Recently, I've had been fortunate to spend a lot of time dancing to several live bands. Dan and I did a one-week tour with Solomon Douglas, and were able to teach the beginner lessons before the dances. Normally, I think we tend to have people dance about 110-125bpm for most of the lesson, pushing them to 130-135 on the high end. Teaching right before a live band, though, we felt compelled to push the tempos a bit faster; we started them closer to 125 and tried to spend the bulk of the class dancing above 130, to give them a fighting chance at feeling comfortable during the dance.
Swing musicians (and blues musicians) spend a lot of time (most of their time) playing well above that 125bpm beginner mark... often, their mode is much, much faster. In fact, it's fairly common knowledge (at least according to the internet) that if you hire a band, you need to coach them on a few things- namely, keep the songs short, and the tempos lower. Most bands are pretty darned accommodating. I noticed that Solomon even changed his tempo profile from scene to scene throughout the week. As a dance community, we value bands that are "used to playing for dancers." That's a pretty intriguing thought... the idea is that bands need to change what they do to be fun for us dancers. So here's the question- how do we meet them in the middle? How do we push our scene to be fun for bands?
I think there are several things we can do to make musicians want to have us around, as much as we (hopefully) want them around:
1. Teach your dancers to clap for the bands. I know- you want to dip your partner, tell them how awesome they are, and maybe even talk about how great the song/band was. Guess what? The band can't hear you! Their language is applause, and they need some love back from you to have a good time playing. I've been at events where the dancers were having a great time, and failing to applaud (young scene)... let me tell you that the backstage chatter did not reflect the audience's feeling. The band felt unloved. So hug your partner- right after you've given a rowdy round of applause.
2. If/when a jam breaks out, let the musicians see! Clear a space so the band can have a clear look at the performers. Why? Because not only can you dance to the music... they band can play to you. That's the advantage for you (the dancers). The advantage for the band is that they're included, instead of shut out. Ever been at a huge event, and walked in to see a ring of butts watching something awesome? Not awesome for you, right? Let's make it common knowledge that the band is a crucial part of the jam.
3. Let's tailor our scenes to the bands. Let's teach our dancers to dance well at super fast, super slow, and super medium (?) speeds. Most scenes have a pretty strong comfort zone. Sometimes, it's unofficial (certain scenes are classically fast and charleston oriented, some really dig the slower, more chilled out feeling). Sometimes, it's even imposed by organizers (a whole other topic of debate, I'm sure). But let's make it a point to have a wide range of tempos where we can play. Sure, you might not have the resources to be a master from 60-320bpm, but try to encourage your dancers to step outside the 120-160 range (or the 180-220, or the 110-140, etc). Let's be able to dance well(ish) at any tempo.
This is a challenge to dancers, organizers, teachers, djs, and me. My dream is that at some hypothetical future date, I can say to a band, "I'm hiring you because you're rad. Do what you do best, and what you feel good about- my dancers can hang."
Bonus! - if you're looking for an incredible opportunity to get into the heads of musicians (and practice hearing/making/dancing to live music for a week), I can't say enough good things about the Augusta Heritage Festival, in Elkins, WV.
Why you should go:
1. This year, swing week is offering a whole class on playing for dancers and dancing for players (you could have skipped reading that blog!).
2. There are classes on how to make music- whether you already play an instrument or not.
3. There are jams happening all over campus all day and night, concerts, hangouts, and more merrymaking than I can fit in one paragraph.
4. The advantage of this over a music festival is the direct dialogue with the musicians- as in, everyone there is either a musician or a dancer, so we talk at lunch, in class, at dinner, walking around the mountain...
5. Constant exposure/conversation/practice of music will make you a dramatically better dancer. Dan and I have taught there for several years, and every year we come away much better dancers.
6. Ice cream with lunch.
7. Vacation in the mountains.
8. A week! Did I mention it's a week long?
9. Solomon Douglas will be there (as will Dan and I).
10. Learn to speak musician! This makes hiring a band much easier. Also, music structure (macromusicality) will make more sense.
11. This will make more sense: http://gallery.me.com/edmalloy#100328
12. I will teach you why you need a spoon to properly eat a chocolate chip cookie.13. Did I mention that the music is kick-ass and constant?
There is a week for blues (which unfortunately has no partner-dance classes this year) and a week for swing (that's where Solomon, Dan and I will be!).
Augusta Heritage Center
Swing Week: July 29th-August 3rd
I am struck, at moments, by the peculiar relationship between dancers and musicians. Personally, I'd rather dance to canned good music than live bad music. That being said, having a live band or musician who brings a good sound can move me in a way that surprises me every time. Likewise, there are some musicians who would prefer not to share a stage with dancers; an understandable hesitation, since dancers can be a distraction, and a musician's livelihood comes from being the center of attention at their shows. There are some musicians who are downright hostile to dancers even being in the crowd (including one band who gets djed very regularly). Then there are musicians who appreciate what dancers bring in the way of energy. And, finally, there are musicians who use dancers as another layer of art, and make something together with dancers.
