If you’re a dancer, you may not know what to talk about with musicians. I, however, was a band dork from the age of 9 to 17: marching band, pep band, jazz band, orchestra, and of course the regular band.
So I know a bit about music, and Glenn started dancing while in college studying music. From these analogous experiences, I’ve found we have some spirited, extensive chats.
DO dancers need to get their asses in gear and learn more about music? Read the best snippets of our conversation and see what we think:
“Being a dancer is like being an actor in a Shakespearean comedy.”
Part of my mission of getting good music out into the dance scene is to make the music something that’s important and integral to beginning and intermediate dancers—which is of course your blog’s target demographic.
Generally as people become more advanced that they get more into the music. I think the opposite is true as well, the more people get into the music the more advanced they can become as dancers.
I’d love to see more people get engaged by the music before [they get married and have kids and stuff] in order to keep them tethered in a way to the whole jazz and dancing scene.
Do you think the lindy hop community needs to work harder at teaching dancers about music? Sometimes I watch people on the dance floor, and I know they THINK they’re really grooving on the music. But because I’ve watched them a lot, I see them grooving on the music in the same way, at the exact same level since first time I watched them dance.
We’re all guilty of that to a certain extent. But I do think it’s a shame when your knowledge of music has plateaued as a dancer.
Dancers who LIKE swing music, dancers who listen to it when they’re not at a dance, are better social dancers.
Being a dancer is sort of like being an actor in a Shakespearean comedy—you can be an actor with great diction, facial expressions, movement, and a keen understanding of the story line, but if you don’t understand Shakespearean English, you’re going to have a hard time delivering the jokes. The comedy grows out of the English language, just like the dance grows out of the language of the music.
[We] have developed a culture of achievement where your social status is basically only based on how good a dancer you are, and as a result we’ve lost the “social” part of social dancing.
If we want to encourage our dance scene to embrace the music then the tastemakers in the scene should start going out to hear good bands–wherever they play. They should take an interest in the music, and make friends with other people who like it independent of dancing.
We should also start setting up our venues in a way that encourages people to come who just want to hear cool music without feeling like they have to dance.
“What if people are missing out because they don’t have even the most basic music education?”
I really agree with your idea that people who like music should encourage a general sense of music appreciation, separate from dancing. And that it should also be separate from the social hierarchy of dance.
That’s a really important concept, that loving music not be the exclusive domain of “good” dancers.
But I also really think dancers need to understand music as a skill. An example that embarrasses me is that for a long time I expected my husband Paul to get music as well as I do. But then one day he confessed that he couldn’t reliably find the 1. He then couldn’t do jazz steps, because he didn’t know where 8 is.
Though he’d spent as much time dancing and listening to jazz music as me, I was still light years ahead of him in understanding music.
But he learned. Simply by practicing counting and rhythms, listening to music and matching the beat, he’s gotten WAY better in the space of a few months. It’s not like he’s some musical idiot. He’s just never realized it was a skill he needed to work on. I was counting musical rhythms at the age of 9. Like a doofus, I’ve forgotten that I once had to work on the most basic skills, too.
Now I’m pumped! If someone like him can improve after years of stagnation, what else can he do? What are other people missing? You and I grew up playing instruments. What if other people are missing out because they don’t have even the most basic music education?
“The entire Ken Burns jazz is on Netflix. Why haven’t you watched it?!”
I think that learning about music is mostly about awareness—about just learning to be a good listener.
I think being a good listener is kind of a lost art in this day and age for a variety of reasons but actually developing that skill serves one well in all aspects of life (I’m sure all your readers would love it if their spouse/partner was a better listener right?!). Being a good listener means you get more out of dancing, and it also means finding something really deeply powerful and beautiful in jazz that will enrich your life.
WAYS to develop your skills:
Take a few songs a night when you’re dancing to a band, and just hang out by the stage and listen. Check out what the band is doing, really listen! You might be impressed!
Find a venue that a local band is playing that isn’t set up for dancing and just go buy a drink or four and listen. This is a great opportunity to go out and listen while sitting in comfort at a table where you can see the band and have a good hang. Do your best to NOT turn it into a dance night!
(For readers in Seattle I’ll be leading a little Big 4 Style Quartet at the Can Can starting in December every Tuesday night with no cover—and if people show up and buy some drinks and hang out and listen to the band then it’ll keep going into next year. So bring your friends!).
Books and video are a great way to learn more. The entire Ken Burns jazz is on netflix. Why haven’t you watched it?! There are also a ton of great books out there! Pick up a Fats Waller bio and dig in.
Engage musicians! If anyone thinks that we’re getting rich playing this kind of music, they’re sorely mistaken—we do it because we love it, and we love to talk about music with inquiring minds. A few great ways to do this are:
1. Read and comment on blogs and Facebook/Twitter posts! Engage musicians and jazz writers who ARE actively trying to share info with you. I write a blog at that is largely about the relationship between swing music and dance. Jonathan Stout also writes a great blog on swing guitar. The other blog you should check out is Jazz Lives, written by Michael Steinman.
And if you repost our statuses about gigs and blog entries and music stuff, we appreciate it! It’s a symbiotic relationship—we give you killer music to dance to, you help us get more fans by telling your friends, the dance scene gets bigger, we get to play more killer music for you, more people get into play the music the bigger the scene gets, which means more killer bands, i.e. a dance and music world takeover.
2. Strike up a conversation! Have something to ask/talk about, if your question is “where should I start” I’m just going to point you back to this blog post or to my blog and if your question is “I like to sing, can I sing with your band” the answer is no. Otherwise musical questions are fair game!
NOTE on timing: If you see we’re not doing anything and we’re just at the bar on break, it’s a great time to strike up a conversation. But if a musician is trying to get paid by the organizers, pay his band mates, trying to do some musical stuff like warm up, set up etc, then let him do his thing.
If you want to really be a musician’s BFF&E, then get your friends over to the table to buy a disc!
Last and most important: Buy music! IMMERSION IMMERSION IMMERSION. That includes tons of great current bands as well as Basie, Ellington, Shaw, Goodman, and any other swing band recording before 1945.
The Not Overrated Conclusion
I’ve been listening to it while I write, and it’s literally giving me shivers down my spine. I’m totally not kidding. Really, it’s seriously awesome. I can’t believe it’s only $12. And you can listen to the tracks before you buy!
If you don’t get your ass in gear, you’re going to stay light years behind your musically-knowledgeable friends. You’re going to notice other dancers striking up conversations with musicians, and you’ll wonder why they seem to be having so much more fun.
But most of all, you’re gonna be locked out of the incredible world of music. There’s a reason you started dancing. You heard the music and you just NEEDED to express something with your body. Don’t stop there.