July 09, 2012

Contemporary Music?

I'm constantly being asked about my take on music. Or should I say, my take on "swing" music.

Look, I'm not a music major. And I'm not an engineer. If I thought I could explain the mathematics or the notes or the equations to determine what is swing and what isn't, I would. But I can't. It makes my mind go fuzzy.

But I do know music. Not the titles, not the artists. But I'm amazingly good at knowing it. If you play the first seconds of a track, I know what song it is. I know how it goes from there. Instantly. My body is designed to memorize music. I'm just that kind of dancer.

And I know West Coast Swing. And all the other dances. My studio was a huge success, and that happened because of my teaching, and my understanding of music. When a minor phrase starts. When a major phrase starts. What song lends to what dance. I can identify it faster than anyone I know. So I do know music, but not what a professor would teach in a music theory class.

So. What can I tell you about Contemporary and Swing music? 

I can give you the things I've learned that work when choosing music for swing (West Coast Swing in particular).

First, understand that nearly every Classic and Showcase champion started when we all danced to very, VERY different music. In the years of our training and our foundations, the "contemporary" music didn't come on until much later in the night at conventions, if at all, so almost all of the dancers who ever mastered champion level skill spent most of their time dancing to real, pure WCS songs. Most of the clubs never switched over to "contemporary" music... and those were some of the most famous and most popular spots in all of Southern California, where most of us originated.

I feel very lucky to have started dancing when I did, because my body memorized WCS rhythms to that music, and therefore I dance WCS to almost anything, if I have to. But if you don't dance to real swing music for hours, your body could easily let go of any WCS or WCS technique you just learned.

And if you immerse yourself in non-WCS music only for years on end, even the best can lose their rhythms altogether. (I'm sure you've noticed this in a number of our dancers out there.)

So, if you want a short cut to this "foundational" music, I suggest you look up Jack Carey's Retirement Party (comes in four parts) on GlobalDance.tv and listen to the music played for the social dancing (these videos are FREE!). I believe much of it was from Kenny Wetzel's collection, and he is still known as one of the best, if not THE best West Coast Swing DJ's of all time. So go to these videos and SongID everything with your phone and bam... you'll have real swing music. (Not their demo, of course... no one thought that was cool...)

As for Contemporary Music? Well, the name alone drive me nuts. What does "Contemporary" mean anyway? Because what we called Contemporary Music ten years ago is NOTHING like the Contemporary Music that is being played today for our floor. And I mean nothing.

Ten years ago the Contemporary Music usually emphasized the upbeat, the 2, 4, 6's and 8's. There would be some kind of higher hit, bass or boom (see? not technical music terms! but you get my drift) on those beats of the song... ONLY.

Listen, for example, to these "Contemporary" songs we used to dance to:

Riders on the Storm (Doors/Snoop Dogg)
Don't Stop Movin' (S Club 7)

Do you hear the hits on the upbeats that don't occur on the downbeats?

This REALLY helped keep dancers doing swing because the music literally made them want to dance in 2-beat increments, and it literally made you want to pulse the upbeats.

But now? Now our "Contemporary Music" is, well, anything they use for routines on So You Think You Can Dance. And I mean anything. Lyrical. Modern. Hip Hop. Anything goes. No wonder Abstract Improvisation developed.

And when Contemporary is offered as a choice for dancers today... where is the emphasis? ON EVERY SINGLE BEAT. No wonder our dancers are walking or standing and are becoming bored so quickly, often moving on to other dances. They are extremely uncomplicated, with very few layers, unlike real swing music, which has a ton of layers, all of which provide for endless exploration.

Listen to what the current DJ's call "Contemporary" songs for today's floors:

Ain't Nobody (Mary J. Blidge II Album)

Notice how they drum constantly on every beat, or push the vocals on top of the music to hide the beat?

All of these songs are considered "contemporary" by our DJ's today, but in my book, only the first two could possibly keep a dancer wanting to dance on time and dance a "club" style of swing. WCS that's danced in a sleek style, with a lot of sexy and no rock-steps and more posing, long lines than fast syncopations, is, in my own words, "club" style WCS (see Weekly Note #26: Triple Threat for more info on that term).

Anyhow, back to Contemporary Music. I encourage you to listen to all four songs, and see which ones are easier to do a push break or an underarm turn or a whip to... (yes, and I do mean on time!)

But real swing music, music you can't do anything but swing to (see Jack Carey's party above), is much more layered, complicated and dense. I prefer it, simply because the more layers I have to work with, the more options I have to use all of the tools and skills I've learned.

Contemporary makes you use the same 2 or 3 "brushes" in my box, whereas real swing music, makes me use more like 20 brushes.

So play "contemporary" if you have to... but at least pick the ones that emphasize the upbeat, instead of the ones that make you want to... run. Or sleep, check-out and bounce. Because Club Music is designed for clubs, where people let go, drink and rock to the beat. And no one goes to Clubs forever. For a reason.

But swing? That's a lifetime worth living.