This is a story about a global culture that can enrich our lives, transcend geography and generations, when it’s not leading to total confusion.
A decade ago, I was Chair of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Stakeholder Council – 50 elected representatives from every continent except Antarctica, the full spectrum of race, color, and the sectors of business, finance, academia, labor, non-profits – working with staff and board to fathom the intricacies of how companies and other organizations could express their accountability to the future of the planet through reporting their impact.
At one of our meetings in Amsterdam, I decided we needed a break, and prepared an evening’s worth of danceable, after dinner music. Given the composition of the crowd, I carefully chose from the wealth of international and national genres: J-pop, afro-Cuban, Celtic beats – you name it, I had it.
I introduced the music with a little speech about diversity amidst the contradictions we faced in our deliberations, hit the play button. And…
Not much. A few people joined me dancing, but as I waited for the music to take hold, the dominant scene was of small groupings trying to talk. I might have given up, but the Playlist came to a patch of Aretha, the Stones and Beatles. Suddenly, and without prompting or hesitation, everybody was on the dance floor, rocking out.
Oops! World-wide culture transcends ethnic barriers, and I switched the music for the rest of the set.
There have been historical times and places when music was the cultural driver – think gypsy, flamenco guitars and castanets of Spain; the complex embellishments of Mozart for courtly dances and stately concerts; the soul music of black church groups, New Orleans marching bands, roots of jazz in the migration of African drumming; the rich dramas of songs that populated Broadway musicals; hoe-downs and country ballads; the counterpoint of Bach’s soaring masses and cantatas. Sometimes the music was connected to dance, sometimes families clustered around the radio or circles of neighbors sharing folk songs; sometimes in huge audiences, sometimes in lonely vigils.
We have been in one of those times, and this time the place has been the world. As a new generation of poets, singers and musicians tuned their curiosity and passion, abetted by a remarkable coincidence of technological advances, a party began. One part of that party has been the DJd dance jams of Dance New England.
In the early 1970s, there were prepared tapes, recorded off analog LPs, 78 rpm singles and 45s. Jimmy Two Feathers and Dave Sheppard among others constructed graceful sets that captured our imagination and drove our dancing. The dancing itself was more complex and connected, with inputs from contact improv, African. Tai Chi that took off from classes and workshops.
By the ‘80s, most DJs had switched over to CDs. Some questioned the absolute fidelity of digital, but the flexibility of choosing music in the flow of the event, guiding and responding to the dancers, easily carried the day and the night.
The content of the music also went through changes. World music, bringing the cultural richness of different beats, found its way into songs and playlists. Rap and Hip Hop signaled diversity. New music services like I-tunes and Spotify simplified access. Keeping track of the incredible amount of new music available, remembering the old, and weaving all of it into playable dance events was a challenge.
Meanwhile, DJs like Kenny Schachat were experimenting with mixes based on existing songs, seeing themselves more as creators and performers, even as artists/professionals.
There followed a gradual, complementary shift in the relation of DJs and dancers. Where once the DJs were primarily off-stage, and the action was on the dance floor, DJs were more part of the whole. Talented DJs like Brando, Marek, and Sarah were leading the dance from a more defined, out-front position, designing complex events. Live musicians brightened the scenes – from drummers to jazz to classical; Stan, Jon and Amy, Shamu, Stephen.
There were formal classes like Biodanza, 5 Rhythms or Journey Dance; and events like Eye-Opener, Polinate and Mandala dances. There were community dances like Dance Spirit, Dance Freedom and Friday offering continuity in Boston, NoHo, New Paltz, Portland, New York City, Providence, etc., and a core of excellent DJs like Michael and Maggie.
By the third decade of the 21st century, there were a variety of dances. featuring a range of music from electronic beats to soft, evocative sets suitable for Sunday morning spirit dances. With the invasion of the body snatching Covid-19 virus, isolated dancers could literally zoom their way to their favorite music, sharing their presence in the little boxes that held our avatars.
