DJ Mineh Ishida

Blues or Contemporary? Or … ?

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By DJ Marlin Jenkins

We’ve all heard it time and time again: “blues or contemporary?” This phrase, often as a question, has found its home in two places: discussions about variety in song selections for DJs and the music options for pro jack and jills. Of course, this is an important – even essential – distinction, especially as blues music in WCS occupies an important historic niche, a counterpart to the contemporary. And, in many ways, the “contemporary” aspect of WCS is both defining and celebrated (though also a source of debate and controversy) as the dance grows and adapts; how many styles of partner dance can be danced to the top 40 hits on the radio?

But as important as it is to focus on these two primary categorizations, that’s surely not the be-all end-all of WCS music, and we do ourselves a disservice if we rely too much on these two categories.

Here are four reasons why:

1) They’re not in direct opposition and not mutually exclusive.
2) They’re not perfect banners because of the many, many subcategories.
3) They’re not all-inclusive – there’s much more than just these two categories.
4) When it comes down to each individual dance, the song itself is more important than the category it fits into.

When we use these two categories as tags for the two main types of the music we dance to, it becomes easy to think of them as opposites. This means we tend to choose which we like better and forget that most music blends styles and genres. Consider songs like Anthony Hamilton’s “Mad” and a lot of John Mayer’s music; songs like these remind us that music can be “contemporary” but with definite ties to blues (or any other style or genre, for that matter).

Considering the danger of thinking of these two styles as opposites becomes especially important with the younger generation of dancers, many of whom love to dance to “contemporary” music, or at least tend to prefer it over blues (and I was definitely someone who who shared this preference when I started dancing WCS). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I don’t like blues” or “all blues music sounds the same.” The local scene I DJ at weekly is almost all college-aged dancers, and it’s always extremely difficult to introduce new blues music. I think the biggest factor is the fact that many dancers tend to lump all blues together, making it feel so distinctly separate, in a negative way, from contemporary music. And while there seems to be more of a trend toward contemporary with younger dancers, many dancers of all ages have a strong preference for one side and a bias against the other.

Just as many people think that all blues “sounds the same,” many people argue that the radio hits today all sound very similar. I will admit that, in both cases, it’s easy for songs to blend together after a while (or at first), and many songs sound similar because they have similar elements or a similar structure.

Because of how easy it is to form negative opinions of these styles due to thinking “it all sounds the same,” it is important that we don’t lump all blues music – or all contemporary music – together into indistinct collectives.

And that leads me to point number two, the subcategories that lie within each of these two categories. Chicago blues, for example, is much different than Delta blues. And for contemporary, a loosely defined categorization, it is even more difficult to claim similarity between the songs that find themselves within this broad section of WCS music. Let’s take a look at four contemporary WCS songs as examples:

Domino – Jesse J
Own This Club – Marvin Priest
Mad – Anthony Hamilton
Secret – Maroon 5

These four songs, while all “contemporary,” are quite distinct from each other. They range in more ways than not, and they draw influence from multiple genres. “Mad” draws clear influence from blues (as we talked about before) and hip hop. Yet it is a “contemporary” song, occupying the same space as these other “contemporary” songs.

Of course, in both cases, the categories are based on similarities. But it’s unfair to feed the stereotypes that all blues or all contemporary sound – or are – the same.

The third issue is this: there is much more to WCS music than just these two categories. That’s one thing we love about our dance – the adaptability, the variety. We say blues and contemporary but we also have funk, rock, hip hop (new and old school), Motown, R&B, a capella, and the list of styles and genres goes on. And many of the songs and artists that we dance to in these categories do not fall into those two primary distinctions. Yet they are just as much a part of our dance, our community.

By no means am I saying we should dump the phrase “blues or contemporary,” nor am I saying that we shouldn’t use these two primary categories as reference points. But at the same time, we should not become so accustomed to using this phrase as a crutch, as two poles acting as all-inclusive banners.

There are so many factors that go into making each individual dance unique. So let’s let each song be unique, existing both within and despite its categories and genres. Categories are important, but every single song has something that makes it unique. If we reduce their differences only to these two categories, or any others, we aren’t paying proper respect to the identity of the music, the artists, or ourselves as dancers. If I dance with the same partner to Clapton’s “Change the World,” it should not be the same dance as if we also dance to “Layla.” Both are slow blues, same artist. Different songs, different dance, and should surely be treated as such, despite how many factors are similar. Similarly, for fast contemporary, consider how many songs we’ve danced to by Flo Rida, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha. But we can still make each dance new, unique, dancing to that particular song with that particular partner at that particular time. No two songs are ever exactly alike and no two dances should be either.

To conclude, I just want to encourage us not to get lost in the categories. If we look for differences between songs, even with similar ones, they’re surely there.

Let’s not forget that variety and individuality are far deeper than any categories that define them. When we dance and when we talk about music, let’s remember that “blues and contemporary” is just a starting point, and that there’s so much more.

About the Author: Marlin M. Jenkins resides and dances in Saginaw, Michigan. He has been a part of Music ‘n Motion, Saginaw Valley State University’s west coast swing organization, since his freshman year. He is currently a student leader for the group and DJs at their weekly meetings. ..   ..
  • Steven Krieg

    Absolutely love this – great thoughts! I especially like your comments about the individuality of each song, partner, dance. My observation (as a relatively inexperienced dancer but a lover of music) is that, in dance, too often we tend to view music as simply the means by which we are able to dance, rather than seeing music as another partner with which the leader and follower work to create a great dance. While a song obviously isn’t a person, there’s still something to be said for appreciating each one for its uniqueness. This is one of the biggest differences I see between dancers who are good and dancers who are great. Nice job!

  • Larry Waters

    The “so much more” is the essence of WCSwing. Blues versus Contemporary is a false choice and obscures the essential characteristic of the music. It’s not about genre or subgenre. It’s about swing rhythm, or feel, versus straight rhythm. The only selection that you mentioned that swings is Layla. See John Festa’s excellent essay on the “Essence” of WCS:

    To learn about swing performance styling see: