… champagne without bubbles.
Time to return to this particular fray. I’ve been DJing swing a while now, and like many swing DJs, my ideas on what is, and isn’t acceptable to play for swing dancers have taken something of a journey.
Like many swing DJs, I’ve slowly become more and more of an advocate of old-school swing for swing dancing. Many would brand me a purist. Many do, and perhaps I am – but I know others who’d say I’m not (yet?) enough of a purist. We all have different tastes and ideas, and your mileage may vary.
In the past, when I’ve talked about this issue, I’ve been a little more laissez faire – a little more inclined to say: “Well – what I do is this, but what you do is up to you.” Right now, I’m feeling a little more forthright – in fact I’ve feeling like ranting on this subject for quite some time now – so hang on to your hats – this could get ugly. But in a fun way.
In light of this I’ll start with a confession – I don’t mean that at all. The camp I really belong to is very simple: Lindy Hop without swing music does not exist in this dojo. It might, to many, look like Lindy Hop… but Lindy Hop it isn’t, and the more you take swing music out of the equation, the further from Lindy it will go. So… time for my slightly more … forthright take on things.
It’s like ice-skating on concrete.
Over the years, there has been, and there probably always will be, a huge amount of debate on what you should play for Lindy Hop, Balboa, Blues and so on. The opinions vary from the “You can Lindy to anything” brigade, to the “only old scratchies will do” school of thought (actually – I don’t know any swing DJs who hold to this one, but as a group, we are sometimes labelled with that school of thought. Seriously. If it doesn’t have enough crackles, we won’t use it. Hand on heart, I can honestly say I have been accused of that)
There’s any number of other articles out there on the subject – Bobby White’s The Great Debate on his wonderful blog Swungover is an excellent example – although in that article – as mentioned in the comments section, he’s more focussed on the blurred edges around swing, where it meets Charleston, trad, ragtime and so on. I don’t think he quite covers the extremes that we sometimes get in the UK swing scene – for example entire sets of rock’n’roll or RnB, or having Gangsta’s Paradise or Abba in crop up in the middle of a swing set, or entire sets of pop music featuring songs like Love Shack. All of which I’ve experienced.
To add to the mix, there’s a huge amount of confusion as to what swing actually is – and I suppose I didn’t fully appreciate this until around eighteen months ago when I had a whole slew of conversations around the subject, where I was offered a number of opinions that I … don’t really share. Here’s a small selection:
- Michael Bublé’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love is an old-school swing track. Just so we’re clear: it isn’t
- Jonathan Stout’s Six Appeal is an old ‘scratchy’. And, yes, I’m talking about the 2004 recording. Scratchiness clearly isn’t what it used to be…
- Frankie Trumbauer’s astounding hard-core swing track: Troubled is “alright, but it wouldn’t make me want to triple-step” Just watch Hellzapoppin. Count the triple-steps. Need I say more?
- Apparently I don’t play rockabilly for Lindy Hoppers because I don’t like it. Which is conceivably why I’ve never thought much about playing Schoenberg at dances- but that wouldn’t really explain why I don’t tend to play any Beethoven.
- Lots of pop music really swings, and playing huge swathes of it for swing dancers is adventurous and daring. OK – so if I was daring enough to try that at Herrang, I’d probably be deported, but I’m not sure that’s quite what was meant…
- The backbeat is a key part of swing. Except that the very early examples of backbeat (commonly associated with Early RnB and Rock ‘n Roll are generally cited around 1938, which is around eight years after the beginning of the Swing Era. So… possibly not.
So to quickly recap, we have a couple of problems here: one, the perception that you don’t need swing for swing dancing, and two – the confusion about what exactly swing is. This article aims to address the former – the latter is a much, much longer and harder discussion. There’s a talk I give on that subject which takes around an hour and a half – so while I’ll probably tackle it at some point in this blog, I’ll leave it alone for now.
It’s like a lion without its roar.
