I have a specific music taste when it comes to salsa, and it was not uncommon to hear from DJs that they have to play for people, not what I like. That makes sense, but after a long time of not dancing much, I could visit several salsa parties, mainly marathons, and it makes me wonder what does it truly mean?
Indeed it sounds great to play songs which most people enjoy, to find the greatest good. But on the other hand, is it possible? Everyone likes something a bit different and if we find an intersection of most tastes, isn’t just average songs making it consequently a moderate party?
For the sake of an argument, let’s say that truthfully makes an awesome party, and nearly everyone is happy. Are DJs able to play like that? Because from my observations, every DJ has some style. Which is great. But that means every DJ plays amazingly just that style and not anything else.
For example, I love afternoons (preferably at marathons) because usually slow, peaceful songs are played. Also, the volume is at a reasonable level that you can chat with friends without yelling at them. And there was one DJ at Berlin salsa marathon who played quietly (thank you!) but still fast songs. Almost no one was dancing comparing the previous day when slow salsa was played (because people were tired ;-)).
Another example is that some DJs can play complex and exciting songs. The problem is when such a set is on stage at a sleepy hour when everyone is tired. The brain just cannot process it anymore. But people dance anyway because they love dancing more than not dancing.
This brings me to another topic about fast songs. At Prague’s spring salsa marathon, ultimately all DJs played speedy songs. No dancer liked it, to my knowledge, so I tried to share it with one DJ and asked if they could slow it down. The response was like DJ didn’t hear me: “the energy is so great! We play faster and faster, and dancers dance like crazy!” Of course, they do! Some of them didn’t dance for two years, were super excited to dance again, and had no other choice than to run…
That doesn’t sound like playing for the crowd. And that’s not all. I was chatting with another DJ, my friend, who told me he is from the old school. The teaching goes that there is a mood on the dance floor that needs to be built and shaped slowly, and the change of DJ on the stage should not be hearable on the dance floor without looking.
I see two problems here. One, it means everyone has to dance all the time. If someone takes a break for a while, it’s hard to get back to a crazy fast and busy dance floor which was built in the past hour or two. Because no one can dance all the time, this mood thing doesn’t scale anyway.
Second, why should DJs try to be invisible and continue with the artificial mood? Of course, playing an ultra-fast crazy song between two calm ones will not work, but I don’t see any reason to wait hours to get from one mood to the other. For me, DJ breaking the rules is a hero. DJ Betina from Berlin is one of them.
I’m very subjective here because I love salsa when it’s not salsa and Betina plays such songs. Anyway, she didn’t fear playing very specific songs (Chan Chan Tributo, if you are curious, a very fantastic piece) out of the blue (horrible move from old school DJ teaching I heard), and it was not just me who enjoyed it a lot. The whole dance floor applauded. It seemed to me it was even bigger applause than during the wonderful live concert!
There is one extra rule to be broken: songs should not be repeated, they say. I agree to some extent. Repeating the same song every hour is not fun for sure. Moreover, if it’s an average song and no one is reacting to it. But if it’s a good song crowd loves, I don’t see any reason not to play it every day at least once. Even twice is fine because, as I said, no one is always on the dance floor, especially at marathons.
Recently I visited also splendid Basel salsa marathon. It’s smaller than Prague or Berlin, but lovely (you can feel everywhere it was made with love). It means less people around, and it takes time before the dance floor is full. It might feel sad to play nice songs to almost empty dance floor. Yet, such song can force people to stand up, and they will definitely not mind, at least no one did in Basel, when the same song was played again for the full room few hours later.
To make it short: I think DJs should focus more on what they can play the best, which is also likable by the crowd (very important), and shouldn’t be afraid to break some old habits. And I think the organizer of the event should take care of the overall mood: instead assigning DJ slots randomly, organizer should think more about what every DJ can deliver the best (and why they were invited to the event) and when people enjoy it the most (like not asking DJ preferring jazzy songs to play at sleepy 3am, or sprinter DJ right after food).
That makes more sense to me. To me as a dancer, of course. I understand from DJ point of view that’s scary and weird and maybe boring. But shouldn’t DJ play for dancers? ;-)