8 Tips and Tricks — DJing for blues and swing dancers Part 3

Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers
7 min readJul 24, 2020

Following up from the Do’s and Don’ts, here are eight tips and tricks that I have picked up and want to share with you! If you are still wondering why DJing is fun, check out part 1 on motivation!

Reginald Marsh, Savoy Ballroom, 1931

1. Choose who you are playing for

When you play for your local scene you have a massive home advantage. You know the people and dancers. You probably know what kind of music different people like to dance to. If you don’t talk to them about it and get to know their tastes. Not only the top dancers or teachers but people at all levels and with all manner of experience.

When I play for my home scene I generally like to chose 3–4 people and decide “tonight I am playing for them.” These should be four people with different characteristics. For example it could be the head teacher, the up and coming good dancer, the person who has been around forever and never improved much, and a beginner who’s taste you happen to know. That way I can build a more personal relationship with the floor and if I see that one of them haven’t danced for a long time I need to figure out why.

In reality I have DJ’d so many sets for my local scene that those 3–4 people are now more like 30–40 people, but the principle is the same.

2. Watch the right things

What are you looking at when you are looking at the floor? Are you looking at how many people are dancing? Are you looking at how they are dancing? That is a good start. Here is a list of some things I like to look at when I am DJing in a pretty random order.

Who isn’t dancing?

If you see that all the experienced or beginner dancers have been missing from a dance floor for the past 15 min, ask yourself why.

If you see that all the shag people look bored, maybe go talk to them and say, “The song after next will be good for shag” and then deliver.

Who isn’t dancing can tell you more about how you are doing than how many people are actually on the floor at any given time. After all, people are there to dance and if you play the right tempo, a lot of people will dance whether they like the music or not.

Look at their movements

If you are playing a lot of mid or low energy music and people are swinging out way harder than the music calls for you might want to raise the energy of your music. Conversely if people dance with less energy than the music they might be tired and need lower energy or lower tempo.

Look at the dancers faces.

Oh wow, I can’t overstate the importance of this. Their faces will betray if they are tired, hot, having fun, or want more energy. Look at the dancers. They will tell you how you are doing.

Where are people dancing?

If they are concentrated far from the speakers your volume might be too loud and if they are all dancing near the speakers the volume might be too quiet.

3. Review your set

So how was it? What worked and what didn’t work? Were there specific things you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy? It Is important to ask yourself these questions after you finish your set. Each set is an opportunity to learn and develop and there is no such thing as a perfect set. Go over it in your mind, go over your set list if you have it. Perhaps there were particular transitions that worked very well or not at all. Maybe there were times when you really read things right or where you played the wrong song.

Think over your set and see what you can learn from it. There is no such thing as perfection and you can always get better. It’s also a great way to get more enjoyment out of your set as you can relive the good moments.

4. Ask for feedback

It is often hard to know how you are doing or how you did. Ask people for feedback! Both during your set and after your set. I mean, don’t be thirsty and constantly ask everyone if they liked your blog post, sorry, if they like the music you are playing, but make sure to ask. Especially after your set. Ask a few different people. Ask the person who hired you, ask a few friends, ask a few dancers of different levels what they thought.

Don’t just ask “how was it?” but have follow up questions. Ask if there were songs they particularly liked or didn’t, what they thought about tempo and style, if there was something specific that happened that night, or anything that you think might help you grow. It is often hard to accept feedback and dismiss it as you obviously know way more about music than whoever you asked did, but do try to take at least some of it on board.

5. If you are stuck up a tree, don’t be afraid to jump

It’s story time! While this story could equally well be about me I am going to tell you about an experience I had with a DJ I had hired for a gig a few years ago, let’s call the DJ Chris. The gig was an after party where the DJ had the freedom to play a wide variety of music from many genres.

Chris was having a lot of fun playing and decided to go hard in one direction. Chris was playing a lot of, well, let’s say Afrobeat to keep things anonymous. The floor didn’t like it. People started leaving and Chris was panicking. Not only does Chris love Afrobeat, but Chris didn’t know how to stop playing it because any change away from it would mean a massive break to the flow. As people left Chris’s panic increased and eventually Chris asked us to cut their set short and have the next DJ start earlier.

What could Chris have done differently? If you find yourself up a tree with no way down, jump. Forget about the flow and press reset. Let the song end, perhaps have a slightly longer break between the song and the next one and then go to a completely different style. Sure the flow might be broken but since people didn’t like the previous flow it doesn’t really matter.

What could we as organizers have done differently? Lots of things but that is for a different time.

6. Come with a plan but be ready to abandon it

In a future post I will discuss preparing for gigs, but in general it is good to come with an idea of what you want to play. Just like in the case above, and as discussed earlier about playing specific songs. Don’t force it. Recognize that you are there for the dancers and not the other way around. If your plan isn’t working, change plans. If it will take you time to come up with a new plan then play a few crowd pleasers to buy yourself time or to try to reconnect with the floor. I generally recommend having a few songs on stand by that not only pleases the floor but you know are a surefire way for you to connect to the floor.

7. Make the dancers dance to the music

One of my main pet peeves is watching dancers dance and ignore the music. This bugs me so much I will write an entire post about it. Quite often you see that dancers treat the music like a metronome dancing only to the tempo while ignoring the melody, energy and even the rhythms. This isn’t always a question about experience or level, a lot of dancers are just too focused on “doing moves” to actually dance to the music.

Thankfully there are a few things you as a DJ can do to bring the dancers back to the music. I used to seek “revenge” on the dancers when they annoyed me too much and had a list of songs that really messes with their head to force them to listen to the music. One favourite song for this was Donkey Serenade by Artie Shaw.

I have grown up a bit since then and instead of annoying the dancers into listening to the music I have found ways of gently guiding them. I like to play songs that either have tempo changes or style changes in them. It’s very hard to keep swinging out to St. Louis Blues when the rhythm changes from swing to habanera, it’s hard to keep step touching when the tempo and style changes.

8. Keep the band smaller than the crowd.

This is mostly for Swing DJs. Have you ever been to a concert where there are more people on stage than there are watching? It’s a really awkward feeling. The same holds true when dancing. Playing big band stuff when you have 3 couples on the dance floor creates a rather odd atmosphere as the sound often becomes too much. Try to play smaller combos when you have fewer people on the floor.

These were a few of the tips and tricks that I have picked up. You can read my Do’s and Don’ts here and the first part about finding your motivation here. If there are other situations that you would like some tips and tricks to deal with, drop a comment and I will deal with them!

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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.