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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:

Six-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.

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 toward the man.
  • 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.

Pretty simple 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.

Sugar Push

Right Side Pass

Sugar Tuck & Spin (or Twirl)


Left Side Pass

Wrapped Whip

Underarm Turn

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.

From clinic notes from the ICBDA annual convention, July 2010, in San Antonio. This article was published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December 2010

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