DJ Nick Stephens helps launch my Tea Dance Tour

When I wrote my article Sunday Tea Dances grow in popularity back in April (see link below), I featured six venues that I had a vague idea about.  One of the venues I chose to feature was Devon Velvet and Nick Stephens gave me a lot of help in putting together a more detailed profile.  I explained that I would try to visit the six venues and so I set off on what I’ve called my Tea Dance Tour.

After all the help Nick gave me I promised that I’d get down to Longdown at the first opportunity.  Sadly Devon is never on the way to anywhere when you live in Nottingham, but at the end of September I found a weekend where there was no local dancing.  I quickly made up my mind to head down the M5 to Exeter.

Devon Velvet has built an enviable reputation

Since the launch in 2015, Devon Velvet has built itself an enviable reputation as one of the best Blues venues in the south of England.  I was very interested how a venue that offered a style of dancing, on the periphery of Modern Jive, could establish itself so quickly in one of the least populated parts of the country.

My visit to Longdown Village Hall had one other draw – the music and dancing.  Readers of my Tea Dance Tour will know that I am on a mission to learn how to dance expressively to contemporary chill-out music.

Since I started some four months ago, I’ve just about mastered the slotted style of dancing often referred to as Smooth Jive or SILC, but close hold Blues dancing still remains a bit of a mystery to me.

There were two certainties about this visit.  The first was that I would get an education in Blues dance music – that I was looking forward to.  The second was that I would be seriously out of my comfort zone – but then, isn’t that how we become better dancers?

A hint of The Devon Velvet Vibe

Before I go any further let me give you a flavour of the music on offer at Longdown . This was provided by  Nick Stephens with a guest DJ appearance from Malene Lauritsen.  I’ll be featuring lots of the wonderful music that Nick and Malene included in their sets, but first I asked Nick if he would like to suggest a track that sums up the vibe at Devon Velvet.

It was perhaps a big ask to expect Nick to pick one track from four hours of fabulous chill-out music, but I think his choice of Marvin and Miles by Gare du Nord is a great place to start.  The track’s bluesy rhythm and late night bar vocals hint at the style of dancing best suited to its jazzy instrumentation.  The track also has a well defined structure that features breaks in the vocal and changes in mood, so beloved of expressive dancers.

Hev’s love of Blues dancing inspired Devon Velvet

Devon Velvet was started by Hev Mate, who runs the very successful Rock Bottoms hotel-based dance holidays and weekenders.  These weekenders specialise in Modern Jive, Lindy Hop, Tango, West Coast Swing and Blues.  It was Hev’s love of Blues dancing that got her thinking about a local venue.  Hev told me that she hoped a new venue would also enable her to get more Blues dancing in herself:

There’s a lot to running a venue like Devon Velvet, and my priority is always to look after the folk who come, but I do manage to get a few Blues dances in, but hey-ho I love the life.

Establishing a new venue, what ever the style of dancing is never easy, and it takes a lot of commitment and passion.  You only have to spend a short time with Hev, as I did, to know that she has these attributes in spades.

More of The Devon Velvet music

As I tour the country writing reviews for my blog, I’ve become aware that success of venues is not guaranteed.  Before I tell you a little more about the reasons behind Devon Velvet‘s success, let me feature the second track that DJ Nick sent me as an example of the music that the dancers enjoy at Longdown .

It’s John Mayer’s live acoustic version of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’.  This is a beautiful relaxed song that Mayer, along with two other acoustic guitarists, generates an emotional vibe that gives dancers something quite intense to connect with.  Listening to this track I realise that Blues music is something more than just a beat to connect with.

Hev asks Nick Stephens to create the Devon Velvet vibe

When Hev was bringing together her ideas for a Blues venue, she knew that the the music would be key to it’s success or failure:

I knew the DJ would be key and I quickly pencilled Nick Stephens in.

