As we are slowly returning to dancing, it is a good time to reflect over how we want the blues scene to look as we move forward.
So that you know what you are getting into this will be a short historical overview of the scene, a diagnosis of where we are now, and ideas of how I would like the scene to develop. In short, it is time for us to stop cuddling in sterile studios and start partying.
It might not be interesting, but I hope it’s at least written in a way that will make it hard for you to stop reading before I made my point.
This is going to be a rather long read so I prepared some music for you to listen to here.
Get it, it’s like a preamble but its just me rambling…
This post will be very Eurocentric, because that’s where live and that’s what I know. This post also won’t deal with race relations and racism because that has been discussed in many other places by people way more knowledgeable than me. Check out Obsidian Tea, Move Together or CVFC for more about that. Seriously, check those out, also a lot of the things I say here have been learned from Grey Armstrong at Obsidian Tea, a much better blog than anything that I write. This post will be about energy, music and atmosphere.
Anyway, here we go.
I know from discussions I have had with people that a few agree and more than a few think I’m nuts, I am pretty sure they are all correct. Oh, and unless otherwise specified, whenever I refer to “blues dance” it will be about the scene we are all a part of, not about thee dancing to blues music that has existed in African American culture for 100 year. This is just for clarity. Ok, have I put in enough disclaimers in now?
Let’s start with a brief, abridged and disjointed history of blues dance as I understand it. If I get some comments, messages or emails with corrections and additions I’ll edit it. Damn, I guess that was another disclaimer.
So unlike lindy hop that had a historical, or should I say platonic ideal that gave birth to it, the same isn’t true for blues dance. Nor did we have a direct connection to the dance/dances in the form of old-timers like Norma Miller and Frankie Manning. Blues dance was created around the same time in the by two different groups. One was lindy hoppers in the late 90s who wanted to “dance close” late at night. At the same time a group of dancers started learning from elders and researching the rich history of African American dancing to blues. In Europe, lindy hoppers heard about this and thought it was a great excuse to get a bit more intimate. People decided to take it seriously and wanted to get better at it and perhaps go from a more “lets just dance slow and close” to actually dancing. Then at some point people realized that hell, blues dancing is actually a thing, and we should probably try to make it more legitimate and tie what we do to that, just like Lindy Hop has done.
My chronology is a bit messed up and since this isn’t an academic publication, I am not going to do the research to figure it out but rather just break some issues out in order to support the argument I want to make later on. If you don’t like it, well neither do I. To be honest most of these things happened at the same time and are still happening because shit moves slow. Anyway, lets talk about the fusion split and idiom dances.
Fusion, blues, and the search for legitimacy
So, when I started dancing, and DJing for that matter, around 2015–16 there was no real split between blues and fusion in my scene. I don’t mean in dance style, I mean in the music. I had barely even heard of fusion dancing. But we gladly mixed Howlin’ Wolf with Hozier. As my knowledge of the music and the dances started to develop, I began understanding the differences in aesthetics the different styles of music brought to our dancing. I mean this is why we have fusion dance and blues dance right? You can’t have a blues aesthetic if you are not dancing to blues music. Well, you can but its harder because I am one of those weird people who think music and dancing should match and that the music comes before the dancing. For a better explanation of what blues dance aesthetic is, I refer you to Obsidian Tea again, I don’t feel that I am competent to give an explanation nor do I feel like I am in a position to portray myself as an authority.
Over the past few years, scenes have been getting their acts together and if they call themselves a blues scene they will actively try to play a majority if not exclusively blues. Very few scenes have actually managed to go completely blues, but I want to have faith that you can do it! I mean the clearest sign of this is that events started having fusion rooms indicating that they want to separate the two. That being said I have been to events which appeared to have two fusion floors which tends to make me go to the bar instead, and not necessarily the bar at the venue. But its still development. More and more people have become aware of the difference and while I still have fights with people who say “blues dance to a Sia song” or “you can dance blues to any music”, over all I do think we are becoming more aware.