I recently had the honor to perform with some truly talented musicians recently, at the August Heritage Festival (link at bottom). Daryl Davis, Saffire (the Uppity Blues Women), and Fiona Boyes were kind enough to share their stage with us at the Blues Week concerts, and gave us more energy and fun than we knew what to do with. Who's "we"? Dan Rosenthal (formerly of Pittsburgh, now of Tampa Bay) was kind enough to take a week out of his life to be my "lovely and talented". In addition to helping me teach the classes, he also made performances possible, for which I am completely grateful. In addition to the rockin' tunes by the aforementioned super-talented musicians, we also requested a slow tune, and Joe Filisko (links at bottom) stepped up to the plate. We ran into Joe the day before the show, and he asked how slow we wanted: 60ish bpm would be great. He told us that, after seeing us over the course of the week, he had just the perfect song.
The evening of the performance, Joe's first song was a fox-chase/train song combo. I couldn't see how the audience took it, but the pros backstage were leaning out of their seats, shaking their heads: impressed. Then Joe said something like, "for this next song, I'm stretching way out of my comfort zone; I've never done anything quite like this. That last song was easy," leaving the audience to chuckle, bewildered. From backstage, we heard Joe start a snap, or perhaps it was his foot on the stage. Then Joe played the most ghostly, hauntingly sweet and eerie tune I have ever had the honor of dancing to. Ranking right up there with Nina Simone's "Tell Me More and More and Then Some" (link at bottom), Joe's quiet, husky voice and the sweet, strange lyrics told a story of love, while the harmonica painted dark harmonies and juxtoposed intimacy with longing and loneliness. The name of the song, I have found, is "Need by Baby," by Big Walter Horton, and it normally sounds nothing like the way Joe did it that night. Making our way onstage, knowing that Joe was pushing himself artistically to create something with us, wrapping ourselves in character and dancing as the song itself... that will forever be one of my favorite memories of all time. Was our performance flawless? I don't remember, nor do I care. Dan's dancing was the best I've ever felt it. We had already decided to put in some things that were purely for the audience- some blues flash, and some a few bits of tango flash (if they fit, which they did). My feelings on that? Simple- we wanted to use any tools we had to move the audience: to create a visual for whatever it was that Joe was going to play. We wanted to show a room full of musicians what we as dancers feel and hear. It dawned on me, at some point during the song, that the audience was deathly quiet, in contrast to the rowdy cheers and hoots with previous performances. There wasn't any time to question it, but if I had, my answer would have been provided when the song ended. Joe finished his last note, and I get chillbumps remembering the instant transition from pin-drop silence to deafening explosion. I don't think I've ever been as proud and honored as I was that night. I cannot explain how absolutely grateful I am to Dan and Joe for giving me a chance to do what I love, and a shot at making art.
Ps: Links!Joe Filisko's HomepageJoe Performing at the National Harmonica LeagueNina Simone's "Tell Me More and More and Then Some
"A typical performance of "Need My Baby"Augusta Heritage FestivalSaffire: The Uppity Blues WomenDaryl DavisFiona Boyes
Pps: If I get access to the video, and permission to post it, I'll do that. If I only get the video, I won't post it, but will have it, if you'd like to see it sometime. As of right now, I don't have either. Wish me luck!
This year, come July, you won't find me at Folketshouse. You won't find me in the Laundry Pit, or even at the Kugen. In '05 and '07, that's where I'd be, and since this is an odd year (aren't they all, though?), I'd originally planned to try and make Herrang happen. But this year, something has come up. Something wonderful.
This year, from July 12-17, I'll be teaching blues dance at the Augusta Heritage Center. Located in Elkins, WV, Augusta Heritage is home to a 5-week long music camp, each week offering a different theme. You can probably guess which week is blues. So what makes this so exciting? Partly, there's still the thrill of going to camp, in a way. Partly, there's the fact that everyone at that camp is there because they love blues music in the same way that I love dancing. And partly, there's a chance to be surrounded by some of the most talented blues musicians on the planet.
Not to brag, but here's a sample:
Fiona Boyes: About Fiona Boyes
She's the first Australian to win the Blues Foundation's International Blues Challenge. She's also the first woman to win it.
Phil Wiggins: Wiggins's music
W.C. Handy Ward for Blues Entertainers of the Year and Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year
Saffire- the Uppity Blues Women: Saffire's Songs
Louisiana Red: Louisiana Red's Songs
He's played with some ok guys... like John Lee Hooker.
Courses offered during blues week include: Fiddle/Mandolin and Vocal Repertoire, Guitar, Harmonica, History of the Blues, Mandolin, Piano, Songwriting, Teen Band, and Vocals. Since my class is a mini-course at night, it doesn't conflict with any of these courses... guess where I'll be spending my day.
Aside from the obvious, there's something else here. There's opportunity. If we could get together this many blues musicians, and a bunch of blues dancers, in an environment where everyone's working and learning and generally hanging out... I feel like good things, great things, are bound to happen.
So, if you're interested in learning blues music and/or dance, and want to be part of something, but don't have the cash to fly to Sweden, think about dropping by West Virginia. Fiona and Iverson are doing it....
For more information: Augusta Heritage Blues Festival
See you on the dance floor,