by Mark Van Schuyver
Few things are more important to dancing than the frame. Like a bad fence between neighbors, a floppy or maladjusted frame will result in disaster. The frame keeps partners in proper weight balance, and at the correct distance. The frame is the conduit for precision leading and following. The frame keeps one dancer from stepping on the others toes.
Two frames are generally used in West Coast Swing, a closed position frame and an open position frame. The points of contact, the shape, hand position, relative tension, and angles of arms and body are vital to each type of frame.
Im no expert on framing, or anything else to do with this dance for that matter, but Im happy to share some things I learned the hard way. Lets start with the open position frame.
In the open position, the womans right hand rests on the mans left. Her left hand rests in his right. Both partners keep their forearms parallel to the floor (may vary slightly if one partner is much taller). During the dance, partners must maintain a tension between their arms. For example, when they step together at the end of a push, there is an equal and opposite pushing pressure. When they pull apart at the end of the push basic, there is an equal and opposite pulling. During the entire push/pull cycle, the forearms remain parallel to the floor.
Keep the forearms horizontal and do not allow the wrists to break upward. Just as important, keep your forearms pointing straight at your partner. Do not let your elbows break out to the sides. Do not bounce your arms.
Stand up. Let your arms hang straight down along your sides. Notice that your arms hang naturally along the center of the sides of your body. Now bend your elbow 90 degrees. Hold your forearms parallel to the floor. Now, extend your arms forward until your elbows are bent approximately 100 to 120 degrees. Your elbows should now be slightly in front of your body. Someone standing beside you could count your ribs without touching your elbow.
To check your position, hold your left arm in place, take your right hand and place it on your tummy. Slide your right hand to the left. Your fingertips should touch the elbow of your left arm. Got it?
When dancing, your elbows should hold to this angle and this position. If the angle of the arm breaks back to 90 degrees your frame will be weak and may collapse. During a push, your elbows must never pull back behind the body.
NOW THINK RECTANGLE
Think of your frame as a rectangle. The two longest sides of the rectangle are your, and your partners forearms. The two short sides are imaginary, one between your two elbows, the other between your partners two elbows. In a perfect basic, the angles of the rectangle are the same between left and right arms. In actual dancing, the rectangle will shift with one elbow moving forward of the other. This is fine as long as the forearms remain horizontal, the arms do not bounce, the elbows stay in, and the elbows remain forward of the body.
THINK POWER STEERING
Imagine driving your car. Hands on the wheel, you turn to the left. The car does not respond! The wheel is loose, there is too much slack. You pull harder, the car responds too late, OOPS, missed the turn. With dance it is the same. Partners must maintain firmness in their arms in order to accurately deliver a lead and to properly respond to a lead.
Floppy arms will not conduct the message. Your car (body) will not turn in time and you may run into a light post! Firmness in the frame is the solution.
What about too much tension? Yes, it happens. Men, use too much firmness in the lead and you will jerk your partner. Ladies, use much tension in the follow and you will respond like the steering wheel of an 18 wheeler! When partners get the firmness/tension just right its power steering. Only through practice, trial and error will you discover exactly how much firmness to employ.
NO STRAIGHT ARMS
The frame does not go away when only one hand is used to lead. One arm "frames" are common at the end of a push, a pass, or other move. Positions may open up, cool gestures may be employed, but the arms do not usually straighten out.
With few exceptions, the forearms should remain horizontal even in a one hand break-open position. Otherwise partners will find themselves too far apart when they attempt the next movement.
CLOSE POSITION FRAME
This is easier because there are so many points of contact between partners. Standing close, the mans right hand rests on the womans left shoulder blade. Her left arm rests along the top of his right shoulder. He pulls slightly, she pushes slightly.
Mans right, and ladys left forearms are parallel to the ground. Partners hold the weight of their own arms (the woman does not rest her arm on the mans arm). The womans arm is above the mans and there is a light contact at the arms. In close dancing, there can be a contact at the hip, mans right to womans left.
The mans left hand is low, and palm up. The womans right hand rests in his palm. There is a slight pulling by the mans left hand, and a slight pushing from the womans right.
In the movie Dirty Dancing, dance teacher Johnny Castle harshly lectures student and love interest Baby about framing. Holding her in a close-frame position he says, "This is my dance space. That is your dance space. You dont get into my space and I dont get into your space!" In other words, if good fences make good neighbors, then it follows that good frames make great dance partners.
Mark Van Schuyver lives in Atlanta. He is a writer and a West Coast Swing enthusiast with over thirteen years experience dancing. More than 100 of his articles have been published in national magazines including many on the subject of dance. You can reach Mark at by e-mail at Zarrdd@bigfoot.com.