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A Few Notes On West Coast Swing

by Dan & Sandi Finch

West Coast Swing is a form of swing dancing, once called “sophisticated swing” or “Hollywood style swing.” It is usually danced to a slower tempo than Jive and is always danced in “the slot.” Being “in the slot” means that the Lady works in a straight line up and down line of dance, while the Man works in a slot across the Lady’s line of dance, as well as up and down line of dance. This is contrary to Jive, where the patterns are more circular.

This form of dance evolved on the West Coast in the late 1930s. Although the exact origin is disputed, most sources credit the movie industry. Directors, concerned with camera angles when filming, insisted that the actors dance in straight lines so their profiles would always show rather than having their backs occasionally to the camera. Thus, the birth of the slot.

Dancers doing Jitterbug and other forms of swing now called Jive, East Coast Swing, and Lindy had become so exuberant that they were banned from the main dance floors of the big ballrooms for interfering with the smooth dancers. As the story goes, to get back onto the floor, they began adopting the more compact Hollywood version of swing.

Yet another story credits the small dance floors of West Coast night clubs with the birth of West Coast Swing. You had to squeeze together and work in a slot to have room to dance. Whichever story you prefer, the name recognizes the West Coast as the geographic origin of the dance, and it is appropriate that West Coast Swing is the official state dance of California.

Initially ignored by the ballroom studios, West Coast Swing evolved as a “street dance,” which gave rise to many variations. It was reportedly first documented by Arthur Murray’s Santa Monica, CA, studio in its syllabus in 1951, giving patterns for the anchor step, sugar push, whip, and underarm pass. Today, you will encounter variations depending on the part of the country you are from and whether your introduction was at a swing club, a ballroom studio, a country western competition, or round dancing. Roundalab began standardizing West Coast Swing figures in its Standards for Round Dancing Manual in 1989. The rhythm begins in Phase IV.

FUNDAMENTAL RULES

  1. NO ROCK RECOVER: Almost all Jive figures start with a rock recover for Man and Lady, and most East Coast Swing figures end with rock recover, but rock recover is not done in basic West Coast Swing.
  2. IT STAYS IN A SLOT, as opposed to the rotating patterns of other forms of swing.
  3. FOOTWORK: WCS is smooth, like walking, without the Jive “bounce.”
  4. FIRST STEP: Back (or side and back out of the slot) for Man, forward for Lady.
  5. LAST STEP(s): Figures end with a tripling action, called an anchor step (but you will find modified endings).

MUSICAL TIMING

The basic music for West Coast Swing is the blues, but it can be danced to any music with 4/4 timing (four beats in each measure). While Jive is danced often at 40 measures a minute, West Coast Swing is danced usually in a range from 26 to 32 measures a minute.

Some basic West Coast Swing figures take 6 counts of music (requiring a measure and a half to complete); others use 8 counts of music (spanning two measures of music) The passing family of figures has the preferred timing of 123&4 5&6. Using that timing, steps on the “&” count and the “Q” before it are danced in one beat of music with each step getting equal time, thus:

Timing: 1 2 3 & 4 5 & 6

Beat value: 1 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ 1

This results in a smoother type of action, less bouncy than Jive and more like walking.

In round dancing, you will encounter two timings. The Roundalab manual gives timing with “&” counts as preferred but acknowledges that some choreographers use 123a4 5a6. ICBDA’s technical manual uses 123&4 5&6 timing.

BASIC STEPS

West Coast Swing breaks down into three basic families of figures: Passing figures (including the right side pass, left side pass, and underarm turn); Sugar figures (such as sugar push, sugar tuck & spin, and cheek to cheek); and Whips (including basic whip, wrapped whip, tummy whip, and surprise whip). Almost every figure ends with an anchor step but it can be replaced with a variety of options. Lady often has a spin that replaces the anchor step. A fourth category is a catch-all for a variety of “anything goes” kind of figures, figures borrowed from other rhythms and WCS figures with unusual timing.

For a sugar family figure, Man will stay in his slot, taking two steps back, then stop, blocking partner’s forward motion; she dances to him, then returns to her starting position.

For a passing or whip figure, Man will step back and out of the way to initiate movement, so Lady can dance past him in her slot. She continues moving until resistance through the Man’s arm causes her to stop or turn.

While some figures (like a whip) appear to go “around” the man, Lady should think straight-line movement up and down line of dance. The underarm turn of Jive is elongated in West Coast Swing to become a passing run in the slot.

