Never trust a DJ who doesn’t dance, right? In today’s article, DJTT contributor Steven Maude shares insight on how DJing and dancing are so closely related – and why every DJ would be smart to think about learning a dance routine or taking up swing lessons.
Dancing + DJing
Maybe it doesn’t need saying that DJing and dancing are closely connected – after all, DJs often play dance music. But unless you’ve done a lot of dancing, the parallels of what people do in front of the decks and what DJs do behind them might not immediately jump out.
My own experience isn’t what you might expect: no low-lit clubs with thumping sound systems – at best, I’m out in bars. I’ve been learning various forms of swing dance over the past three years. That experience is what I’ll occasionally reference here, but, fundamentally, dance is a body movement interpretation of music, and, to some extent, those core ideas can transcend genre or style. That’s maybe best exemplified by street dancers and swing dancers trading music without any trouble still getting down:
Being aware of these similarities can give you insights into how dancers see music. Dancing is another great way – beyond DJing or production – of interacting with and appreciating dance music.
Below, read a few ways to start thinking about DJing when you’re next on the dance floor:
Beat Counting + Pattern Construction
For many DJs, instinctively and autonomically keeping the beat in mind are useful and vital skills. Actions are often carried out on-beat. We time fader movements to coincide with the onset of beats, or triggering tracks, effects, or samples.
For dancers, beat awareness is even more critical if they are to synchronize their movements successfully to music (especially if partner dancing, where both partners often should be moving with the same rhythm). Dancers, like DJs, may deliberately do things offbeat, but to break that convention successfully first requires an awareness of what it is to be on beat.
Phrasing and Counting
Beyond an underlying, fine-grained notion of beat, most DJs also know that beats coalesce into higher order structures. The most common groupings are bars and phrases. Maintaining an internal beat count is useful for DJs and dancers alike. In both cases, knowing the current count of the music allows anticipation of specific upcoming beats (usually a downbeat, the “1”) and responding accordingly – whether that’s adjusting the EQ, moving a fader, or initiating a new dance move.
Both DJs and dancers may be thinking in terms of stringing chunks of multiple bars or phrases together. DJs might choose another track to play and considering when to bring it in, or sequencing a series of shorter loops. Likewise, dancers may well be thinking one or more moves ahead, which moves might segue well from the current one, and even thinking of repeating short sequences of dance moves regularly throughout a song.
Dancers Take Beat Counting To The Next Level
Unlike DJs, dancers regularly complicate this further by mixing dance moves of differing beat duration. In swing dance, it’s common to switch between moves that take 6 beats and those that last 8 beats. The dancers actually fall out of step with the music’s bars (often made of 4 beats) and then eventually align again.
For example, a dancer could think of a 32 beat phrase as:
- four 8 count moves, or
- four 6 count moves and one 8 count move
Dancers are always counting in their heads (and when practicing, often out loud). It’s critical because unlike digital DJs (but similar to vinyl-only mixers), they don’t have the luxury of falling back to software phrase and bar counters or looking at a waveform.
DJs are frequently improvising in sets, relying on instinct honed by practice, tied in to both the feeling of the music and the crowd’s reaction. Improv is celebrated in the DJ world, to the point where there’s a whole subset of DJing focused around it entirely – scratch sessions:
Improvisation is a key part of dance too, but most of the time, your average dancer isn’t doing it professionally onstage – instead they’re in a crowd and doing it for their own enjoyment.
What dancers and DJs do have in common here is that, outside of favorite and familiar tracks, it may be that they don’t know a track and fall back to past experience and more actively listening to guide them. Both DJs and dancers may be trying to anticipate changes in the song to align new actions with them.
Dancers are continually deciding moves as the music plays out, trying to reflect and respond to it in a way that feels fitting. DJs may be actively listening to tracks at times too, but they don’t necessarily have to keep up that steady focus continuously throughout a set. Instead, DJs perform other tasks – like monitoring the venue’s sound, planning the set, or even taking requests.
While improvisation is a central feature of many dance styles, dancers may well also learn choreographed routines, because:
- certain routines are shared and propagate through dance communities, these allow bigger crowds to get involved regardless of where a dance event is held;
- more dancers can work together, allowing for more complex possibilities in the flow and visual structure of the collective that isn’t possible with a single person or even a duo;
- rehearsing and perfecting a routine repeatedly can allow for more precise dances that are more entertaining for an audience to watch.
This latter reason applies for DJs too: playing out and performing perfected routines that they’ve spent a long time working on, that they wouldn’t be able to make work through improvisation alone:
I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems reasonable that learning and rehearsing patterns is comparable for both dancing and DJing. The difference: dancing uses larger gross motor skills – as opposed to the more precise fine motor skills used by someone playing an instrument or DJing. But muscle memory is crucial in both, both involve repetition in learning, and both involve responding to timing and/or audio cues.
Music and Style
If you’re now eager to experience dance music in its literal sense, consider any genre and style – not just music you might normally spin. I find it refreshing that the music I often dance to has a very different sound and texture from modern dance music.
As with learning DJing, YouTube is a nice free resource to check out dancing styles, get inspired, and pick up tips. Teaching quality really does hugely vary. Hallmarks of a good tutorial are a patient approach, with dancers breaking down steps into each part; seeing steps from different angles also helps too. Here’s a good example:
Videos are no substitute if you can attend local classes with a great teacher. Classes add the opportunity for you to ask questions and get individual feedback if you’re struggling, as well as focus on practicing for a solid amount of time. They may also get you meeting other dancers and involved in the local dance community, which creates more opportunities to practice, perform and improve working with peers.
Are you a DJ who loves dancing? Share your own thoughts on how one activity informs and compliments the other in the comments below.