In the past year I've taken a multitude of classes and workshops to avoid becoming boring and to add new skills to my arsenal. I like being able to know that I can officiate weddings, make elegant flower arrangements, turn vegetables into a cocktail, know the ins and outs of sexual communication, and can make a mean loaf of bread - like a girl scout, but with more swearing and alcohol.
I never went (and currently have little interest in ever going) to university, so I satiate my desire to learn with practical skills. Practical is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. When the opportunity to take DJ lessons from one of our city's raddest DJs presented itself, I knew I needed to enroll ASAP.
I, like my maternal grandmother, have social anxiety (along with regular tiredness from living in a rape culture as a sexual assault survivor) and after spending my teen years as an extrovert, have settled into my role as committed homebody introvert. I love people, truly - I work part-time in social services. Meeting people I might not normally cross paths with and getting to show acceptance, non-judgement, and kindness to marginalized people is the best part of my job - hands down.
Stick me in a party, though, and I’ll anxiously drink a scotch and soda quicker than I meant to, just so I have something to do with my hands. I’ll make a few quick laps around the dance floor - making eye contact with and smiling at acquaintances, but cringe at the possibility of awkward, shouted conversation. So I’d go to the bathroom and hide in the stall with a good buzz on, flipping through Instagram: double tap, double tap, double tap.
I’d give myself enough time to both:
a) convince myself that no one liked me, my outfit was wrong, and I should just be home in bed
b) work up the courage to cross the dance floor and make it out the door
That changed when I started volunteering with a music festival and covering local events for a Western Canadian blog. Being somewhere with a purpose and a job to do allowed me to go to shows and events and be around people I loved and found interesting while giving me a role to play. If I sat there with my notebook, critiquing a show, I was working. I could still smile and wave at acquaintances, talk about what the piece would look like, and it was way less likely that creepy dudes would try and corner me. If things got awkward, I’d have a reason to excuse myself. If I didn’t feel like dancing, I had an excuse.
I’d heard about the women and trans-only DJ Academy, but sessions had always filled up too quickly for me to join in. The pictures of the ‘recitals’ (a huge dance party) showed babes being stoked for each other and so looking fucking cool behind the turntables while a supportive audience busted several moves. It wasn’t just a two-night primer: there was a secret Facebook group and continued community to share gigs, advice on purchasing equipment, and continued discussion. Seriously, it’s like year-round summer camp for adults.
Sarah (Mama Cutsworth) isn't just one of the best female DJs in the city - she's one of the best. Period. When she realized that she was more of an anomaly and a novelty on the scene, she only complained about it for a little bit. Then her partner told her that instead of just being mad about it, she should try and do something to change it.
So she did. Namely, she started teaching more women and trans folks the basics of DJing in a safe and supportive environment and hoping there will be a few who will go on to populate DJ booths across the city.
Keeping women from becoming a novelty is a struggle in not just music, but many industries. We want to celebrate women who are overcoming the obstacles that the kyriarchy places in front of them without escorting them to their very own cordoned-off section for ladies only. Celebrating and normalizing are only steps away from sensationalizing. DJ Miss Modest (a male DJ) said in an interview with Thump, “I thought the concept of a magazine wanting to run a piece on female producers was weird. As though being female was some kind of handicap for them, and that if they were good at what they do then it should be, extra celebrated?”
Sarah is not only capable, but cool. Like, really cool. She’s a full-time DJ with a production company that does “classic diva” and Golden Girls-themed dance parties. She hosts a radio show, collects teacups, and her cocktail game is on lock. She’s doesn’t make you feel intimidated to be in her presence, though. She’s the best kind of person - the one whose coolness only makes you feel cooler in its proximity.
In an industry that banks on its performers being cooler than you and thriving on the exclusivity of its scene, a DJ academy disarms the attitude perfectly. Everyone’s a beginner - I mean, how often are you getting your hands on turntables in your regular life if you’re not already a DJ?
When I walked into class there were several other fairly nervous-looking women, but the excitement was obvious. As we poured over our ‘worksheets’ detailing song transition methods and sipped tea, we talked about why we wanted to be there and what kind of music we liked and the playlists we would put together for the rehearsal. It wasn’t competitive, there was no one-upping - it was just 100% supportive.
We practiced scratching first - you know, the ‘wika’ in the ‘wika wika wah’. It helped us get our hands on the turntables for the first time and start thinking about rhythm. Sarah encouraged us to just go for it and scratch without thinking too much, just feeling it and having fun. Some of us were naturally more comfortable and skilled than others, for sure - but it didn’t stop us all from having fun. We stopped to take a quick shot together in the kitchen halfway through the evening, then went on to practice beat-matching to Mya and Salt N’ Pepa. Our recital was only about four days away at this point, but I felt ready. I knew even if I messed up, no one would laugh at or mock me.
That night when I got home I obsessed over my playlist, tweaking my song choices and five-song lineup about eight times before finally just having to accept and trust that the recital would be a good time and a good experience. One of the many things I came to appreciate DJs for was the encyclopedic musical knowledge that being a good DJ actually requires - it’s astounding how few songs you realize that you actually know when you’re trying to string a five-song DJ set together.
The night for our recital - International Women’s Day - came and I pored over my playlist and the transitions approximately 100 times. I felt like throwing up approximately 100 more times. I put on my outfit - sheer nylons, a skater skirt, and a polka-dot button-down tied up into a crop top. Outfit completed with a spiky gold bib necklace and red lipstick, I snapped a selfie and headed out the door. Obviously.
I was the third DJ of the night and by the time I played there was an appreciative, sizable crowd already on the dance floor cheering for each DJ as she made her debut. I did a shot of whisky and stood near the booth, bobbing enough to fit in; but feeling enough like running out the door without looking back to know that I was definitely the next DJ on deck.
Sarah stood on stage with us during our set to help us make sure we had someone to bail us out if things went to shit and to have someone to dance with when things were going really well. She introduced me as DJ Thunder Thighs and as I gave the turntable a push to start my first song, Magazine by Caroline Smith - the crowd cheered and I just felt at ease.
I felt proud - my set was by no means flawless, but I was up there in front of everyone, a fat babe in a crop top just trying to make people dance and feel nice in their own bodies. Trying to be visible in an industry where women once were invisible, but are increasingly being seen. I was proud of all the women with their diverse playlists and musical tastes, trying something new and scary publicly. I was proud of Sarah, for creating a solution to a problem. But mostly I was just excited to dance to 212 with a bunch of babes - which is the point of DJing in the first place, is it not?