Day two of a Dance Road Trip

Every so often I get to go on a Dance Road Trip with my best friend Neil.  The previous night we were at a LeRoc freestyle in nearby Nailsea, and now come Saturday, we were at Strictly Ceroc’s Switch freestyle in Bristol.  There was no particular reason for picking these two venues, except that they were on consecutive nights, and I’d never danced in the Bristol area before.

As always my friend wanted to know what he’d let himself in for.  I really had no idea, other than what I could gleam from the entry on The UK Jive website.  I did my best to sell it:

It starts with a smooth class with Caine Langford.  I’ve been to one of his classes before.  He’s a fabulous teacher.  Hopefully I’ll add to my Chill-out moves.

DJ John Baker’s will be playing upbeat music up until midnight, and he then switches to chill-out music until two. Oh, and there’s chip butties and refreshments at eleven thirty.

Chip butties sounds good

Though this was all I knew, I’d already got a sense from the listing that this could be a really good night.  One reason for my optimism was the fact that DJ John Baker was spinning the tracks.

The previous week I’d been at Strictly Ceroc’s Coventry Freestyle, with the same John Baker on the decks, and had the most fabulous night dancing to some top drawer music (see link below to my review).

I wanted to dance to Chill-out music

Neil and myself arrived about quarter past  eight, and I got a couple of dances in before Caine and Andrea took to the floor for their thirty minute Smooth Moves class.

Caine with his regular partner Danielle Moore, who had greeted us preciously on the door, have built quite a reputation for themselves as teaches of the smooth style of slotted dancing.  I had long struggled with the idea of dancing in the slot, which was a pity because I really loved the chilled out music that is best danced to in this way.

I’m looking forward to Caine and Andrea’s lesson

I’d tried a few classes, but just didn’t seem to make any progress, until I turned up for one of Caine and Danielle’s classes at last June’s Southport.  They are both top draw teachers and so good was the class that I voted it one of my Top 5 classes of last year (see links below).

Suddenly it clicked, and ever since I’ve made slow but steady progress in my slotted dancing technique.  I still do the moves that Caine and Danni taught that day, but I’m always looking to add to them, so I was really looking forward to Caine and Andrea’s lesson.

A track from my West Coast Swing classes

I think most people know what I mean when I talk about smooth chill-out moves, but for those that might not, just listen to one of the tracks that DJ John Baker played to accompany Caine’s moves.  It helps to conjure up a picture of the sequence of moves that Caine and Andrea taught.

Affection by Ophelie Winter was a track that was played when I tried and failed to get to grips with West Coast Swing a few years back.  Doing the normal Ceroc moves, even when you attempt to slow them down, just does not work for a delicious chilled track like this.

I’d always wanted to find a way to dance to tracks like this, and that’s what made me persevere with learning a more smooth style of dancing.

The class also acts as an Ice-breaker

Andrea Twamley, Caine’s demo, is a very accomplished dancer in her own right, and she and Caine put on an easy to follow lesson.  So much so, that I could take something away from it.  This lesson was excellent in one other way – it acted as an ice-breaker.  Remember I had never danced in the Bristol area before, and so I knew no one.

It’s always difficult when the moment comes, when you have to ask someone to dance, but you realise you recognise no one.  Because I got to dance several times with each lady during the lesson, I got to know a few faces, and as a result I felt a lot more confident when it came to the asking.

This dance community is so friendly

Now my friend had sat out the lesson, and I was worried that he would struggle to take the plunge and ask the first person to dance.  After enjoying several dances myself, I realised my friend was firmly stuck to his seat.  It can happen, and I realised I needed to help out.

Several of the friendly faces from the lesson I noticed, were sitting at the table next to the one Neil and myself had plonked ourselves down on.  I duly asked one of them to dance.  The lady seemed very friendly, and so I asked her if she would ask my friend to dance.  A few dances later she did just that.  In fact her friends did the same and my friend started to get in to the swing of it.

I realise that people have travelled some distance

I mention the ladies from the next door table for two reasons.  First it’s proof of just how friendly this dance community is.  Secondly it was the first sign that this venue has quite a reputation and that people are prepared to travel a long way to it.

The four ladies had travelled up from Plymouth – that’s a distance of around a hundred and twenty miles.  They were making a weekend of it and had booked to stay in a hotel overnight.  It wasn’t long before I got more proof that this venue has quite a pull.