I’d danced to Nick’s music at a weekender, and loved it so much that I booked him for Rock Bottoms.  His selection of music for both Blues and West Coast Swing went down so well that I knew that I needed Nick for Devon Velvet.

Hev then came up with another idea that would help Devon Velvet grow as a Blues venue  – Blues lessons.

Hev asks Sara White to help establish Devon Velvet

The day before my visit to Longdown I went to a two room freestyle near Torquay.  Having talked to a few people I got the impression that Devon has had a very strong dance community for some time.  Hev recognised that, while it didn’t have much of a Blues scene, it obviously had the potential if some Blues teaching could be arranged.

In my communications with Nick over my first Tea Dance article  he told me this:

Devon Velvet caters for beginners by offering a thirty minutes Introduction to Blues class, which makes this event suitable for inexperienced dancers.

Nick also told me about some workshops that have also helped establish Devon Velvet’s credentials as a Blues dancing destination:

Around four times a year we have Sara White down teaching a Smooth Jive and Blues workshop.

This works really well with the Freestyle immediately afterwards, and has contributed along with the introduction to Blues classes, towards Devon Velvet growing in to a nice little dance community.

On the day I visited Sara was down teaching a Ladies Styling workshop, which Hev tells me was very well attended.

Devon Velvet gets off to a great start

A lot of thought was put in to that first ever Devon Velvet and Hev proudly told me that seventy people turned up.  That’s an impressive number for a Blues event anywhere in the country, but what was really pleasing for Hev, was that the numbers continued to grow and on my visit there were over a hundred people.

I got to Longdown at two thirty when the dancing started.  I was surprised that the room was almost full as I walked in.  No doubt the numbers attending Sara White’s workshop helped fill the room quickly, but my first impression was that this was indeed a well loved venue, and everyone wanted as much time as possible to dance to the music selection.

When I visited, the hall was busy from the word go

So what is Blues Dancing?

Now I ask that question quite innocently because I’m not quite sure.  Those people who love Blues dancing don’t need me to tell them what it is, but a lot of the people following my Tea Dance Tour are, like myself, unfamiliar with the genres of chill-out dancing, and Blues in particular.

It would be very difficult – almost impossible in fact, to try to describe Blues dancing in words, so I thought I’d do a search on YouTube.

As I scrolled down the list of results I came across a video featuring Sara White demonstrating Musicality at one of her Blues Boot-camp back in April.

Sara has posted five of these Boot-camp videos and everyone gives a wonderful flavour of Modern Blues dancing.

I would implore anyone with an interest in Blues Dancing to watch these videos.  They show a style of dancing which gives both partners opportunities to really connect with the music.  The result is a fluidity and freedom of movement that I could only marvel at.

The backing track is Fireflies by Mofro

People are dancing in their own individual style

Because of the programme of workshops that Sara has run for Devon Velvet, it’s not surprising that some of the people I watched during my visit had obviously benefited hugely from Sara’s input, and showed a proficiency in the techniques that was more than impressive.

But I also want to point out that there were people of all levels, and in amongst the very proficient dancers were people rather like myself still finding their way.

It’s also worth pointing out that everyone was dancing in their own individual style.  Blues is a very personal way of relating to the music and this was reflected in the dancing at Longdown .

Before I give you some more of my thoughts about Blues dancing, and tell you how I got on, I want to feature one more track from Nick’s playlist to illustrate the music variety on offer at Devon Velvet.

I’ve heard Down by Marian Hill before, and I suspect it’s quite a favourite on the Blues circuit.  This is a very slow track, that I would currently struggle to dance to, but it it’s perfect for much of the Blues dancing I saw at Longdown .

This is contemporary Blues music

The three tracks that I’ve featured, I think, give a flavour of the Devon Velvet musical offering.  What strikes me about them, and in fact about the music generally from both Nick and Guest DJ Malene, was that there was very little what I would call traditional Blues music.  You know, the 12 bar blues mutterings of Mississippi Delta singers bemoaning the loss of their woman:

I woke up this morning, and my woman done me wrong.  I now got da blues so I wrote down this song.

