April 28, 2011

West Coast Swing Essentials©

Defining West Coast Swing

Excerpt from Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's West Coast Swing. Find this and other books by Katherine on Amazon.com.

I learned a massive amount while owning a studio. About life, about dance, about everything. But one of the favorite things I learned was that there is a dance for every season of life. I opened the studio a committed West Coast Swing fan, and left the studio a fully obsessed fan of all the partner dances… from Viennese Waltz to Tango, to Bolero.

A dance studio draws you closer to people unlike any other kind of business. It’s a family. You get to see people at their best, at their worst and everything in between. And you get to see that there is a need for all of the dances. For the street dances, the latin dances and the smooth dances. There’s even a need for American and International styles. Every dance matches a person, a people and a family. And in life we all experience different seasons that draw us or push us closer to the different dances that can heal or feed us at the time.

As time went on, through a thousand privates, classes and workshops with questioning and exploring students of all levels and backgrounds, I had the amazing opportunity to learn the intimate details that make a Waltz a Waltz, a Salsa a Salsa and a Cha Cha a Cha Cha. I learned that every partner dance has a character, a step pattern, a pulse and a particular floor craft. West Coast Swing is no different.

It too is a partner dance that’s lead-and-follow and danced on beat, with steps, rhythms, rules and a specific floor craft. In fact, its rules are quite a bit more complex than any other dances.’ So what are the essential elements that help us identify the dance? How do we know when we’re watching a WCS dance and not a Tango, a Foxtrot… or even Abstract Improvisation or Zouk?

To help, here are some easy things to look for when you’re trying to identify a couple’s WCS content:



Country Two Step travels around the floor, as does Waltz. Salsa is danced in more of a small circle, as is East Coast Swing. West Coast Swing, however, is danced in what’s called a “slot.” Most teachers teach that your slot should run parallel to the wood panels of the floor you are dancing on. Others say it should be danced parallel to the longest side of a rectangle room. I say that no matter where you are, make sure your slot isn’t in the opposite direction of anyone else’s around you. That kind of behavior never ends well.

A WCS slot is typically 2-3 floor squares (6 to 8 ft) long and one floor square wide. Most WCS dancers that have been dancing it for the last 30 to 60 years, however, typically stay in the 6 feet or less range when it comes to length. They focus heavily on the footwork and tend to dance, even now, on extremely crowded floors, so their slot has remained tight and controlled.

--All Graphics Designed and Copyrighted by Katherine Eastvold--

The Slot and its Boundaries

In WCS, depending upon the available room, we can shift the Defined Slot’s location on the floor, but then we re-post and stay there in a new established slot or return back to our original slot. WCS is NOT a rounded or unconfined dance. The slot does not extend very far on any one side.


In WCS, from the point of an onlooker, the man is visually in the center and patterns are used to move the woman up and down the slot. The man and woman do not stay at opposite ends of the slot and then switch, and the woman does not stay in the center while he moves around her unless it’s to let her pass him on her way down the slot. He stays in the middle, and makes magic moving her up, down, in and out of the slot. Some call the man’s actions to pin down the center of the slot ‘posting.’

In WCS, the leader operates in the center of the slot.

Here are other ways “Man in the Middle” plays out in the WCS slot:

At the start of a WCS dance, the follower begins in closed position with the man in the center of the slot:


For the majority of a WCS dance, the follower begins and ends all patterns at one of the ends of the slot:

In the Push Break, the follower moves towards the leader, then returns to her previous position. The whip follows a similar pattern:

In side passes, such as the Underarm Turn, the Left Side Pass or the Tuck, etc., the follower moves from one end of the slot to the other. Notice how the leader, throughout all the patterns, remains in the center of the slot:


--All Graphics Designed and Copyrighted by Katherine Eastvold--
# 3

WCS patterns are a lot like a sentence. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning of a WCS pattern is started by what’s called a Rubber Band motion. It occurs on the ‘&  a  1’ of a pattern and provides the momentum for the follower to move towards the leader. The middle of the sentence starts with the double-triple I will talk about in essential #4. The middle can come in the form of a myriad of patterns. Because WCS has so many triples and so many basics, the variety of patterns available are remarkable. They always require a multitude of triples, however, mixed in with a few doubles and every once in a while, a single, depending on the music that’s playing.

No matter how long a WCS pattern ends up being, no matter how long the sentence goes on, it will always end with a period. In the case of WCS, we call this an anchor. For years teachers have taught that the anchor is the period at the end of a sentence, but it does require some unique training and as such, much of its power and technique has been lost.

