An Introduction To West Coast Swing
By Brent & Judy Moore
West Coast Swing (sometimes called
"Sophisticated Swing") is one of the large family of
swings. In fact, swing is probably the most varied genre of couple
dancing there is. Swings have been adapted to accommodate almost
every tempo from the very fast to the very slow. West Coast Swing is
one of the slower swings but can be done to tempos as fast as 35
measures per minute (MPM) or as slow as 24 MPM. The musical structure
of swings, including West Coast Swing, is usually four beats per
musical measure, but you may encounter some two-beats-per-measure
music used for swing dancing. The fundamental structure of the dance
is fairly simple, but it does place a greater demand on understanding
the fundamental actions. West Coast Swing has some basic guides for
how figures work based on position and count, but, as always, there
are some exceptions.
First, the fundamental structure of
movement in West Coast Swing is that the lady moves forward or back
along a single path (sometimes called the "slot") and the
man has a more versatile role, in that he moves in the slot with the
lady or to either side of the slot to create turn for the lady or
movement around the lady. This is in contrast to the more familiar
Jive or East Coast Swing, which tends to be circular in the figure
patterns, where both the man and the lady turn around a common
center. In Jive and East Coast Swing, the lady can, in many cases,
assist the partnership by initiating or carrying through the circular
movement, but in West Coast Swing, she has to rely on the man dancing
a role that is separate from hers, and she has to be committed to
dancing her role.
There are three essential classes of
West Coast Swing figures based on the structure noted above: the
"Sugar" family, the "Pass" family, and the "Whip"
family. In the Sugar family, the man stays in the slot and usually
leads the lady to return to her original position. In the Pass
family, the man moves to one side or the other of the slot and allows
the lady to pass him and establish a new position at the opposite end
of the slot. In the Whip family, he meets the lady in the slot and
causes her to rotate (usually twice -- but at different times) and
usually she returns to her original position in the slot. Note now
that in some Whips the lady will have no turn. It is interesting to
note also that in Pass figures, the lady has the same basic action in
them all; in the Whip figures, the man has the same basic action; and
in the Sugar figures, both vary their action.
The basic count structure for West
Coast Swing figures falls into two general categories: six-count
figures and eight-count figures. Embellishments can extend the counts
to ten or more, but these extensions are still rooted in six- and
eight-count figures. Handily, there are some accepted rules for what
happens on specific counts in the direction of movement that guide
the performance of West Coast Swing. Here is a quick summation of
those "rules" for both six- and eight-count figures:
- On count 1, the
man moves away from the lady and the lady moves toward the man.
- On count 4, the
man moves toward the lady and the lady moves away from the man.
- On count 6, both
man and lady resume their standard facing position.
On count 1, the man moves away from the lady and the lady moves
toward the man.
On count 4, the man moves toward the lady and the lady moves toward
On count 6, the man moves toward the lady and the lady moves away
from the man.
On count 8, both man and lady resume their standard facing position.
rules. It's what happens in the positioning on the other counts and
the occasional variation, such as which hands are joined, that makes
figures different. Another caveat relating to the "rules"
of what happens on particular counts is that the movement described
as "toward" or "away" can vary in magnitude and
stepping direction, depending on the figure and the technique being
used. In some cases, it may be a foot; in others, it may only be a
fraction of an inch. Sometimes it may be forward, sometimes it may be
back, and sometimes it may be side. However, the reference point is
always the partner.
Since West Coast Swing is an American
Rhythm dance, footwork is typical for most rhythm and Latin dances --
ball-flat or ball, on most steps. That helps keep the action smooth,
controlled, and "sophisticated." Footwork is not to be
confused with stepping direction. Footwork identifies which part of
the foot is in contact with the floor on any beat or half beat. With
this ball-flat footwork being the same as East Coast Swing and Jive,
we need to add another distinction that makes it very different from
those two types of swing -- there is no bounce in the basic action.
It is flat like Rumba -- thus the smoother, more "sophisticated"
look in the execution of the figures.
The syllabus for West Coast Swing
begins with Phase IV, and there are only eight full figures listed in
that phase. These basic West Coast Swing figures are listed below,
and we refer you to your teachers and to the Roundalab or ICBDA
manuals or to specific cue sheets for their descriptions.
Right Side Pass
Sugar Tuck & Spin (or Twirl)
Left Side Pass
Whip Turn (phase V)
Man's Underarm Turn
As you listen to your teachers and read
figure descriptions, keep in mind that West Coast Swing is, as
mentioned above, an American Rhythm dance and is less codified than
the International Latin. Being so, there are varying opinions about
the fundamental actions, which depend on the area of the country you
are in or which dance school/studio you ask. Also, keep in mind that
all dance is an evolving activity and things change over time. So you
are free to feel the music and dance your own dance.
clinic notes from the ICBDA annual convention, July 2010, in San
This article was published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2010