I’ll never make a song writer, but you get the message.  Classic Blues tracks from the likes of B.B. King, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker, do make Blues playlists, but I’ve got a sense that Blues music like all dance music is changing.  What DJs like Nick and Malene are playing is a more contemporary genre of Blues music.

Smooth Slotted v Modern Blues

I have another thought about this music, and hopefully this next track from Sunday’s playlist will help me illustrate my point.  Someone’s Somebody by Jasmine Thompson is a beautiful chill-out track.  It’s the kind of track, with its laid back Tropical House instrumentation, that I’ve danced to at just about every stop on my Tea Dance Tour.

It’s dancing to this kind of chill-out track, that I’ve slowly developed my smooth slotted style of dancing.  It’s not Blues dancing of course, but there’s no rule to say you can’t dance in this style, but I’d got a sense that most people had come to Devon Velvet to dance Blues and why not.  After all Hev’s motivation had been to provide an opportunity for Modern Blues dancing to flourish in this part of the country.

Please take a listen to Someone’s Somebody and then I’ll add a few more thoughts about the dance styles on view.

. . . a hint of West Coast Swing

The Jasmine Thompson track is also perfect for West Coast Swing, and I was reminded of the banner I’d seen on Devon Velvet‘s Facebook page.  It had the tag line A Sumptuous afternoon of Modern Blues with a hint of Nuevo Tango and West Coast Swing.  I think that’s spot on.  The majority of people were dancing Modern Blues, but occasionally there were people dancing in the more slotted style of West Coast Swing.

I had also come to Blues dance, or rather to try out some Blues techniques that I’d been shown at a couple of weekenders I’d visited over the spring and summer.

Eager to practice my limited Blues techniques, I restricted by own Smooth Jive dances on the so called slot to a minimum.

I really don’t think that Hev minds what ever way you want to dance.  Nick and his guest DJs simply provide a musical background that suits many styles of chill-out and expressive dancing.  Most however do chose to do Blues, but not exclusively so.

Nick and Malene’s music did give people opportunities for some West Coast Swing if they wanted to

Everyone is Welcome

Over the past three years Devon Velvet has established itself as a premier Blues destination, and indeed people travel quite a way to dance to these monthly gatherings.  But if any dance organisation is to flourish it must attract new people, and Hev seems to have created a vibe that is very welcoming.

It’s important that people like myself with limited Blues experience are encouraged to take to the floor, and even though I’d walked through the door with some trepidation, I found it relatively easy to ask ladies on to the floor.

So much so I was happy with the number of dances I had, and pleased that I got plenty of chances to try out what I’d been shown in the past.

That I felt comfortable to ask ladies to join me on the dance floor – remember I was a long way from home and didn’t really know anyone – says a lot about the welcome at Longdown .  On the Devon Velvet banner there is a second tag line:

Good people, mellow Vibe

I’ll second that.  Here is a venue that inexperienced Blues dancers like myself can get to try out and hopefully improve their Blues techniques.

There were other new-to-Blues dancers

As I thought, I wasn’t the only one at Longdown who was new to Blues dancing.  Every time I asked someone to dance I explained that I was new to Blues.  Everyone was understanding.  On learning of my inexperience Alicia took the opportunity to tell me that she too was a beginner:

I’m an enthusiastic Tango dancer, but I’ve never really done Blues before.  This is just my second time at Devon Velvet and I did the Sara White workshop which I found really helpful:

I immediately felt a lot more comfortable, and for a couple of beginners I think we did really well.  Along the way I tried some of the things I remembered from my weekender classes, and Alicia tried a few of the styling ideas that Sara had taught.  I think Alicia appreciated dancing with someone of her own level.

Another lady I danced with was also a beginner, and like myself was at Devon Velvet for the first time:

I’ve not really done much Blues dancing before, though I did a class at a Rock Bottoms Weekender

If you are fairly new to Blues dancing, it’s safe to say that you won’t be the only one.  Devon Velvet‘s friendly vibe seems to attract plenty of people who are in the early stages of their Blues dance journey.

