WEST COAST SWINGThe Comfort Zone

by Michael A. Harvey

Learning the "following" part has been such a great tool for my dancing. At first it gave me a new view of what I was doing to my partners. Then I realized that knowing the following part made it ten times easier for my teachers to explain things to me because they could do the male part with me following and they could show me both the wrong way and the right way. A new bonus to learning the following part has recently popped up which I’d like to share with you and that has to do with seeing how other men format their dances.

As my following abilities increased I was able to focus on what the leaders "felt" like and I could relate it to what I might feel like. Some men make errors in their leads that you don’t see when you just watch them from the sidelines because many women have the capacity to save them. Some men have different "styles," the way in which they move their body when executing a lead, which is also interesting to feel.

One fabulous dancer who I’d often watched and admired used an unusual basic sugar push in which he cleared a space to his right (that alone confused me) and then stopped me with a "push." After I got the hang of it, it created an unusual "look" which I never would have seen without having danced with him. It did create for me as the follower, however, a new orientation for my own variations off the sugar push ... all three of them!

As my confidence as a follower increased I got bolder in asking the better leaders in town to dance. Most of them also know the following part (it seems almost all the best dancers do) so it has become an equal exchange. I was surprised at what I’ve noticed. Very few leaders seem to be allowing the follower to find a "comfort zone" before leading them into complex patterns. There is the opening move, then boom ... off they run into twists and turns and spins, and on and on. As the follower I’m immediately immersed in feeling one lead after another in order to "survive" the next move and can hardly feel the music or look to color the dance.

What I’m describing here is not a matter of being "over-danced," a situation where a leader is takes a follower beyond their ability level (although on some occasions that does occur). These competent dancers have great definition to their leads and I’m following more or less O.K. I’m talking about my own reaction to their choice of moves. And with some leaders they are definitely not allowing me to feel at ease. A few basic passes, tucks, and whips would enable me to "get comfortable," to sensitize myself to a new lead. Then when a complicated pattern comes along I’ll be more at ease to follow it.

When the complex pattern is over I’d appreciate some "breathing space" before the next complicated move to let the last one sink in and to ready myself for the next one. More simple passes would be appreciated. If I’m coloring the passes with confidence, that means I’m cool ... give me your next best shot. If I’m not, the leader needs to chill out, use a less complicated move next, and look to provide for the follower a Comfort Zone. It’s no wonder ladies dance with "fear." Now I know what they’re feeling: like your driving 150 mph in a race car and you can’t find the brakes!

I know what the guys are thinking right now. "It’s taken me so long to get my dancing out of the simple stuff. Now you expect me to go back to it?" The answer is yes and no. You won’t challenge a good dancer by constantly leading simple passes, and you won’t impress the same dancer by constantly leading complex patterns. You will, however, have great dances with all levels of followers if you weave a mosaic of simple and complex. By establishing a Comfort Zone with every dancer in every dance their receptivity level will be engaged. You can’t ask for more than that.

In my own leading I never hit more than one or two complex patterns per song. And that now makes them special and fun for both of us. The rest of the time I engage my partner’s receptivity by allowing her a Comfort Zone. Then I’ll take every pass, basket, tuck, and whip that I know and change it. I’ll lead one or three turns where they are expecting the usual two turns. I’m expanding and contracting the counts wherever I can. I’m speeding up (with energy moves) and slowing down (with more passive, sensuous moves) wherever I can according to what I’m hearing in the music. I’m using "repeating 1 & 2’s" on hammerlocks, "repeating 5 & 6’s) on whips, "extending" end counts, "freezing" with breaks, locating places for hesitations.

It’s all simple stuff so my followers, at all levels, feel a Comfort Zone. But they are wide awake and alert for the next attempted nuance. The best fun happens when they "answer back" with a nuance of their own. This is a "conversation" that is very special to West Coast Swing. And if you haven’t tasted it you are missing the juiciest part of the dance. It’s what we sense when we watch the Pros, and although we strain to eaves drop we’ll never know the fullness of their personal exchange.

So fellas, be consious of your "blend." First take the fear out of the dance for your partner by establishing a Comfort Zone. Come back to that Comfort Zone whenever you see panic in her eyes. Do something different and special within that Comfort Zone and watch her smile. A smile means you’ve engaged her receptivity. When she’s relaxed and receptive you’re gonna have a lot of fun. Go guys!

HGH