So You Want to Play for Swing Dancers?

So you had a few dancers show up to one of your gigs and they looked like they had a great time. One of the dancers came up to you after the gig and said “You should talk to so-and-so about playing for X Swing Dance Night” and gave you so-and-so’s contact information. You send so-and-so an email – of course they’ll hire you, right? You’ve had this great endorsement by a dancer! Now that you’ve been endorsed, you can advertise to all the local swing dance groups and contact all the local promoters and the dancers will come flocking to your shows…

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I’ve been seeing a bit of this lately with some local bands who would like to play for swing dancers – bandleaders who contact local organizers to promote their events or about being hired, but have very little experience playing for dance events (or playing for swing dance events specifically, as opposed to ballroom events or more general dancing) or had past experience playing for dancers but haven’t kept up with trends in music in the swing dance community. Several people have written blog posts about playing music for dancers and I agree that the music is the most important aspect and that feedback should be considered, but I want to focus on relationships and communication.

In addition to my role as a co-bandleader for the Mint Julep Jazz Band, I also book the bands for RDU Rent Party and have spent many years booking bands in other capacities. I am also passionate about swing dancing and discovering new bands to play for swing dancers. I don’t want people reading this to be discouraged or feel like there are gatekeepers – we want to help you! The more quality live swing music we have in our lives, the better.

Playing for dancers is different from playing for an outdoor festival is different from playing for a concert hall is different from playing a wedding – you need certain knowledge and tools to be successful in these endeavors and you prepare for each gig differently, if not in large ways, then in small ways. Each swing dance community has their own tastes and norms (which is why I feel I can’t talk about the logistics of the music, specifically, although if you are in the Triangle area of North Carolina, I’m happy to speak with you) and it’s important to find out those norms in advance in order to be a viable candidate to play swing dances.

If this is what your bass looks like, then we are probably not on the same page.

If this is what your bass looks like, then we are probably not on the same page.

DO YOU PLAY SWING MUSIC?

This is a baseline question – do you play music that swings, music that is easy to swing dance to? Dancers can get really creative in what they will dance to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your music is going to be ideal for swing dancing. For example, I think the most common misconception in this area is that people who play straight ahead jazz, standards, and big band can also play swing dances – many of the jazz musicians playing this music were not trained to play the earlier forms of jazz (1920’s and 1930’s) that gave rise to these dances and lack the foundation and understanding of this music to apply to their playing. Consequently, the music can sound either too stiff, too smooth, or too lounge-y for swing dancing.

You may not want to change your repertoire or style of playing to accommodate the dancers, and that is fine – it’s your thing and it sounds great for listening. However, if you are intrigued and decide you do want to play for dancers, talk to them about what kinds of music they dance to, what other local and touring bands they have checked out, and, if you can find a DJ in the group, pick their brain about music to check out that might bridge the gap between what you are playing now and what would make your music more conducive to dancing.

HAVE AUDIO/VIDEO FILES ONLINE

I am constantly scouting for bands and, in the Internet age, a lot of that legwork is done online. I still go to a lot of shows to check bands out in person (very important), but having the ability to preview bands and see if there is potential for hiring a band for a swing dance is amazing. It eliminates some things that may be lost in translation – your friend saw this amazing band that they swear would be good for swing dancing and you go to the show, only to find out that it’s a bluegrass band. Nothing against bluegrass, it’s just not swing. Now, you can go online and find that band’s website, Facebook, ReverbNation page, etc. and listen to recordings of the band, find videos on YouTube, and get a feel for what you might expect.

If a band does not have any audio or video online, there’s not a lot I can do in the interim – I have to wait for a show to check out the band or rely on word of mouth (which isn’t always reliable) or reputation (a bit more reliable). Having audio and video online, even if it’s not professional quality, is the first stepping stone and helps band bookers and potential fans bypass the wait – you can have people interested in your music right now, raise the level of anticipation for your shows, or just put yourself out there for people to see what you are doing. You can also eliminate the potentially awkward situation where you have been hired to play a dance and you realize that you are not a good fit for this particular group. People are looking for your band online to research what you do so it’s important to give them the tools they need to find you and your music.

KEEP YOUR WEBSITE UPDATED

If your website hasn’t been updated in over a year and you aren’t keeping up with a calendar or list of shows, then we have no way of knowing whether or not your band is active (if the internet is our only lead for information on your band). The next step in scouting, after looking for information online, is actually going to a show – if you don’t have any schedule posted or shows listed, then there is little I can do to find you in person. In the Internet age, information is key and having the most current information on your website is essential.

DO RESEARCH AND GET TO KNOW THE COMMUNITY

Have you ever been to a swing dance? If the answer is no, then that should be your first objective, to attend a swing dance, preferably one with a live band so that you can see the environment. Introduce yourself to the organizers. Notice how the dancers respond to the music – what are they enjoying? How are they moving in relation to the music? What is the tempo range of the music? Talk to the DJ spinning tunes during the band breaks. Talk to the band playing for dancers. Everyone will have some insight into a particular aspect of the dance that will help you put together the bigger picture.

