In late February of this year, I moved to Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World.
We are fortunate to have an amazing dance scene in Austin. The Fed, our weekly Thursday dance, takes place in a beautiful mansion and regularly draws 200 people a night. And yet, the Fed is primarily a DJ’d dance. There is one other “regular” Lindy Hop night in town, which takes place one Saturday per month (Engine Room). That dance features a live band and no DJs, meaning folks have to socialize and talk to one another during the band breaks. (What a novel concept.)
So with one DJ’d dance per week and a once-a-month Lindy Hop night with a live band, how can Austin’s dance scene really be that special? Here’s how: the city of Austin has a legit live music scene. Meaning, we can go listen to actual swinging jazz, played by real-live musicians, many of whom are full-time professionals, who book gigs at regular old bars and clubs around town. These occasions are not “Lindy Hop dances;” they’re public entertainment venues where Lindy Hoppers go to hear the music they love to dance to, played by working musicians and bands. There aren’t regularly set nights for this because it all depends on what the bands’ schedule happens to be.
Austin dancers are spoiled rotten on account of the live music scene here. It’s a peculiar thing, because these gigs take place in venues that have crappy concrete floors, lots of tables and chairs in the way, and drunk pedestrians wandering in off the street taking up dance space right in front of the band. In fact, imagine dancing to a live band in New York City with a bit more room to move and you’ve pretty much nailed it.
We go out despite all those annoyances because dancers here want to dance to live music. We are fortunate to have a number of amazing local bands, including my personal favorites, Thrift Set Orchestra, Jonathan Doyle Quintet, and Cats and the Canary, among many others. This is the first time I’ve lived in a city where the musicians playing swing jazz are as serious about their music as the Lindy Hoppers are about their dancing. Everybody here knows what’s up and is honing their respective craft, and it’s amazing.
Even better, the dancers really, really appreciate what they’re getting from the musicians, and the musicians love having the dancers at their gigs. This is a virtuous circle, a thriving and harmonious ecosystem of musicians and dancers supporting one another. I’m going to guess that the only scene that likely has it better than we do is New Orleans, and even then I’m willing to bet we’d give them a run for their money.
One result of the whole situation is that since moving here, I’ve made friends with some of these musicians, and that fact has completely transformed the way that I think about the music now. Before befriending lovely folks like Lauryn & Ryan Gould, Jonathan Doyle, David “Jelly” Jellema, and Hal Smith, the music I danced to was very remote from me. It was simply “the music that I dance to” and if I associated a name with it, like Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie, then maybe I’d think of that famous name that I knew when I heard the piano or the vocals or a particular song of theirs, and I’d vaguely think how great it must have been to dance to them “back in the day,” but that’s as far as it went. It wasn’t until I met, spoke to, and got to know the individual musicians in our local bands that my experience of the music really changed.
Recently I choreographed a short solo showcase routine to a Thrift Set Orchestra recording of a Duke Ellington tune, “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Upon sharing the video to Facebook where my musician friends could see it, Lauryn commented: “Hal Smith, check out the moves your cymbals inspired!” I watched the video of my routine again. The routine I choreographed and danced. I listened for the cymbals. I watched the choices that I made in the choreography on the basis of those cymbals. I thought about my friend Hal Smith, who plays the drums. And in that moment, I realized that Hal and I had shared something amazing. My routine was danced to a recording of Hal’s playing, but what I was hearing in the music was my friend’s idea, and the way I was inspired to express his idea through my body and movement was something Hal got to see and appreciate in the video. I didn’t just connect with “the music,” I connected with my friend Hal. And so Lauryn’s small comment completely broke open my perspective on dancing and music in a way that I’d never before truly considered, or truly appreciated.
When I dance to live music now, I think about the individual person who is responsible for the music, the rhythm, the sounds and the choices behind their instrument. I think about how wonderful it is that not only do I get to dance to great music and listen to my partner and be inspired by my leader’s choices and creativity, but I also get to listen to my friends who are in the band improvise their own ideas, and I get to be inspired by their choices and creativity and provide my own interpretation and ideas riffing on what they’re laying down. Formerly, when I heard a great horn lick, I’d think “man, I love the trumpet on this part.” I don’t think that anymore. Now I hear a great horn part and I think, “Man, Jelly is killing it right now!”
Everybody walks into the bar with the crappy concrete floor and the drunk college students and there’s maybe silence except for people talking or maybe there’s recorded music piped out over the speaker system. And then the band takes the stage, the dancers take up their posts in front of them, the music turns off and the crowd quiets a bit, and then a friend of mine–someone I know–counts off the music and a whole bunch of my other friends begin playing their instruments together, and they create a sound that is so unbelievably compelling that I cannot stop myself from tapping my foot and bouncing my knees and, ultimately, finding some space between the tables and the stage to dance, to use my body to express the ideas that my friends are improvising on the spot, all while I’m improvising on the spot, and all together we’re just making it all up right then with just a bare framework to keep everyone coordinated and it’s completely different every single time and nobody has any idea exactly what they’re going to do until they do it.
Maybe you love Lindy Hop. Maybe you love the music. Maybe you love dancing to the music. Maybe you love seeing people dance to the music. But I promise you, when you consider how special and beautiful it is that you, a dancer, move your body in response to something specific that you heard in the music, that was played by a real individual person with an instrument, someone you could know, someone who had a personality and a family and friends and a job and stresses and joys — another human being who made those choices and produced those sounds, not just a digital recording being played out of mechanical tubes — your experience as a dancer will be meaningfully better. Even when you listen to the old jazz greats on a record where every one of the musicians is long dead, consider for a moment the guitar riff or the clarinet run that excites you, and consider that once, long ago, in a recording studio somewhere, a regular old person like yourself with opinions and problems and kids or allergies or thick glasses or perpetually messy hair made that up on the spot. They were just doing what you do on the dance floor every week. Improvising. Listening. Expressing. Creating. And now you’re doing it together, and whoever that person was would be honored to know that they inspired you to dance specifically to what they created at that moment in the music. There you are, connecting with another human that you never knew, across time, space, and often across the door of death. You are connected. You connect in that moment. Dancers and musicians, we are connected.