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WEST COAST SWING

by Harold & Meredith Sears

Last month, we looked at some of the characteristic features of Jive.  West Coast Swing is probably the next most popular of the swing-related rhythms.  West Coast Swing evolved out of the early Lindy Hop in the 1930s.  It tamed the wild Lindy moves and constrained the dancing to make it compatible with the popular and crowded dance floors of the time.

West Coast vs. Jive—

Where Lindy was decidedly athletic, and Jive is active and busy even today, keeping us up on the balls of our feet, West Coast Swing is more stylish and sophisticated.  Many steps are simple walking, with heel leads.  It is a good bit slower, with tempos of 25-35 measures per minute, more easy-going, sometimes even lazy. The dancing is relaxed and smooth. It is an evocative dance—you have time to embellish the figures with whatever foot and body styling you might be moved to add.  Jive is hot and full of a bouncy energy.  West Coast is smooth and cool with a sort of elastic energy.

Jive is up and light. West Coast is down and more grounded.  In West Coast, your upper bodies are upright, but your legs often extend forward, in front of you on a diagonal, forming a “V” with those of your partner.  His weight is back a bit as he urges her toward him.  Her weight is back a bit as she resists.  You can think of this as the “water skiing look.”  Both of you are down and into the floor, not skipping along above the floor.

We’ve noted that Swing, Jive, and Lindy are circular dances in which the man and woman travel around each other.  West Coast Swing is a slot dance in which the woman dances up and down as though on a diving board, sometimes making 1/2 turns at the ends and other times moving back and forth facing the same direction. The man leads the woman forward. He steps out of her way, dances around her in various patterns, and then gets back into the slot again.  Or he leads her forward, blocks her progress, and sends her back again. 

West Coast may be “slow…even lazy,” but it is not at all loose or sloppy.  It is quite controlled.  The woman begins to move only when led to do so by the man.  Then she continues to move within her slot—down her track—until she is stopped or turned by the man.  Meanwhile, the man is carefully getting out of her way and then returning to the slot.  All this implies quite a bit of control. Jive seems less controlled—wilder.  The terms Jive and Jitterbug raise images of abandon, even flailing about, that we don’t see in West Coast. 

Lead and Follow—

The woman's first step in West Coast is usually forward.  In Jive, many figures start with a rock apart—the man rocks back, and he leads the woman to rock back as well.  In essence, she is "mirroring" his step.  If he stood before a mirror and stepped back, his image would step back, too.  In West Coast, the woman doesn't often mirror the man.  Instead, she truly "follows" him.  He steps back and he draws her forward and toward him.

Keep your joined hands low.  The woman’s forearm should be horizontal, and your upper arms should be parallel to your torsos and tucked in.  Your lead and follow will be sharper and clearer if the upper arm is more connected to the upper body and the force through the lower arm is directed toward the body’s center. If your arms are flopping around, the lead will be delayed and less clear.  If your hands are high, his lead will go toward her shoulder, and only her shoulder will move.  If you have very different heights, you might choose to hold your forearms in line with each other and therefore at an angle to the floor, rather than to have the taller person’s forearm angled and the shorter person’s forearm horizontal.  Again, the goal is to have a strong look, a strong connection, and a clear line of communication.

In leading, it is important not to rely on the hand and arm only.  If the man wants to lead her forward, he must not pull her to him with his arm.  Instead, both he and she must maintain toned arms.  He steps back, not pulling, but drawing her toward him with his whole body.  He “takes her with him.”  This is a much nicer image than one involving pulling, tugging, or jerking.

The tone in your arms must be firm but not stiff.  Think about what happens when a train starts to move.  The engine begins to roll.  A bit later, the coupling with the next car grabs, and car #2 starts with a jerk.  Then the next coupling grabs, and car #3 lurches forward.  This is what stiffness does.  We want an elastic tone, so that the man can draw the woman forward smoothly and not with a jerk.

A diesel engine at the head of a train—you might get an image of a very strong lead and an easy, passive follow.  On the contrary, the man should not overdo his lead. Once you get her moving, let her dance the figure, moving down her slot.  Try not to disturb her again until you must stop her or turn her within the slot.  And following cannot be passive, because the man’s and woman’s steps are often so different from each other.  More than in many rhythms, she needs to know the figures.  She can’t necessarily look at where the man is or at what he is doing and then adjust to match.  Think of the Left Side Pass.  His first step is back and her first step is forward.  So far, so good, but then he steps side and back out of the slot, and her second step is again forward.  There is no clear relationship between those two “second” steps.  She has to know to stay in her slot (and not to follow him out of it). 

