Bring back the slow set
There was a time when, halfway through the night, disco-goers would pair off and shuffle their way through the slow set, says Arlene Harris. So who upped the tempo?
Published 24/03/2013 | 05:00
Through a haze of cigarette smoke, a group of girls wearing a variety of sartorially challenged outfits prance around to 'Karma Chameleon', trying to look cool as they gaze out from underneath their long fringes and pretending not to notice the awkward-looking boys standing in groups at the edge of the dancefloor, waiting for the chance to pounce.
There is no way any of these gangly youths are going to risk their reputation by moving a muscle to the dulcet tones of Boy George, but they know, if they are patient and keep their eyes fixed on their prey, their chance to break down the gender barrier will soon be apparent.
And sure enough, with a gush of dry ice, the cheesy tune is suddenly replaced with something a little more schmaltzy. "Keep it slow and keep it sexy," comes the voice of the smooth-talking DJ in the leather bomber jacket as he changes the record to the sultry sounds of The Cars with 'Who's Gonna Drive You Home Tonight?'.
Like a scene from an ancient mating ritual, the boys storm the dancefloor, making beelines for the girl they had waited all night to approach.
In the melee that ensues, some of the girls manage to scuttle off before being located, but most linger anxiously in the hope that they would be claimed in the few seconds deemed decent – lingering any longer reeks of desperation.
Once they find the girl of their dreams – or settle for the nearest one – the usually tongue-tied boys manage to coherently ask if she would like to dance and then, draping their arms loosely round each other, the couple shuffle around for the duration of the three or four songs that make up the slow set.
Sounds corny, doesn't it? And it was. But it was also the moment for which most people waited half the night.
The slow set allowed boys and girls to get together without the jeering jibes of their mates or the snide comments from the girls who were jealous of their friend's popularity.
Of course, all of this would still come later, but at least it gave the potential couple the chance to say hello, get asked out – and accept or refuse without feeling the shame of onlookers. And it was the opportunity for a snog.
Public displays of affection are everywhere you look these days, but in the slow-set era, people didn't do much kissing or groping off the dancefloor – but when the lights were down and the music mellow, the possibilities were promising.
I haven't been to a nightclub or, dare I say it, disco for years, but I have been told that it is a whole different ballgame today. The slow set has been scrapped in favour of non-stop dance and music so loud that there isn't much opportunity for conversation. Apparently, if you like someone, it is perfectly acceptable to move in for a kiss without much of an introduction.
There is little or no preamble to getting it together with someone you fancy; no chance for the tentative, nervous chatter at the start of a slow set, when boys dropped their swagger and girls allowed themselves to be wooed.
I don't understand the logic behind ditching the 20 minutes – usually split into two or three sets – of slow songs where the hard-core dancers could take a break from displaying their talent and the less confident could approach someone – or get their friend to – and ask them to dance.
I have a whole boxset of memories from my disco-going days which include the bad hair, the incredibly awful clothes – neon anyone? – and the cringey dancing.
But I also remember the heart-racing moment when you caught someone's eye as he made his way across the dance-floor to you; the rabbit-caught-in-headlights panic of wondering whether you should make a run for it or brave it out.
There were, of course, moments when I wished I had opted for the former, but I have plenty of other innocently sweet memories which helped to make up the romantic life of an inquisitive teen.
As with everything nowadays, courting, to use an incredibly dated word, doesn't seem to be fast enough to keep up with the modern pace of life. People don't seem to have the time to get to know each other properly or to enjoy the anticipation of old-fashioned dating.
Yes, it can be hell wondering if he will ever ask you out, but this makes it all the more exciting. And with all the busy lifestyles, it seems that no one has time for slow music either.
This is a really sad state of affairs. I have heard girls complaining that guys show them no courtesy or chivalry in nightclubs any more. From the lads, I have heard talk of girls being rude and callous and putting them down in front of their friends.
Why not bring back the slow set and encourage some romance back into the world?
But Garvan Rigby, of stardjs.ie, who has been playing tunes for several decades, says my nostalgic views are somewhat naive. By all accounts, the change of tempo was less about helping couples to get together and more to do with increasing sales at the bar.
"I have been working as a DJ since the late 1980s and remember the slow set well," he says. "Sure, it was a great opportunity for romance, but it was devised initially to get people off the dance-floor and over to the bar to buy drinks.
"As a DJ, I didn't really mind, but it did put my line-up off-kilter, as I would have to try and get everyone back on the floor afterwards.
"When the late-night bars became popular, the slow set was scrapped and I can't see it being resurrected anytime soon. Mind you, I still do 1980s nights and it is always in demand then."
So, whether it's my misty- eyed recollections or the harsh reality of a scheme created to boost sales, surely the slow set deserves another whirl?
I can just hear the opening bars of 'Careless Whisper' ...