Around the same time the idea of Idiom Dances started popping up. In short, if you haven’t heard the term before it can be summarized as “historical dances that have been done to blues music”. If you want a proper breakdown, I refer you to Damon Stone’s blog where he has spent countless hours researching historical blues dances. I personally think the term “Idiom Dances” is about as sexy as a dry cheese sandwich with a glass of diluted lemonade, or for that matter a dance event in a studio. At any rate, this gives us a rooting, some platonic ideals, hopefully makes us show more respect to the culture that the dances originated from, and maybe even make us better dancers. Who knows. I mean I think its great because it does give us something to aspire to and it makes us dance to more kinds of blues music, which is kind of the argument I will get to at some point. I just hate the name because blues should be more interesting than a glass of stale water. The idiom dances are more interesting than that. They are awesome. I mean, Funky butt, Struttin and Grind sure don’t make me think of a dance in a sterile studio.
Where we stand today
In most places the blues and fusions scenes have started to split as blues has become more blues and fusion has grown strong enough to warrant their own parties. Though I have seen regressions, for some reason people tend to want to revert back to fusion in blues places if you don’t stem the tide. Actually, I don’t necessarily mind that happening as long as you stop calling it a blues event and call it a fusion event. Dammit if I go to a blues event, I don’t want to dance to Coeur de Pirate, but if you want to slow dance to music that isn’t blues, do it! Just don’t call it blues! I wrote a post about this 3 years ago in a DJ/organizer forum and boy did it lead to a heated debate. Partially because I formulated myself rather clumsily.
Nevertheless, I will optimistically say that the blues/fusion split is actively underway, and I think it will continue that way. Some local scenes still have a long way to go but many have done stellar work. I think a lot of the work remaining in this regard has to do with DJs. Organizers need to know how to make demands and new DJs need to be educated on what is blues and what isn’t. I mean its complicated when it gets to blues because genres are largely a marketing thing rather than a reflection of what the music sounds like, and edges are always fuzzy. However, as I wrote in my Do’s and Don’ts post, learn to play things that are indisputably blues before exploring the edges.
DJs are the custodians of the music in our scene.
They decide what we dance to. They matter. If you are an organizer, make demands of your DJs. If you are an organizer and you can, compensate your DJs because you want them to have an incentive to be good, and also, they deserve it. If you can’t do it yourself and you don’t have experienced DJs, reach out to a DJ you respect and see if they can do a workshop for the DJs in your scene. DJs are important. But this was a total detour.
Moving on, let’s assume that fusion finds its own feet and we start seeing fewer fusion rooms at blues events and move to their own events. I know some people disagree that this is desirable. I don’t care because we are talking about what I want now, its my post and I am drunk on the power it gives me.
Sterile cuddle scene vs. Party Scene
The new split I am seeing is between what I like to call the cuddle/hippie scene and the party scene. There is also the sterile studio scene but I don’t know where to fit that in so I will just ignore it because it makes no sense to me. The cuddle/hippie scene is to me essentially the same as the fusion scene just that they dance to blues. If you are a bluus dancer you probably know what I am talking about, if you don’t, you are probably part of that scene or the sterile studio scene.
The party scene, as I generously call it, are the ones who prefer our socials to be in bars or night club like settings. I am pretty sure you have understood by now that this is where my allegiance lies. Once when I outlined how I want the scene to look I was told that I “want to cosplay blues”. No, I want to have fun. Also, this music and the dances were born in juke joints, night clubs and house parties, not in dance studios or middle school dances.
Where we are coming from and where we are going
Let’s circle back. The blues dance scene was born because lindy hoppers wanted to slow dance and that legacy lives with us today. Most blues dancers are most comfortable at slow tempos and low energies. Many of them when asked if they wouldn’t want more energy will answer that if they want energy, they will go to the lindy floor. It’s a result of our legacy and the fact that most blues dancers still also dance lindy.
Idiom dances have done quite a bit to broaden our ability to dance to more energetic types of blues, and in general a broader spectrum of blues music. I like this. It makes me happy.
