WEST COAST SWINGFAQ: What Is Swing Dancing?

by Michael A. Harvey

Swing Dancing is defined as any combined form of "triple, triple, double" steps including "syncopated" triple steps. As a result there are many different "forms" of Swing Dancing with as many different names: East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Shag, Bop, Imperial Swing, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Jive, Pony, etc. (let us know what we’ve forgotten!). Hustle, done by many Swing Dance enthusiasts to Disco music and also known as a Latin "street-Swing" dance, does not fit into the traditional triple-triple-double definition and so is not technically considered a Swing Dance.

Originally Swing was done to the hip new Big Band music of it’s era and included exciting (and dangerous to other dancers!) lifts and drops. The most advanced form of Swing Dancing, the place Swing Dancing has evolved to, is West Coast Swing which was originally popularized during the hip new Blues music of it’s era. It can also contain many lifts and drops, though rarely done on the social dance floor.

The "spectrum" of Swing Dancing runs from one end with Shag, a "male-spotlighted" dance which involves "mirrored," intricate, foot patterns done to "Beach" music, to the other end with West Coast Swing, a "female spotlighted" dance which involves the entire body in the expression of subtle nuances as well as strong "hits" in the music which can be anything from Contemporary, C & W, R & B, Blues, Beach, Soul, Jazz, Club, and Funk. All the other Swing Dances fall somewhere in-between these two ends of the spectrum.

Right in the middle of this spectrum is East Coast Swing, also known as Ballroom Swing, which is the easiest form of Swing Dancing to learn. Most people can learn East Coast Swing in 10-12 lessons (3 months) and WCSA advises people to learn this dance before taking on any of the other forms of Swing Dancing as it provides a solid foundation for everything else and is a good "confidence booster." Also, it is a good "compromise" dance in that if you know East Coast Swing you can probably dance fairly well with anyone who dances any other form of Swing; useful in nightclubs, weddings, and other social events. The Country Western dance community has taken East Coast Swing to it’s highest heights although it can be done to all forms of music.

West Coast Swing is the most advanced form of Swing Dancing because of it’s true "lead-follow" skills necessary to interweave an expression of the music. It’s an intricate and intimate relationship between the partners and the musical phrasing of the song. It’s the only partner dance on the face of the Earth that allows the female the freedom to stylize her movements within the framework of the male lead. This "freedom" is attractive to many female dancers from all dance disciplines including ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and cheer who are looking to "partner dance" within a milieu of relative independence.

The "feel" of West Coast Swing can be seen by the use of "compression" and "leverage," an obvious stretching, rubberband-like, in-and-out movement that creates the energy for multiple spins as well as the texture of sensuous passes. Although the spectator might catch a glimpse of this "feel" and be totally mesmerized by it, only the participants can fully appreciate the combined effort of their mutual creation. And that’s the addictive elixir that grabs the West Coast Swing dancer.

Because of the lead-follow skills necessary for West Coast Swing it is a true social dance in that each partner is a new experience and most dancers enjoy many different partners throughout a night of dancing. West Coast Swing involves the use of the entire body including body rolls, head whips, isolations, and arm and hand movements. There are many intricate foot patterns which are skillfully lead and received by sensitive followers as well as those done individually and independently by each partner according to their musical interpretive expression.

But more so than any other dance, movements are created in relation to the sounds of the music, be they melodic, rhythmic, or vocal. The leader feels the mathematical constraints of good music composition, employs the science of physiology (leading technique), and creates for the follower a playing field with which she can manage her artistry of movement (following technique). In West Coast Swing, more so than in any other dance, there is a definite feeling of union, merging, becoming one with the partner and the music, all done within the immediate, improvisational, moment. It’s such a very hard dance to master, necessitating a large commitment on the part of the participant, and yet the rewards are tremendous for those who achieve success!