West Coast Swing
West Coast Swing is a uniquely styled Swing dance popular all along the west coast of North America and slowly gaining a wider following throughout the rest of the continent and beyond. It is an extremely adaptable social dance for many styles of music. Although it can be danced at fast tempos it is usually danced to a slow or medium tempo.
This dance is characterized by slotted movements and anchoring at the end of each pattern. At the highest levels syncopations are emphasized along with rippling body actions and a push and pull style of partnering usually described as “stretched” and “compressed” connections. These give the dance a highly fluid look.
The sophisticated style, wide adaptability and cool, bluesy feel make this dance a popular favorite.
- Footwork–Steps are done in a slot, moving forwards and backwards
- Dance Position–Open facing, closed hold, handshake or crossed hand hold
- Movement–More of a smooth glide than up and down or bounce
- Motion & Accents–Stress the use of beats to steps and body to music
- Anchor Steps–Occur at the end of every step pattern
- Compare/Contrast–Swing (East Coast Swing), Lindy Hop, Foxtrot, Carolina Shag, Rumba
As with all Swing dance forms the origins of the West Coast Swing start with the Lindy Hop. During the 1930’s when the Lindy Hop fad was sweeping the United States Dean Collins, a famous Swing choreographer from the era, moved to California. He championed a slightly different variant of Savoy Lindy using a more “slotted” back and forth movement rather than the circular style usually favoured. Some say this was for the filming of the dancing as it always showed the profile to the camera. Others claim it was for crowded dance floors where the wilder Lindy dancers danced in the centre and smoother dancers danced along the edges of the floor in a narrow slot to avoid getting hit.
By the 1940’s, however, these wild arial versions of Lindy Hop/Jitterbug began to be banned from many dance establishments due to injuries so the smoother style, danced by most dancers anyway, picked up momentum. In the directly post-war era music slowly changed from the big band style to the more blues based rhythms to which the smoother version of the dance was much better suited.
After observing the style of some of the smoother dancers during that time Arthur Murray developed and documented several swing steps that he later called “Sophisticated Swing” apparently after a conversation with Myrna Myron (a swing dance club owner from southern California) . This dance had a smoother gliding style and used the slotted patterning of the ‘Dean Collins’ Lindy Hop style. This was the beginning of what is now called West Coast Swing.
Arthur Murray is credited with the first codifications of West Coast Swing and used such names as “Under Arm Pass, The Whip and The Sugar Push” to describe the patterns. The lady taking “two walking steps forward” towards the man at the beginning of each pattern was standardized in his dance studios.
The name of the dance evolved from “Sophisticated Swing” to “Western Swing” for a time in the 1950’s and by the early 1960’s the term “West Coast Swing” became common usage to distinguish it from Swing danced to country western music.
In 1989 California selected the West Coast Swing as its state dance. Today there are over 5000 documented West Coast Swing step patterns and more are added every year. Thankfully, we need only know even a few patterns to make the West Coast Swing a fun and exciting dance to do!
West Coast Swing is hugely adaptable and can be danced to almost any music written in 4/4 time, from the Blues to Disco, Jazz, Pop, Funk, Country or Big Band. It can also be danced over a hugely wide range of tempos everything from the slowest blues to the fastest Jive style music but the recommended tempo from the National Dance Council of America is 28 to 32 bpm (bars per minute), at the slower end of the Swing dance spectrum.
The West Coast Swing differs from other swing dances because of it’s distinctive “anchoring” in place for the lady until she is led forward and its “slot” approach, where the lady’s movement takes her straight forward towards the man, not in opposition, such as in a rock step for some other forms of Swing.
The basic patterns for the West Coast Swing are largely based on the same basic 6-count rhythm as the American Style / East Coast Swing and International Style Jive but danced in a more ‘forward and back’ fashion instead of the ‘side to side’ lateral and rotational movement.
Since this basic 6-count rhythm is easier to learn in American Style / East Coast Swing, that dance is usually introduced as a prerequisite for the West Coast Swing, particularly for the beginner dancer who may have never danced before. The West Coast Swing has a greater complexity of the basic patterning and the lead and follow are more technically specific making it a dance largely for the intermediate or advanced dancer.
West Coast Swing can be danced virtually any speed from very slow to very fast but the character changes over that range. At the slowest speeds the dance tends to exhibit a rhythmical and highly elastic dance connection with very sexy, “slinky” Rumba-like walks for the lady. The dance is often danced using a slight backward connecting poise at the full extent of the connection, particularly for the lady, at this speed. As the dance becomes faster it becomes slightly more upright and the connections shorter giving it a “push and pull” kind of look as the dancers whiz past each other and connect inwardly and outward.
West Coast Swing often uses 8-count “whip” timing and encourages many syncopations where alternate rhythms are used in place of the basic ones to enhance musicality and make it more challenging. Syncopations are popular with the ladies since even if the man knows few patterns to lead she will still have many options on footwork to keep the dancing exciting.
West Coast Swing is considered a “living dance” in that it is constantly evolving, growing and changing to the music styles currently in vogue. For instance one more recent innovation is called Swango, where elements of Argentine Tango are incorporated with the West Coast Swing material and danced to fusion style music, featuring traditional tango styled music with a strong blues backbeat added. Artists such as Gotan Project and others are the ideal music for this dance style.
A social dancer who knows West Coast Swing well rarely has to sit out. Modern styling for West Coast Swing incorporates a lot of sharp footwork, “rippling” body actions and timing changes into the basic patterning to give it a highly rhythmical and liquid movement in the most advanced dancers.
West Coast Swing songs and artists include:
- Addicted to Love – Robert Palmer
- Chain of Fools – Aretha Franklin
- Fever – Peggy Lee
- Brown Sugar – Rolling Stones
- Mustang Sally – The Commitments
- Take Your Clothes Off – Ria Mae
- The Way You Make Me Feel – Michael Jackson
- Superstition – Stevie Wonder
- Play That Funky Music – Wild Cherry
- Suit and Tie – Justin Timberlake
- Gimme One Reason – Tracy Chapman
- Something to Talk About – Bonnie Raitt