Playing for Swing Dancers

I’ve been playing gigs for dancers since I started playing professionally, but in the past few years a very active community of younger swing dancers has emerged and I’ve been playing a lot more. I’ve been fortunate that the bands that I work with also happen to be made up of swing dancers (some quite good!), and so I’ve been picking up on a lot of what dancers are looking for from the bands they book to play their events.

I’ve only performed with Laura Windley a handful of times, but she has a unique background as a singer, dancer, and event organizer that makes her advice on this subject worth listening to.

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.

Laura notes something similar to what I see all the time – excellent jazz musicians who don’t play in a stylistically appropriate way when playing jazz from he 1920s and 1930s. I guess I was lucky in that my undergraduate jazz teacher (Dr. Tom Streeter) made sure that the jazz band was regularly performing swing music and performing it correctly. A lot of jazz programs tend to emphasize modern jazz (nothing wrong with this, per se), and sometimes a student’s interests will pull them in one direction and leave a hole in their stylistic knowledge.

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.

Selecting the tempos of the tunes and how you put them together is very important for keeping dancers on the dance floor. Too many fast tunes in a row and they will start sitting out tunes. Too many of the same tempos in a row gets repetitive. One dancer/musician I once asked about it said that he likes to put dance sets together in groups of three – medium, fast, medium. When you repeat back to another medium tempo you want to have a slightly different tempo or groove to help provide variety.

But there are exceptions. This past weekend I performed for a Balboa dance weekend. This particular dance is done to faster tempo tunes, so we ended up playing more faster tempo tunes than we might have otherwise. James, the bandleader was very careful about tempos both dances we played, frequently double checking with a metronome. He had also arranged one chart to exactly fit the length of time needed for a dance competition.

Needless to say, in addition to being an excellent ragtime, stride, and swing pianist, James is also a swing dancer. The two dances we played went very well because he understood exactly what the dancers wanted and was organized so that the band was prepared to do it.

Again, I’ve been lucky that I get to rub elbows with some dancers and musicians who are plugged into the swing dance scene at a national level and gotten to tag along to perform at events around the south east. It’s been an invaluable help for those times when I’m the band leader on a dance show or even if dancers show up to one of my regular big band gigs. If you’re wanting to break into this scene, check out Laura’s post.

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