I suddenly spotted a lady I knew from back home in Nottingham.  Now, I had an excuse for being a hundred and twenty miles from home – I was on holiday.  I couldn’t help enquire what had brought the lady so far:

I’d heard so much about Switch, that I just had to experience it for myself

What was interesting is that the lady from Nottingham had referred to it as Switch, rather than Strictly Ceroc’s Bristol freestyle.  It was slowly dawning on me that there was something significant about the word Switch.

Dancers from London and beyond

Realising that people had travelled some distance I asked Caine just where the people came from:

People do travel a long way to Switch.  There are people here from South Wales, The Midlands and London.  We sometimes get people from as far as Kent.

Freestyles that go on until two in the morning are always going to attract people from further afield.  You wouldn’t make a two hundred mile round trip hundred for three or four hours of dancing, but the extra two hours can make it worth the journey.

But I suspected there was something more about this venue that enticed people to come so far people and it wasn’t just the chip butties.  Here’s Caine again:

About ten years ago John did a freestyle where he switched to chill-out music at midnight.   It went down really well that first night and John’s done it ever since.

It’s built up quite a following, and it wasn’t long before John called it Switch.

Now I understood, but there was more to learn about how John had built his Switch brand.

Not just any old music mix

Let’s hear some of John’s music from his upbeat pre-switch section.  I’ve highlighted these two tracks for a reason, but lets hear them first.

The first is Ne-yo’s UK No 1 from 2008 Closer.  This is now established as a Ceroc favourite, and it’s easy to see why.  It has a strong beat that’s perfectly paced to connect with, but it also has gentler interludes that allow the dancers opportunities to express their musicality.  The track itself has a very contemporary feel and it’s hard to believe its ten years old.

A thumping track from last summer

The second track Hot2Touch has a much stronger beat, punctuated by refrains of a rousing horn section .  Created by producer Felix Jaehn with vocals from Alex Aiona, this is my kind of track, full of energy you can replicate out on the dance floor.  I’ve featured it because it’s bang up to date having been released last summer.

No track was older than ten years

When I went through my notes I was surprised to see that every track was chronologically placed between the two I featured above.  What’s more, most had a very contemporary feel.  That’s not to say that the playlist was samey.  John had gone to great lengths to ensure a variety of style and feel, and it worked beautifully.

There is a lot of difference between the two songs I’ve featured, and when you throw in tracks like The Black Eyed Peas I gotta a feeling, and an A Capella version of Billie Jean from Duwende, the playlist was never going to lack interest.  If proof was needed how well John’s music went down a packed dance floor was proof enough,

I nearly mess the playlist up

I was fast becoming aware that John had created a very strong brand for his Switch freestyles, and the contemporary music mix was very much part of it.  That’s why I feel a little guilty that I almost messed it up, by requesting a track that was outside of the brief.

You’ll remember that I’d danced the previous weekend to John music at Coventry.  One of the standout tracks from John’s cracking playlist that night was Matchbox by Jonny Lang.  I guessed that this bluesy rockin’ track was a John Baker favourite, and that this or similar sounding ones would come out each time he got behind the decks.

A track you won’t necessarily hear at Switch

I was wrong.  No matter how great this track is, it’s almost twenty years old and its full on rockin’ sound was not the vibe John wanted to create out on the dance floor.  When I asked John if he would play it, I sensed some reluctance, and I can now see why.

Thankfully the floor remained packed, but on reflection I could see that in developing the Switch Brand, John has developed a playlist that is primarily aimed at his audience – more of which later.

In the meantime here’s the Jonny Lang track – I suspect you may not hear it at next month’s Switch, but I feature it just to illustrate how carefully John puts the Switch playlist together.

This was a much younger audience

While there were people of all ages at this freestyle, there was little doubt that it was made up of a demographic a lot younger than most venues I visit.  That’s not to say that I, and those older people didn’t have a great time, or that we didn’t enjoy the music, because nothing would be further from the truth.

But as I slowly worked out why this freestyle was so successful, I came to realise the importance of the music.  That John selected tracks from the last ten years and with a contemporary feel was always going to attract a younger audience, and so it was.

