West Coast Swing (WCS) is a partner dance derived from Lindy Hop. It is characterized by a distinctive elastic look that results from its basic extension-compression technique of partner connection, and is danced primarily in a slotted area on the dance floor. The dance allows for both partners to improvise steps while dancing together.
Typically the follower walks into new patterns traveling forward on counts "1" and "2" of each basic pattern, rather than rocking back. The Anchor Step is a common ending pattern of many West Coast Swing figures.
It is believed that the origins of the WCS are in Lindy Hop. In a 1947 book, Arthur Murray recognized that, "There are hundreds of regional dances of the Jitterbug type. Each section of the country seems to have a variation of its own."
Dean Collins, who arrived in the Los Angeles area around 1937 after learning to dance at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, was influential in developing the style of swing danced on the West Coast of the United States, as both a performer and teacher. When his wife, Mary Collins, was asked if Dean was responsible for the emergence of the dance, however, she said that Dean insisted there were "only two kinds of swing dance - good and bad".
Lauré Haile, Arthur Murray National Dance Director, and an instructor of teachers documented swing dancing as done in the Los Angeles area and used the name "Western Swing". Murray had used the same name, "Western Swing", in the late 1930s for a different dance. Haile included Western Swing in Dance Notebooks she authored for Arthur Murray during the 1950s. Western Swing was also called "Sophisticated Swing" in the 1950s.
Dancing to musicians wearing cowboy hats and string ties playing fiddle, steel guitar, etc. Pumpkin Center, Bakersfield, CA 1950sWestern swing, country boogie, and, with a smaller audience, jump blues were popular on the West Coast throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s when they were renamed and marketed as rock 'n' roll in 1954. Dancers danced "a 'swingier' - more smooth and subdued" form of Jitterbug to Western Swing music.
West Coast Swing (still known as Western Swing at that time) is the basis for the dancing in the rehearsal scene in "Hot Rod Gang" (1958). Music is supplied by rockabilly musician Gene Vincent's "Dance to the Bop". The song alternates between very slow sections and those with the rapid pace and high energy of rockabilly. Choreographer Dick DiAugustine includes recognizable patterns such as the chicken walk, swing out from closed position, etc, along with the classic woman's walk walk triple step triple step at the end of the slot. On the final step of the second triple the women are weighted left with the right heel on the floor and the toes pointed up. Dancers also do classic Lindy flips at the end of the slot, as well as non partner, non West Coast Swing movements.
Murray's taught Western Swing beginning from a closed position and the possibility of dancing single, double, or triple rhythm. After a "Throwout" patterns began with the woman "walking in" and the man doing a "rock step", or step together for counts one and two. Although the dance remained basically the same, the Golden State Dance Teachers Association (GSTDA) began teaching from the walk steps, counts 1 and 2. It replaced Lauré Haile's Coaster Step with an "Anchor Step" around 1961.
The name "West Coast Swing" was used in a little known hand book for Arthur Murray dance studio teachers in the 1950s, but the Murray studios used the term "Western Swing" on charts. West Coast Swing as the name of the dance in its current form was first used in an advertisement by Skippy Blair in 1962, but wasn't incorporated into mainstream swing circles until the late 1960s.
Blair credits Jim Bannister, editor of the Herald American newspaper in Downey, for suggesting the name West Coast Swing. The name change came about because she had found that "nothing Western was really welcome in the city of Downey in 1958". Beginning with the opening of the Golden West Ballroom in 1967, and through 1980, West Coast Swing was on the marquee as the dance taught every Wednesday and Friday night.
Western Swing was documented in the 1971 edition of the "Encyclopedia of Social Dance", listing the "Coaster Step" (with a forward step as the last step of the 2nd triple) rather than the Anchor Step. The one song that was listed for this dance was "Comin' On" by Bill Black's Combo (1964 Hi #2072). As late as 1978, the term "Western Swing" was common usage among Chain and Independent Studios to describe "slotted swing".
Circa 1978 "California Swing" was yet another name for West Coast Swing, albeit with styling that was "considered more UP, with a more Contemporary flavor." By 1978 GSTDA had "some 200 or more patterns and variations" for West Coast Swing."
In 1988, West Coast Swing was pronounced the Official State Dance of California.
West Coast Swing is a slotted dance. The slot is an imaginary area, long and thin, eight or nine feet long if danced at a very slow Tempo, but shorter if the music is at a faster tempo. The follower travels back and forth in the slot dancing straight through the man. The leader consistently moves a minimum amount (at mid-way point) to her sides, barely out of her way. She lightly brushes against him each time she passes him. Brushing seems rare these days though (2009).
Socially, it is considered good etiquette (particularly on a crowded floor) to use a fixed slot, in order to allow dancing without incident. Having danced the slot repeatedly, the couple "has a claim" on the area, and other couples usually cooperate and establish their own slot parallel with the dancers.
There are urban myths regarding the origin of the slotted style. According to one version, it was an invention of Hollywood film makers who wanted "dancers to stay in the same plane, to avoid going in and out of focus". Wide angle lenses with adequate depth of field for cinematography had in fact been available since the 1920s. A variation on the "Hollywood film maker" theme is that film makers wanted "to avoid filming the backs" of dancers. A viewing of films featuring the work of Dean Collins in the 1940s, and rock 'n' roll films made in the mid 1950s reveals the fact that dancers turn frequently and inevitably turn their backs to the camera. Although another unslotted swing dance, Balboa, became popular in the same area and under the same conditions, much has been made of "jitterbugging in the aisles" as a source of the slotted style.