The anchor always takes place while the man is in the center and the woman is at the end of a slot. The anchor is primarily a function of the center (your center point of balance, also called your solar plexus by some). However, the motion of your center during an anchor is incredibly small. It will be easier for most to simply watch the feet and see if they gather together at the end of a pattern and seem to re-ground themselves.

An anchor, unless the song ends, is followed by the ‘&  a  1’ rubber band motion, the beginning of the next sentence… the beginning of the next pattern. Sometimes you will see a couple “extend” a pattern at the end of the slot. It looks like the couple is about to start a new sentence, but instead, they do some playful footwork in place. This conversational kind of dancing is still part of the previous sentence. 

But when the play has come to an end, you will see the couple start a new pattern with a very clear WCS ‘&  a 1’ rubber band that gets them in motion once again and the new sentence or pattern takes off.


This is probably one of the easiest characteristics to identify. It’s quite the powerful tool. In short, all West Coast Swing patterns, whether they are basics or not, will begin with a double rhythm followed by a triple rhythm. For those that don’t know what rhythms are, you can think of it this way: every pattern begins with a walk, walk followed by a triple step (or as one famous yet scattered teacher likes to say, “walk, walk, run-run-run!”)

It is also important to recognize exactly how these two rhythms occur. At the start of a West Coast Swing pattern, look at the follower’s feet. She will always start a pattern with her right foot and she will always travel towards the leader from the end of her slot. A double rhythm done in place does not qualify as the start of a WCS pattern.

The triple rhythm that follows is just as important. Other dances start with double rhythms too, but then they are followed by single or double rhythm, not by a triple rhythm. In WCS, that first double is always followed by a triple. What occurs on that triple varies greatly, depending on what basic or pattern is being done, but it will never be a single or a double rhythm. It will always be a triple. And it will always be in the center of the slot, when the partners are close to each other and the ‘post.’ At a more advanced level, this triple rhythm can even become a higher rhythm, depending on the pattern, like a quad, but you will never see it become less, like a double.

Do not be fooled by stutters. After years of telling dancers to remove their triples from their dancing in order to make way for this “new” dance, some are trying to bring them back in order to satisfy the judges. Unfortunately, it’s not working. The majority of these dancers “stutter” instead of doing an actual triple step. A real triple step in WCS transfers the weight on ‘3  a4.’ But stutters are different.

In stutters the so called “weight change” occurs on ‘a3    4.’ Not only are the beats incorrect, but these leaders never really transfer their weight. Typically, you will watch them simply tap their toe on the ‘a’ so that their ‘a3’ looks more like a hiccup, rather than an actual step or weight change. Often this tap occurs with no weight change at all, making their feet look busy when they really aren’t.

When you are watching real WCS, you will see the triple rhythm executed on and between the 3 and the 4. Anything else is cheating and in bad form.


If you count out all the basic WCS patterns, you will notice that for almost every double rhythm, there are TWO triple rhythms. Not only that, but there are no single rhythms at all. Triple rhythms are much harder to do than single or double rhythms in a lead and follow dance, because they can’t be danced ‘split weight,’ especially with good timing. Since the majority of other partner dances are made of single and double rhythms, WCS really stands out with its exciting triple rhythm footwork.

Once a dancer has mastered the above characteristics, meaning they are able to do them with all Three T’s: Timing, Technique and Teamwork, then, and only then, does WCS provide the complex freedom for three unique characteristics. I call them the Higher Essentials.


Many try to skip past the mastery of the above skills and boundaries only to find themselves doing another dance entirely. But when the following characteristics are added to the core essentials of WCS, the results are truly incredible. The dance becomes addicting to all ages and generations.  As with most art forms, once WCS is done with unusually excellent technique and skill, it can take anyone’s breath away, dancer and non-dancer alike.

The following are the characteristics that again, are not required, but can be attained more easily in WCS more than any other dance.


Contrast is typically considered present when a WCS dance contains both small and subtle movements as well as large and fast ones. A dance that has nothing but big sweeping movements, dips and drops is considered to be only 'one note.' Pure WCS allows for this, in that its footwork is so busy that it can do both with startling ease. More footwork means more opportunities.

Contrast is not simply speeding up and slowing down or reaching high then dropping low. Contrast is a higher essential, and as such requires an incredibly high level of dance skill, training and mastery. Contrast requires deft subtly combined with precise expansion. It’s using an unexpected variety of movements to tell a story. Contrast draws people in… it prevents them from looking away… it keeps their attention and makes them hit the rewind button.


