Get This Party Started!
Party-goers from different generations have very different expectations about how a dancing party gets started. Our band played for an end-of-term college dance on Wednesday evening and saw a pattern that is typical for today’s students. The dance was advertised as beginning at 10 PM and when we began playing, no one at all was there except for the two organizers. A group of young women who were expert swing dancers were the first guests to arrive and they made great use of the open dance floor for about 15 minutes as other guests began to slip into the room and help themselves to the food. (As I wrote in a previous post, women want to dance!) Occasionally, another couple or two would join in on the dance floor, but there wasn’t a critical mass of dancers until over a half hour into the first set.
We mentioned the issue of late arrival to one of the students and heard an answer we have heard many times in recent years, “you know it’s the old wanting-to-be-cool thing – no one wants to be the first one there.” This is in sharp contrast to the behavior we have often seen from older groups of dancers.
Our band has played a large number of college reunions for three decades, so we have had many chances to observe dancing behavior of distinct age groups.
We have had long relationships with certain college classes, for example, having played every reunion for the Yale Class of 1939 for the 25 years from 1979 until they stopped having reunions in 2004. We have similar experience with reunions for classes from the 1940s through the 1970s as well.
For many mainstream Americans who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s (during the big band era), dances with live music were important social occasions and dancing was an important social as well as physical skill. People who grew up with this usually carry their comfort with dancing throughout their lives for as long as they can move. We have seen very touching instances of this at weddings when Great Grandma dances with her grandson or whomever. There were and still are groups, such as some Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews, who don’t approve of couple dancing, but by and large, dancing in couples was fun for older generations. Live music was precious and people were eager to take advantage of any opportunity to dance. Playing for them was very easy. They were on the dance floor from the first note.
What has changed for younger people in recent years is their sense of awkwardness about getting started. Events take a lot longer to get off the ground. They are wonderful once they’re in full swing, but there’s a long period of standing around, waiting for someone else to make the first move.
People with higher skill levels are often the ones to break the ice, as we saw on Wednesday. The strong swing dancers, the very athletic break-dancer, the couple who know how to waltz, tango, or cha cha, the guy who can moonwalk or do the robot, often attract others to the dance floor–others who at first just watch and admire, but then decide to join in. At other times, there is almost a group “charge” to the dance floor, as “I will if you will” meets “all right men, we’re going in!”
There are sometimes particular songs that signal “it’s time to dance” for certain audiences. Classic party music reduces people’s uncertainty about what to do by several different means:
- Familiarity – You may have danced to this before and have good associations with it.
- Rhythm – The beat is very definite and you feel comfortable moving with it.
- Instruction – The song may literally tell you what to do, i.e. “come on baby, let’s do the Twist.”
- Known audience participation aspects – People have learned to expect to sing along on “Living on a Prayer” or pump their fists on “Sweet Caroline.”
- Choreography – The song may have definite arm motions that go with it, as in “YMCA” or dance steps as in line dances such as the Electric Slide or Macarena.
I used to wonder why bands never played the more obscure songs I liked and why other songs that were not “better,” but only more familiar, were played so often. Now I see why: because certain songs work better on a social level than other songs do. We hear the same central repertoire of older and newer “standards” in many different situations because these songs have proven to help get the party started.
The next post in this music and dancing series will be “The Wheelchair on the Dance Floor” May 5.
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What songs, sounds, or situations make you want to dance?
Do certain dancing parties stand out in your memory? What made them special?