WEST COAST SWINGA Time of Growth & Change

by Jeannie Tucker

Growth and change in life is good. It broadens our perspective and redefines our purpose. But good things often come with a price, and growth can be unsettling. Our Swing dance community is currently experiencing such growth and change.

Over the years, we have successfully brought West Coast Swing out from the nightclubs and into the spotlight. There are now so many conventions available that deciding which to attend is difficult. You can, for example, choose to social dance all weekend or participate in Jack & Jill events. For the competitive couples, there are Classic, Showcase, and Strictly Swing divisions, to name just a few. With the addition of these competitions to the Swing dance scene, came the need to set rules. And with these rules, came the inevitable need to challenge the rules.

As children, we pushed the limits of our parents’ rules to facilitate our growth. As dance competitors, the desire to excel led to pushing the rules through innovative choreography and style. Other dance forms were being mixed into Swing, with sometimes exciting results. Dancers were clamoring for the latest and wildest combinations. The options seemed endless. There was a whole new dimension and creative freedom to the dance.

But this exciting growth did not come without a price. As the rules were challenged more and more, there was a danger of losing the integrity of the dance — the "true look" of Swing. So a new rule was born requiring a certain percentage of Swing to be included in a dance routine for it to qualify. But what exactly is "true" Swing? The diversity in our West Coast Swing community makes agreement on the basic fundamental patterns and ingredients elusive. And if defining the requirements is difficult, then enforcing them becomes all the more difficult. Structure, however, is good, and our desire to preserve the integrity of Swing, noble. We must continue our efforts.

So dance judges now face the challenge of defining and clarifying the rules to maintain fairness and structure in the competition. Consistency in applying disciplinary action against violations is crucial to this process. Judges have for too long overlooked sometimes blatant violations of established competitive rules. Breaking the rules has almost seemed a necessity of winning. The longer the rules are abused and infractions ignored, the more difficult and pervasive the problem becomes.

Newcomers, for example, see the rule-breaking elements win so they copy them. Soon, it is not an issue of just one or two couples that must be marked down or disqualified, but rather a whole division! We must therefore waste no time in taking a harder stand regarding dance rules. No one likes to be the "tough guy," but we must if the dance we all love is to survive.

Recently, the National Rising Star Convention in Chicago, headed by Barry Jones and Yvonne Antonacci, defended an important part of our growth by deciding to enforce the rules. They had to disqualify some top-placing competitors in a few divisions. It was a difficult decision, but nonetheless necessary. Similarly, the Boogie By The Bay Convention in San Francisco also had one disqualification. These are not going to be isolated incidents of sticking to the rules. Competitors should be aware that there is an overall effort to make the rules stick.

If we continue our efforts to adhere to the rules, these incidents will undoubtedly increase before tapering off as competitors take the rules more seriously. Therefore, I strongly urge competitors in this year’s U.S. Open to read and follow the rules carefully and to ask questions if an issue is unclear.

Having been both a competitor and a judge, I can tell you that either role brings challenges. Both must deal with rule-breaking, disqualifications, and point deductions in a professional and responsible manner. Being a "sore loser" sets a bad example of sportsmanship. Judges must be open to discuss their decisions to educate dancers. The dance community needs to support our judges and competitors in this evolving time.

We need rules that are more clearly defined, especially concerning the "content" of Swing. The clearer the rules, the easier following and enforcing them will be. Within the wide range of dance divisions currently offered, every competitor should be able to find the combination of creativity and required Swing content that best suits his or her particular style.

I urge dance coaches and choreographers to stay connected and to remain open-minded and focused on the big picture — a healthier and more organized Swing dance circuit. Communication, not infighting, is what we need. I am confident that there will be plenty of room for creative expression within a more structured environment. Our dance community is growing and changing, and we all play an important part in shaping its future.

Jeannie Tucker, World Swing Dance Champion, has over 18 years experience as a Dance Coach and Choreographer. She can be reached at (520) 325-4100, e-mail:  jeannie@jeannietucker.com