DJ Mineh Ishida

West Coast Swing DJ 101 – How to read a cold crowd

West Coast Swing Dancers

Photo by Mineh Ishida

When you first start playing west coast swing music as a DJ, one of the most important things to learn is how to read the crowd. This article is a starting point. I will be teaching you what I call the West Coast Swing Music Litmus Test ™.

Heres the situation. You just started your set. You’re playing in a new town and have no idea what kind of music they like. You’re the first DJ up, and the other Dj hasn’t arrived yet. Lets also pretend that the dance instructor won’t arrive for another 30 minutes and the event director is no where to be found. You’re on your own, playing west coast swing music on a deserted island for 100 dancers. What should you play? (Cue jeopardy theme)

Now, this is an extreme scenario, but as DJs it’s not unusual for us to be faced with the prospect of playing for an unfamiliar crowd with no advice from someone who knows their song preferences. What do you do in that situation? This is where I whip out my handy West Coast Swing Music Litmus Test ™.

At the start of a set with an unfamiliar crowd (and often with a familiar one) I will play a series of 6 songs designed to give me a read of what direction to start moving my music set.

The WCSMLT (West Coast Swing Music Litmus Test) is composed of the following:

  • Mid-tempo Blues (100-110 bpm)
  • Mid-fast Pop (110-120 bpm)
  • Mid-slow R&B(95-100 bpm)
  • Mid tempo Classic WCS Song (105-110 bpm)
  • Mid-fast Soul Music (110-120)
  • Slow Acoustic/Rock Song (90-100)

There are a few more things to consider for song selection. Each song must be an established song for the genre. These should be songs everyone knows and have been proven over time to be good for dancing. Each song should sit in the sweet spots tempo wise for West Coast Swing (see tempo guidelines above).

The key to this is after you play each song, PAY ATTENTION. Now remember, people came to dance, so more than likely, they’re going to dance for the first few songs regardless if they like it or not. That said, pay attention to the following clues:

  1. How fast are they partnering up? If it’s a song they like, there will be an intensity to their partner hunting.
  2. Expressions on their faces. Are they smiling? Connecting with their partners? Or are they just autopiloting through the songs?
  3. Who is sitting? Who is not on the floor for each piece of music? Did any of your songs get them on the floor?
  4. What is the energy level of the room? You can generally tell if the energy level of the room is good or bad by surveying the dance floor to each song.
  5. What level are the dancers? Do you have a more advanced or more basic level of west coast swing dancers?

Based on these observations, on each of the 6 songs you played, you should have a good feel for where to move your playlist. Of course, you would also want to make sure you vary your music throughout the evening, and that this is just a way to get a feel for the general tastes of the crowd. If you feel like at any point in the night you’re losing your crowd, try repeating the WCSMLT and see if the mood has changed!

Of course in the end, nothing beats experience and a DJ that pays attention, but when you’re faced with a difficult situation with no previous knowledge of the crowd, using this technique can give you a general heading and a broad read of the music tastes of your west coast swing dancers.

Do you have any questions about the West Coast Swing Music Litmus Test? What techniques do you use to read a cold crowd? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author: DJ Mineh Ishida is a west coast swing DJ living in Tampa, FL.  He founded in 2012 and is passionate about contributing to the West Coast Swing community through DJing and his work with this website.  You can Find more information about DJ Mineh on the About Page.  For booking Inquiries, please use this Contact Form.