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.