Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Opinion: Why swing dancers shouldn't hate electro-swing

As a part of my ongoing project to move this website forward and explore new ground, below is the first in a what I am thinking of as an 'irregular series of long-form articles'. It is slightly longer than you might be used to reading on the internet, but I think your 21st century attention-spans will just about to be able to stay with me to the end. Do let me know if you enjoyed the piece, or if you hated it. Do you agree with what I say or am I talking through my (extremely elegant) hat?

Back in November an American fellow called Morgan Day published a blog post about electro-swing on his site www.ickeroo.blogspot.com. The piece was called Why Swing Dancers Love and Hate Electro Swing. Morgan is a keen swing dancer in the traditional ‘Lindy Hop’ sense , and while he does have some good things to say about electro-swing, he also displays a lack of understanding about the nature of modern dance music, the purpose of electro-swing and a certain ignorance (not his fault) of the different sub-genres. As something of an evangelist for the genre, I feel it is my duty to write a rebuttal of Mr. Day’s piece.

Mr. Day’s first gripe is that “Most of it is actually kind of boring”. He goes on to write that “so many songs keep the same monotonous house beat throughout the entire song, with just some horn or vocal samples thrown in.” This is one of the most common fallacies levelled at electro-swing. Anyone who says this is mistaken – they are not listening to electro-swing. What they are listening to is called ‘House’.

Electro-swing in its current manifestation originated in continental Europe (France and Austria). In those countries house and techno dominate the dance music scene, so by default these were the first styles to make an impact. However, sub-genres such as swing-hop and swing ‘n’ bass quickly began to emerge, especially once the genre made its way across the English Channel and reached UK ears. Here in the UK the vintage scene has been growing for more than a decade (The Chap magazine, one of the driving forces, celebrated its 10th birthday in 2009, and Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer had been making ‘Chap-Hop’ for several years by the then).

Since then the diversity has increased markedly to include swing-step, ghetto swing and a host of other forms. In actual fact the shared roots of swing and hip-hop (and all subsequent hip-hop spin-offs like breakbeat, drum ‘n’ bass etc.) make them far better bedfellows than swing and house ever will be.

I fear that Mr. Day doesn't know that much about dance music (EDM, as the Yankees call it). If he did know a little more some of his other criticisms of electro-swing would fall by the wayside. He complains about “60-minute non-stop mixes” and asks “You know its OK to have breaks between songs, right?”

Wrong, Morgan, my old mucker. Those mixes are just that – mixes. They are used by DJs to showcase their skills to promoters who might book them, and to give people a chance to see what that DJ’s live sets are like. It is important to understand that a DJ set is an entity in itself – entire and whole and perfect, so to speak - like a film. To ask where the track breaks are is like asking why there is not 5 seconds of black between shots in a movie. A DJ set has a structure: a beginning, a middle and an end. Wikipedia (the fount of all wisdom) tells us “Night club attendees began to enjoy the abilities of DJs in how well they could keep the crowd dancing and the groove going.” It hardly takes a genius-level intellect to see that a few seconds of silence would severely disrupt the groove.

In an article for the dance music website www.littlewhiteearbuds.com Luis-Manuel Garcia has written a fascinating piece on the nature of the relationship between dance music and time. In that article he points out that in actual fact 60 minutes is quite a short set for a dance music DJ, and that “…with only an hour to work with DJs simply couldn't shape their sets into long arcs or undulating sine-waves of affect; instead, they felt pressured to deploy all of their most heavy-hitting, dance floor-filling, “killer” tracks all at once, without a break. Every DJ played as if it were peak-hour and, after a few of these in a row, the crowd was likely to get exhausted.”

An understanding of the way dance music works (and, dare I say it, a realisation that aint just plain ol’ swing any more) would help Mr. Day to avoid these mistakes and to enjoy electro-swing more. I don’t know which DJs he has been listening to, but if they were any good they will have had the build-drop/sine-wave structure that is described above. It is this super-structure (along with the increase in sub-genres) that provides the changes in tempo that he craves.