Here’s where it gets a tad controversial. The songs which dominated the global, cultural revolution of the ‘60s onwards were rich in language and metaphor. When played, listened and danced to, they evoke for many of us a diverse engagement. Some of that is mere nostalgia, not a bad thing – but I propose that these, what might be termed classical songs, compose a cultural library unsurpassed in their capacity to connect us to each other, to the roots of a global, inclusive culture, and to our deepest selves: “Dust in the Wind”, “Sound of Silence”, “I Wish That I Knew What It Means to be Free”; Joan Baez, Johnny Clegg, Aretha Franklin.
If a classical experience has value, why do we hear so little of that music at our dances, virtual or otherwise? I have a few theories:
- DJs pride themselves of being on the cutting edge of new music.
- Mixing songs feels more creative than playing a song as given.
- The very strength of individual songs can distract from the flow of an event: the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts.
- The younger audience has less connection to an earlier generation of music which was in a perpetual mode of discovery, throwing heroes up the pop charts. Youth wants to make its own discoveries of music that speaks to its concerns, in its own voice.
- The selection and placement of songs is a highly intuitive and organic process, reflective of a trusting compact between designers and dancers, The ability to attract crowds (in person or more recently virtually) depends on the reputation for delivering an exciting, satisfying event. Successful DJs know what works for their crowd.
Noting changes in a dynamic institution is not meant as criticism. Let me be clear: there are many paths to heaven. I’m simply suggesting that the weeds which have grown on a classical path are worth some clearing and consideration.
The vitality and variety of dances in the face of necessity is a complement to our ingenuity. From what could have been an isolating experience, we have embraced the virtual, and re-crafted the forms of dances, strengthening community in the process. May it always be so.
Personally, this spring and summer, I’ve been exploring the wealth of our cultural music library. With the advent and ease of virtual dances, I’ve been running a series on Thursday evenings titled “Welcome To The Human Race.” From 8 pm to 9 pm, a themed play list connects the dots of our experience. They are as much concerts as dances, proving that we can both move and listen, solo and connect (the “talk and chew gum” trope). Attendance has ranged from one dozen to two – not enough to prove anything except we have a good time, and based on our hang-out conversations afterwards, that being deeply stirred is not a rare experience.
Here’s some examples:
In week 2, the set was “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” which took its title from a Credence Clearwater song, and brought together themes related to the land and its preservation. The set opened with John Trudell’s modern native American chant, “Rocking the Rez,” dropped back a few centuries to the powerful Indian narrative of “Before You Came”, then to a series of angry yet lyrical songs about exploitation of the land – the pure tones of Appalachian folk singer, Jean Ritchie, followed by John Prine’s classic “Paradise” leading to the unanswered question of “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” The body of the set included the drive of Dan Fogleberg’s “Blind to the Truth”, Bob Segar’s “In Your Time,” and Natalie Merchant’s “Motherland”, wrapping up with the challenging assertion of “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.”
Other weeks, the themes have focused on racial justice, love, sisterhood and even, echoing the title of the Moody Blues song, an adventure reflecting the truth of “Isn’t Life Strange?” In the love set, there were back-to-back versions of “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone. The racial justice set went from “Rivers of Babylon” to the tragic of Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” to the upbeat of “Harriet Tubman”, Us3’s ”Caught up in the Struggle”, Prince’s “Baltimore” and the glory of Joan Baez’ version of “We Shall Overcome.”
Each week’s playlist is published ahead of time in the access announcement. Long-term access to any and all of the playlists will be available in the near future. Otherwise and in the meantime, if you’d like to join upcoming scheduled dance/concerts for an hour or so, Thursday evenings at 8 pm EST), drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll provide you a link. In upcoming weeks, themes will include War and Peace, featuring obvious choices like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Goodnight Saigon,” “Born in the USA,” “Imagine“, and “Give Peace a Chance”; and another set sharing classic stories like “American Pie” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
One of the surprising and positive outcomes of this virtual, zoom-dependent world is the range of programmatic opportunities. Recognizing and appreciating the magnificent and delightful music created over the past decades is a gift that can keep on giving.