The hardest thing in the world is to step out of a comfort zone.
So when I was first asked to start DJing regularly for Salsa Machine I wasn’t really sure…I was more interested in developing myself as a teacher, and was enjoying my social dancing too much to be bothered about being on the other side of the decks too often, although I had some experience.
With so many great Salsa DJs on the scene who know their music inside out and play for savvy crowds at the top clubs week after week, I felt a bit of a fraud.
Who was I trying to kid?
I used to be resident DJ at a friends Salsa club many years ago, but it was a different kind of crowd. They were mainly novice dancers and at that time the scene was a lot less developed. Bachata had only just appeared on social dance floors and wasn’t being widely taught. No one had really heard of Kizomba.
Things were very different back then.
There was less Salsa music readily available, the Internet was in its infancy, iTunes and Spotify didn’t exist so you had to buy hard copies of CDs from specialist shops and wait weeks for them to arrive.
Amazon was another source, but it was a lottery as mostly you couldn’t listen to the music before you bought it. You could waste a lot of money and many hours searching for suitable songs to play.
Only those who were pathologically obsessed with Latin music and dance would actually bother doing the research to find good tracks and build their collection.
The technology was less developed so although DJing off a laptop was possible, the software was basic and buggy, and for someone like me who was a technophobe anyway, it was much more reassuring to physically mix the tracks using real CDs.
So then I had a rethink…maybe it wasn’t such a mad idea.
Maybe I wasn’t as unqualified for the job as I thought.
Maybe it was just fear of putting myself out there that was making me think that.
I have a huge collection of Latin music and the knowledge to back it up.
I’ve immersed myself in it for the last fifteen years, playing it on my iPod and in the car at every available opportunity. If anyone has ever pulled up beside me at traffic lights, they’ll know my car-dancing is in a class of its own.
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t really listen to mainstream pop music or any other genres now.
One of my most fun adventures was going to Cuba on honeymoon and much to my new husband’s dismay, spent a lot of time scouring music shops and stalls, dancing with the shopkeepers and stall holders and getting them to play sample tracks for me. I came back with a suitcase full of CDs, many of which couldn’t be bought outside of Cuba at that time.
On my travels around the more obscure fringes of the Latin music scene, I’ve heard some amazing music – music that most DJs would never play in a club because it doesn’t sit comfortably in any particular genre – in all my years of social dancing I’ve not heard this stuff played anywhere. It’s music that most social dancers will never ever get to hear, which is such a shame.
But some of it was inherently danceable and deserved to meet people’s ears and carry their feet across the dance floor.
So the first few sets I played were safe…sticking to tried and tested crowd-pleasers that i knew were played everywhere, that were popular, and that I had once liked, but had since tired of.
Then I realised.
If I was going to do this, I had to do it for me.
I had to expand my own horizons and grow myself at the same time.
If I wanted my audience to push beyond their dance floor comfort zone I had to push my own personal one.
So I started to dig out and play some of those CDs that had been gathering dust on my shelf for all those years.
I started to explore genres that I wasn’t as familiar with, asking for recommendations from respected DJ and instructor friends.
I spent a small fortune on iTunes.
I stopped worrying about what everyone else would think…there were only three things I had to worry about: Was the music infectious and easy to hear on the dancefloor? Did I like it? Did my gut tell me dancers would dance to it?
I stopped censoring my set list based on what I thought would please other people and followed my nose about what would work on the dance floor.
I found tracks that were funkier, sassier, and had attitude.
I stopped telling the stories about only identifying with certain sub-genres like NY and Mambo.
I did more detective work and found a home in my collection for even more random, obscure, oddball tunes that I discovered, and started putting them on my set lists.
I thought they were going to bomb, so I was scared. I knew I was taking risks.
But to my amazement and delight people danced to them.
More than that…they loved them.
People came up and started asking me for the names of the tracks and where to get hold of them.
I got great feedback which inspired me further.
I put in more prep time and started taking it more seriously. It now takes me about three hours to put a provisional set list and running order together.
That’s because the sheer volume of music I possess means that I have an endless choice of amazingly danceable Salsa music. I’d be doing a disservice to myself and my audience if I didn’t sift and sort and vary the music that I play.
This provisional set list and running order is never set in stone and will always change on the fly. It’s a starting point for a journey that evolves as the night goes on.
What I play depends very much on the people in the room. I’m constantly observing energy, and noting who’s dancing to what.
Even good dancers won’t dance flat out to every single track and expect to last more than an hour or two, so natural peaks and troughs have to be factored in if you want the floor to stay packed, and your dancers full of enthusiasm and energy right until the end.
My DJing is as much a journey as my dancing has been.
Researching the evolution of Latin music and dance styles, and the key artists whose creativity is the driving force behind it. Hours spent listening and dissecting songs and picking out individual instruments.
Understanding what it is in musical terms that makes a tune Cha Cha Cha or Cuban Timba, Bachata or Boogaloo.
If you’re not developing your ears at the same time as you’re developing your dancing, then your dance potential will never be fully realised.
And you’ll miss out on the real joy of fully connecting your body with the music as it plays in real time, which for me is the highest form of personal expression.
And if you think you can load up a laptop with a few popular tracks and call yourself a Salsa DJ then you’re kidding yourself.
For sure people will dance. But your sets won’t have the breadth and depth that will keep a crowd of knowledgable and sophisticated dancers engaged for very long.
And the biggest challenge lies in being able to keep novice dancers and seasoned, savvy social dancers with advanced capabilities and mixed preferences happy all at the same time.
It’s not impossible, but it’s far from easy.