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The DJ's point of view

The grad-dance circuit can teach a person a thing or two -- like how to head off 'freaking.'

June 17, 2004|Jeff Miller | Special to The Times

"Man, when are you going to change this song? You're ruining my pimp game!"

The dance floor is packed with sweaty, swinging bodies. The DJ is spinning a smash. The speaker isn't a Gucci-wearing club hopper at Garden of Eden.

I'm the DJ. It's Thursday at 1:30 p.m. I'm at an elementary school in Culver City. The hit song is "The Chicken Dance." And the speaker -- well, he's in 5th grade.

Welcome to the bizarre world of the graduation dance.

I've been a willing participant in this awkward transition since high school, when I began working for Feet First, a Culver City company that does 20% of its gigs for the year in the month of June. And Feet First isn't alone: This month there's plenty of work out there for all kinds of grad-night DJs.

Though many schools use a resident music expert to DJ their dances -- a teacher with a penchant for hip-hop, perhaps, or the coach who played in a band -- there's still plenty of room for L.A.'s DJ companies to operate.

There are more than 650 schools in the LAUSD alone. That doesn't include schools in San Diego County, the Inland Empire or Orange County, or private and religious schools. That makes the graduation season a very lucrative time of year for L.A.'s mobile DJ companies -- which include Preferred Mobile Music and Radio Interactive, among others. Many of these firms hire workers who quit or take time off their other work as actors, musicians or waiters to DJ in June.

Some, like Todd Buteaux, own their own small companies and work year-round, while others with a mixer and two CD changers will use the graduation season to make money to help sustain them through the year. The gigs won't make someone rich, but at a starting price of around $500 an event, in two weeks it's not tough to make enough money to cover rent through the summer. For the right person, it's also lots of fun.

It's not for everyone, though. Buteaux, who works middle schools regularly with Feet First as well as his company, Gumbo Entertainment, says, "You've got to sort of be a kid too. You can't go out there like you are the adult DJ and expect to connect with the kids. You've got to go out there and vibe with them, play like a kid, and put yourself in their shoes."

Like kids, each grad party is a bit different. Some are decked-out, formal affairs; most are casual first-dance experiences. But no matter what, there are a few constants: The geeky kids will look lost. The cool kids will try to get away with murder. The parent chaperons will look pained to be there. Someone will request Slipknot. And the DJ will lead the Hustle.

That's where things get slippery. "You don't have to have a partner to participate in a line dance," says Melody King, activities director at Griffiths Middle School in Downey and a proponent of DJ-student interactivity. "You don't have to wait to be asked, you don't have to feel uncomfortable about it. It lowers the kids' inhibitions a bit."

But, like working a dance club, the key to a successful graduation dance is reading a crowd, and sometimes, a crowd of kids just wants to dance. The problem is (and if you've watched MTV any time in the last five years, you know this already) "dancing" these days is often tantamount to "sex with clothes on."

Ten years ago, "Rumpshaker" was just a hit single, but now 12-year-olds gyrate against each other to Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz. That makes things tough on DJs, who are paid by school administrators but are expected to keep the kids happy. "Freaking" is so ubiquitous, in fact, that kids bump and grind to "Dueling Banjos."

So despite my fifth-grade friend's opposition, today I'll keep doing "The Chicken Dance." He'll be able to find his pimp game again soon: His middle school graduation dance is only three years away.


Jeff Miller can be reached at



In the mix

A partial list of companies that provide DJ entertainment:

* J&M Entertainment, 26027 Huntington Lane, Suites D&E, Valencia; (800) 585-4235

* Preferred Mobile Music, 1941 Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; (714) 680-4230

* Radio Interactive, 717 Dunn Way, Placentia; (888) 809-5776

* Feet First Eventertainment, 5805 Uplander Way, Culver City; (310) 641-1844


The top five middle school hits

1. "Yeah," Usher: The only current hit song that's guaranteed to pack a dance floor, "Yeah" is this summer's "Crazy in Love."

2. "Wannabe," the Spice Girls: '90s nostalgia is rampant among middle schoolers, who love to reminisce about, er, fourth grade.

3. "Mickey," Toni Basil: The '80s novelty song inspires singalongs and hand-clapping, a potent middle school combination.

4. "All My Life," K-Ci and Jo-Jo:

A good one for friendship circles; the slow dance of choice for the still romantically challenged.

5. "YMCA," the Village People: The world's easiest group dance -- regardless of what the song's actually about.

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