Musicality as a higher element goes beyond staying on beat. It means dancing to the major phrase (starting a new pattern on the 1 of major phrase in a song), doing a large movement to a large piece of music and a small movement to a small ‘ting.’ It’s helping others hear things in the song they didn’t know were even there. It’s using the dance to paint a visual representation of the music.  The more challenging the music, the more exciting the painting.


True WCS requires a high level of leading and following because it has eight basic patterns to build moves off of instead of one. Skilled WCS followers often have a very easy time switching into other partner dances because they’ve learned to follow anything. They can join any other class and immediately be able to follow the instructor, provided that the instructor is a good leader.

Along with the achievement of exquisite leading and following skill, WCS offers up the ability for both partners to add styling, footwork variations (syncopations), breaks and conversations through movement… all while staying in direct and perfect connection with their partner. The lead-follow relationship is never broken.

As such, each WCS dancer of this level looks unique. I chose to study WCS instead of ballroom at an early age because the ballroom ladies looked very “cookie-cutter.” Real WCS allows one’s individuality to appear within its strict confines. The more a dancer grows in the dance, the more individual their style becomes. If you’re watching a floor where all the upper level women and men look the same, it’s a clear indication that swing content is lacking.

It may be a challenge in the beginning to get used to catching each of these things, but your eye will soon learn and after a while, it will come naturally to you. Always start by watching the feet and listen closely to the beat of the music. This method works in identifying any partner dance, but since WCS is such a complex and difficult dance, easy shortcuts like this will get your further in less amount of time. So enjoy using these characteristics to identify WCS on your social floors, during competitions and during routines. But no matter what, as always…


From the bestselling book Telling the Truth:
The Groundbreaking Articles that Saved West Coast Swing

April 21, 2011

Just Say It ©

You Know More Than You Think You Do
The majority of the real talent in our dance community is in crisis.  Professionals, champions, judges and advanced dancers of today and of the past (when the All-Star Division didn’t exist) are doubting themselves. Though they have extensive knowledge, training, insight, control, centering, impeccable timing, posture, technique and individual footwork and stylings, they are, by and large, questioning themselves. Some are retiring, some are switching to other dances and some are quitting dancing altogether. It’s nothing short of tragic.

You have the power to stop it. I’m going to tell you how.

I noticed something at the national dance events across the nation this last year. An irritating yet thankfully inconsistent failure in our judging system of the past is now a full-blown and snarling monster in the present. It happened at every single event. The results would be announced: fifth place (murmurs), fourth place (more murmurs), third place (fidgety panic), second place (impending gloom and hope at the same time) and then… First.

BOOM! The whispers, even cries all around me erupt. “What happened to so & so?” “What did I miss?” “That’s insane.” “Maybe it’s because they danced early?” “Maybe the scores were wrong?” and the worst, “That’s just wrong.”

I’ve been dancing WCS for nearly 20 years now. I’ve been to competitions since my start. I’ve been at almost every awards presentation. And if you know me, you know I have a killer memory. I remember them like it was yesterday. So I know when the sand is shifting. Okay, not shifting… more like quaking. A huge fissure has erupted. And the land of “performance” now looks over a huge canyon to the distant ledge of “scores.”

This is not the typical, “oh, I had fourth and fifth switched,” or “I had first place in third,” or “I didn’t have them in there at all” that I used to hear at so many events long, long ago. In fact, I was known for literally calling every single one of the scores back then. Even when I was a newcomer. I didn’t know names and I didn’t know faces, but I knew performance. And every once in a while, I’d wonder how my 3rd place was switched with my 5th place, but I never, and I mean NEVER saw a routine that I was sure would place… not place. None of us did.

Once the Points system was introduced though, around 1996, things definitely changed in that arena. Pros wanted to politic and protect their money and started fudging the scores a little. But in general, talented dancers won over untrained dancers. Messy, cocky ‘know-it-all’s’ who didn’t bother training but relied on “flash and trash” were kept in the lower ranks until they were serious and started showing some effort, skill and training.

But not today. Today is different. Very, very different.

Today there is a complete and utter disconnect between the famed “Three T’s” (Timing, Technique and Teamwork) and the final results. Audiences watch as a dance that was clearly executed with incredible craftsmanship, timing, teamwork and technique, as well as incredibly inspiring swing content, play and footwork, with no missed leads, no quivers in balance… just pure, inspiring, get-you-on-your-feet dancing… is left completely in the cold. As in out of the top five altogether. No recognition. Nothing. Some aren’t even close. And some, perhaps most tragically of all, are, for no reason I can imagine, at the bottom.