It can be a little scary though

Of course if we are to improve as dancers we need to dance with people a lot better than ourselves.  That can be a little scary though, particularly as it involves dancing a little closer than we do for other forms of Modern Jive.

I should perhaps dispel one of the Blues myths.  I know that Blues is often described as close-hold dancing, but it doesn’t have to be that close.

Watching the Sara White videos you see that there is plenty of space between Sara and her partners, but it is not always the case.

Often you can look in to a Blues Room and everyone it seems is in a close hold.  Some have no problem with this, and they will tell you that the closeness is part of the connection between you, your partner and the music.  However some people find this closeness a little uncomfortable at first.

Wait until you are invited to get closer

While Blues dancing does involve a closer hold than normal Modern Jive dancing, I think all Blues teaches are at pains to stress very early on the important of keeping a comfortable distance between you and your partner.

I remember being shown a Blues hold that ensured a comfortable gap between myself and my partner.  The teacher then explained that you should only move closer if you were invited.  That seems like a thoughtful Golden Rule.

Interestingly most of the dancers in this picture are in a close hold

Other Independent Teachers support Hev

What also is a benefit to Hev and Devon Velvet is the support of other Independent teachers, who have experience in teaching the more chilled-out dance formats.

In amongst the dancers were Colin Ireland who runs monthly Smoothie Sundays with his organisation Jive Plymouth,  Daniel Hughes from Exeter Jive who run monthly Fusion Freestyles which include Blues music towards the end of the night.

Also present was Jive Hive‘s Mike Clarke, also from Plymouth.  Mike is a very experienced Blues dancer and took me on to the dance floor.

Mike held me very close, and did what I understand is Micro Blues.  I shan’t attempt to explain it all, but it made me realise that there is so much more to Blues dancing than I had realised.

Having these people in the room to help beginners, and further the progress of the more experienced dancers, is another big plus for Devon Velvet, and I’m fast realising why this venue has done so well.

Nick plays some familiar favourites

There is another aspect of being comfortable with a venue – the music.

I had thought that Nick’s music would all be new to me, as I’d not really been to many Blues venues since starting my blog, but I was pleased to hear a lot of tracks that I knew.  Hearing familiar music can offer a little respite, particularly when you feel a little out of your comfort zone, and Nick served up some of my chill-out favourites.

Nick’s picks of ‘Take me to the river’ by English duo Kaleida, and Christine and the Queens’ ‘Tilted’, have both become chill-out favourites, but I’ll feature one from Sunday that I’ve particularly come to love.

I’ve even heard this track in main room settings, and it’s one of the few chilled tracks that seem to work when you just slow your normal Modern Jive moves down a little.

Breathe in by Daddy was a milkman (I can’t get over how cool that name is) is a wonderful mellow track.  It’s success, I suspect, has a lot to do with its strong beat, that is so easily to connect with.

It’s simplicity is perhaps not a challenge to serious Blues Dancers, but its familiarity helped create a sense of inclusivity that I for one appreciated.  Particularly, as being a long way from home, meant that I didn’t really know anyone.

Jenny tells a familiar story

Blues dancing is a challenge for most people, so I thought you might be interested to hear Jenny’s story.  I’d actually met Jenny, along with her friend Sue the night before at the Torquay freestyle.  Before I tell Jenny’s story I’d like to thank these two ladies and their friends for allowing me to sit with them.  This was much appreciated – as I’ve said, I knew no-one else at the venue.

Jenny tells me that she’s been dancing for eleven years, and while she feels very confident dancing to upbeat tracks, it’s a different story with the slower ones:

When it came to the slower tempo tracks I would make a hasty retreat to anywhere but the dance floor.

If I did get asked to dance, I would never of course refuse, but it usually resulted in a nightmare three minutes for me, and I am sure for the poor chap that had asked me.

