I’m going to wax poetic about this event for a brief moment, because Ann Arbor has my heart. When I was a baby dancer and a baby queer person, shy and mostly closeted at my tiny conservative college, Ann Arbor saved me. It was in Ann Arbor that I first learned to wear androgynous clothes to go dancing, to confidently ask women (and femme-presenting people; I see you, non-binary friends!) to dance with me, to surround myself with dance friends who also became connections to the larger queer community. Ann Arbor is the reason I am the happy gay dancer in California that I am now. Coming to KissME this year was a homecoming, a “thank you” to the city that led me towards the life I wanted, but didn’t know how to build for myself.
The last time I went to KissME in Ann Arbor was in 2017 – I had to miss it last year because I had just moved to California and was settling into a demanding new job (and, to be real, was also waiting for the balance in my bank account to surpass $500 again). This year, I DJed all three days – band breaks on Friday night, half of the Saturday afternoon dance, and band breaks on Sunday at the river. Sadly, I was not the DJ who got to blast blues music out over the river – you’ll have to tip your hat to Dan Miles, also known as #MilesOfBeard, for that one – but all of my sets were fun and I’m excited to tell you about each one!
For Friday night, I provided the between-sets accompaniment for the Rhythm Society Orchestra, a big band so big that they actually couldn’t fit all of their band members on stage – the pianist, bassist, and drummer were all resigned to the carpeted floor just to the right of the stage, and just to the left of me. (Which, for the record, was fine with me; I grew up watching my dad play piano and have retained my affinity for obsessively watching pianists do their thing.) I focused my breaks around energetic, hard-swinging songs, like the Boilermaker Jazz Band’s rendition of “Esquire Bounce” and Duke Ellington’s brassy composition “A Flat Minor.” (Show me a piano falling down a mine shaft…) I received a few enthusiastic comments from dancers and band members about “Wynonie’s Blues,” a pick-me-up tune featuring Illinois Jacquet on saxophone and Wynonie Harris on vocals.
On Saturday afternoon, I remembered a piece of DJing advice I ran across a long time ago – you can make your set sound more like a band by playing the same artist repeatedly. I experimented with this by playing two pieces by the same artist in a row – two Artie Shaw tunes, two Count Basie tunes – and emphasizing Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hodges throughout my set. (Although, if I’m being honest, when do I ever not do that?) In the future, I would like to play with playing three or more songs by the same artist in a row – if the floor is feeling it, I think it could be a fun way to create continuity in the set and give people more time to notice the unique sounds and patterns of a particular composer or performer.
Sunday afternoon was a teeny tiny set, just one band break between two sets from the Royal Garden Trio under the pavilion at Island Park. The pavilion dance is a beloved part of KissME, both for the cookout-style grilled burgers (and veggie burgers!) and ice cream in giant styrofoam coolers from a local creamery, and for the challenge of outdoor dancing on a block of cement. To save ankles and knees, I kept the tempos in this set pretty mild, throwing in one song at 195 BPM for balboa, and ending my break with an uptempo piece to rev up the floor for the band.
After the pavilion dance, everyone wades into the waters of the Huron River, and we groove (gently! the bottom of the river is covered with rocks) to sweet and often water-themed blues music. This is the most iconic moment of KissME in Ann Arbor, and we were blessed with good weather – though thunderstorms threatened all weekend and sometimes broke, Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny, and many people got all the way into the water and enjoyed wading upstream so they could float back down.
I got to spend time with precious friends on this trip, both old and new – Val, Naomi, Doug, Sarah, Sean, Amber, Olivia, Sally, Deborah, Jess, and Arielle. I had a wonderful time. And I might even come back next year!