This, of course, has not gone unnoticed. At all. Even by the winners.

I’m watching the true professionals walk to the podium with a look pure confusion. They know their dance was a train wreck. A true craftsman knows when they were awarded for something unworthy of praise. They look uncomfortable… a bit wary. (Not the Nissy, of course. They always deserve, and completely expect, a walk to the podium, or even a higher placement, yes?)

The audiences? The ones that used to hear the scores and break into discussions like, “I had them here, but I guess I could see them there. What about you?” That audience is not taking it quietly. They, for the first time since I’ve been around, are flooding the scoring rooms. They didn’t even compete, but they want to know what the heck happened to produce such out of touch results.

I repeat. Non-competitors are checking the scores. I’ve never seen anything like it. In droves. They are baffled, concerned, unclear or just in awe and they are looking for answers.  Every Sunday night, as I sit and listen to them, I hear their conclusions. I am only going to list the conclusions I have heard from at least three different dancers each:
•The judges put in the people who are on their own event’s staff.
•The judges put in whoever danced the closest to the way they did when they competed.
•The judges were all over the board.
•The judges were scared of not being hired again.
•The judges put in who the event directors asked them too.
•The judges put in who they thought would win, not should win.

Let me be clear. The point of this article is not the judging that’s happening today. That’s an entirely separate article, though I do think a few of these reasons are spot on.

Now, my point is that, when you love what a couple does out there… you are not the only one! When the scores don’t make sense to you, chances are, there’s a sea of people standing right next to you that feels the same way you do.

You know more than you think you do.

But I’m asking you to do more than trust yourself. I am asking you take a deep breath, take a chance, and tell the talented person you saw that they inspired you. You can do it by email, by social network or in person. It can be brief: “I loved your Jack & Jill!” Or it can be detailed: “I loved that section with the (fill in the blank).” Of course, there’s my personal favorite “You were robbed. That was the best dancing on the floor hands down.” You’ll always hear me say, “give credit where credit is due.” When the judges don’t follow through on this concept, I’m telling you right now: you can.

This applies to social dancing as well. If you see a dancer on the floor who is a true champion, in skill, talent and control… a true artist that you just want to stare at because you learn so much by watching them, because they make you want to dance till your feel fall off… tell them. No matter who they are.

There is power in this approach. It WILL make a difference. Early on in my dance career a number of people said they loved my anchor. Let me tell you, I’ve never stopped paying attention to my anchor since then. If you tell someone you love their footwork or their lead or their smile while they dance, you can bet they are going to remember that and keep it in their dancing.

As such, I’ve made it a habit since I was very young to compliment those dancers that gave me goose bumps, no matter who they were or what it was that they danced. I knew even then that if I wanted to see more of such inspiration, then direct praise was in order. Now it’s your turn.

It’s time to inspire our truly talented dancers to stay with WCS. The days are far gone when a highly trained, talented and skilled dancer didn’t need anyone telling them that to know it. In an era where timing and technique are no longer rewarded but attitude, falling and Nissy-ish-ness are, the talented dancers are questioning their talent. They are questioning their place in this world.

In the dark and quiet,
they are wondering if the world has gone mad.

Please… give them the credit that they are due. Please… you know more than you think you do. Please…

Just Say It.

This article is copyright protected. Just Say It is part of the collection of groundbreaking articles found in Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's West Coast Swing, available in both Kindle and Print on Amazon.com.

April 09, 2011

Routines 101 ©

The Components You Must Possess
For a Truly Amazing Routine

Dancing can reveal all the mystery that music conceals. -Charles Baudelaire

I rarely enjoy anything as much as I enjoy choreographing. Besides the people, it is the thing I miss most about my owning my own studio. It was life changing, empowering and incredibly satisfying to choreograph all day long… Foxtrot, Cha Cha, Waltz, West Coast Swing and Salsa... everything!

Then love, marriage and life happened. Now that I'm traveling for the WCS community again, it’s been a little shocking. I'm discovering that many widely known benefits and expectations of putting a routine together have been lost over the years. Things that used to be universally known or expected are now, I’m discovering, completely lost and forgotten.  I’ve found this to be true for much of our dance, not just the area of routines and choreography, but I shall address that in the future.

But if you or someone you know is interested in doing a West Coast Swing routine, and you want to get the most out of it that you can, here are some things you should know before you even pick a partner, never mind a song or a choreographer.

