Modest advice for the practical dance DJ

The world needs good dance DJs. I need good dance DJs. There are already entirely too many schmoes with a couple of turntables standing bored in the DJ booth waiting for their big break as a techno DJ to come along.

A good DJ is on par with a good bartender. They work in clubs, they like people, they're interested in making the patrons happy. It seems like there are fewer good DJs and more disinterested egomaniacs trying to turn small dance clubs into meat markets or raves. It's sad to watch formerly fabulous discotheque die, barflies and old queens hanging in the corners wondering where the glitter went.

An empty dance floor at 11pm is a tragedy. If you've been given the honor and responsibility of being a dance DJ, here are some things you can do to avoid it.

Nobody cares about your record collection

You may have awesome taste in music, a record collection broad and deep, and eight years of Music Theory under your belt. It doesn't mean you should become a dance DJ. You do need an impressive musical vernacular to be a DJ. But equally important is that you love to dance. We don't trust anorexic chefs and we don't shell out $5 at the door to hear a DJ who's never seen the club from the dance floor.

You don't have to be a good dancer. You just have to be enthusiastic enough to gauge what's danceable. I don't care what anyone says, you can't get that second-hand. If you depend wholly on crowd response to tell you whether you're playing the good stuff, you'll eventually wonder where the crowd went. If you don't dance, you won't be able to innovate, and that spells doom.

Imagine a spectrum with dancers on one end and music appreciators on the other. You want to hit it somewhere in the middle. The smaller the club and the more strongly themed the night, the closer you can get to the music appreciator end, but you still need to keep it in the grey.

Obviously, there are problems with both extremes. Play music exclusively for dancers, and what you've got is a rave. People who aren't interested in dancing will be bored to death. Play music for those with discerning tastes and you'll have lots of people sitting around bobbing their heads, but lots of frustrated dancers standing against the walls wondering what the hell you expect them to do with Tom Waits.

It's important not to be too snooty in your music selection. If every track you play is something no one's ever heard of, it may be good dancing music, but you're going to have a hard time getting people onto the floor. Let's break down how a good, throbbing crowd gets started and it will become clear why:

Timing is everything

  1. DJ plays a good track and the braver dancers venture out onto the floor.
  2. DJ plays two or three more good tracks. The brave dancers may not stay on the floor consistently, but it never gets empty. More timid dancers are beginning to feel envious.
  3. DJ plays a poppy song that lots of people know, with a strong but simple beat. Several "clumps" form on the dance floor.
  4. DJ plays two more good poppy songs. Clumps expand, contract, disperse, break off into new clumps, but about the same number of people remain on the dance floor.
  5. DJ plays one slower, less familiar, or more complex song. Several people head back to their tables, but a few wonks come out of the woodwork to dance. Timid dancers who weren't dancing now feel like they missed their chance.
  6. DJ plays another nice poppy song. Yay! Everyone on the floor!
  7. DJ continues in this vein, playing 2-4 song blocks of poppy, accessible music, book-ended by more "challenging" tracks. Every few "blocks", the DJ throws in a song everyone knows to draw latecomers onto the floor.

So, you see, you have to dip down to a lowest common denominator several times during the night. You can't play too many unfamiliar tracks if you want the enthusiasm to stay high. Eventually, even the most willing dancers will become dejected. People can't anticipate unfamiliar music, so they end up looking stupid when the song suddenly moves into a drum solo or unexpected bit of flamenco music. When people are dancing, they're thinking about how hot they look and if they feel stupid too often they will leave the floor right quick.

And don't worry about your cred or your image. If you maintain the right balance between obscure hipster music and poppy stuff, you can get away with playing Justin Timberlake and have it seem ironic.

Keep the romance alive

It's not enough to have a good strategy for the night. You need to think long-term. If you're a good DJ, you'll gain a following and they'll want to keep you around and the bartenders will be annoyed because instead of PBR your free drink of choice becomes a dirty martini but they won't be able to say anything about it because you're drawing a crowd and the owner loves you.

Most important: don't play the same shit every night. Especially don't play the same shit every night in the same order. If the song that gets everyone on the floor is the same more than twice in six months, you'll get a reputation for "always playing the same thing". Always try to mix it up. The songs between "blocks" are the place to do this. Don't reserve these spaces for your favorite, barely-danceable songs. Use them to test new material. If it doesn't fly, just move into the next block like nothing happened. If it does, then you can play your goddamned Tom Waits*, since you've just created an extra-long block and people need a drink.

On the other hand, you need to keep a reserve of sure-fire crowd pleasers. Whip them out only when the crowd is lethargic and needs motivating. Don't play them every night. If someone requests them, don't play them. Use them only in case of emergencies. If people get tired of them, they ain't gonna work anymore. You have to use them carefully. Don't let it get too quiet out there, or it will be too late. Don't decide too early in the night that things are going to shit and play them, or you won't have anything left to keep them on the floor. Use them to start off a block when you feel the crowd on the floor has gotten as big as it's going to. You may have to play several in a night. Just don't play them every night.

There's a lot of seduction involved in being a good dance DJ. When people are dancing, they're essentially showing off. You play opposite them in this flirtation. Give everyone what they want all the time and they'll be bored and exhausted while you're bored and bitter. Be too selfish in your selections and the dancers will feel betrayed and go elsewhere. Compromise, take a moment for yourself every now and again. Tell your dancers they're sexy. Keep 'em coming back for more.

* I don't actually recommend playing Tom Waits in a dance club. You really should not do that.

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