Saturday, 4 August 2012

Was that good? DJ questionnaire

DJing well is a tremendous amount of work. Owning a lot of music is not enough; it also requires knowledge, taste, and immensely time-consuming preparation. I'm not interested in doing it, because it's far too much work, and I'd rather be dancing. It's only done well by people who really like doing it for its own sake, and who really like doing the work that's required.

Uninformed dancers with no expectations create bad DJing and help it persist, and bad DJing limits the overall quality of dancing by making social dancing much more difficult than it needs to be.

I'd like DJs to be more appreciated. This checklist aims to help the dancer, especially the beginner, think about DJing. It assumes no more musical knowledge than the ability to tell the difference between tango, milonga, and vals, but it does partly rely on tango music making some sense to you and making you want to move. Some of it is very subjective, but some of it is not. Enjoy the usual bitchy bits.

Start at 0. Add or deduct points as shown to compare DJs. You might choose more than one answer for some of the questions. If you wanted to customise it to your priorities, obviously you could change the scores. I tend to penalise bad performance on the more mechanical, measurable things, because there's no good reason for getting that stuff wrong.

Musical Basics

Was any of the music unsuitable for dancing tango socially? For example:

  • It asks you to stand still and pose, like a pillock, rather than dance
  • It is impossible to keep exactly with it unless you know the particular recording by heart
  • It strongly suggests big, fast dramatic movements and sudden changes of speed that are rude and impractical for social dancing in the space available
  • It is great dance music, but brings out the worst in the dancers who are actually there.

If in doubt, look at the room as a whole: giveaways are that the line of dance stops flowing and collapses into chaos, there are lots of crashes, and most of the actually-good dancers sit down, hide, or go for a smoke unless somebody grabs them. If that's what your place is normally like, adjust your judgement accordingly. [Edit: What you are looking for is whether the DJ, or an individual tanda, makes a difference].

  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. One or two dodgy moments (-5)
  3. Several dodgy sections (-7)
  4. Tanda after tanda, I was bored, bruised or both (-10)

Were you ever caught out by a piece that did not fit in that tanda and caused difficulty, embarrassment or disappointment to you or your partner? For example:
  • A jarring change of mood or style mid-tanda, so that you felt you had to unscrew your head and screw it back on again
  • A misleading opener that meant you missed out on a tanda you would otherwise have liked
  • A weak or disappointing piece in the middle, or to finish
  • Excessively jarring changes of speed
  • A mixed-up tanda of music you would have preferred to dance with two different people - or some of it not at all.
  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. Once or twice, maybe a matter of opinion (-3)
  3. More, maybe a matter of opinion (-5)
  4. Once or twice, definitely! (-7)
  5. More than that (-10)
  6. All the flipping time! (-15)
As a whole, not worrying about specific tracks, how was the sound quality?
  1. Good - I could feel the music and really get into it (+7)
  2. OK - I could hear it everywhere (+5)
  3. Poor - I couldn't hear it clearly enough to get into it properly - muffled / no detail / no depth / too quiet / loud-but-muddy / distorted / too loud because DJ is deaf (-5)
  4. Not applicable, the equipment at this venue is poor so I can't tell (0)
Were there any poor choices of specific tracks, like something much too fast, much too slow, or with unacceptable sound quality?
  1. No (+5)
  2. One or two, not sure (0)
  3. More than that (-5)
 Did the cortinas make you happy?
  1. Yes (+5)
  2. They made people happy, just not specifically me (+3)
  3. No, they were generally annoying (-3)
  4. They didn't do the job, I couldn't always tell what was a cortina or they didn't play any (-5)
  5. Not applicable - this milonga has a no-cortinas policy (0)
Basic Basics

Were there enough vals (V) and milonga (M) tandas in proportion to the tango (T), and were they played in a regular pattern so you knew where you were?
  1. About right - somewhere in the range TTVTTM or TTTTVTTTTM, whatever made sense given the length of this milonga (+5)
  2. Not enough - TTTTTTTTTTM or something (-5)
  3. Too much - TVTMTVTMTVTM DJ WTF? (-7)
  4. So chaotic that I couldn't tell - TT VV TTTTVTTTTTMTMV, or something. (-10)
  5. "Tanda" isn't the right word. (-15).
Were the cortinas long enough for you to clear the floor and find your next partner without obstructing anyone else's view, given the size of the room, and supposing there was somewhere to sit down?
  1. Yes (+3)
  2. No (-3)
Did the DJ sign off gracefully at the end with some non-tango music for people to calm down and clear up to, assuming that was possible?
  1. Yes (+4)
  2. No, they used all the time available and just stopped there (0)

