WEST COAST SWING FIGURE PATTERNS
by Harold & Meredith Sears
Part I—Two-Count Figures
Last month, we looked at some general features of West Coast Swing, the
official state dance of California. Here is a quote from the
California list of state insignia:
West Coast Swing Dancing is an intricate dance, requiring a
great deal of coordination, good timing, and intelligent application.
It is an American dance, which is danced to American music. It
originated in California and is danced in competition nationally and
One way to categorize the wide variety of figure patterns that
we find in West Coast Swing is to think about what the man may
do. He has three choices. He can lead the woman forward but
stay in her slot and so not allow her to pass. This lead produces
the Sugar figures (e.g., Sugar Push, Sugar Tuck & Spin).
Second, he can lead her forward but step out of the slot and allow her
to dance past. If he dances to his left, he creates Right Passing
figures like the Underarm Turn and Whip Turn. If he dances to his
right, he leads Left Passing figures like the Left Side Pass and Man’s
Another way to organize all these figures is
to look at how many beats of music each uses, and this is the more
common approach. Of course, round dancers extend their figures in
all sorts of ways, but at a basic level, we have two- four- six- and
eight-count figures.In only two beats, we can’t create a lot of variety. We can take
one slow step or walk in two quicks. We can step forward, back,
or side. We can kick, flick, or hop. But there are three
different two-count figures that are especially important in West Coast
Swing, in that they are often found within longer figures. These
are the Anchor, the Coaster, and the French Cross. All three of
these are syncopated figures with a count of 1&2 or quick/&,
The Anchor is a common ending step
of many West Coast figures. For both the man and the woman, it is
a small step back and under the body with the trail foot, replace,
replace, with a timing of quick/&, quick. There are really no
steps. The feet don’t move, but there is weight change and hip
movement forward and back. Keep the upper body still. There
is a rocking-back-and-forth feel to it—back/forward, back.
a nautical anchor, this step stops your movement. It gives you a
moment to stabilize your partnership and adjust your position in
preparation for the next figure. It serves as characteristic
punctuation at the end of one figure and prior to the beginning of the
Step is an alternate ending step that you can use. For the man,
it is like a little sailor shuffle with the trail foot: cross right
behind left/side L, side R. For the woman, it is like a little
back hitch: back L/close R, forward L. West Coast Swing is
unusually flexible in allowing individual expression, but these Coaster
Steps are not really preferred. For one thing, the Coaster Step
can shift the man a little to his left and so disturb his relationship
to the woman, firmly placed in her slot. Second, as the woman
steps back/close, she is likely to stick her backside out in an
inelegant sort of way. Third, if she steps forward on the last
step of her Coaster, she will find herself moving forward at the
beginning of the next figure, and she really shouldn’t begin to move
forward until she is led to do so by her man. Another way to look
at this last point is to see that her Coaster causes one figure to flow
smoothly into the next. Jive is a rhythm that properly flows in
this way, but West Coast Swing is more grounded, more segmented, even a
little deliberate—but in a good way, a sensual way.
at least be aware of these two different “looks”—the looser, flowing
look given by the Coaster Step, and the more punctuated look given by
the Anchor Step—and we can try each one.
Now, there is one place where you definitely do want a Coaster Step, and that is within
a figure where you want to smoothly change your direction of
movement. Think of a Whip Turn. We do want the first part
of the figure to flow into the second part. So, the Whip Turn begins
for the woman with a forward R, forward L and turn 1/2 to the right,
and then a modified Coaster Step: back/close, forward and turn
1/2 again to the right. She maybe began the figure moving toward
reverse line-of-dance, and the Coaster smoothly got her moving toward
line again. In the second measure, she steps back L, back R, and
then punctuates with an Anchor Step.
For the woman, we can
even distinguish between a Back Coaster (bk/cl, fwd,) and a Forward
Coaster (fwd/cl, bk,). It is a Forward Coaster that changes the
woman’s progression in the middle of a Tummy Whip.
are few two-count steps that stand alone as standard figures—maybe one
Side Break or a Cheerleader—but we have been focusing on small
components within or at the end of longer figures. Chris &
Terri Cantrell have written about different ways to vary or modify the
ending of standard figures. Here are a few West Coast figure
endings that they have suggested, along with the count that would be
used for each.
- anchor or coaster described above—1/&, 2, (or 3/&, 4; in an 8-count figure)
- overturn the anchor (turn away from partner on first step and back toward partner at end of second beat)—1/&, 2&,
to the 4 & step (kick trail foot forward/place trail ankle to lead
knee–the "4"–, step side on the trail foot)—1/&, 2,
- point step point—1/&, 2,
- step point step point step—&1/&, 2&,
- cross cross step (cross in front like cross swivels)—1/&, 2,
- out out in in (side L/side R, recover L/recover R)—&/1, &/ 2,
These sorts of variations may be used to dress up many of the standard West Coast figures.
third, heavily used two-count figure is the French Cross. Like
the woman’s Coaster, it is used within six-count, eight-count, and
longer figures to produce a smooth change of direction. The woman
steps forward R turning 1/4 to the left, crosses left in front of right
continuing to turn another 1/4, and steps back. You can sharpen
the movement a little more by putting more of the turn into the first
step—step forward R turning 1/2 to the left, cross left in front of
right with no further turn, and step back. Either way, this is a
nice alternative any time the woman might otherwise do a run/run past
her partner, and then step and turn 1/2 to the left on the third
The French Cross has an elegant feel to it, a
little like a Viennese Turn. It helps you to maintain connection
with your partner. Maybe the most important thing it does is to
keep you absolutely straight in your slot. In the Left Side Pass
or the Underarm Turn, during the first triple, if you step forward
R/fwd L, and then fwd R and turn 1/2 left, you have just pivoted your
body on that right leg and so shifted your body to the side by a full
body width. If you were moving down line, that turn on beat 4
would have shifted you out of your slot and closer to the wall.
Now, you will rightly say that we’re talking about only a couple of
floor boards, and it will be easy to adjust and get back in line.
But look at what the French Cross does. You turn on beat 3.
That turn has the same potential to shift your body sideways, but on
the “&” count, you cross the left in front of the right, and that
crossing step shifts your body back to the slot again. The back
step on count “4” is squarely in the slot. It’s magic.
usual, we have wandered a bit. What we have been trying to say is
that West Coast Swing is a controlled slot dance. The Anchor is a
two-count figure that effectively brings closure to a sequence of steps
(the larger figure of which it is a part), and there are a number of
ways we can use turns, kicks, points, and crosses to embellish or dress
up our endings. The Coaster and French Cross produce not so much
an ending as a transition from one state to another. The Coaster
changes our direction of movement, and the French Cross changes our
facing direction, and they do it smoothly, gracefully, and “in the
slot.” Stay tuned next month for a look at the four-, six-, and
eight-count figure patterns.
From the the Dixie Round Dance Council
(DRDC) Newsletter, June 2006.
If you would like to read other articles on dance
position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit
the article TOC.
Past DRDC Educational Articles archived here.
Go beyond this site. Find other references on our Sources and Links