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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 internationally.

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 Underarm Turn.

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.


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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/&, quick. 

Anchor Step—

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.

Like 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 next figure. 

Coaster Step—

The Coaster 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.

We can 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. 

Ending Variations—

There 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&,
  • kick 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. 

French Cross—

The 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 step. 

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.

As 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.

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


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