Swing DJ Guidelines

December 26, 2018

If an organiser’s responsibility is to get people into classes, and a teacher’s responsibility is to get people from classes onto the dance floor, then it’s the DJ’s responsibility to keep them there.

Like good design, good DJing is rarely noticed - but when it’s done badly, it’s felt immediately and viscerally. There’s plenty of approaches on how to find music and play it, but no matter the approach the objective is the same.

You play for the room.

Why this approach is important is obvious , but learning how to do it isn’t as straightforward. Like learning to draw, the battle isn’t just in your hands - it starts with your eyes. You can have the fanciest tools and the largest of collections, and none of it matters if you use it all the wrong way.

Check the room regularly.

The better the DJ, the less they will prepare their sets in advance, and the more time they will spend actively DJing. Actively refers to adjusting and building their set - even if the setlist has been planned in advance (Such as around a theme), much like dancing with a partner, you must learn to adjust for what you’re working with, not what you wish you were.

By watching the room you can see which songs are working and which are not. If you dance regularly, you will also be able to assess different factors which you can adjust your set with. Sometimes a lack of information is information itself.

Some examples of things you can observe are:

  • How much space is available on the floor
  • Whether or not you recognise people on the dance floor
  • What styles you’re aware the people you recognise can dance

Following these three observations, you can then ask yourself questions:

  • Do I know the room well enough to take risks in my set?
  • Can I work around or with what peoples’ style preferences are?
  • Is the space or lack thereof because of interest or stamina?

Sometimes there’s tons of space on the floor because the night is dwindling down, and other times it’s because there’s been too many fast songs in a row and people need a break.

You can’t control the time, and you definitely cannot control anyone elses’ dancing, but you directly influence how the energy of the room ebbs and flows based on how the music gives the space a chance to breathe.

The more you watch the floor, the more you notice.

Your tastes and preferences are not the same thing.

A good approach when you start DJing is to stick to recognisable songs, which tend to be crowd pleasers. They’re popular for a reason - the rhythm is good, the pace is manageable, the melodies are interesting, etc.

As you become more comfortable with dancing and DJing, your personal tastes will start to come through. Everyone dances differently, and everyone’s sets sound different too. But what you enjoy about music does not necessarily reflect how you want to dance constantly, and your sets are no different.

If you enjoy a higher range of speeds while dancing, that doesn’t mean that having a DJ set exclusively of faster songs is the right approach. A good sanity check is to ask yourself whether or not you would dance your entire set, then, based on that, ask if the room would respond the same way.

At a given moment in time there might be mostly dancers who can dance Balboa on the floor, but that doesn’t mean you stick to fast songs for them. It might suit more experienced Lindy Hop dancers and Collegiate Shag dancers given the right rhythm, but you might be closing off the room entirely for less experienced dancers or those disinterested in the tempo you’ve chosen.

It’s safer to plan without an agenda than with one.

This initially sounds counterintuitive - the more you plan, the better prepared you are. But sticking to the rigidity of an agenda makes your music incongruent with how flexible dancing and dancers can be. Outside of a performance, people don’t step onto the dance floor with their phrases planned out.

They’re responsible only for their own movement - a suggestion they have might be rebuked by their partner, or withdrawn to avoid colliding with someone else on the dance floor. They adapt, and become better at constantly improvising. DJing is no different.

It’s much easier said than done, though - your DJing setup may not allow you to exert enough control to completely improvise sets, but working with improvisation in mind will make you better at working around the room, which, along with learning to read the crowd, will help you build the intuition required to create sets on the fly.

Be as inclusive as possible.

If this sounds like “You play for the room”, that’s because it’s supposed to. Ultimately, social dancing is meant to be a social activity. It’s not a competition or performance - people are there to enjoy dancing with each other.

As the DJ, you are the person who can decide how many people in the room get to enjoy dancing. You don’t just control the music that is playing, you also control the silence in between. When you play for a jam, you’re choosing not to play for the people who don’t want to jam.

When you play the music for a solo routine, you are also choosing not to play for the people who can’t dance that routine. Every song you choose for your set has some measurable consequence to somebody in the room.

It’s impossible to be a perfect DJ. Even if most of your set is amazing, someone still might have a bad night - and that might not be your fault. They could have been caught up in their head over some class material, or were too tired from work to really work up the energy needed to dance.

A large part of reading the room is learning and understanding what you can and cannot control, and asking yourself where you can make improvements. A lot of people find jams exciting, but as a small politeness - you could ask if the person receiving a jam wanted one in the first place.

If the local progressive courses have featured some popular solo routines recently, it’s nice to play the song which will allow the students to show off - but do they all need to be played in a row?

Lots of songs used for jams tend to be on the longer side; if one is followed by consecutive solo routines, that could create a potential period of 10 to 15 minutes where most of the room isn’t dancing, which might be just enough time to convince someone it’s time for them to pack up and go home.

Be mindful of who you are playing for and why.