WEST COAST SWINGWhat They DON'T Know In California

by I.J. Wanadans

I came out of the West Coast Swing womb barely one and half years ago. I’m a baby dancer. What can I possibly know about West Coast Swing that they don’t already know in California? I know a lot. I know what it’s like outside California, which most Californians ignore, which is different than it is inside California. They figure since they have it, it must be happening everywhere. Now I’m not bragging on this fact, nor do I think Californians necessarily need to know what it’s like outside their state. In fact, if I lived in California I probably wouldn’t care either. It just galls me that they don’t have the same struggle we outsiders have!

I know what it’s like not to have quality teachers readily available. I know what it’s like not to have a quantity of practice partners. I know what it’s like to have to get inspiration off of a tape rather than to view it live. I know what it’s like to prostrate myself in front of temperamental nightclub managers just to get a few hours of floor space. Californians just don’t know about these things!

"Boy, you’ve come a long way for this convention haven’t you," they will remark in amazement. They assume that all conventions everywhere are equal to theirs and treat me like I’m Donald Trump jetting off to Paris for dinner. They often wonder at us poor plebes who actually move to California to learn West Coast Swing, as if it can be learned anywhere and everywhere across America. But I can tell you, the way it’s being taught and learned across America is a weak shadow compared to what it looks like in California.

It was clear to me early on that because the follower has more freedom to express themselves like no other dance it attracted the best dancers from all disciplines. Modern, Jazz, Ballet, Hip-Hop, Ballroom, Country Western, you-name-it, the best dancers were turning on to West Coast Swing. But now imagine you’re in California, the entertainment capitol of the world, the place where all things move quickly to the extreme, where people who think they might like to dance a little can really, really dance! Take the seductive nature of the dance, combine it with pure talent flowing through generations of genes cultivated by showmen, and what you have is a flower of incredible beauty and genius.

The soil in California is lush with nourishing ingredients. And they take it for granted! They think it exists everywhere. Now don’t any of you Californians take this to be critical or negative in any way, because it’s not. I’m just speaking from a place of extreme, green jealousy! It’s funny when I sit through a meeting of the World Swing Dance Council where they plot the future of the dance, it’s intricacies, the subtleties of placing different levels of dancers for competitions. Before the meetings end I always speak up and say, "speaking from the bottom of the barrel ... there is a whole universe of dancers out there who are doing what they believe to be ‘West Coast Swing’ who also should be served by this Council."

I quickly give them my best shot because I don’t want to take up their time and to their credit they do listen and treat what I have to say with respect. They also know that "baby dancers" are crucial to the continuing life of their art. My only point here is that West Coast Swing dancing is taking off in numbers that surprise the experts but don’t surprise the peons down here in the trenches. Hopefully the "powers that be" will recognize the significance of this "baby pool" and work to accommodate the numbers by supplying needed guidance. If not, mutant strains will definitely develop from the sheer pressure of the demand.

I remember telling several seasoned dancers one year ago, when I had just begun, that I believed there was a huge wave of West Coast Swing preparing to wash over the existing dance community. What did I know, I was just a beginner. "Nab, it’ll never happen," they said. Bill Cameron was shocked that his Cape Cod event grew 150% in one year. It didn’t shock me. John Wheaten was pleasantly surprised that his Monterey Swingfest increased by 50%. I treated his surprise as a given. Not one, but two quality Swing publications were born this year and both seem to be thriving. If it looks, smells, and tastes like a ground swell ... it probably is!

The most incredible sight of human athleticism I’d ever witnessed was Jimmy Connors, a notorious backcourt counter-puncher, challenged by a coach to beat a practice partner by serve-and-volleying (an uncomfortable strategy for Connors), for the high stakes of a dinner. With no audience, no title, and no money on the line ... just out of the shear pleasure and pride of his craft ... Jimmy Connors put on a display of athletic genius never to be forgotten. I’d seen Connors on many, many occasions play brilliantly with fire and passion, to huge audiences, for great sums of money. Never had I seen a performance such as this&ldots; surreal&ldots; otherworldly.

Similarly, on Sunday night after 1,075 people had left the Monterey Swingfest, twenty-five people remained in the cavernous ballroom to dance ... most of them Champions of one US Open or another. There was no spotlight, no costumes, no students to impress, no audience to dance to, no judging to run off to, no competition scores to be made. Even the DJ seemed to get into what he wanted, taking some risks, "pressing the envelope." What occurred in that forty-five minutes, with partners swapping and popping, was a sight to behold. Each couple was relaxed, mutually expressing their sheer joy of creativity. Each new combination brought out new touches, nuances only those doing the creating could completely understand. This much I know for sure, this was pure California.