WEST COAST SWINGGimme A Break

© 1997

by Kelly Buckwalter

During the last couple of years it seems that "hitting the breaks" has become a major obsession with intermediate level swing dancers. The questions I’m constantly getting from students regarding this topic lead me to believe that most dancers see hitting the breaks as a black or white situation&ldots;either you hit them or you don’t. Either you’re a good dancer or you're not.

Since life is not so simple, I thought I’d share my experience of learning to hit the breaks. My personal evolution consisted of many phases. Hopefully, you will learn something and feel a little more encouraged with your own progress as a result of this article. At the very least I hope to provide some amusement!

Phase One

I’m a rank beginner. I don't even notice that there are breaks in the music. I’m not even sure which beat to start on.&ldots;

Phase Two

I’m still a beginner. I’m irritated by the musicians for stopping the music because it makes it hard for me to keep track of which count I’m on while I try to execute a push break. (The nerve of those guys!)

Phase Three

I consider myself an intermediate dancer but really I’m still a beginner. I notice that other people are "interrupting" their dancing to pause when the music pauses, and I can't figure out how they know when the pauses are going to happen in time to keep themselves from dancing. I, myself, am at the point where I realize that I just missed a break two beats ago. (If you’re not laughing yet, we’re all in trouble...)

Phase Four

I think I’m a solid intermediate dancer but I’m really a low intermediate dancer. A musician friend explains breaks to me and how dancers can anticipate their frequency by subtle shifts in the music. I actually start to listen to the music and find that I now realize I’m missing the break as it happens. Go Team! (Such phenomenal improvement is overwhelming...)

Phase Five

I think I’m a high level intermediate dancer but I’m really a low level intermediate dancer. Although I can now anticipate a break just before it hits, I don’t have time to react so I still miss it.

Phase Six

I think I’m a high level intermediate dancer but I’m closer to a solid intermediate dancer. I can see a break coming in time to react but I still "miss" it because I don't have a clue what I'm supposed to do about it.

Phase Seven

I think I’m an advanced dancer but I'm really an intermediate level dancer. I can see a break coming about a mile away and although I still don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do about it, I do something anyway that doesn't really work because it has nothing to do with the music and it gets me off time. But since I’m able to get back on time and I think I'm "hitting the break" I think I'm great! (I'm so-ooo good!)

Phase Eight

I think I’m an intermediate level dancer and I am. I can anticipate a break coming and usually I can do something that is somewhat close to what is happening in the music so that I can at least stay on time through the break and not get in my partner’s way. (Hallelujah!)

Phase Nine

I think I’m a solid intermediate level dancer and I’m actually closer to advanced. I can feel a break coming a mile away. I can almost always acknowledge a break without feeling like I’m "interrupting" my dancing. I can transition nicely from the break back into the next move.

Phase Ten

I think I’m an advanced dancer and I am. I sometimes choose to ignore a break in the music whenever I feel it’s appropriate. (Ever try to hit all the breaks in "I Ain’t Drunk, I’m Just Drinkin’?" Da-da-da-thump. Bump, Bump. Da-da-da-thump. Bump, Bump. I don’t know about you, but after the twelfth break using that rhythm, I’m about out of material!)

Phase Eleven

I’m an advanced dancer. I discover that there are "mini" breaks, or accents, in the music that are much more subtle than the major ones I’ve been trying to hit. I spend a lot of my energy listening to the music for those subtle shifts and adapting my dancing to mesh with the music as a whole rather than just focusing on hitting the major breaks.

Phase Twelve

I’m a more advanced dancer so I switch parts to learn to lead. I find that I’m so busy trying to think about what to do next that I find it impossible to listen to that noise in the background (the music). Breaks aren’t even an issue yet because I’m still trying to figure out how to lead. Only the best, most assertive followers are able to back lead me into hitting a break. I’m now a rank beginner AGAIN. I go back to Phase One. I Do Not Pass Go. I Do Not Collect $200.

In summary, "Hitting the Breaks" does not make or break you as a dancer. It takes many skills to be a good dancer. Understanding and reflecting the music is important, but so is technique and teamwork and all the other skills that make partner dancing simultaneously incredibly satisfying and incredibly frustrating. If you can see an improvement in any area, no matter how small, celebrate it! Dancers will always set new goals and challenges, but as you achieve success in just one area, your ability to enjoy yourself and others will increase in many areas. Good luck, and don’t forget&ldots;you can honor a break without hitting it over the head!

Kelly Buckwalter, from the San Francisco area, is US Open Classic and Jack & Jill Champion. You can purchase her popular and extremely instructive video tapes by calling (707) 544-8184.

HGH