Did the music have the DJ's full attention?
  1. Yes, all or almost all the time (+5)
  2. Yes, as much as necessary in the situation (+3)
  3. Less than that (-3)
  4. No, they went out for a smoke and the music stopped (-10)
  5. No, they put on a playlist/CD and buggered off (-20)
If there were any problems with the equipment, did the DJ deal with them calmly and competently?
  1. Yes, outstanding - e.g. drove home and got some better kit, found another computer (+7)
  2. Met expectations - worked around it, fixed it (+5)
  3. Drama! But dealt with it (+3)
  4. No (-5)
  5. Not applicable (0)
Did the DJ have any difficulty operating the sound equipment?
  1. No (+2)
  2. There was one cock-up (-2)
  3. There were some problems, understandable in the circumstances (0)
  4. The DJ was clearly unprepared (-7)
Did the DJ seem at any time to forget what s/he was there for? Did they, for example, follow a twenty-minute performance, in a three-hour milonga, with a five-minute jive track for just one single couple to dance to in an unofficial bonus performance, while everyone else waited around like lemons, as though for the photographs at a flipping wedding, and in the awkward position of having to pretend that they weren't at all annoyed and didn't have anything better to do than watch this vanity?
  1. No (0)
  2. Yes (-5)
  3. Yes, and that couple included him/her self or his/her spouse/partner and/or at least one of the couple who had just been performing (-10)
  4. Yes, but, I was ok with it under the circumstances (0)
If there was an interlude of country dancing, like chacharera, or some other dance like jive or salsa, was it considerately timed, not too long, and enjoyable by a reasonable number of the people who were there?
  1. Yes, it was fun, I enjoyed it / I didn't mind watching (0)
  2. No, it was a tedious mess, nobody could dance to it, or it took up the last hour before the last train! (-5)
  3. It was annoying but it was required by the guest teachers or the venue (0)
Harder Questions

Was the music:
  1. Pretentiously salted with the undanceable, the obscure or the inappropriate (-10)
  2. Thoughtlessly arranged over time, with good things spoiled by being too close together (-5)
  3. Ok, but one-paced, too much of one kind of thing (+5)
  4. Good, but with a strong DJ style that just isn't my taste (+10)
  5. Appropriately varied, with a good mixture between rhythmic and lyrical and dramatic, given the situation (+15)
  6. Brilliantly mixed, with every tanda feeling like a perfect change after the one before (+20)
How did you feel about the 'energy' in the room?
  1. Confused and chaotic. (-7)
  2. Low. I couldn't get started, or my favourite partners couldn't. (-5)
  3. A bit flat, I liked the music but somehow didn't really feel like getting going (-2)
  4. Good, it was going consistently well (+5)
  5. Beautiful, it really came together with varied good feelings (+10)
  6. Fantastic, I had a great night, everyone was buzzing, everything flowed and I was also really happy when I was sitting down (+15)
Pick three very good social dancers who were there, preferably single ones. How much did they seem to be dancing?
  1. Not at all, maybe one or two tandas with the right person (-5)
  2. A bit, same as usual really (0)
  3. More than usual (+5)
  4. All the time, and taking more risks than usual with partner choice (+10)
Subjectively, what did you think? No scores here - compare with what you got above.
  1. It was genius / it was a revelation to me / it transformed the place or situation for the better.
  2. It was very good. I was very happy with it.
  3. It was good but had some flaws, or it was well-done but not my thing.
  4. It was good and consistent, I could trust it, but maybe it wasn't inspiring.
  5. It was generally innocuous and didn't cause me any serious problems.
  6. Not good - it was weak or annoyed me a few times.
  7. It was poor. I couldn't trust it. If something good came up, I had to grab someone.
  8. It was bad - I, or my desired partners, just didn't want to dance. No point in staying.
I'd draw the "ask them back" line between 4 and 5.

[Edit 24-08-2012: Cet article maintenant disponible en Francais. Merci, Ben de El Recodo Tango.] 


Iain said...