Is there more than one community? Many times, swing dance communities are fragmented, either by instructor, musical preference, or some other factor. Find out where you might fit into that scheme – if your swing is more blues-y, then maybe your better bet would be to attend the local DJ’ed blues night and talk to them about featuring you as a live band.

The more you talk to people, the more you will learn about the community. You may also find resources online, so check them out, as well.

SCHEDULING

scheduling

This is more relevant if you are trying to get dancers to come out to your gigs (rather than getting a gig at a swing dance), but one of the biggest issues I see in the Triangle area is scheduling. There are already established dance nights in this area – Triangle Swing Dance Society on first and third Saturdays, Lindy Lab every Thursday, Dance Blues Friday, Elk’s Lodge on Sunday – if you are trying to target one of these groups to attend your show, then scheduling that show on the same night as an established dance night will be to your detriment. If you want to attract dancers and have the flexibility to schedule your show on a night that there is not a conflicting dance, then everyone wins. Dancers will almost always choose the best bet for the night – generally, that means the reliable bet of their weekly dance, where they know they will have good music, a wood floor, air conditioning, and plenty of space to dance.

That said, there are a lot of prime nights of the week taken up by regular dance events, but if you know your audience, you will know how to schedule your shows – for example, if you are a hot jazz band playing lots of Charleston music, scheduling your show on a Sunday night might work because, even though it conflicts with the Elk’s Lodge, the Elk’s Lodge draws a crowd that prefers a bit slower tempos, so you wouldn’t see as much of a conflict in scheduling because the dancers who prefer to dance Charleston to hot jazz would probably prefer to attend your show over the dance at the Elk’s Lodge. Scheduling that same show on a Thursday wouldn’t work out because a higher concentration of dancers who do Charleston prefer to go to the Lindy Lab on Thursday nights for dancing.

ASK FOR HELP

If you are starting from square one, there are basic guidelines and considerations for performing at swing dances that people have written down – the Triangle Swing Dance Society has one that they share with new bands – and if you ask organizers they will generally share what they are looking for in terms of a band’s performance and what is expected at a dance. Bobby White, one of the international swing dance instructors, has posted a set of guidelines that is pretty solid on his blog, Swungover, at http://swungover.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/a-quick-note-on-training-bands-to-play-for-dancers/.

If you haven’t gotten that far or maybe just played for a few dancers at a bar and want to know more about how you might fit in at a swing dance, don’t be afraid to ask questions – are my range of tempos good? Is the mix of tempos and styles working? Did the set have a good flow? We tried something new with X song, did that work for the dancers? Will this work for most of the dancers? What could we do to make the music better for dancers? Can you give some examples for me to listen to/check out later? Solicit feedback from several people, people you know and people you don’t know. Even if you have played dances in the past, it’s good to continue asking these questions – tastes and norms evolve and it’s important to stay aware of what is going on in the dance community (especially if it’s been a few years since you were hired to play a swing dance).

bad-attitude

HAVE A GOOD ATTITUDE ABOUT FEEDBACK

Obviously, everyone is going to have an opinion about your music, some positive, some negative. Try to stay positive and focus on constructive feedback, things that you can actually accomplish. Reinforce the things you are doing well. Improve or modify things that may not be working.

ADAPT

You may not be able to implement everything you got in your feedback, but even making small changes gradually will help. Dancers will be quick to let you know when things like tempo, song length, and volume aren’t working, so definitely listen to that feedback and adapt. Experiment with other adaptations, see what is working, what is not working, then solicit more feedback.

One of the quickest ways to lose a dance gig or not get one at all is to ignore the feedback you get. There have been great swing bands that lost gigs because they insisted on featuring their soloists for umpteen choruses and the songs ended up being 10 minutes long. If you have never danced to an uptempo song for 10 minutes, try running for 10 minutes and see how winded you are. You want the dancers to be exhausted at the end of the night, not in the middle of the first set. The guidelines and norms are there for a reason, and the reasons are generally practical.

RECOGNIZE WHEN YOU AREN’T A GOOD FIT

Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. You’ve talked to the organizers at length, worked on getting your songs just right, but there is something missing – maybe attendance is declining when you play a dance, people aren’t dancing as much, the advanced dancers don’t come to your shows, you see the same dancers come out every week but your audience isn’t growing, or you keep getting feedback that seems evasive…then maybe it’s just not a good fit.

I have experienced the “not a good fit” when a band I performed with played swing music for a ballroom or beach music crowd – no one was dancing, red-faced old men came up to me and yelled “play some dance music!” and people left early. It can be that obvious, or it may be more subtle. Pay attention to the crowd and verbal and physical cues and know when to bow out.

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2 comments

  1. All this is so very true—-such good advice. And I must add that as swing dancers, all too many times over the years we have been to events promoted as swing dances that we have gotten to and after a few songs we turned to each other and said “Did somebody forget to tell the band that this is a SWING dance?”

    SOOOOOO looking forward to swing dancing to your band this weekend!

  2. Hi,
    very nice blog.
    I’m open to share experiences concerning
    Swing shows/ band leading and the like.

    Regards
    Martin
    Bandleader Jitterbug Perfume/ Freiburg germany

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