so by throwing himself into it and playing for dancers as much as possible – and that he was allowed, and encouraged, to do so by his local dance scenes.
Not all musicians have the luxury (or bodily coordination!) to learn Lindy; they need to be introduced to our dancing, and how best to play for it, a different way. Let’s invite them in and give them a chance to do so!
Tessa 🙂 x
* Photo by the talented Jonathan Wootton, Serenity Studios.