Another of Morgan’s gripes is that the dancing doesn't look that great. In so saying he is making the mistake of assuming that he is at a swing night. Of course, he is at an electro-swing night. The whole purpose of electro-swing is to transpose elements of swing to a modern dance music setting. NOT to move a swing class or social dance into a night club.

He also says that he finds that the music lacks the “breaks, stops and hits” that dancers (by which he means ‘swing dancers’, ‘Lindy Hoppers’ etc.) like to use to build their dance around. Again, he is approaching this from the wrong direction. To my ear, which is perhaps more attuned to the nuances of dance music, there are lots of little musical phrases that allow for fun dancing. Perhaps they are not in the places that Mr. Day would expect them to be, but they are there, I can assure him. In my opinion there are few who construct sets better than DJ Dodgy-Style, so here is one of his extremely fine mixes to illustrate my point.

The piece that Morgan has written is not deliberately unfair, I am just not quite sure what his point is. If it is ‘electro-swing is not swing, so I don’t like it as much’ then he is, of course, entitled to that view. I would suggest, however, that this is a strange stand to take. Electro-swing is intended to enhance, renew and reinvigorate swing - it is a celebration of the music. It is far more accessible to those for whom partner dancing might be intimidating, and, despite the synths, wobbles and big beats, most electro-swing nights stay true to the original ethos of the music – unpretentious, indiscriminate fun. What electro-swing is not intended for is for swing dancers to build routines around (at least, not often). Some of it may be suitable for Lindy, some may not. When it isn't head to the bar, go for a ciggy, or just lose yourself in the music and dance like no one is looking. Like this guy.

Mr. Day closes his article by acknowledging the role that electro-swing can play in introducing new people to the vintage sound, He expresses the hope that electro-swing continues to grow in popularity, and that the artists “continue to hone their craft with inspiration from jazz”. “Only time will tell,” he writes, “whether this style of music will remain with a niche audience or reach pop status.” My view is that the style is already here to stay, and that there is a wealth of great music that I think he would like – I can even make some recommendations for him, if he fancies.


  1. I couldn't agree more, the original article kind of misses the point, especially about the difference between a mix and a playlist.

    I am producer, of electro-swing amongst other things (http://youtu.be/sU81wVtd0U8) and someone who has done some formal dancing (fortunately no videos of that available). I genuinely get why dancers might get frustrated with electro-swing nights ... DJs will keep things at a fixed tempo and mix the tracks rather than have breaks. That is an expectation of any EDM club though. It is a complaint about the environment, not the genre

    I don't think that should be a consideration for whether swing dancers should like electo-swing as a genre. It really comes down to whether you could add an electro-swing track to a playlist at a social dance and still do swing dancing to it. The answer is IMHO definitely yes

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought that the article that he wrote was completely stupid. So many of his points were just wrong or heavily biased towards his own genre of music. His article gave me the impression that swing dancers are heavily self-entitled.

  3. No azahigaki, the original article was not "completely stupid." It was just one side of a coin. And there's nothing wrong with that. I happen to agree with the original article, as the only kind of dancing I like is partner dancing such as lindy hop, jitterbug and the various ballroom forms.

  4. It is interesting to watch you try and tell a bunch of dancers how dancers need a balance of rhythms, or don't want to have the "groove disrupted". Though, there you are, admittedly, talking to a different group of dancers.

    Your observations about time and dance music is missing something: for partner dances, having a good balance of tempos (that sine wave distribution of tempos) isn't enough. Because, in swing dance, dancers have partners, they also have an obligation: to finish the song. Fundamentally, they need some kind of signal for when to change partners.

    This is why a swing dancer is going to complain about a lack of breaks in the music. By avoiding ever disrupting the groove, you ensure that there is never a "change partners" signal. This means that you have trapped all the partner dancers, who would like an opportunity to visit the bar, go to the restroom, or change partners, but also don't want to tell their partner "We're done". (Given that, in the EDM world, partner dance is dead, you might not notice. But the moment you start mixing swing, you begin to attract those partner dancers, and they will quickly become annoyed.)