This is thought-provoking, not so much the scoring of what is important, but the subjective bit at the end. I guess I'd have to draw the line between 4 & 5 as well, but as a dj, I think I'd be failing if I wasn't doing mostly 3 or better. Being adequate isn't really enough for something with such a strong emotional component. The same with dancing - being innocuous or consistent but uninspiring isn't that different from being actively bad.

Elizabeth Brinton said...

Dear Ms. Hedgehog,

I appreciate that you thought so carefully about these issues. The real reward for DJs is seeing that people are dancing, without crazy moves and in a calm and socially acceptable fashion.

Just one point about the first scored section: Bad dancing and chaos can happen in certain groups no matter what the DJ does. In the sort of environment where there are primarily students and "experts" teaching on the floor etc. Not even the mildest Di Sarli can come to the rescue. Naturally this is just the kind of situation that brings out the persons who harasses DJs as well as partners, with all sorts of creative ideas...another story all together. Some DJs start out with the notion to play a lot of new and "undiscovered gems" of tango music. I would imagine that there is a correlation between them and low scores on the now classic Hedgehog score card. It is very useful.

msHedgehog said...

@Iain - yes, from the DJ's point of view that would be the goal.

@Elizabeth - Yes, there's certainly a limit to what the DJ can do here, at least on any single occasion. There's only really information there if the DJ causes a change - if a previously orderly (even if unimpressive) floor suddenly goes haywire when fed some ill-chosen drama. I've seen that exact thing happen enough times that it seems worth mentioning.

Elizabeth Brinton said...


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! If I ever give a DJ workshop again I'll make sure to bring it and use it!

I only have one comment: "If there were any problems with the equipment, did the DJ deal with them calmly and competently?"

I would give some bonus points to the DJ every time you never noticed any problems. They might have been fixed ages before the milonga started..

Best regards Bernt AKA "DJ Andres"

msHedgehog said...

@Bernt, That's a good point. I mentally give extra points to particular DJs at my regular place who achieve good sound despite the elderly speakers. Any DJ who's not very well prepared gets some combination of loud-but-muddy with no bass, and quiet patches where everything is drowned out by conversation. It's a real challenge.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the milonga's outcome is very seldom fully the DJ's sole effect; the best prepared teacher still could turn out students who fail, what more a motley crew of dancers with mixed experience. In my opinion a good DJ is one who challenges the dancers to see a new vista and balances that with the familiar. Playing safe is to be mediocre.

msHedgehog said...

@Anon - It's an argument that you can certainly make. And you can test it by seeing who turns up when the DJ is actually good, and how well they dance.

Anonymous said...

While I like the idea, it seems in trying to determine all eventualities makes it quite long and unwieldly. A simpler format might result in more usage if that is what you hope to see happen. M

Liliana Chiesa said...

Sooo true Elizabeth. you are describing most of my tango community, we have new dancers that tried to be "experts" not only about the dancing but also about the music, requesting, criticizing and harassing DJ's because they do not play tango nuevo or electonic tango when they do not the basics. Sometimes DJ who are asked to play in a milonga don't have control of the environment no matter what we do. Tango teachers should take the time to educate about tango music and tango music etiquette.

Dzesika said...

I just stumbled across this! Love it. Thanks for a guide to sorting out the vague "hey, was it a good night?" questions I usually have at the end of a milonga into more specific ideas that can help me get some useful feedback. Brava.

msHedgehog said...

@Dzesika, yay! :) That's the idea.

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

Thanks for this very useful tool, Ms Hedgehog. I've taken the liberty of linking it to my latest blog.

Even though there may be some minor differences of opinion about the questionnaire, it does help one think about the musical experience at a milonga. One of of my pet peeves is the phenomenon of dancers not listening to the music, so they dance to anything and everything. Perhaps this will assist some in becoming a little more discriminating.


msHedgehog said...

@Tango Salon Adelaide: Enjoy. Yes, you can certainly differ about details. Hopefully it just helps the beginner to think about whether the music is giving them problems, or it is something else, and maybe ask questions.

Roger Spence said...

I find the idea of cortina making you happy or sad as an alien concept.I have always consider the cortina to be the break between tandas. As such it should not interfere with the mood that prevails as you leave the floor. With this in mind I play a quiet piece of jazz that has been described as lounge jazz. Some DJs want shooting as some cortinas ruin the feelings generated by the previous tanda.

msHedgehog said...

@Roger Spence: the point is that cortinas should not be depressing or annoying and kill off a good mood. They should make the music more enjoyable, not less.