Slotted moves were a common part of the step vocabulary of Lindy and/or Jitterbug dancers during the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than the walk, walk of West Coast Swing, however, two sets of triple steps were used when the woman moved down the slot, followed by a rock step rather than the current triple and anchor step.
The origins of the dance that became known as West Coast Swing can be traced to the swing era. During this period many jazz, blues, and western musicians incorporated, or emphasized, the "swing" in their music. Writing in the "Arthur Murray Silver Dance Notebook", Lauré Haile, who first described "Western Swing", listed the following songs/records as "Good Swing or Fox Trot Records".
"A String of Pearls" by Glenn Miller ((1942))
"Let's Dance" by Ray Anthony ((Columbia L-258)(1951))
"Be-Bop's Spoken Here" by Les Brown Columbia 38499 (4/14/49)
"Also Good Swing - but unusual Chorus "AABA":"
"One Mint Julep", Buddy Morrow, Victor 20-4869 (June/July 1952)
"Dry Bones", Tommy Dorsey, Victor 20-3523 (1949?)
Big Bands continued to flourish in the 1950s, touring, selling records, and appearing on radio and the new medium of television. As the decade wore on, however, many mostly younger listeners preferred to hear the simpler and (some say) noisier music given the name Rock 'n' Roll, and this music became known as the most popular music for dancing.
West Coast Swing like moves can be seen in rock 'n' roll films made in that era. The film "Hot Rod Gang" shows West Coast Swing being done to the song "Dance to the Bop" by rockabilly musician Gene Vincent.
While teenagers preferred to freestyle dance through a constantly changing succession of discothèque social dance fads during the Sixties, adults kept Swing alive.
Western Swing was documented in the 1971 edition of the "Encyclopedia of Social Dance", listing the "Coaster Step" (with a forward step as the last step of the 2nd triple) rather than the Anchor Step. The one song was listed for this dance was "Comin' On" by Bill Black's Combo (1964 Hi #2072).
In the mid 1970s, disco music and dancing repopularized "touch" partner dancing, and, in California, West Coast Swing was one of the dances of the era. By the 1990s country western dancers were dancing West Coast Swing to contemporary country western songs. West Coast Swing is now one of many dances done at country western venues.
In practice, West Coast Swing may be danced to almost any music in 4/4 time, and music of many different styles may be found in an evening of West Coast Swing dancing.
West Coast Swing can be danced to almost any music written in 4/4 time at speeds ranging from very slow to very fast; 15 to 45 Measures per Minute, ideally at 32 Measures per Minute (15x4=60 bpm, 32x4 = 128 bpm, 45x4=180 bpm). The character of the dance changes over that range. At the slowest speeds the dance tends to exhibit a highly elastic connection with the possibility of very sexy, "slinky" walks for the lady, and a slight backward leaning poise at the full extent of the connection. At faster speeds the partners become more upright and the connection shortens with more of a "push and pull" feel and look.
The "ideal" speed for WCS has been cited as 32 Measures per Minute (32x4 = 128 bpm), compared to advice to chose "records that are around 28 mpm" (28x4= 112 bpm) for "Western Swing".
In writing about West Coast Swing, Skippy Blair advises that, "The only problem that exists in SWING is when someone decides there is only ONE WAY to dance it. There is never only ONE WAY to do anything ..." "'Try on' different styles that you admire in other people...until you find the comfortable one that FITS YOU."
Dancing to different types of music gives a different feel and look.
A 1998 summary of "trends" in West Coast Swing listed the following: Traditional/Classic with very little extension of the uncoupled arm, the man moving off and on the center of the track for most moves, and a heavy "couple weight"; Modern with more free arm extensions, and emphasis on how many spins, etc, the man can lead. Fast Music The man's "couple hand" is fixed in space on beat 3 in a pass or push.
In 1994 Blair noted that the posture for men was more upright than in previous years.
Although there are many exceptions and variations, West Coast Swing Basics are as follows:
She will always start with the Right foot.
She starts on a down beat, counts one or three of a measure.
She has a rhythm pattern of six beats (to start): double (walk walk) a right triple and a left triple
She will walk forward forward on the first two beats of every pattern.
She will step 3 times at the end of each pattern, the Anchor Step.
He will always start with the left foot.
He will vary his first movement according to the location of his partner.
He will vary step two depending on the direction of the pattern.
At basic and intermediate levels, most dancers start the dance with a 4-Beat Starter Step.
(Note that the woman's step is different than the man's; partners do not mirror each other.)
A few basic moves that any WCS dancer should know are listed below. They are performed with the same "step step tri-ple-step tri-ple-step" pattern equalling eight steps in six beats of music. The term "count" is used as a synonym for a "beat", usually a quarter note, of music.
Underarm pass: A six-count basic where the follower is led to the other end of the slot, passing the leader underarm on the right.
Left-side pass: A six-count basic where the follower is led to the other end of the slot, passing the leader on the left.
Left-side Tuck turn: This is like a left side pass in six counts, but the leader raises the left arm signaling the follower to turn under the leader's arm, an outside turn.
Sugar push or Push Break: A six-count "move" where the follower, facing the leader, is led from the end of the slot to a one or two hand hold, then led back to the same end of the slot. The seemingly very simple Push Break requires "leverage" or "resistance", to make the pattern. While the arms remain firm but flexible, there should be no excessive pushing or pulling in the arms but in the body. In some instances this sequence is taught as "The Six-Count Basic".
Whip: An eight-count basic with many variations. In a basic whip, the follower is lead past the leader and then redirected (or "whipped") back towards the end of slot from which he or she started. The basic footwork for a whip extends the six-count pattern by inserting a pair of walking steps between the triple steps. The footwork is therefore "step step tri-ple-step step step tri-ple-step."
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