I dance lindy, I dance balboa, I dance blues, and I have danced other things before. I started dancing when going to night clubs. In particular soul clubs. I get different things out of the dance as well, but in all of the dances I want a full spectrum. I want to dance fast and slow, high energy and low energy, playful and serious. For some reason blues, in the mind of many, seems to be stuck in the slow and low energy. This entire post is about that I want to change that. I want us to be able to reflect the full gambit of emotions and styles that blues has to offer.
So what is it that I want?
Well, put simply I want a party. I want a blues dance event where we can dance to the full spectrum of what blues has to give. From slow draggers like Look Like Twins to energetic southern party blues like Arthur Adams. In order for this to happen we need to raise the average energy of our events, chose venues that suit a party atmosphere, and expose new dancers to higher energy and faster music earlier. Essentially, we need to change the image of the scene and we need to change who we are as a scene.
I know most people in the scene today don’t want to do this. They joined the blues dance scene because they want to stand and slow dance to low energy. It’s a controlled sense of intimacy with clear social rules, and let’s be honest, its not that hard to do. If you have two left feet you can learn to step touch and stand and hug in no more than two months. And that is appealing. To some people. To a certain type of people. It also hinders the growth of the scene because it limits the attraction to that type of people. I mean from a self interested space, it stops me from attending events, and I know I am not alone in that. If there is no energy in the room, I don’t want to dance, and I have no interest sitting in a boring room watching other people awkwardly cuddle. I would rather go to the bar, and definitely the one next door.
Blues has a full range of energy and emotion — use it
Some scenes and some events are moving beyond this and pushing a different type of dance. A lot of teachers are doing it as well, I mean if they don’t push for more “complex” dancing, they would be out of a job so they must. But more than that it is necessary if blues is going to stand on its own two feet and not just be where lindy and balboa dancers go when they want to dance slow. It has the full range so let’s use it. Let’s see where it can take us. Perhaps there are new markets out there for people who want to party, I mean Salsa can party, Kizomba can party, why can’t we?
And yes, at its most extreme it means turning it into a nightclub. I have floated that idea with mixed reception. Let’s say you take one night of a festival, or part of a night and throw a proper party. I mean we turn it on its head. Cross fade the music like you are in a night club, raise the average energy, make solo the standard and if you want to partner up for a bit you do, and then you stop. no need to dance a whole song together, I mean the music won’t stop anyway. Get rid of the artificial formality of asking for a dance at the beginning of a song, dancing the whole song, saying thank you and then go back to standing on the side of the floor. Just dance. Let the music flow through you, and if you start having a dance conversation it can be solo or partnered and you don’t need to talk for that long. Yeah I know this is extreme and probably not what will be the standard, but if you can have a soul club that draws tons of dancers, why can’t you have a blues club?
Let’s get back to reality
Maybe we could just have a bit more energy, have our events in bars, in clubs, in event spaces that don’t look like we are in a studio? Maybe that will inspire people to dance a bit better because you can’t just step touch. Or maybe you just add some more energy to your step touching because your surroundings require it.
I used to enjoy going to clubs, if the music was good. It rarely was, apart from when as a young indie kid I would go to indie clubs and then later to soul clubs. Honestly, I just miss that. I wish our dance nights could replace that. They so rarely do. So often its just people cuddling in a studio. Some festivals do a really good job at making it feel like a party. Some local scenes manage to go there as well. Very few do.
Essentially what I am hoping to do is to make you reflect over who we are as a scene and where we want to be. Perhaps we will truly divide into different streams, but then let’s have the guts to commit. I am not sure I will actually change anyone’s opinion with this piece but maybe I could just influence someone to take the step up to more energy.
The blues isn’t sad, the blues isn’t slow. The blues can be that, but it can also be uplifting, angry, energetic, and powerful. The Blues is the Blues. It’s time for the blues scene to grow up. We are no linger lindy hoppers who want to slow dance and grind who then realized we want to dance and not flirt and then got awkward. We are a scene of our own.
And for the love of blues, please please please stop playing fusion on the blues floor.