In the beginning, was the music. No… wait… in the beginning was the dance. Actually – come to think – in the beginning there was rhythm. And dance. OK – as a bonus for reading this bit – how do you make a duck play jazz? Put it in the oven ’till its bill withers….
There you have it. Swing music and swing dance evolved together. Most bands in those days were dance bands – and dance was everywhere – one of the main forms of entertainment. So the music evolved dance forms to match it… and the dance forms affected the music. Bands played for dancers. Yes, I’m over-simplifying this, and yes, there were many other factors, but this relationship was key. Lindy was born from the music, and it arose at an incredible period in musical history when a huge creative explosion was going on. It evolved with the music, it affected the music, and it had swing rhythms and swing music at its absolute core. That gives the dance its look, its feeling, its absolute foundations.
With different music, you get a different dance. As a friend of mine recently remarked, in the end, the music will win out. Especially if it’s recorded – most bands are better at adapting to dancers than your average CD. In theory.
I’ve heard it said a few times that the dance surely needs to evolve, get with the times, adapt to the modern world… and in some ways I wish it could. To understand why it didn’t, let’s look at a couple of other dances: so let’s look first at Exhibit A: Argentine Tango.
Radically different appearances aside, Tango has a lot in common with Lindy – both highly connection based, both incredibly musical – and both had the shared origins and evolution with their music. The key difference is that Argentine Tango never stopped. They never stopped dancing it, the bands never stopped playing it, they never stopped composing new tango music. It changed, it evolved, and the dance has changed and evolved with it – I once saw a great demo of tango through the ages, where the dancers were explaining those changes, and how that evolution of the music affected the dance and changed the way it was performed. The dance has kept that relationship with the music throughout, and all that amazing richness and depth that goes with it.
Swing music, on the other hand, did, in the main, stop – or – at least – the relationship with dancers came to an end. The reasons are many, and beyond the scope of this article, but it split into three main directions:
- Bebop – the start of modern jazz, and a musical form that is more inward – more for the musicians, and lacking that extroverted accessible exuberance that typified old-school swing.
- Crooner music – Sinatra’s era – where the music was about the singer, less about the music.
- Jump Blues / Boogie / Rock and Roll – which kept the extroverted energy, but began to simplify the rhythms, began to lose the rich complexity that characterised much of the best swing. Still very dancer-friendly, but not swing-dancer-friendly. Not Lindy friendly. Not Balboa-friendly. Different rhythms, for a different set of dances with a different feel.
Of course – in practise, it wasn’t nearly this cut and dried, and many of the great songs we love dancing to have elements of all some or all these various directions (and a lot more) – but in the main, the swing bands petered out, or moved on. The dance scene changed, and we lost that continuity of music, and that evolution of dance and music together that tango managed to retain. Which is why modern swing DJs spend so long ferreting around extremely old sources of music looking for buried treasure – pickings are comparatively slim amongst modern bands. Not, I hasten to add, non-existent, but please focus on modern swing bands. Bands who really understand the genre. Neo swing need not apply.
I’m not saying never ever play non-swing. Just that you need to establish a baseline, and keep it at the core of everything – keep non-swing as the exception, not the norm.
It’s like a bicycle without its tyres.
In case you doubt me on that score, it’s probably time to wheel out Exhibit B: West Coast Swing (often known as WCS). For those who don’t know about this dance, well, it began simply as a variation of Lindy, and developed its own identity from there. Nowadays, it’s danced to a wide variety of music including R&B, hiphop, pop… pretty much anything, so far as I can see – possibly except for anything actually swing-related). There’s a lot of good things to say about WCS. The top top dancers have a phenomenal level of skill and polish, it’s a highly musical dance, and, in fact, there’s been a lot of two-way cross-pollination of moves and techniques between the two dances – the sugar push, for example, comes from WCS.
I don’t actually like it much but that’s just personal preference.