Whether you're starting on this journey to get better, to make your partner happy, to showcase your accomplishments or to make your coach happy, at the heart of it all you really have only one goal that matters: to put YOUR best foot forward. The audience will only see YOU. And nobody else can be you. Nobody! And that's a GREAT thing!

West Coast Swing is stunning in its ability to showcase your individuality within its strict parameters. So the main goal of your routine should be to showcase your strengths, your stylings, your lines, your footwork and your own personality.

I have choreographed routines for students with movements that look terrible on me. Don’t roll your eyes. I have enough students do that. I’m serious- there are moves that I would never ever, in a million years, allow myself to be videotaped doing, never mind putting into a routine of mine to be played repeatedly by others. However, those moves have often worked for others beautifully. If they look fantastic on my student, I’m putting it in.

Take my husband Nick versus my dance partner Josh. Both Nick and I have long forearms, but very short upper arms. When we do routines together, such as our Salsa routine, there are drops, tricks and moves that work, and then quite a few that don’t. However, Josh has super long slim arms. They eliminate certain moves Nick and I do, but they also open up quite a few moves Nick and I cannot do without my head getting caught in his armpit or my hair tangled in his wrist. Naturally a lot of this is learned the hard way, but it’s an expected part of the routine process.

In short, choreography is sometimes about your dance level, but quite often it’s about other things you can’t change. When Josh and I first partnered up, we’d never really danced together. So I videotaped us dancing to a few songs, and very quickly noticed that our legs were the exact same length. If you know my routines, you’ll notice that I very much capitalized on that in my choreography. But I also noticed that our arms were completely and utterly different. Therefore I had to eliminate all “in-sync” arm stylings. If Josh’s arm was up in a long line, my arm would stay down in its own line, not parallel to his, as you see here.

(available in book version)
Choreography that capitalized on our strengths and smoothed over our differences: arms vs. legs, etc. (Photo by Kermit Dukes)

Any choreographer should know about these expected similarities and differences, and be able to see it. Even if they can’t explain why as I just did, they should understand certain moves and stylings don’t work on every single couple they give choreography to.

Yes, long distance choreography is popular today. You send music to a choreographer and they send you a video with your choreography back. If that’s the case, then you need to choose your choreographer very wisely, or be prepared to change your choreography accordingly, either on your own or with another coach or choreographer.

Because of the Universal Goal, I’ve also choreographed routines to music that doesn't move me, but it moves my students. It’s not difficult to do, unless the music doesn’t match the kind of dance they want choreographed. For example, a wedding couple brings in “At Last” as their wedding song, and they want a Cha Cha routine.

Okay, that’s an extreme example, but still, people today rarely know what kind of music works with what kind of dance (thank you very much, Dancing with the Stars and “iPod” DJ’s!). I’ve been lucky to work with couples who have had, for the most part, swingable songs. And though they don’t match my tastes, I can tell how much a couple loves their song. And so I wrap the choreography around their passion for it so that the audience can see their hearts on the floor.

I remember one couple that had already won the US Open in their division. They were trying a completely new direction and had received choreography for a 100% lyrical song. But they loved it. I mean, they really really loved this song. Even though it was chosen for them by somebody else, I could see that it made them want to feel. But they held back. And since the song wasn’t swing, it made the choreography they’d been given seem awkward.

Yes, I fixed a lot of the choreography, but my biggest change was to how they approached the song while dancing. I said, “Look, you love this song. I can see it. Don’t hide it! Let it envelop and fill you all the way through and just groove to it while you dance it. I want you to get totally lost in the song.” And so they did. And it gave me goose bumps.

Later, when they did their next “demo” in preparation for the Open, my own coach came up to me and said they had tears in their eyes after watching them. She said, “I didn’t know they could dance like that.” Exactly. It wasn’t a swing song, and it was hardly a swing dance, but all of that and the awkwardness it would normally have produced made the performance one of their best yet. As a judge, my job would have been easy, but as an audience member, I would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing “them,” in all their joy and passion, enjoy their song the way only they could.

(Imagine if they did that with a real swing song and a real swing routine! Oh my. I believe it would’ve brought the house down! And they would’ve placed much higher. There is nothing on this planet like watching swing dancers jam out their alive-ness in full expansion, with unfettered feet, against a ridiculously awesome swing song. It’s better than a triple shot of espresso, and it’ll charge you with so much energy you won’t be able to sleep that night! But I digress…)

The fact remains that no matter who you are, no matter what your background, level or experience, it’s vital that you understand this one thing before anything else.

