March 28, 2014

#58: Changing the Essentials

Adding and Expanding the Essentials
of West Coast Swing
Weekly Note #58
It's not wise to violate rules, unless you know how to observe them. -TS Eliot

I'm grateful that my editors allowed me to rework and expand my original articles before releasing them in Telling the Truth. It's a much, much richer read as a result. Today I want to talk about the updates and expansions you will find in Chapter Four: The West Coast Swing Essentials. There are about five in all, but I've addressed some recent trends in competitions, auditions and workshops too. Here we go!

Change #1: 
Swing Essentials vs. WCS Essentials

I wrote Swing Essentials before I'd researched or developed Tenets of Swing. Once both were out, people were confusing them. So this is just a very simple change. The WCS Essentials serve to help you identify West Coast Swing when you are watching it danced on the floor, especially during non-routine dancing. It certainly helps more with both than before they were developed. We went almost 60 years before any essentials were developed, but they have been praised by both the creators of the dance (yes! many are still with us thankfully!) and the true champions and legends of WCS today.

The Tenets of Swing, of course, are the things that bind all swing dancing together: Balboa, Shag, Jitterbug, etc. That article is also expanded in Telling the Truth, especially the section on Rock Steps. A single teacher outlawed them about ten years ago, and it's thrilling to see that they are making a comeback finally - as they should. They are an essential part - we lost 70% of all WCS patterns because of it.

So I renamed the article to fit the dance it describes: West Coast Swing Essentials. I type it WCS Essentials for short. It's a more fitting and correct name. 

Side Note: I know a lot of you Europeans and workshop fanatics that adhere to that whole "audition" thing, have been hearing about "other" essentials from other teachers. I have heard A LOT of crazy new "swing" essentials being thrown around by others lately. I get it. You guys are studying up, getting into the dance, trying to understand it.

As such, you ask smart questions, especially since I encourage you to think for yourselves. And so you've caught The Ten and their 'chosen' instructors off guard - unable to answer. Some have thrown out immediate fabrications. Others have come up with their own - all of which are based on the "new" dance they claim to be creating. So... from what I've heard, here are some helpful tips to identify real "essentials" when you hear them:
  • WCS Essentials tell you HOW to identify real WCS when you're watching it.
  • Their essentials are ideals and philosophies and intangibles. 
These are huge differences. The whole creation of Abstract Improvisation came when all the couples in The Ten, as well as Nissies in your local communities, all came up with their "own" version of WCS. None of them were alike. And each of their creations' fit their own abilities perfectly, but no one else could do them as a result. 

WCS is a dance with universal rules that we all can follow to dance with each other, just like all other partner dances. Abstract Improvisation can only be danced by those focused on promoting themselves and their strengths, not on dancing with anyone per se. I will get into how those differences are affecting our communities later, but for now, just keep that in mind.

Change #2: 
Diagrams for the Defined Rectangle Slot & Man in the Middle

The freedom to expand my articles as much as I wanted lead to something I've wanted to do for a long time: add diagrams and charts. Man in the Middle can be a hard concept to define in writing. I have a much easier time demonstrating it to people. It's an easy concept, really, but I knew charts were able to do so very much more. You already see the slot being used better since their release.

That's because these new charts give you a birds-eye-view of the slot. The more familiar you are with these diagrams, the more quickly you will spot WCS when you see it, on and off the dance floor.

Since I've been writing, I'm sure you've noticed that a lot of the Abstract dancers have changed their dancing. Oh yes, a few of them literally changed their routines to actually fit my signs of Abstract (Flip Flopping in their routines, for instance), but the majority have suddenly stopped Flip Flopping (Weekly Note #7: Groupies & More...) all over the place, or running down the slot, or not having a slot at all.

It's been fascinating to watch.  And yet they are still doing Abstract Improv. Oh, they're dancing closer, staying tighter, in what seems to be a slot, but it's not WCS. A slot isn't everything. You need all the WCS Essentials. Otherwise the two dances collide and people get hurt. A lot of dances can be danced in a slot, like Salsa - but it doesn't mean it's WCS. That's where these diagrams will really be powerful.

So how can you tell if it's still Abstract? Right now you can tell because the man is at one end of his slot and she's at the other. They spend the dance switching places. That is, in no way whatsoever, the Man in the Middle concept. The Man in the Middle isn't easy. But it sure is necessary. It's the foundation of every single basic pattern in WCS. Tomorrow Abstract Improvisation will have morphed again - whatever it takes to stay in power and keep others out of it.

