Harold Heath takes another look at the ‘people-don’t-dance-anymore-they-just-stand-watching-the DJ’ discourse.
Late last year, I and thousands of others went to the birthday party of one of the UK’s top club brands in one of the country’s biggest and best venues. The DJ line up was impeccable, the visuals were eye-poppingly good, the sound was excellent. In terms of dancing there was lots of gentle shuffling on the spot, moving from foot to foot, and some arms in the air too, but not any actual proper, full-on, unselfconscious, go-for-it dancing. Essentially everyone stood in regimented lines watching the DJ and the massive LED screen behind them. At one point, bobbing away at the edge of the dance floor I turned around to face the back of the room and felt a sea of faces all looking back at me questioningly. Such was the social pressure that I felt compelled to turn back around again to face the DJ, just like everyone else.
Now this isn’t to say it was a bad night – it wasn’t; certainly everyone seemed to be having lots of fun and the tunes were superb. But… a couple of weeks later I went to a cafe in a railway arch for a gig from a live band made up of jazz players and some electronic instruments (synth, bass etc.). There were barely 150 people in total in the place and quite a few of them were the band on the make-shift stage. There was no lighting rig, custom-built LED wall or strobes. The sound system did the job but was quite a way from state of the art. More pertinently, within a few minutes of the music starting, the room was dancing hard. Eyes clamped shut, arms in the air type dancing. Dancing on the stairs, by the bar, in every corner of the room. People were clearing a space to really let go, to dance really well, insisting simply by their body’s presence that those not here to dance needed to move aside.
It’s weird but sometimes we forget about the ‘dance’ in dance music. And the whole ‘people-at-clubs-used-to-dance-together-now-they-all-stand-facing-the-stage-like-they’re-at-a-concert’ issue has become a a tired-out and over-used generalisation, but that’s a shame because it’s still an interesting area of discussion.
This clarion cry of the older generation that the kids don’t dance together anymore, they just stand facing the front is mistaken, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s too much of a generalisation. And the only generalisation you can rely on is that generalisations generally leave out the detail, the nuance, and therefore always brush over the actual truth of the matter.
Dance, Dance, Dance
The truth, in this case, is that there are some club nights where this phenomenon happens and some where it doesn’t – it’s a cliche that is both true and false. There are still parties going off, where people are carving out room to dance, reacting to the music rather than passively accepting it and in the process creating atmosphere and spectacle for the other attendees. There are events where each dancer raises the psychic temperature every so slightly, and every time they make a move they’re giving others the permission to let rip too, every time they turn to face others and dance together, they’re taking the direction of the night and making it their own.
People attending nightclubs and events where there’s not much dancing aren’t having a bad time, clearly they enjoy it. But I’d argue that they’re passive, bystanders to the experience. Passively standing and watching isn’t our house music culture – that’s the culture of watching a rock band or singer – our culture here in dance music is active. We make the party, all of us, that’s at the very heart of a decent rave/party/club night: community. Us, dancing together.
Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong in standing and watching a band – but standing and watching a DJ? Well, it’s not that it’s wrong as such, but more that it’s a shame. A crowd of people together in a dark space with a banging sound system, that’s an opportunity to let go, to become free for a few hours, to express yourself physically. It’s a chance to connect with a bunch of strangers and create something that for a few magic moments might be greater than the sum of its parts. So it’s a real shame that some club nights are now full of people who instead of doing this, have been trained into simply turning up, taking their spot and then watching the light show. Perhaps swaying a bit, shuffling from foot to foot, and putting their arms up in the air at the allotted time – as though they were passively watching a band.
Everybody Dance Now
The change from nightclub as a site of dancing transcendence to site of passive entertainment has taken place slowly over the last couple of decades, although it’s a change that has continually been challenged by the underground.
A key moment was in the mid-90s when the DJ booth was first placed centre stage, elevating the DJ from nerd-technician to superstar performer. More recently, in the last decade, US festival culture has played a role too. The US EDM boom rebranded raves as festivals to make them socially acceptable, and this required the imposition of traditional modes of live music consumption onto the presentation of dance music. And the rise of social media with its emphasis on visually recording events has also been a factor in encouraging and facilitating passivity and predictability at club nights and events too. People filming a predictable hands-in-the-air drop aren’t participating, they’re observing.
Standing and watching the DJ is also partly a trained response, ground into us all from years of school assemblies, public meetings and live concerts. You get in the venue and find yourself a place to be entertained. But every decent club night – from underground soul nights in the 70s to the last proper party you went to pre-lockdown, are all defined in opposition to this passive conformity of mainstream culture. People standing watching DJs is symptomatic of the mainstream elbowing its way into underground culture and attempting to impose its norms.
“Consumption Rather Than Creation”
Talking Heads singer and songwriter David Byrne in his ‘How Music Works’ book talks about this process. “The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things… It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves – they’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation.”
But this process – of the mainstream co-opting underground club culture and then regurgitating its own, pallid version of it for profit – circumnavigates one of the most important elements in a good club night: the agency of the crowd to make the event, to create the atmosphere and the memories that live long after the night is over by participating. This was the crucial element that characterised the birth of acid house and the club culture that followed. It defined itself in opposition to mainstream night time entertainment: the dancers make the night, the dancers are the stars: this is dance music. And before then, the dancers were key in Northern Soul, in the UK jazz dance scene, the southern jazz-funk nights of the 70s, during the breakdancing period and at 80s warehouse parties. The dancers. And the gradual morphing from dancing to watching, changes the clubbers’ experience from active to passive. In doing so, we are left simply watching the DJ and gently shuffling from side to side. This isn’t what dance music was about, ever.
So it’s a shame that this discussion has essentially been reduced to an either/or dichotomy. It’s a shame because just as there are plenty of club nights where people totally go for it on the dance floor, there are also some events where people are essentially watching the DJ as though they were watching a band. And it’s worth remembering that this is supposed to be dance music. The final point here is this: watching DJs might be fun but have you ever tried dancing to them?
Main photo by Dave Swindells.
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