If you are going to invest the money, the time, the training and the practicing... make sure you keep one goal in mind: to be yourselves. Never underestimate an audience. They know if you are pretending to be somebody else. And never underestimate the power of your "true self." It will fight you every step of the way if you try to be something you're not. You'll reduce your hours of investment, practice and coaching while increasing your enjoyment and benefits of the routine by taking the steps to ensure that it reflects YOU… and no one else.

This may sound obvious, but at the core you are doing a DANCE routine. Whether or not you're competing or simply showcasing your routine, never forget that you're doing a dance routine. So pick a song that makes you want to do just that: DANCE. And no, head-bobbing doesn’t count. It has to make you want to get off the couch, not lay back on it.

Trust me, whatever song or combination of songs you pick, you will end up hearing it a million-ba-jillion times before you ever perform it. You'll hear it at slow speeds, at fast speeds, in your head while you take a shower and in your head while trying to go to bed. If it inspires you to dance, and dance now, you'll enjoy the entire routine process and every performance a lot more than if not.

I am not a morning person. Not even a little bit. I don’t now how in the world I survived teaching high school and I don’t now how in the world I’ll ever survive kids. When the sun rises, I get tired and when it falls, I start to rev up. So when I have to stumble out of bed for a 6 AM floor trial with only three hours of sleep, I’ve never had to worry about not having the energy to practice. I put in the time and the work to get the right song. I know that, without a doubt, I'm going to want to dance no matter what the moment the DJ hits play.

The same applies to you. If you’re a morning person, then you’re going to have to be ready to dance at 11 PM at night. Either way, have a song that starts your engine is everything. Help yourself out and take the time to pick the right song ahead of time. It's worth the investment.

While we’re on the subject of music, let me let you in on a little secret. We pros with real training know that you choreograph, practice and rehearse to music that is 2% slower than what you will actually perform to on stage. You see, we know that adrenaline will make the speed you’re used to feel like mud when you’re out there.

Some pros no longer do this in WCS because they are no longer nervous. They know exactly how they are going to place or there is very little at stake. Others no longer do this because they are no longer energized by their routines or the crowd. But the majority of the real professionals dance it at 1 or 2% up from what they practice to, and for everyone else, 2% is considered the hard and fast rule. And what a little nugget of gold that rule is. I can’t even tell you. It’s quite the performance booster.

So if your song is 130 bpm, you may want to practice and choreograph at 2% down and then make a CD with your song at its normal speed. Or, as most people do, practice and rehearse at its normal speed, and then ask the DJ at the event to increase it by 2% when they play it. NOT at floor trials, mind you, but only for the big show. Trust me, you won’t notice a difference out there at all! The adrenaline will make it feel as if it’s the normal speed you’ve been practicing to all along, which will give your performance a much greater shot at being smooth and powerful.

I'm not going to lie. Partnerships are not easy. They are like marriages. They take mutual work, conviction, love, honor, respect and humor to run smoothly. I think I've seen a perfectly equal partnership on all fronts... twice. I learned very early on that for every two minutes we see of a partnership on the convention floor, there are hundreds to sometimes thousands of hours that we aren't seeing of that partnership. But it’s those hours that really matter, much more than those 2.5 minutes on the floor.

So here's the deal: everyone's different. Some people need a 50/50 partnership. Some can handle 90/10 partnerships. Decide what you can handle and grab a partner that fits. Be aware that most partnerships break up before they ever make it to the floor. There's no shame in that at all. Have pride for trying because you will have learned a lot no matter how far into the process you made it. It's worth the risk.

Keep this in mind, too. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, height, hair color and body types are NOT the thing to look for in a partner. All of that can be solved in choreography and costuming. Michelle Kinkaid was more than a full head taller than Phil Trau when they won the US Open Classic Division three times in a row. They rocked it like nobody’s business out there. Lance Shermoen, the King of the US Open, danced with more than three different partners over two decades, none of whom looked anything alike, and all of whom were phenomenal dancers. Yes, all of the routines looked different, just as they should have, but they were all amazing. Looks and levels don’t matter. Those can be worked around in routines.

What does matter? Abuse. You absolutely must be on the lookout for that. Routines are highly stressful projects. The tend to bring out the absolute worst in the absolute best of us. No one is immune. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse and mental abuse... these are the greatest pitfalls of routines. Learn how recognize the signs, how to protect yourself and when to walk away. If you have a partner that respects and honors you, no matter what their level, you can get an incredibly satisfying and even highly successful routine experience.

Oh there are so many things to know about choreography! Especially in today’s environment. It is only too easy to pay a ton of money and get a routine you can’t dance all the way through after even as much as a month of practicing. Now, more than ever, you must be attentive, aware and ready when it comes to choreography.