What really interested me was that Jenny could also tell when the men were nervous:

It’s the same for a few of the men, and when you can feel them shaking too, it makes me feel a lot better.

Jenny however wanted to start entering Modern Jive competitions and knew she would have to improve as a dancer:

I then decided to put myself through more of this torture, in the hope that I could put my fears aside.

I’m sure a lot of people have felt like Jenny at some time, and I’m impressed that she took herself out of her comfort zone to become a better dancer.  Jenny started going to Devon Velvet as part of her strategy to improve her dancing.  I couldn’t help wonder just how tortuous the experience had been!

Devon Velvet eases Jenny through the pain barrier

Jenny chose Devon Velvet because she knew a lot of the men there, and the presence of other teachers must have been a help too. Thankfully Jenny told me that the torture thing soon subsided:

It wasn’t easy dancing up close, but one particular dance changed my mindset.  I had the most amazing dance and came off the dance floor with a big smile, and for the first time thought to myself, ‘Hey I can really get used to this.’

Now Jenny looks forward to her monthly Devon Velvet Tea Dances and she has no doubt that they will help her become a more complete dancer.

Jenny’s story is a real one, and I was pleased that she was happy for me to share it.  I actually think that learning Blues is no more tortuous than going to your first ever Modern Jive class.  All learning involves us leaving our comfort zone, but Jenny’s story is a reminder that all social dancing has an etiquette that we should adhere to.

I love the idea of Guest DJs

Hev told me that another feature of Devon Velvet is to invite a Guest DJ to do a thirty minute slot during the afternoon.  I love the idea of Guest DJs as it’s a way of guaranteeing a freshness to the music.  I don’t doubt that Nick keeps introducing new and interesting material to dance to, but having someone spinning ten or eleven fresh tracks is always going to add to the musical offering.

On the afternoon I visited the Guest DJ was Malene Lauritsen.  Hev told me that Malene is very highly thought of and it’s not uncommon for Nick to give her an hour on the decks – as she did on my visit.

I asked Malene for a couple of tracks that she particularly enjoyed playing.  Here’s the first ‘Diddy Bop’ by Jacob Banks & Louis the Child.  This track is another example of the contemporary Blues that both Malene and Nick served up.

The song is a perfect Blues track, as it is littered with musical breaks and changes in pace and mood, that give so many opportunities to play with your musicality.  I know that serious Blues dancers listen intently to the music, and this track has so many layers to connect with.  Just listening to the piano accompaniment alone shows it’s wonderful Blues pedigree.

I’ll have more on Malene’s playlist later.

I try to get the hold correct

At my visits to weekenders I’d looked in to the Blues Room many times.  I had it in my head that I needed to connect with my partner in a close hold.  Thankfully I went to a class run by Jo Hart, who instructed all the men to ensure that our lady partners weren’t held in a vice like grip.

So I know that, for the basic Blues moves, I need to be offset with my partner and not too close.  OK got it.

But the reality of making a loose connection that allows myself and my partner to connect with the vibe of a track, like Malene’s wonderful Jacob Banks’ one, is not as easy as it looks.

My Tea Dance Tour is all about me being a better dancer to chill-out music, and to learn more techniques to get the connection between myself, my partner and the music all lined up.  Getting the Blues hold right would be a significant step forward.  I certainly got plenty of opportunities to practice at Devon Velvet and I think I’m almost there.

What I need is more opportunities to practice.

The practice conundrum

Going to classes, workshops and even boot-camps is great place to start, but all the effort can be wasted unless you get a chance to practice, before it all goes out of your head.

I remember going to SILC classes (Ceroc’s version of the smooth slotted style of dancing) and doing quite well, but went backwards because I got little chance to practice.  I would go to main room freestyles and the DJ, understandably, played few if any of the contemporary chilled tracks that work so well with this style of dancing.

I certainly made some improvement with my Blues dancing on Sunday, but I need to consolidate it with more practice, and that’s the problem.  When am I going to get another chance to visit a Blues venue like Devon Velvet?

