WEST COAST SWING"If I'm The Better Dancer, How Come I Don't Win Any Dance Contests?"

by Woody Bretz

You’ve practiced for weeks preparing for this moment. Your friends say your dancing is getting so hot! You’re ready. You dressed in patent leather shoes, high-waisted, black, Latin pants, and the coolest, deep blue shirt. The blue of your shirt matches the blue dress your partner has on. The music starts, "One Drop of Love" by Ray Charles. You know every break and nuance in the song. Your Jack & Jill partner flows into the dance like warm honey. You are totally connected. It’s just the three of you, two people and some great music. It’s the moment you’ve been working toward for the past four years. People in the audience are applauding and cheering. After you walk off the floor, your friends say you’re a "shoo in." People you don’t know come over to congratulate you. An hour later you find out you didn’t make the cut. And, to rub salt into the wound, the same jerk who started only six months ago, yanking everybody around, and grandstanding all the time, did make it.

What are you to do? Remember, it’s just a dance contest,not a life and death struggle. You’ll get another shot at it next week or next month. Now, it’s up to you to get back to work. The following strategies will turn yourself into a better dancer, a dancer who can win. There are never any guarantees but becoming a better dancer is the only way to win that contest. Also, the better you dance the more fun you have. And that’s why we all started, to have fun.


The best way to learn West Coast Swing is to take regular group lessons from the best Instructor you can find. Without some sort of lessons you may think you are dancing West Coast Swing but you’re probably not. And even if you are, you are probably doing it badly. If your Instructor offers a progressive lesson structure be sure to take all the levels along the way. Don’t rush ahead, skipping levels, thinking you are too advanced for the basic stuff. You need to know everything you can about this dance as it’s an educated dance. You can’t get too much education. When you master the Advanced level go back and revisit the basics. When you’ve done all that, it may be time to take private lessons to work on your specific strengths and weaknesses.

At some point you may "outgrow" the Instructor you started with, you may just need a change, or you may need to broaden your horizons. If money and distance are not too much of a problem, you can travel to most metropolitan centers and find top notch West Coast Swing Instructors. If you are competing take advantage of lessons offered by the best dancers and teachers in the country available at conventions. Take from many Instructors and find one who fits your level of dancing, personality, and style of learning.

After taking all these lessons, do we really need a Coach? Your Instructors cannot take the individual time in group classes to work on your personal needs. Taking a series of private lessons with one Instructor over an extended period of time, you’ve got a personal relationship with someone who has invested their time in your dancing. If you do better, it makes them feel better, and is good for their professional reputation. Ask them if they will watch you in a contest and provide feedback. Expect to pay for their coaching time. They are not instructing just for the "fun" of it.

Think about acting lessons. Some people seem to blossom in the limelight. "Hams" are always ready with a big smile, a saucy wink or an exaggerated strut just at the right moment in the music. A few acting lessons may help to bring out the "ham" in you.


The secret of any sport is practice, practice, practice, and it’s no different with dancing. Practice should be focused and relate to your goals as a dancer. Agree with your practice partner on goals up front, so that each of you can work toward achieving them. Decide whether you want to work on a structured routine or on specific moves. Whether your practice partner is a permanent competition partner, significant other, or casual friend, you need to remember that they deserve special care and attention. The dance relationship is a special one and can be very trying at times. It will require all the relationship skills you can muster. If you have both a long term practice partner and a significant other then additional care is needed to keep both relationships on solid ground.

The best practice is done on a suitable (preferably wooden) floor in front of mirrors. Mirrors are invaluable for helping you see the effects changes have on the lines and look of your dancing. They are also valuable for assessing posture. Minimal outside interference from noise and other dancers would be preferred, as would a modern sound system. But having said all that, any open space can be pressed into service. Empty out that garage if it’s all you can get.

If your living in a small town in Northern Idaho then your chances to do a lot of West Coast Swing dancing are probably pretty slim. If that’s the case you are probably not all that interested in competition. On the other hand, if you’re in a medium to large metropolitan area, then it is the likely that there is West Coast Swing dancing somewhere around. Maybe there’s a blues band and a small dance floor nearby. Use your computer to find the closest dance venue. You need to go, and encourage others to go. Start a car pool.

When you get there, dance with everyone in the place. You’ll become a better dancer if you dance with a variety of partners of varying levels. Use your time with less experienced dancers to perfect techniques and footwork used with basic patterns. Pay attention to the varieties of style and technique. Try your hottest moves, best syncopations, or play with the music with the more experienced dancers. Be sure to include dances with people you are likely to draw at a future Jack & Jill competition. Be friendly, and as you begin to meet more and more people you will find more and more opportunities to dance. The more you dance, the more you’ll improve.

