for West Coast Swing
I find it very difficult to identify the core "style" of West Coast Swing. It's so versatile and has been danced so many different ways... from Big Band Swing, to Country Western, to Funk, tp R&B and Hip Hop music... good heavens. It can be danced so many ways. A man's lead can be light and precise, or strong and leveraged. A woman's feet can do a million little taps and toes, while another likes arm styling or wiggly hips.
But the fact is, we are all able to dance together, no matter what our style, as long as we're all dancing West Coast Swing. It seems many of our founders are hesitant to bond WCS to any rules, lest it hinder its styles. But styles can transcend certain boundaries, and no matter who I dance WCS with, no matter where or what their background, these are the confines that bring us together.
First released just before The Time Has Come, here is one of my favorite articles, Swing Essentials (How to Identify WCS Content). I've included an author's note at the bottom for some new discoveries I've made since writing this. Be sure to check it out!
By owning, teaching and choreographing for my ballroom studio, I learned that there is a dance for every season of life. I learned the intimate details that make a Waltz a Waltz, a Salsa a Salsa and a Cha Cha a Cha Cha. I learned that every partner dance has a character, a step pattern, a pulse and a particular floor craft.
West Coast Swing is no different. It too is a partner dance that's 'lead and follow' and danced on beat, with steps, rhythms, rules and a specific floor craft. In fact, its rules are quite a bit more complex than any other dance's. So what are the "Essentials" that help us identify the dance? How do we know we're watching a WCS dance and not a Tango, a Foxtrot... or even Abstract Improvisation or Zouk? To help, here are the defining characteristics of WCS:
THE FIVE WEST COAST SWING ESSENTIALS
Defined Rectangle Slot
A Pure WCS slot is 2-3 floor squares long and one floor square wide. Old School WCS takes up about one to two squares. In Pure WCS, we can shift the Defined Slot's location on the floor, but then we stay there in a new established slot or return back to our original slot. WCS is NOT a rounded or unconfined dance. The slot does not extend very far on any one side.
Two Beat Anchor
WCS has an anchor at the end of all of its patterns, and that anchor takes a full two beats. Both the lead and follow may anchor in place while spinning, while doing footwork, and while doing arm styling... but it takes a full two beats. Anchoring is where we reconnect with our partner, get on the same page, make our point or get in the last word. It's the period at the end of a sentence. Anchoring allows both dancers the opportunity to reground themselves, stay into the floor and prepare to 'rubber band' the "& a 1" of the next pattern. The anchor comes before the '& a 1' rubber-band action. They are two separate actions.
Man in the Middle
In WCS, from the point of an onlooker, the man is visually in the center and patterns are used to move the woman up and down the slot. The man and woman do not stay at opposite ends of the slot and then switch, and the woman does not stay in the center while he moves around her unless it's to let her pass him on her way down the slot. He stays in the middle, and makes magic moving her up, down, in and out of the slot. Some call the man's actions to pin down the center of the slot 'posting.'
Pulses the Upbeat
Every dance has a pulse. Without it, the dances mesh and meld together. The pulse of a dance gives it its character beyond footwork. Our true champions pulse the upbeat, some knowingly, some not. West Coast Swing pulses the upbeats in a song. It makes our timing tighter, and it determines a huge portion of how the dance actually appears on the floor.
More Triple Rhythms
If you count out all the basic WCS patterns, you will notice that for almost every Double Rhythm, there are TWO Triple Rhythms. Not only that, but there are no Single Rhythms at all. Triple Rhythms are much harder to do than Single or Double Rhythms in a lead and follow dance, because they can't be danced 'split weight,' especially with good timing. Since the majority of other partner dances are made of Single and Double Rhythms, WCS really stands out with its exciting Triple Rhythm footwork.
Once a dancer has mastered the above characteristics, meaning they are able to do them with all Three T's: Timing, Technique and Teamwork, then West Coast Swing provides the complex freedom for three unique characteristics. I call them the "Higher Essentials."
Many try to skip to them without mastering the 'core' essentials, and find themselves doing another dance entirely. But when these characteristics are added to the core essentials of WCS, the results are truly incredible and addicting to all ages and generations. As with all art, once done with incredible technique and skill, WCS can take anyone's breath away.
The following are the characteristics that are not required, but can be uniquely attained in WCS:
THE HIGHER ESSENTIALS
- Contrast- Contrast is not simply speeding up, slowing down or dropping levels. Contrast requires deft subtly combined with precise expansion. It's using an unexpected variety of movements to tell a story. Contrast draws people in... it prevents them from looking away... it keeps their attention and makes them hit the rewind button.
- Musicality- Musicality as a Higher Element goes beyond staying on beat. It means dancing to the major phrase, doing a large movement to a large piece of music and a small movement to a small 'ting.' It's helping others hear things in the song they didn't know were even there. It's using the dance to paint a visual representation of the music. The more challenging the music, the more exciting the painting.
- Individual Style- Pure WCS requires a high level of leading and following because of how complex it is. But it also gives both partners the freedom to add styling, footwork variations (syncopations), breaks and conversation through movement. As a result, each Pure WCS dancer looks unique. I chose to study WCS instead of ballroom at an early age because the ballroom ladies looked very "cookie-cutter." Pure WCS allows individuality to appear within its strict confines. The more a dancer grows in the dance, the more individual their style becomes. If you're watching a floor where all the upper level women and men look the same, it's a clear indication that swing content is lacking.
The easiest trick to get started with identification is by watching the feet and counting to the beat of the music. Enjoy using these characteristics to identify true West Coast Swing dancing, and as always...
KEEP ON DANCING!
Click here for a printable .pdf version of Swing Essentials
Click here for a .zip file of all my articles.
Author's Note (8.18.12):
Since writing this, I've learned that one of the easiest ways to identify a WCS pattern is by watching for a basic "walk walk" followed by a "triple step" at the start of every pattern. No matter what generation I watch, I've noticed that this has never changed. Every pattern begins with a very clear "1, 2" followed by a triple step.
When I watch Abstract Improvisation, I notice that they very often start with a "walk walk" followed by another "walk walk." In fact, one of the easiest identifiers of Abstract Improvisation is looking for straight "walking" from the dancer's feet. In swing, the first "walk walk" will ALWAYS be followed up by a triple rhythm.
It's a great little trick. Enjoy using it! -Katherine