The lesson was part of The Switch experience

I could now see the importance of the lesson that Caine and Andrea did at the beginning of the night.  Here was a class billed as Smooth Moves, and taught in a slotted style that is so loved by younger dancers.

I’ve been to late finish freestyles before where a class is thrown in.  The lessons prove very popular, and I’ve noticed a trend for the Ceroc ones to increasingly include ones demonstrating the SILC technique.

Caine’s lesson was in the same vein, and it was always going to attract a younger audience who want to move on from the basic Ceroc style of dancing.

Caine and Danielle play their part too

As I mentioned above Caine, along with partner Danielle, have built themselves a deserved reputation as promoters of the slotted style. and their involvement with the Bristol classes and freestyles was always going to attract younger dancers.

To give you an idea of just what I mean by this smooth slotted style of dancing, dip in to this video of the Ceroc teachers showcasing their skills during a Southport Cabaret spot.  Fast forward to 11 minutes 30 seconds where Caine and Danielle perform a routine that I can only marvel at.

You are only as old as the music you dance to

When reviewing DJ playlists I’m usually looking for a mix of tracks from different decades to ensure that there is something for everyone.  This obviously wasn’t the case on Saturday night, but I fully bought in to the vibe that John was trying to create.

I’m a great fan of Motown and ’70s Disco music, and I’ve recently developed an interest in ’90s Club Music, but I also want to dance to contemporary music.  I have a saying, ‘You are only as old as the music you dance to.’

I’m sure a lot of the people from Saturday night would agree with this sentiment, and it’s important to realise that this is a venue not only enjoyed by the so called Millennials.

Here’s a contemporary track from John’s playlist that has become a favourite of mine.  It’s Charlie Pugh with How long, his follow up to the Ceroc favourite Attention, and it fitted perfectly in to John’s mix.   

It’s easy to lose your confidence as a man

You’ll remember my friend Neil, who initially found it difficult to get on to the dance floor.  Here he explains his nervousness:

I watched Caine’s lesson from the sidelines and was struck my the very high standard of dancing.

I’m not the most confident dancer, and would describe myself only as an experienced beginner.  I didn’t think I was good enough to ask most of the ladies for a dance.

I remember feeling exactly like Neil when I started going to freestyles.  It’s always harder for the men, as they have to do the leading, and it’s easy to fall in to the trap of thinking you aren’t good enough to lead the experienced ladies you see out on the floor.

My friend gets some encouragement on the dance floor

Neil is not alone amongst inexperienced dancers in being a little nervous, and so I was particularly impressed that the ladies from Plymouth asked him on to the floor so many times.  Of course it’s in all our interests that people over come their fears and feel confident enough to join in.  That’s why I was so pleased when he told me this story:

I was asked to dance by a lady, who I’d previous watched dancing and deemed as being way above my level.  I quickly pointed out that I was a little nervous.

The lady in question put me at ease very quickly, telling me just to dance in my normal way.  As a result the dance went a lot better than I thought.

It turned out that the lady in question was Natalie Baker, who is one of the Strictly Ceroc teachers.  My friend tells me that he noticed her asking quite a few men on to the dance floor.  I’m always pleased to see teachers out on the dance floor, and particularly when they invite less experienced dancers to partner them.

We must all do our bit for this wonderful dance community

The sustainability of this wonderful dance community is dependent on everyone taking it upon themselves to occasionally ask less experienced dancers on to the floor.  We want people to enjoy themselves and keep coming back.

During Neil’s dance with Natalie, she told him that everyone was friendly, and he needn’t worry too much about whether he was experienced enough.  Here’s Neil again:

Natalie’s words of encouragement were a great help.  That I was asked to dance a lot too, also really helped my confidence.

When we first got there, and I watched the lesson, I was worried that I might not enjoy myself, but in the end the opposite was the case.

While I’m a lot more confident dancer than my friend, I still have a little anxiety when I know no one in the room.  As it was my first time in Bristol it was always going to the case that I might not recognise any faces.

Natalie was right – everyone was friendly, and I was able to enjoy a wonderful night of dancing.

Right on time John flicks the switch

Bang on midnight John switched to a more chilled style of music.  Once again John’s playlist had a great variety.  I took note of the first three tracks after ‘The Switch’, and they were all different enough to show that there was never any danger of the last two hours being samey.