In your first competition your stomach will be in knots, your palms will sweat, your mouth will be full of "cotton," and your heart will be racing. "Why have I done this?" you ask, as self-doubt creeps in. "Everyone is going to look at me. I’ll make a fool out of myself." And then the dance is over and it wasn’t so bad. In fact, the experience was sort of pleasant. That’s the moment you’re hooked! Now you have to repeat the experience every chance you get. It gets easier with repetition and you get better with repetition. As you begin to relax, you can begin to work on dancing well rather than trying so hard. We all want to look good out there. But "trying hard" won’t ever look good. Keep competing. All that practice, all that dancing, all that time listening to the music pays off.

Contest Strategies

In picking the right division my basic philosophy is, "follow the rules." Contest organizers have a written set of rules. Read them and do what they say. Having said that, it’s difficult to come back from a competition where you danced Novice and didn’t make the cut, and then find yourself placed by the rules in the next contest in the Advanced division. Don’t expect consistency in the West Coast Swing competition world. It is not standardized yet. However, the World Swing Dance Council is trying by developing a system for placement. It may or may not be used at your next competition. But where I’ve seen this system used, in spite of a few ruffled feathers, it made it much easier to comply with everything running much smoother. Maybe the constant bane of the competition world, "Oh, I don’t know what division I should put myself in" will dissolve as this system is adopted by more events.

If you have a choice of which division to enter by the way the rules are written there are several factors to weigh. You are not guaranteed a win in the lower division. In fact, you have increased the odds of getting a bad draw. Even if you do win, it may turn out to be a very shallow victory. If you dance in the higher division, you may get a better partner but the competition will be much tougher. It’s a tough choice. Bottom line: if the rules allow you to choose, pick the division where you feel most comfortable dancing. You’ll dance your best dance where you are most comfortable.

Although we don’t like to admit it, a lot of the emphasis in the dance world is placed on appearances. You have a better chance of doing well if you’re either handsome or beautiful. But you will note I said "a better chance," not a "shoo in." The rest of us can equalize this advantage by trying to look our best. Posture is something judges can evaluate even before the music starts. Ladies, have a makeup consultation, and remember the competition dance floor needs heavier applications than normal. Have your colors done or at least get some objective advice.

At most competitions the predominate color scheme is black or black and white. If you are the only red shirt on the floor, that’s how the judges will remember you. Now all you have to do is impress them with your dancing! And please wear appropriate clothing. Sure, some dancers compete in Levis and T-shirts but just because someone does something inappropriate is no reason for the rest of us to follow suit. Look sharp out there. Once again, it’s a positive reason for the judges to remember you. Maybe it will get you an extra second of their precious time.

It’s helpful to have experience with the music that is played for competitions. Buy the music and play it often, at home or in the car. Tap your feet. Listen for the breaks. If your local club or dance DJ does not regularly play these songs, request that they play a couple for you. Don’t be pushy and don’t ask for too much. Most DJ’s want to play what people want to hear and dance to. With a knowledgeable DJ you can just ask for current competition music and they will know what you want. Here’s some popular competition music:

Sugar Coated Love - Lou Ann Barton; Sho Enough - Tommy Castro; One Drop of Love - Ray Charles; WPLJ - Bill Pinkney and the Original Drifters; Think - Aretha Franklin (Blues Brothers Soundtrack); Wall to Wall - Vance Kelly; I Want - Chaka Khan; Fever - Elvis Presley; Roadrunner - Microwave Dave and the Nukes; Fine Brown Frame - Lou Rawls; Maybe Someday Baby - Delbert McClinton; Tossin and Turnin - Phobe Snow; Ooh Poo Pah Doo - Taj Mahal; A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing - Tower of Power; You’ve Got the Power - War.

Goal Setting

Goal setting is an extremely powerful tool. Visualize where you want your dancing to go. What do you want to accomplish and when? If you set realistic goals, you can focus on what it’s going to take to get you there and how long it will take. What steps are needed to accomplish your goal? You can break a big goal down into steps, and break the steps into tasks. Work on the tasks now, one by one. Remember to review your goals periodically and evaluate whether or not you’re making the progress you want. If you’re not, rethink the process and reevaluate the steps to achieve your goal.

The accelerated pace of our time means we have too much to do, too much to think about, too much input in general. To really become a better dancer you need to concentrate energy on your dancing. You must make time to dance, make dance a priority. Concentrate on your dancing and your goals.

You can’t win if you are not in the running. As you improve your dancing you improve your chances to win. If you improve your dancing but are never at the contests you might as well have not bothered. Get out. Be seen. Compete. You are not going to win that Jack & Jill sitting home watching Friday night TV.

In review, it’s obvious we all need some help if we want to do well in dance competitions. We need help from teachers, coaches, practice partners, and haberdashers/dressmakers. But most of all we are going to have to help ourselves. We need to focus our energy on dancing and on becoming even better dancers. That’s the real road to winning that dance contest. See ya out there!