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Dance This Mess Around

Let's have the first post of 2009 be about dance. Though I couldn't quite get it together on New Year's Eve to put my dancing shoes on, I did hear stories from friends, all of whom told tales of professional, semi-pro and amateur DJs whose one goal was to get people out onto the floor and make sure they stayed there.

My history with impromptu dance parties — in my opinion, the best kind — goes back to Olympia, Wash. Usually, there was only one turntable and a small stack of records courtesy of whoever lived in the house or apartment. The time it took for the DJ (and I use this term in the loosest sense) to take one record off and put another one on was when we all took a moment to catch our breaths. Hardly anyone populated the edges of the floor; you were sucked into the movement by force, even if dancing meant merely flailing about or continuing your conversation. Everything occurred in the center. We danced to garage, mod and punk — it was all about the guitar buzz and the foot-stomp, our form reckless and amateur. The two songs I recall boosting the collective enthusiasm were The Who's "My Generation" and "London Calling" by The Clash.

One specific dance party I remember occurred after my band played a show in Syracuse, N.Y. In a rare moment of willingness, we followed some students to a house party. There, we sipped cheap alcohol in plastic cups (fill a cup with vodka, add just enough soda to turn it brown), raided cheese plates, and sat on carpeted stairs — the kind where you make a mental note to wash whatever pants you're wearing later. I don't know if anything was playing on the stereo; perhaps it was one of those mid-'90s small-town indie bands whose music you could knock over with a feather. Just when we were on the verge of leaving, my bandmate Janet found the record shelves, grabbed the first B-52's album and put on "Rock Lobster." Within seconds, the party shifted from awkward clusters to bold comets — strange how noise can transmogrify a room.

Recently, a friend called me and said that some of our cohorts might be taking over a bar for the night, and that we'd take turns playing records. I immediately started going through stacks of 45s. With only my dogs in the room, I'd put on a record and try to gauge whether the song was danceable. Was the song's effect immediate enough? Was the intro too long? Was it too fast or slow? Did it have an unwieldy breakdown that would confound? I pulled out all of my soul, R&B and blues records first. But I also wanted to throw in some '80s and garage tunes. Then I wondered if consistency of genre was important. Worst of all, what song might become the dreaded Zamboni? You know, the one that clears the floor.

I'm not a DJ, so most of my dance-music experience has been as a participant. I'll dance to almost anything as long as I'm not the only one on the floor. I'll stop dancing if the song is too cheesy, too fast or just one that I can't stand. Company B's "Fascinated"? Sure. UB40's "Red Red Wine"? No thanks.

So, what are some of your favorite dance-party moments? What songs get you onto the floor? Conversely, what song will make you leave?