A Chill-out solution

Remember Someone’s Somebody by Jasmine Thompson.  I said that I could have seen myself dancing in a smooth slotted style to it, as it didn’t strike me as a classic Blues track.  But here’s the point – all these tracks are chill-out ones and you are allowed to dance to them in which ever style you want – Blues, West Coast, Tango, SILC, Smooth Jive it doesn’t mater.

So when I’m at a chill-out venue and everyone is dancing in a slotted style there’s no reason why I can’t Blues it.

The next stop on my Tea Dance Tour is a SILC Sunday venue in Nottingham.  I’ll try out the Blues hold, and I’ll let you know how it went.

I’ll be doing something else to.  Before I go I’ll be dipping in to Sara White’s fabulous boot-camp videos again.  Here’s another one that I think will be of interest to all dancers no matter where they are on their Blues Journey.

The backing track is Call me by Imelda May

It all starts with the music

Tea Dances like Devon Velvet offer a wonderful social experience around dancing, but these events would be nothing without the delicious music that is served up for us.  My four hours at Devon Velvet were the first time I’ve sat in a Blues room for that long, and it was an education in Modern Blues music that I relished.

Here’s another of the tracks that Malene enjoyed playing.  It’s very much different to the Jacob Banks’ track, but once again it has that modern Blues vibe.  You are the reason is gently slow and features a beautiful vocal from Calum Scott.  As the song progresses the combination of Scott’s voice and the rousing backing track, create an emotion that Blues dancing, of all the chill-out genres, is perfectly suited to express.

DJ Malene starts out as a Blues Dancer

Malene tells me that her journey in to Blues DJing started as a dancer at a small bi-weekly Blues class at Kenn in Devon, run by the aforementioned teacher Mike Clarke:

I had fallen completely in love with the dance and it’s close connection to the music it is danced to.

About four years ago Malene was asked to provide the music at the venue:

It was only natural to start creating sets that would guide the dancers to build their connection with the music, and challenge them to dance to different styles of music than they might be used to.

Generally I go for very slow music, but from a very wide range of styles and backgrounds, which includes everything from highly melodic to alternative rock, and old school blues.

I suspect that Hev’s regular invitation to Malene to join Nick behind the decks is due to this understanding of the importance of the connection between the dancers and the music, and the wide range of musical styles she draws from.

While showing my appreciation for the music I should give another mention to teacher Colin Ireland.  As it happened Nick was not able to get to Longdown on time, so Colin stood in with his own selection for the first thirty minutes.

It was in fact Colin who played the Tropical House track Someone’s Somebody by Jasmine Thompson.  I suspect it won’t be long before Colin gets a proper guest appearance at Devon Velvet.

It’s about the people too

I knew that my Tea Dance Tour of Sunday dancing would see me visiting more relaxed venues than the main room ones of Friday and Saturday nights.  So it has been, and I’ve been able to find time to chat with the people about their own dance journey’s.

By talking with my fellow dancers at Devon Velvet I got more confirmation that we are all on a dance journey to improve our dancing.  Our progress is a slow process, but we are all determined to get there.

My Blues dance journey is just really starting, but I’ll look back at Devon Velvet as being an important stepping stone, if only because I had plenty of time to absorb the music and watch the other dancers.

My thanks to Hev Mate for giving me time on Sunday to chat with me, and for answering all the questions I subsequently fired over to her.  You have a wonderful venue Hev, and I don’t doubt it will continue to grow as one of the premier Blues events in The South of the country.

One last track please

I mentioned earlier that I loved that Nick mixed in tracks that were familiar to me.  Here’s another chill-out track that is a real favourite of mine.  It’s the Kygo remix of Ed Sheeran’s I see fire.  I love the Tropical House treatment that Kygo gives this track.  It’s my kind of chill-out music. I played it on repeat as I drove home up the M5.  Nice one Nick.