    Also from a classic jazz perspective, much electro swing (Hip-Hop, EDM, and many other kinds of electronic music) *is* boring. After all, most such songs repeat two or four bars of music more than three times in a row. After the second time, I have it memorized, and want something different; instead, I get a test of how well I memorized it (perfectly, thanks). Now, when the change comes, it's too late, I am already bored. This is one of the fundamental reasons that Jazz settled on AAB (12 bar) or AABA (32 bar) song forms. (I suspect that this has to do with the adoption of step sequencers in electronic music...)

    That said, we are happy for something somewhat fresh as well as the publicity it is giving some good old recordings. But don't be surprised that when you sample someone else's culture, they want to talk about the parts of it that you are stepping on. (Just like you are annoyed about them not understanding the role of a set in EDM...)

    1. If you want to lindy, go to a lindy night. Doggedly trying to lindy to electroswing is as stupid as trying to tango to a waltz.

    2. Also, "someone else's culture" - you're claiming ownership becuase you dance to it? Do me a favour!

  5. I don't hate electro swing - I just think that somethings don't need to be changed and modified since they are already great the way they are. I don't understand why everyone thinks everything needs a modern twist to it.

    1. I agree with George, b/c it's fun and new. B/C it's brought new, younger (next generation) to the genre through it's newness and accessibility. And, it's so upbeat, happy, and alive feeling. What's not to love?

      Jessica, I feel you about loving old and original. We can love both. It doesn't have to be an either or. I used to be such a vintage clothing purist, but there's some GREAT retro/new garb that is killer diller and on the beam. :)

  6. I see Electroswing and regular swing under the same umbrella, and to everyone else outside of the genre, they're nearly identical.
    Lindy hop dancers are complaining about it being too fast and not having any breaks, but honestly electroswing follows similar rules to club dancing, whereas social dancing is more organized and better for partners. But keep in mind, electroswing is great if you already follow similar rules of the modern dance floor- you don't have to wait for permission from the music to do what you need to do.
    As a newbie to swing dancing overall, I do have to say that many Lindyhop/Swing dancers tend to seem a bit Elitist when it comes to subgenres, and honestly it's just them making themselves look bad.

  7. Interesting interpretation. I have danced lindy, shag, balboa, jitterbug, ECS since the early 90s, and I see nothing wrong and un-partnerish about electro-swing. It reminds me so much of the "solo Charleston" competitions.

    Sometimes, a few of the songs do get repetitive, but then so do many of the weird jazzy songs "swing deejays" dig up. You can find good and bad examples of both genres of music.

    So the bigger question is: why is this so contentious for swing music lovers? I believe we have this innate sense of "my thing is better than your thing." I made the right choice on my life journey. When something rubs up agasint it, it's human nature to draw lines. With age and time those lines blur. I have tried to capture a bit of that with my vintage swing dance fiction.

    Case in point, when the resurgence of swing was huge (as talked about in the new documentary Alive and Kicking--and the setting for my Girl in the Jitterbug Dress trilogy), there was this trifecta of cultures bringing swing dance and swing music to the mainstream. But under that glossy umbrella was sub-genres of swing dance styles fighting for dominance. At the time, it was hugely important, but now 20 years later, no one really cares if you dance Savoy style, Hollywood style, Dean Collins Style, Street Swing, DC style, European boogie woogie style, or throw in a little Capoeira or even tango into your lindy. We've seemed to accept it all.

    I hope that will happen with the electro-swing music and dance styles. The beautiful thing is that it has exposed young people (high school and younger--thanks to some mixes being used for video games) to the complexity of swing music, many re-discovering the originals the electro-swing sampled from. Not to mention the fab originals by many of the electro swing bands.

    Morgan is old school and has been around the SoCal scene a long time. I also know him to be a bit of a provocateur, (he began a dialogue about a song I choose as a chapter title in one of my books as being racist), so keep that in mind. At any rate, it's opened up an interesting discussion.

    1. It might be said that I'm a bit of a provocateur as well!