Motivation — DJing for Blues and Swing dancers Part 1

Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers
7 min readJul 20, 2020
Photo: Dan Erez

So you want to DJ for dancers?

Great! DJing is loads of fun, very rewarding, and hard work.

First of all, let’s clear one thing of the table. DJing for swing or blues dancers is probably the easiest DJ gig you can have. I am almost loath to call what we do DJing. We select songs and play them until the end. There is no beat matching, no cross fading, no mixing.

Best of all, everyone who comes to the party knows what type of music to expect. Trust me, having DJ’d a few weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties and clubs, there are few things more confusing than getting requests for techno, reggae, classic rock, metal, and back street boys, all within five minutes. When people come to a Lindy Hop, Balboa, or Blues Party, they know they are there for a specific type of music and so any requests will hopefully be within the realm of reason.

That being said. DJing for dancers can be very challenging as well as very rewarding.

There might be many reasons why you want to DJ. Perhaps you are a teacher and as part of your job you are tasked with DJing. Perhaps you just love music and want to share it with your friends. Maybe you tried it once at a house party and it whet your appetite. Maybe you are in it for the fame, glory and money.

If the latter is the case, sorry to tell you, there is precious little fame and glory and when you account for the money you will spend on music and travel you are lucky to break even. Let me rephrase that. You won’t break even. That’s not even counting the countless hours of work you will be putting into researching and sorting music to be ready for your gigs.

Ah, but why should you do it? If your appetite is already there, great no need to convince you. If you are curious and think you might like it or if you are “forced” to do so, let’s see if I can’t make you enjoy it.

One of my first ever festival sets was playing the opening set of the After Party at Feelin’ Blues in Tel Aviv 2016. The evening started out slow as it always does but I was just happy being trusted to DJ. The DJ booth was set up in such a way that you faced away from the crowd. Being full of nerves I didn’t quite reflect on what was going on but focused on reading the floor to make sure it was as full as possible.

About an hour in a friend knocks on my shoulder and tells me to turn around and look. I do as he asks but can’t understand what he wants. “Look at what you did!” I still don’t understand what he is talking about. “Look at what you have done. The floor is full, everyone is smiling and enjoying themselves. You did this.” That’s when it hit me. The supreme joy of DJing. A smile spread across my face that didn’t leave for the entire night, and still comes back whenever I think about it. Now I can’t take full credit for their enjoyment as the organisers had put on an amazing event which I had the honour of closing. But that feeling. The feeling that what you are doing is bringing a room full of friends and strangers together in happiness. That is the feeling I always chase when DJing.

To put it in dance terms, I see it as if I am the lead of the entire floor. Just like when leading a partner that doesn’t mean that I control their movements or tell them how to dance. I provide the canvas for them to create their art on. I provide the music which is the third partner in the dance. I set the tone, mood and atmosphere. Yes, all those three words mean the same thing.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Photo: Dan Erez

When you DJ you DJ. Don’t go out on the floor and dance. Don’t make a playlist and spend your time talking to friends. Not only does that hinder you from reading the floor [we will probably get into what that means in later posts], but you are also missing out on potential joy.

Actually, let’s take a small detour into why I don’t dance when I DJ.

Firstly, I am payed to do a job (or I am entrusted to do a job) it is unprofessional and rude to the people who hired/booked you not to take it seriously.

Secondly, you will be a worse DJ. If you dance while you DJ you shift your focus. Your focus is no longer on the floor. You are no longer thinking of how to provide the best experience for the floor as a whole. Every dance you have you bring your focus to you and your partner instead of thinking about the floor as a whole. You will have less time to chose your music which again will impact the quality and flow. We will definitely revisit this in a later post about Do’s and Don’ts.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you will be missing out on the fun. DJing is a joy in itself. It shouldn’t be an activity that “takes you away from dancing”. It is a thing of its own. there is an excitement there. The feeling when you are on the way to a gig and have some new music you hope the dancers will like. The joy when the floor is responding to your song exactly as you thought they would. Or perhaps they react in a surprising way!

Above all, there is an energy feedback loop that goes between the dancers and the DJ. Even if most dancers don’t pay attention to you, the energy you put out will influence them. You need to reabsorb the energy that they put out. In order to do that you need to be 100% in the DJing. Devote 80% of your time to looking at the floor and choosing your music. The rest of the time you can talk to friends or check Instagram or whatever, but your focus needs to be on the floor.

Oh damn! That couple just hit an awesome break! Oh, the beginners seem to be having fun! What is happening over on the other side of the floor? Hey, a solo jam is forming in the corner, cool! Take the energy that the dancersare putting out. Take the joy, let it flow into you because you are the one who made it possible. Take that energy and put it back into the music that you give to the dancers.

Be a part of the party. There is nothing wrong with sitting down in the DJ booth and playing if you prefer. Personally I have never enjoyed a sitting gig. I want to stand up. I want to feel the bounce of a jumping Lindy floor or the quiet intimacy of a slow dragging Blues floor. I want to dance to connect with the dancers both through the music and the atmosphere. Don’t be afraid to dance in the DJ booth, but do so because the music you play and the dancers you watch move you. But still, remember that your main job is to play for the dancers, not to do a solo showcase.

Be in the DJing. That is where you will find the motivation. Feel the energy of the room. Find amazing music that you desperately want to play for dancers. That is where the joy is. This is why I DJ.

This is my main tip for you reluctant DJs. Teachers who “have to” DJ for your local scene because it is part of your job. Yes it is a responsibility. Yes I am nervous before every single gig I play. But there are so many things there to enjoy. Look at the people. See how the music affects them. Find what you love in DJing and let it take you over.

What about the hard work you mentioned up top?

Anyone can put together a 20 song playlist of the most played songs for dancers and have an hour long set. It isn’t that much work. But it also isn’t DJing. DJing is playing live and it is actually a completely different skill set. I find making Playlists for a dance event much harder than DJing live, but it requires a lot less work. You do the work once. You find the songs, you put them together, you plug in and press play and you are done.

To DJ you need to find music, get to know the music, sort the music, go to the gig, plug in, and then constantly work for as long as your gig is. The time you spend at a gig pales in comparison to the “back office” work that you do. However that back office work of researching, sorting and tagging is what allows you to develop your own style and discover new music.

I don’t want to completely knock playlists though. They are a great way for you to practice at home. To see how one song flows into the next and find out what works for you and what doesn’t. But when you play for dancers. Watch the floor. Adapt to the floor. Be part of the floor and the emotions they put out.

I hope this post leaves you with at least a bit of inspiration and a sense that you would like to try out DJing. And if you are someone who has to DJ and don’t like it, I hope this can help you find the joy in what you do.

This is the first post in a series. I will write a post later about the joys of research as well as sorting and tagging, technical knowledge, software, other back office related issues, common mistakes, how to prepare for different types of gigs, and some other topics. If there is something particular you want me to discuss in a future post, please drop a comment and let me know.

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Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers

Swing and Blues DJ with a love of music and dancing. Ranter, raver and unstructured of mind.