Here are the things to know:

A) If you plan on hiring a choreographer, remember that you don't have to pick only one.

Some couples have two, three or even four choreographers work on their routine. But whoever you work with, be aware that it's easy to be intimidated and accept changes, choreography or music out of fear (submission) rather than trust (joy). I don’t think people understand how much fear controls their decisions in today’s climate.

One of my most life-changing lessons was that a business attracts people who are like the person who owns it. We’ve had Nissies running and winning things for more than decade now, and so we’ve spent the last decade slowly but surely losing teachers who are healthy and helpful and replacing them with Nissy instructors, who are more interested in their own visions and desires than they are in you and your success.

As a result, it will be quite easy, no matter where you live, to end up getting choreography from a Nissy. And you will instinctively fear them enough to stay quiet. Very quiet. Watch what your body does when you are around them. It will tell you wonders. Last year, for example, I was working on a couple’s routine for the US Open. They were taking with another coach at the same time. At floor trials, as I worked with them, they were open, giddy and asking a lot of questions. They had freedom.

Then it was time for me to work with another couple. I went up into the bleachers. As I waited for the couple to take the floor, I noticed that the “other” coach had approached the couple I was just working with. My jaw dropped. The woman’s shoulders were wrapped tight around her body. Both of them were kind of hunched over. The coach was chattering away super fast as I’ve seen him do before, even with me. But I’m strong enough that I’m not afraid of him, and I can chatter away right back rather easily. But the couple never said a word. Literally. I think she kind of nodded her head at one point, but for the most part, they were caught in his Nissy tractor beam. They looked deflated by the meeting, the exact opposite effect you want from a coach. But he was a ‘name,’ and he had youthful energy, so still and quiet they stayed. In fear.

How unfortunate. And how easily avoidable! So take note. Fear will slow you down, cost you more and paralyze you. A good coach and choreographer will make you feel empowered and excited about getting on the floor. Remember, this is your routine. It’s your time and it’s your money and it’s your performance. Only. Nobody else's.

As the old saying goes, “the only one who can fight for you is… YOU.” If you fight to choose your choreographer wisely before you begin, as in doing some research, taking some privates to see how they operate or asking around… you’ll save yourself the pain of breaking up with the choreographer in the middle of the routine. You might have change mid-choreography, but be assured that this happens so incredibly often these days, that I’ve never heard of a single pro asking where their couple has gone once they’ve lost them. Very few are keeping track the way they used to, and if they are, then that’s kind of a red flag anyway. So enjoy flexing your freedom muscles.

B) Don't be afraid to ask!

9 out of 10 couples I've seen in the last four years have had their choreography done by one pro and then partially or completely re-choreographed by another pro in order to "fix" it. This isn't cheap. But this expensive practice is perpetuated by a nonsensical trend: couples give their original choreographer credit and label the other choreographers as "coaches." I constantly see couples hit with surprise at the routine they've received, simply because the choreography that inspired them in others was actually done by a completely different pro. So when you ask a couple where they got their routine, find out exactly what pro choreographed your favorite parts. It'll save you a lot of money in the long run. Then pay it forward. Give credit where credit is due.

C) And finally, don't be afraid to make your own changes.

You can keep yourself in check by videotaping yourself. You'll learn what to keep and what to toss and, depending on your eye, save yourself a lot of money in coaching and choreography.  If something feels awkward, stop watching the video for the eighth time and change it to feel less awkward. Sometimes it’s something as simple as turning your shoulders or hips to a different wall that makes everything feel better. Sometimes it’s putting in more footwork to protect your knee from being twisted. Trust your body to tell you when something isn’t working right, and do what needs to be done to fix it. You don’t even need to point out the change to your coach.

Too often I see couples making a change they love, and then they show their coach, like proud teenagers wanting their mom’s approval. But the coach feels threatened instead, and makes another change to it. Now the couple is uncomfortable again, and they avoid making any changes in the future out of “consideration” for their coach. If you have a feeling it’ll go that way, then just enjoy your changes on your own… and you’ll rock it a lot harder on that floor as a result.

When I was studying at UCLA I was hired as one of their fitness instructors. During training, they pounded one big lesson into our heads again and again: choreograph to the major phrase. I had already learned about phrasing in Swing, but was surprised to find it so underlined in a fitness program. The staff would literally fire instructors who didn't phrase their fitness choreography. Why? Because whether you’re educated in music or not, your body knows a major phrase change when it hears one.