BUILDING BLOCKS OF WCS FIGURES Some of the basics are figures of less than one measure, and are components of other West Coast Swing figures:

Anchor Step (IV): 1&2 A triple in place. This is used to “anchor” the end of a figure and to re-establish the connection between partners. This is the RAL preferred ending for figures. The triple has three weight changes: trailing foot back under body (instep to heel), recover weight to lead foot, and replace weight to trailing foot, allowing weight to settle back into the hip.

Coaster Step (IV): 1&2 Back hitch for Lady and sailor shuffle for Man can be an alternative ending. It is discouraged as an ending because it shifts the Lady’s momentum forward before the next figure starts, bypassing the resistance necessary to allow Man to lead her. The coaster step survives mainly as Lady’s triple step in the middle of a whip turn.

French Cross (IV): 1&2 An elongated running triple, appearing in the middle of passing figures to keep Lady in the slot. She steps side R, crosses L in front and (usually) side and back R to face partner.

WSC FAMILIES OF FIGURES

SUGAR FAMILY 1234; 1&2 Think: “Walk, walk, touch, step, triple step”

Basic Sugar Push (IV): Starts in left open facing position and ends where it began.

Sugar Tuck & Spin (IV): Starts like a sugar push and ends where it began, but as the name implies Man spins Lady on the last triple.

Variations: Sugar push with triple in the middle (unphased, 123&4; 1&2); Face loop sugar push (V), Sugar Push Hook Turn (VI), Cheek to Cheek (V), Sugar Bump (V).

PASSING FAMILY 123&4; 1&2 Think: “Walk, walk, triple step, triple step;”

Underarm turn (IV): Starts in left open facing position and ends in left open facing position, but facing the opposite direction. He leads her forward to start, steps side out of her way and turns to face the opposite direction. She starts forward R, forward L, swiveling slightly LF to face wall side R/cross L in front of R, back R turning to face; anchor step. (Note: Lady’s “3&4” done this way is the French cross.)

Left side pass (IV): Figure starts and ends in left open facing position, making a ½ LF turn so that the partnership faces the opposite direction from where it started. Lady runs past Man’s left side. Her footwork is the same for underarm turn, right side pass and left side pass.

Right side pass (IV): Starts in an L-shaped or even tandem position with right hands joined. Lady does the same footwork as a left side pass, only the run goes past his right side because of his position, changing hands as she passes him on step 3 and making a ½ LF turn to end facing the opposite direction from where she started.

Variations: Left side pass with tuck and spin ending (unphased); Shadow tuck and spin (unphased); Traveling side pass (VI); Man’s underarm turn (IV); Alternating underarm turn (V)

WHIP FAMILY 123&4; 123&4 (Man allows Lady to pass, then whips her back to starting position) Think: “Walk, walk, triple step; walk, walk, triple step;”

Wrapped Whip (IV): Man leads Lady forward and gets out of her way, comes around behind her wrapping her in momentary tandem position to stop her forward progression, then gets out of her way to send her back to where she started. Lady moves straight forward and straight back (no dodging around him) with a hitch in the middle and anchor at the end.

Whip (V): A complete rotation ending in the same place it began. A popular variation is the power whip which replaces Man’s triple in the middle with even counts. Lady passes and turns to face, does a coaster step and starts back to where she started, finishing with an anchor.

Variations: Tummy whip (V); Side whip (V), Surprise whip (V); Half whip (unphased); Whips with inside and outside turns (VI); Continuous (or rock) whip (unphased)

ANYTHING GOES

This category includes figures from other rhythms and figures with timings that don’t fit the other families, such as cheerleader, defined in the Manual as: Cheerleader (VI): 1&2&3&4 (but usually done with more steps to be 1&2&3&4&5&6 ending with lead feet free).


Dan & Sandi have other essays and helps on their site.
This article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, June 2010



If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.
If you are not a member of DRDC, do consider joining. The group sponsors quarterly weekends with great dancing and teaching, and the newsletter is one of the most informative available.

Past DRDC Educational Articles by
Jim & Barbara German, ca. 2000-2001
Chris & Terri Cantrell, 2001-2005
Harold & Meredith Sears, 2005-present

Some articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
Gert-Jan & Susie Rotscheid


Go beyond this site. Good instructional books and videos, both new and used, are available at low prices from Amazon. Find other references on our Sources and Links pages.


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