Shaping and Contra Position—

We have the man leading the woman back and forth within a relatively confined slot.  One way to make this relationship softer and less confrontational is to use contra body position and shaping toward your partner.

For instance, think of the Sugar Push.  Men, you could step back and then back, drawing your partner directly toward you.  This square and face-to-face orientation is somewhat blocky and blunt.  We don’t want that.  We want to be more playful, flirtatious, coy.  So instead, step back on the first step but then only slightly back and under the body on the second step.  This will produce a right-face body rotation.  If you were facing line at the start of the figure, you will take your tap step (third beat) facing line and wall.  The woman might tap R behind L facing reverse and center. You can extend your lead foot a little, toe on the floor. You are turned a little away from your partner, but you are looking at her and sort of gesturing toward her with your lead foot.  If you do the Sugar Push oriented squarely, it’s a little like pushing against a stone wall.  In an angled and shaped position, it is somehow more teasing and easy-going.  If you are square to your partner, your body is constrained and limited.  At an angle, you have more freedom to add hip movements and other styling.  On the fourth count, the man steps forward, and you can square up somewhat with your anchor or coaster.  You’ve had your playful moment, and now it is time to try something else. 

Ladies, Own Your Slot—

In West Coast Swing, the woman has the important responsibility to make her slot her own.  Ladies, don’t let your man turn you from your slot.  He has set you moving.  Now, one of only two things should happen.  Either he stays in the slot and sends you back the way you came—think of the Sugar Push.  Or he steps out of the slot and lets you pass—think of the Left Side Pass or Underarm Turn.  If he does step aside, take advantage of that opportunity to escape and drive on past him.  Your man and this rhythm have you caged and confined.  If you see a chance to escape, take it—drive down the slot.  It won’t last long.  He will stop you, turn you, and lead another figure, but dance your slot as far as you can. 

In other rhythms, the dance frame rules the partnership—above all else, maintain the frame and the connection between partners.  If the man dances the woman off the line of dance, she follows—she maintains the frame.  In West Coast, the slot rules.  Above all else, she dances her slot.  So, ladies, don’t be deflected from your slot.  If he only steps partially out of your way, don’t move to the side and dance around him.  Dance right through him—knock him down if you have to.  Well, don’t really knock him over, but the woman dances around her partner in Jive, not in West Coast.  (Of course there are exceptions—the Left Circle Pass is one—but it is a good rule most of the time.)

The slot is not very wide—only as wide as the woman’s shoulders.  So when we say that the man “gets out of her way,” we really don’t want him to go very far.  At a minimum, he needs to step just beyond her shoulders and then turn a little to get his shoulders out of her way, and we do want him to do the minimum.  Even though you are doing different things—she is dancing her slot, and he is dancing around her—you want to dance together.  Stay as close as you can.  Be aware of each other.  Remain attached.

Good attachment helps you to make use of a visual lead, as well as the manual lead.  On a Left Side Pass, she steps forward because you drew her toward you.  As you step out of her way, she continues forward, because you haven’t given any additional lead and she is dancing her slot.  Then she begins to turn into her French Cross (side R/XLIF of R, back R).  There can be two good reasons for this turn.  First, she has “run out of arm” and your lead-arm connection is turning her.  This is the manual lead.  Second, you are close to one another, and she wants to keep her body centered on yours.  This is the visual lead.  It can be a strong lead if you stay connected as a couple.

West Coast Swing is similar to Jive in many ways.  The music swings.  The figures make use of triple-steps.  The dance is a variety of Swing.  So it is easy to fall into the habit of dancing West Coast Swing as a Jive.  But don’t do it.  Try to keep the West Coast characteristics in mind: 

  • slot, not circular
  • walking, not rocking
  • smooth and shaped to partner, not loose
  • controlled and elastic, not bouncy


From the the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, May 2006; shorter version reprinted Round Notes, Colorado Round Dance Association, April/May 2014.


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