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West Coast Swing Is A Wonderful Thing!

by Kristine & Bruce Nelson


West Coast Swing (WCS) is fun and excitingly different! WCS is jive’s smoother cousin. Both are in the “swing” family but are danced quite differently. But NOT TO WORRY! Any basic jive dancer can learn and enjoy this rhythm. Spending just a little time thinking about the similarities and differences between jive and WCS will be your key to successful WCS dancing!

WCS is danced to a somewhat slower tempo than jive and uses music that is usually bluesy or jazzy, although lots of different music is used for choreography. Jive is bouncy or up and down with many sharp turns and is generally danced in a circular pattern. WCS is danced in a relaxed, slinky, or smooth manner without any bounce. It is danced in a linear pattern with the dancers exchanging sides.

Slot? What’s that? --

In WCS, the partners dance with each other along an imaginary linear path, referred to as “the slot”. The slot is like a path with a rail along each side of the path. If you think of railroad tracks, the slot is the space between the rails. Men clear the slot by moving onto the rails on either side to allow the woman to stay in the slot as she passes by the man. The slot for the woman is her line of travel. She dances forward and back in the slot.

The man starts the woman's travel down the slot and initiates the figures. The woman responds and executes the indicated figure. The woman’s path is straight through the man. The man moves in and out of the slot, depending on the pattern led. A general rule is that the man leaves the slot (steps onto the rail) only to give way for the woman to pass him. Each dancer then collects in the slot and prepares for the subsequent figure.

Dance Position --

Most figures are danced starting in a left-open facing position with the man’s left and woman’s right hands joined. Both partners keep their forearms horizontal and parallel to the floor and do not allow the wrists to break upward (the arm placement may vary if one partner is much taller). The dancers keep forearms pointing straight at the partner. The elbows should be kept in, toward the side of the body, and not out to the sides. In general, the elbows remain forward of the body (never behind). When dancing WCS, it is important for both partners to maintain an “apart” tension.

The upper body remains quite still. The hips and legs are soft and absorb the energy of the figures. Both dancers use their legs in a very fluid, relaxed manner -- not rigid.

Movement --

The movement of WCS is created by the use of "stretch" and "compress," -- the movement between partners is very elastic (rubberband-like), in-and-out, which creates the energy for passes and whips, turns and spins. Each figure begins with the man stepping away from the woman while providing tension to encourage her to step forward (toward him). At the end of each figure an “anchor” is used to separate the partners and re-tension the arms. (See below for basic figure rules).

Lead/Follow --

WCS is strongly a lead/follow dance rhythm. The man must initiate and the woman must respond. She must not initiate her own movement. Partners must maintain firmness in their arms (think uncooked spaghetti) in order to accurately deliver a lead and to properly respond to a lead. The connection must be smooth without any bounce in the arms. Floppy arms (think cooked spaghetti) just will not transmit the lead message. Men must be aware that too much firmness in the lead will jerk the partner. When partners get the firmness/tension just right, it’s like power steering a car!

Rhythm Patterns --

In West Coast Swing there are 4 basic types of figures, each with its own rhythm pattern (count):

Basic (Anchor or Coaster or turning) --
rhythm = Q&Q or 1&2 (may be used as 3&4, 5&6, or 7&8) = 2 counts / 3 changes of weight.

Passing figures --
rhythm = QQ Q&Q Q&Q or 1, 2, 3&4, 5&6 = 6 counts / 8 changes of weight.

Sugar figures --
rhythm = QQ QQ Q&Q or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5&6 = 6 counts / 6 changes of weight (NOTE: count 3 may be a touch action that does not change weight or it may be a basic action Q&Q or 3&4).

Whip figures --
rhythm = QQ Q&Q QQ Q&Q or 1, 2, 3&4, 5, 6, 7&8 = 8 counts / 10 changes of weight.

Basic Figure Rules --

There are a few basic rules for dancing WCS figures:

1. On count 1 of all figures: (replaces the jive rock apart step)

Man steps away from Woman to begin to lead.
Woman steps forward toward Man.

2. On count 4 in 6 count figures (or on count 6 in 8 count figures):

Man steps toward Woman.
Woman steps away from Man.

3. On count 5&6 in 6 count figures (or on count 7&8 in 8 count figures):

Man steps in place or slightly away from partner.
Woman steps in place or slightly away from partner.

We recommend that you think about the anchor step prior to any figure. It is the ending action of all WCS figures, and for the dancer it is a comfortable base both to end at and to start from.

Some Basic WCS Figures -- Note: complete figure descriptions are in the ROUNDALAB manual. Visit the site. Get your copy, or study cue sheets which should be based on that manual.

Basic Actions --

Anchor (Coaster variation) -- Basic action that takes the place of a jive “Chasse” or triple.
Turning Basic -- Figure similar to jive 2 Turning Triples.
Throwout -- Figure similar to jive Throwaway.

Passing Figures --

Underarm Turn -- Figure similar to jive Change Left to Right.
Left Side Pass -- Figure (for woman) similar to jive Throwaway.

Sugar Figures --

Sugar Push -- Unique to WCS, considered the “basic”.
Tuck & Spin -- Variation on Sugar Push, similar action to jive American Spin.

Whip Figures --

Whip Turn -- Foundation figure for many turns & spins - many variations.
Tummy Whip -- Figure similar to jive Lindy Catch.
Wrapped Whip -- Figure also similar to jive Lindy Catch.
Whip with Inside Turn




From clinic notes prepared for the ROUNDALAB Annual Convention, 2010, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2014.


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If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.



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