So for now, study up on those diagrams in the new WCS Essentials. It'll help you so much in your dancing, learning, judging and instructing!

Change #3: 
The Anchor is Out, Sentence Structure is In

The anchor isn't really out, it's just been added to the mix of a bigger picture. If you hear a rumor out there that Katherine Eastvold says anchors are out, you have my permission to smack 'em upside the head for me. Read on, people, read on...

Basically, I've put the anchor at the end of a WCS "sentence." Every WCS pattern is a sentence, really. Every WCS pattern has a Beginning a Middle and an End. And guess what that end is... Yes! An anchor! Yay! Now, can you tell me what the Beginning is for a WCS sentence? Telling the Truth has it all... (Hint: "Stretch" has nothing to do with it!)

Change #4:
Pulsing is Out, Double-Triple is In

Okay, so there are two reasons I made these changes to the Essentials, beyond the reasons I gave in the whole "title" discussion above. The big reasons for the rest of the changes are 1) that I had so much room to expand that I simply expanded the sections (as I did in the Anchor to Sentence scenario) and 2) that I've been watching a crazy, crazy, crazy, CRAZY amount of real West Coast Swing lately.

When I first wrote the Essentials, I had just come out of living in Northern California, where a lot of this craziness first began. By the time I left, instructors were teaching that Anchors didn't exist (wha??? I know right!?!) and that dancing on the beat means dancing to the melodies in the song, instead of the real beat (wha-wha-WHA??? I KNOW, right?!?!)

(Side Note for a second: I'm going to be addressing this in the final book, but let me just give you some much needed oxygen for a second. Dancing to the melody of a song, like Blues dancing, is 20X times easier than dancing to the beat of the music, and then syncopating within those beats to hit or paint melodies or lyrics in the song.

If someone tells you - "Oh! There's so much more FREEDOM in Blues," or in Abstract, etc etc... just know that yeah - when a dance is no longer a partner dance, with basics that follow the beat and rhythms of music... like Contemporary & Modern dancing that you see on SYTYCD, then yes - there's a heck of a lot more freedom... because there are NO BASICS, and thus it sure isn't swing. Modern dancing is the most basic form of movement - I took plenty of those classes at UCLA and everyone can do them - WCS??? Swing? All but three students would've dropped out - but they'd be the happiest students in the world. Enjoy your dance. You picked it for a reason!)

Moving on.

Anyhow, I wrote the Essentials based on what I was seeing in the Bay Area and what I was seeing around the country while traveling. I had not been watching a lot of real WCS, not had I really had a chance to dance real WCS either.

But in the last two years since that first article, I've danced a lot of real WCS, with a lot of dancers from the era of WCS's birth and development. The dancing, the videos, the music... it awoke all the things I knew, but didn't know that I knew.

I was there when pulsing became a fad. And I can tell you that it was then that the music started really slowing down. By 1999, nearly every Classic routine was around the 100 bpm range, whereas only a few years before, things were much much faster. Of course, by 1999, nearly every competitor that was at the Open in 1997 had quit and either left the dance completely, or left the WSDC events.

I understand why now.  I dare you to go ahead and watch any WCS routine from anywhere before 1997 and see if there's a "pulse" in their dancing.

Please understand me. Seeing a division between the rhythms (two beat increments) does NOT mean it's pulsing - it just means it's a rhythm dance, and by that qualification, any dance from Cha Cha to Rumba should have a visible division between every rhythm as well.

Good ahead and dance with the people that have been around longer than the WSDC and see if they have a pulse. Go ahead and dance to a super fast song, and see if you can pulse. Go ahead.

Now - when it comes to Club Style swing, the kind that's all about slow music and dramatic lines, then fine - go ahead and pulse. But it's not an Essential.

What IS an Essential? The Double-Triple. Now THAT you can see in any WCS dancer's feet from 1952-2013. Anyone's. Walk, walk, triple step - the start of every single WCS pattern except the Starter Step, and every single variation beyond that.

Read the book for more exceptions and descriptions, but the easiest way I've found to recognize swing content is to look down at the feet, and watch for that golden Double-Triple.

From Weekly WCS Note #58: Changing the Essentials. Released March 2013.