The three tracks also give a good flavour of the chilled vibe John now created out on the dance floor.’

The first was a delicious reworking of the 2010 hit I love you, always forever by Donna Lewis.  In this 2016 cover Betty Who slows down the pace to create a track perfectly suited to dancing SILC or smooth moves in the slot.

The Slot rules OK

The following weekend I was at a Ceroc heaven Freestyle at the iconic Kelham Hall near Newark in Nottinghamshire, an equally popular venue as Switch.  This is a main room freestyle finishing at midnight, so it doesn’t have as much opportunity to play chilled music.

What I found interesting though, was to compare the number of people dancing in the slot at the two venues.

At Kelham there was virtually no one dancing in the slotted style I saw in Bristol.  Even when a chilled track was put on, very few people danced it in the manner I witnessed last Saturday.  At Switch, even when John was playing his more upbeat tracks, there was perhaps half of the people dancing in the slot.

To Slot or Not?

After ‘The Switch’ it was perhaps three quarters.  This difference in dancing styles between the two venues, really struck me, and it was something I had quite a conversation with Caine and Danielle about.

I’ll be writing further about the different style of dancing in different parts of the country in an article I’ll be calling ‘To Slot or Not’.

When it’s done I’ll post a link on the Strictly Ceroc Bristol Facebook Page.  It should make interesting reading, but for now –  back to John’s chilled music.

A top track from Southport and a bluesy gem

John’s second track was one that made a big impression on me at the recent Southport Weekender.  Nicola Di Folco played it as her opening track in her late night SILC Zone set.  So impressed was I by it, that I included it in my Southport Top Ten Tracks Listing.

Nobody by Niia has a wonderful funky vibe that suggests its going to become quite a chill-out favourite (follow the link below to hear this fabulous track).

After the gentle I love you, always forever and the funky Nobody, John dipped in to his bluesy bag and pulled out On fire by JJ Grey & Mofro.  This is the type of track that if played in a Blues Room would be very suited to the close-hold style of Blues dancing.

I must say that I saw very little of this style of dancing on Saturday even when tracks like On fire were played.  Once again the Slot ruled.

As I leave the floor is still buzzing

My friend had done really well, but I’d always promised that we would leave around one o’clock.  As we walked out the hall the floor was still buzzing.  I had no doubt that is would stay that way right up to the end.

Why would you want to leave?  There was still another hour of top chill-out tracks on offer, and when the end did come at two, I suspected there might be people still wanting more.

I mentioned earlier that I’d been at the Ceroc Southport Weekender at the end of February.  The first hour after The Switch reminded me very much of the atmosphere in The SILC Zone in the early hours.  Of course at Southport you can indulge yourself until six o’clock in the morning, a pity then that John had to bring it to a close at two.

A big thank you to all the Strictly Ceroc Team

Of course one reason why it can’t go on forever is because the Strictly Ceroc Team have to pack it all away.  There’s many a time when I drive away from freestyles that it occurs to me that the people who put these great events on for us all, don’t get home until we are long fast asleep.  So, a big thank you to John and Natalie Baker, and not forgetting Caine, Andrea and Danielle and all the Strictly Ceroc Team helpers.

John delivered what his audience wanted

This had been a great night, but what really impressed was that John had created an event that had a very defined brand.  The people who travelled the great distances knew what they were getting – contemporary upbeat music, which switched to more of the same, but with a more chilled vibe.  They were not disappointed.

By maintaining a consistent contemporary vibe John has created a strong brand that people have rewarded with their loyalty.  Such a contemporary playlist is not everybody’s cup of tea, but there is a market out there for it, and that’s why people travelled so far.

We must give the dance community a choice

It’s important that this wonderful dance community is offered plenty of choice, and Switch is one great different offer.

There is one more thing to remember.  If we are to sustain our freestyles and weekenders then we want to attract dancers of all ages to our dance scene.

The younger demographic will of course enjoy more contemporary music, and want to dance in an evolving dance style to match that music.  This event of John Baker’s has provided beautifully for that requirement.

Review of Strictly Ceroc’s Coventry Freestyle

Review of Caine and Danielle’s Simply Slotted Southport class

My Top 5 Classes 2016/17 List includes Caine and Danni’s Southport lesson

My Top Ten Southport Tracks