Anyway – in a nutshell, it was once Lindy, diverged, started being danced to entirely different music, lost the swing, and now looks like this:
The music has indeed won out…. and love it or hate it, what you see there no longer bears any resemblance to Lindy. It’s a different dance – and that’s what’s going to happen, long-term, to Lindy if you remove the swing music element from the equation – it’s only a matter of time. We already have West Coast Swing – we don’t need to re-invent it.
I confess I do have a small bone to pick with the WCS scene, but it is one that is relevant – and it’s in their use of the word swing. ‘Swing dance’ is WCS. ‘Swing DJs’ are play music for WCS. ‘Swing music’ is music suitable for modern-day WCS. No, no no no no. The music defines the dance – the dance does not define the music. Lindy Hop is danced to swing music – the music isn’t swing because we try to dance Lindy to it. In my book, that’s an important distinction.
It’s like alcohol-free vodka.
Vodka, sad to say, is not my friend, despite my long-ago youthful attempts to win it over. But I digress…
A question that I found myself asking in the early days, when our scene was young, was simply: should we play more “accessible” music, at least to start with, to get new members, and gradually acclimitise them to what can be, in all truth, an acquired taste? Which swing, like so many forms of music, certainly can be. When I posed that question to experienced DJs who had watched scenes develop, the message was unanimous – start as you mean to go on, because you will go on as you start. If you take the “start accessible” route, where do you stop it? How do you ease people into “proper” swing, especially when you have, as most scenes do, a rolling membership?
Far better to show people from the outset what you’re about – and what the dance is about, and do it right from the start. The flip-side of the coin is that what you play influences you– influences the way you dance, and influences what you like dancing to. You become what you play? Could well be….
Herrang has a cool music policy, with similar versions implemented in swing dance camps worldwide, including our own DJam: they aim to create a “swing bubble”, and to keep people in that bubble for their entire time at the camp. I love this, because it puts you in that headspace where you’re living and breathing those rhythms night and day. While they are extremely particular about the music at Herrang, I don’t believe they do this purely out of musical snobbery – it’s done because of the way it affects everyone’s dancing, because a week of being in the swing bubble gets that music into your head the way little else can. I think it was my first visit to Herrang that really cemented my love of the music – I came back with so many mind-blowing tunes and rhythms echoing through my head, and that was the trigger for me to start collecting it in earnest.
The music changes you. It’s certainly changed me – while I still enjoy all the music that I used to in the days before I started listening to swing, nothing has quite the same impact or sense of excitement. This is really a topic for another post, but I feel that there has never been, before or since, been a genre of music to equal swing – nothing that has managed quite quite that level of rhythmic and melodic sophistication, and yet managed to remain so accessible to so many people… and perhaps most importantly, one that has been aimed so squarely at dancers.
Sometimes when I have this debate with people, they say: “Of course you can dance to non-swing music!”. They’re right. Of course you can, and most people do – what I’m saying is that you can’t swing dance without swing music (sorry, WCS folk, but you need a new word. To quote a well-known Spanish swordsman – I do not think it means what you think it means.)
One of the talks I went to a few years ago about the old-time dance scene mentioned the Lindy Hoppers’ habit of stealing dance moves from … pretty much everywhere, with special emphasis on Charleston. The speaker made the point that although we refer to it as Charleston, an old-time Charleston dancer looking at an old-time Lindy Hopper dancing their Charleston moves would not have called it Charleston – they’d have said it was Lindy. Because the music was different, the feel was different, the timing was different… similar moves, different dance. So it is with Lindy – you can use a lot of Lindy moves and techniques to dance to a lot of different music, but the feel changes. It becomes different – otherwise you’re trying to shoehorn one feel into another, which is a lot less fun. I tried dancing Balboa to Thriller once. It was … memorable, but I wouldn’t dare to call it Balboa.
So DJs, scene leaders, organisers, dancers… keep the swing music at the core of your dance. Believe me – you’ll be very glad you did.