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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Wolfgram

"I Don't Take Requests" and other passive aggressive things DJ's think but will never tell you

Before I say anything about music or DJing, let me tell you what this article is NOT about. It’s not intended to be a high-horse, condescending speech coming out of an ivory tower to smear “I KnOw MorE abOuT MUsiC thAN yOU” across the page, nor is to make you feel bad about having an opinion or liking a song. My hope is that it will give you a peek into how DJs think and either stir up excitement among the next generation of DanceSport DJs or at least give you a greater appreciation for your local music coordinator.

Also note that although these are my opinions and they certainly do not apply to every DJ in the dance community, my use of the word “I” is intended to reflect a generalized group of us. Not every good DJ thinks this way or has a “no requests” policy like I do, but my mentors and I are far from the only ones. Frankly, I suspect we’re in the majority.

But every DJ gets requests. Roughly once or twice a night, I’ll be approached and asked to play another Bolero or some specific Jive or the same Swing that’s been played every other week. Some people are incredibly nice, others are abrasive and demanding, but everyone gets one of two responses: “Thank you, but I don’t take requests” or a smile and nod with an unconvincing “I’ll see if I can work it in.”

So why not take requests? If the job of a DJ is to give everyone the best experience possible, doesn’t it make sense to play what they ask for? Sadly, it’s not that simple. In fact, I tend to be unyielding on this rule, but I promise I have good reasons! In short...

I’m very picky…

Playing music for a social dance isn’t as easy as picking out my favorite songs and stringing them together in a semi-logical fashion. When I’m deciding what song to play next, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it, and with very few exceptions, every song has to meet five minimum criteria:

  1. Energy level. The overarching structure of a social dance set is made up of sin-wave style curves, representing gradual increases and decreases in energy. We walk slowly up to hard-hitting, powerful songs and stroll down to peaceful waltz music at the bottom. If a piece doesn’t have the right energy level to follow the previous song and transition into the next, the continuity is broken, and with it, my control of the flow.

  2. Tempo. Much like energy level, we need to play a variety of songs across the tempo range. Play a few too many high-tempo songs in a row and you’ll exhaust your dancers. Play too much too slow, and people will feel like they’re trudging in applesauce the whole night, struggling to keep with the music.

  3. Harmonic balance. The next song has to feel like it belongs after whatever just faded out, and if I play two songs next to each other with conflicting keys (i.e. Am and F#Maj), the dancers will feel jostled. I explain how to use harmonic balance in another article, but making sure the next song is in a specific key (or is close to one and has some other element that links the two songs together) makes the night flow much, much smoother.

  4. Style of dance. Fitting in a variety of dance styles is a unique puzzle every night. I can’t play a Cha next to a Rumba, the moves are too similar, and I can’t go five songs without playing something Smooth/Standard. There are countless little rules to dance around (pun intended) in order to give the community as much variety as I can while keeping from sounding either spastic or repetitive.

  5. Sound variety. Imagine going to a social dance and every Waltz is a piano solo, or every vocalist is a French-speaking man. People need variety in the musical content of what they’re dancing to, and that means incorporating different beats, singers, instruments, amounts of twang, and more. Let people experience the full range of what kinds of sounds can make up music and you’ll see them create more inspired dancing in turn.

For every spot we can put a song during the night, there’s a unique combination of these criteria the song filling it has to meet. Chances are, the song you suggest to me will probably not satisfy all five of these, or at least none have yet in my time DJing. A list of a few hundred Cha’s can quickly become two or three when you account for everything else that needs to be in place to make it playable.

So recommend me a song that satisfies all the minimum requirements, and not only will I play it, but I’ll give you a freaking medal! Otherwise, straying from these rules is going to screw up the structure of the set and throw off the flow, two things we absolutely don’t want.

...and every song serves a purpose.

Past these basic criteria, a song will usually have some greater intention behind it. Often it’ll be a crucial piece in the slow build toward a climactic song later in the night, where I’ll want to prime the listeners’ ears with a specific string of six or seven songs before playing something awesome. Say I want the piano to really shine in a beautiful slow waltz; I can emphasize it by either removing the piano from all music and slowly reintroducing it, or fading it out of use, playing a few songs with none, and then WHAM, gorgeous piano sonata.

More common still is to use a song to target a particular dancer or small group. Reading the crowd and knowing what they want is an important skill, but often I’ll isolate it to one specific person that I really want to get dancing. This might be because they’re on the sidelines looking somber, or they’re a fantastic social dancer and keeping them on the floor makes everyone happier. Regardless of the reason why, this requires DJ’s know a lot about the regulars, everything from their basic attitudes and behaviors to their favorite kinds of music, comfortable tempi, and preferred partners.

Learning this information is very intentional, and is often the third purpose behind a given song: running experiments. Play a song that’s dominant in some particular quality and watch who does what. Which partners do they gravitate to? How quickly do they get onto the dance floor? Do they look confident or worried? Knowing these things gives me and other DJ’s a shocking amount of control over the crowd when the knowledge is exercised, so being intentional about the songs used to gather them is important.

Your requests are not ignored.

The two fastest ways to get reliable information are to ask directly or listen carefully. If you request a song, that’s awesome! Now I have more info about you as a dancer and your preferences, which allows me to know your tastes better and in turn be better able to tailor my set to you when it’s appropriate.

Me not playing a request on a given night does not mean you are not heard or your opinion is not respected and valued. It only means that I have other plans. Although I absolutely care about you specifically enjoying the social dance, often my priorities will be elsewhere—that might be some setup for a bigger song later in the night, giving the individual tailoring to people who need it more, or just keeping the set as a whole structured and clean.

Bottom line, DJing a social dance is a complex game of environment management that takes time to master. My goal as a DJ is to make the maximum number of people dance as much as possible, create nice memories, and enjoy the experience as much as they can. Sadly, that means looking at the bigger picture and accepting that not everyone will love every song or agree with every decision. Although that means I don’t take requests and can’t change everything for one person, it means I do get to focus on creating the best evening I can for everyone and do my best to inspire some awesome dancing.

(Published in Sheer Dance magazine March 2020)

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