Running the music at a dance evening

The ball was due to start at 20:00. I picked up the keys at 19:00, and I wasn’t anticipating any problems. We had plenty of time to set up the hall, which means plugging in the music system and laying out 8 tables/40 chairs, and I honestly thought we’d be sitting around for half an hour. Oh man, was this naive.

The first hitch came when a group of kids were hanging around outside the doors of the village hall. They weren’t at all threatening, but I had a car full of equipment parked around the corner, and I couldn’t get it all inside without leaving things unattended and out of sight, which made me nervous. Thankfully a very kind friend arrived early and at just the right moment, so we were able to transport it all without a problem. And at this point we entered some kind of time warp.

I initially thought we were doing fine, but things that took two minutes in my head actually took ten. I kept throwing disbelieving glances at the clock. We rushed to lay out the tables, then connected all the equipment. We switched it all on and…it didn’t work, causing utter panic calm analysis until I changed plug socket. Another friend arrived and we worked at full tilt laying out chairs and dressing the tables – candles take far longer than they should – until the first guests started arriving. And even then we weren’t ready for eight o’clock: the first song started at a quarter past.

My teachers do this on a monthly basis. I’m sure they’re into a routine by now, but I’d certainly never realised how much work it involves, in such a short time. There’s no way I’d have been able to do it without help, and I certainly got lucky there. Once everything was plugged in, arranged and working, we turned out the lights and started the music.

I took a bit of a risk with the music setup. My teacher’s setup uses a cd-player with two drives, and he switches CDs many times throughout the evening. But I decided, on Saturday morning, that I’d instead copy everything to a laptop and use an iTunes playlist to control the music. A playlist would be far less work, but also allow pleasing touches like cross-fading between tracks, and allow me to chop-and-change the running order without having to manage dozens of CDs. So, did this work better than the original system? Oh god yes.

It Just Worked. We went from manic work to sitting back and letting the laptop do its thing, occasionally bumping up the volume as more sound-wave-absorbing bodies entered the hall. Much more civilised than switching CDs, and far less stressful – I’d have been a nervous wreck by the end of the evening otherwise. The problems – and there were a few – only came when I took over from iTunes.

I had to take control about halfway through the evening, when we traditionally play a few sequence dances. These range from fun – the Sally-Ann cha-cha – to soporific – the Rumba One. Unfortunately, the cd collection from my teacher was inexplicably missing the sequence dances, so I hadn’t included any on the playlist. But somebody had the whole selection on an MP3 player, and asked if I could play from it. No problem, I said. Its audio connection was the same as the laptop’s, so I only needed to switch the cable.

So in future I’ll turn down the amplifier before ripping a 3.5mm cable out of its socket. Pretty inelegant. But the MP3 player worked fine, and once we were done with the sequence stuff I announced we’d switch back to regular dances, starting with two waltzes. I pressed play in iTunes, at which point my friend Nod noted that the cable was still in the MP3 player. Crap. Not thinking properly, I put the microphone down without turning it off, sending quite the jolt through the speakers, then (again) switched the 3.5mm cable without turning the amp down. This was later memorably described as the DONK URKK moment.

Then, later, I was asked for an argentine tango. As cool as that dance is, it’s generally a special request, and I didn’t have one on the laptop. So I pulled out an appropriate CD, announced the song, and hit play. Nothing happened, and I spotted an input toggle that needed to be switched. So I did. Here’s the thing: the volume of the laptop signal is very, very different from the CD player itself. The song had been playing for a few seconds before I hit the switch, so I’d missed the quiet start. I blasted the room with an extremely loud half-second of trumpets. Everyone jumped out of their skins, and I hit the volume and quickly apologised. As I said yesterday, I expect this is a rite of passage. Switching between the CD player and the laptop is something I would have practiced given a little more time, but I never quite got to it. Or, in hindsight, I could have just played the CD via the laptop (this has genuinely only just occurred to me). If there’s ever a next time, I’m doing that!

I didn’t have to play any more CDs, but I went back to the MP3 player later and managed to mute the cable-change noise. So at least there was a learning curve.

The microphone was difficult. I expect there are better ways to hold and speak into it, as I struggled to make myself understood. I announced a Rumba One sequence dance to little effect, so announced it again, but still had people shout questions about which dance it was. Having said that, nobody at my end of the room knew quite what to make of this, as they’d heard me perfectly clearly. So I’m not sure what was going on there.

The strangest moment of the evening came when six couples got up to dance the samba. Nobody dances the samba. Ok – people do, but it’s a difficult dance, and the only people willing to dance without hesitation are usually very good – and this puts off everybody else. As such I’d pulled one from the playlist earlier in the evening due to lack of interest; then, inexplicably, popularity! To make things even more surreal, later there were five couples Viennese Waltzing. That’s Just Weird. I put it down to awesome music 🙂

I was very nervous about some of my music choices. I wanted to modernise it a little, and I’d put in a few tracks I thought should work, but it’s hard to know for certain, without experience. Sure, I can pick up a three-beat waltz in Journey’s Open Arms, but I’ve been dancing for 3.5 years – how would a beginner cope? Actually, Open Arms was the probably the least successful track of the night. Many couples did ok, but a few were off the beat, and I felt bad. I pulled Faith Hill’s Cry and Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me as a resultno point pushing my luck.

But, cha-chas to The Corrs’ Breathless, Girls Aloud’s I Think We’re Alone Now and Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes all worked very well. And I obviously played the quickstep version of 9 to 5, which transcends awesome. But my favourite track was probably the samba to the Mamma Mia version of Dancing Queen. That’s just fun.

I really wanted to play the Roxanne tango from Moulin Rouge, but sadly it doesn’t work on its own: it has 90 seconds of the most dramatic (and therefore the best) tango I know, but then loses the tango beat, and 90 seconds just isn’t enough. I had the opposite problem with Cell Block Tango from Chicago, which is much too long, although I did play a mediocre three-minute cover.

A couple of songs had weird acoustics: the Sugababes’ Hole in the Head1 seemed to bounce its bass notes off the far wall, which did very strange things to the beat. This didn’t seem to cause problems, happily.

At 23:00 I played the last waltzes and we packed up. The crowd were very helpful, and the tables and chairs were away in no time. Around 40 people arrived over the evening, which was actually a good number. It’s not the 60-80 that sometimes come, but I was happy with it: the hall had been full enough not to be sparse, without being too crowded. Most people vanished into the night, but everybody from my dancing group said they’d had a good time, which was reassuring. Hopefully everyone else had a reasonable time too – I guess I’ll see whether they say anything to my teacher come next month…

I’m rather relieved it’s all over, as it was a large mountain on my horizon. But I’d be perfectly happy to do it again, should the need arise. I also have much more respect for the amount of effort my teachers put in. But mainly I’m grateful to all the people who helped, when they had no reason to other than general decency. Without them it simply wouldn’t have worked.

PS. My clothes shopping trip with my sister worked out well. She didn’t take any of my usual nonsense, and found me some decent stuff to wear for last night. Form-fitting and smart is quite a different look for me – at least one person was quite taken aback. At least I now know what size I am at Next, too.

  1. the specially downloaded radio edit, which inelegantly chops out the word ‘shit’. I don’t know why this worried me, given that I later played Christina Aguilera’s Candyman uncensored. []