The UCLA trainers considered our training in phrasing as a "protective measure" against injuries. If we choreographed our step routines, for example, to start over on the major phrase, the body’s internal instinct to change is fed, and nobody trips or falls over by instinctively changing when the music does but the choreography doesn’t. I’ve seen a few of those falls go down. It’s not pretty.

UCLA knew phrasing was a powerful tool, and back then, swing did too. Being able to ‘chart’ a song is everything.

It’s a powerful and easy tool that will make your routine look amazing, more professional and more exciting to your friends, family and audiences. So whether you are choreographing your own routine or bringing it to someone else, try to phrase out your music or hire someone else to phrase it out before even touching it with choreography. Make sure you start a new pattern on the "1" of each major phrase.

So there you are. Doing a routine is not a small task. I didn't even touch on costumes! Or Timing, Technique or Teamwork (any coach that has any actual training will build these into you and the choreography they give your to make you both look and feel fabulous!). But it's worth it. And worthwhile things take work.

I'm keenly aware that one routine can impact every level of dancer in the audience, no matter what division or what place the judges give you. I'm not a fan of routines that are clearly unrehearsed, uncomfortable or uncontrolled... the things that make your eyes gloss over while watching them. C.S. Lewis once said, "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally - and often far more - worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond." I believe it's the same with choreography. If a routine I put on the floor doesn't make kids and kings want to dance, then I've wasted my time.

As the nature of Jack & Jill's change, as more and more people are injured, and as more and more people feel sidelined in the dance, routines have the potential to change things. For the good or the bad. Follow these tips though, and you’ll be part of changing things for the better. You can love, live and grow through routines... visibly expand and shine... if you take the right steps.

Above all, I wish you the strength and courage to be yourselves out there…


Routines 101 has been greatly expanded with new material, pictures and info. It is part of the collection of groundbreaking articles found in Telling the Truth, available in both Kindle and Print on Amazon.com.

April 04, 2011

The Nissy ©

Narcissists Get Crowned with a
Nickname: Nissy.

"Nissy" is my nickname for the Narcissists of our dance community. It can be yours too. It's high time we had one.

Narcissism has increased at an alarming rate these last 10 years in our dance community, and the damage has been far reaching. As such, it's important that we who love the dance family become aware of the behavior and its effects. When we do, we can protect ourselves, the joy of our dancing and the joy of others when they are struggling and confused.

So what exactly IS a Narcissist? To put it very simply, it's someone who is ruled by "egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness." Though glamorized in the movies and on TV, the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a social disorder that's extremely destructive, especially in the lives of those that surround them. Because a Narcissist is incapable of putting anyone's needs before their own. Because they only see others as a means to meet their needs and boost their ego/image, their presence comes at a great cost to those in their family, workplace and community. Our community.

Now, do I think every dance scene in the world is flooded with full blown NPD's? No. Not worldwide. But I can bear witness to a number of communities with 50% or more of the people being Nissies. And that number is growing fast for two reasons. First, Nissies tend to attract other Nissies to the dance. They often form a group, known as elitism. Secondly, those who used to have healthy personalities have come to believe that they must mimic Narcissistic behavior in order to be accepted, to win, to be admired, and to be danced with. It's time we admitted the problem, acknowledge the behavior and take action to protect ourselves accordingly, because good partner dancing, amazing partner dancing... worthwhile partner dancing... can never ever be done by a Nissy.

If you Google Narcissism, you'll find a list of traits on a number of websites: ‘haughty body language’, ‘exaggerates their accomplishments,’ ‘uses people without considering what it will cost them’, ‘flatters and enjoys the company of those that admire them, but detests, belittles or ignores those who do not’, etc., etc. But one Narcissist is not like the other.

The textbook type of Narcissist is what they call an "exhibitionist," but there are many other types of Narcissists, including "aggressive," "elitist," and even "sexual." The list is quite extensive. Not all are alike and they aren't always easy to identify, because they are rarely rude in the beginning. They can be charming, charismatic and flirtatious, and others are quiet, reserved or even awkward.

So how can you identify Narcissism in our dance community?

In her book, "Why is it Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism," Sandy Hotchkiss outlines the "deadly sins" a Narcissist will commit. These “deadly sins” have found their way onto our social dance floors, into our workshops, our private lessons and our competitions. I'm sure you'll think of a dancer (or two, or three, and depending on where you live, a whole lot more!) when you read through these characteristics and examples:


A Nissy who is feeling deflated tends to re-inflate by diminishing, debasing or degrading somebody else. Example: They didn't make finals, so they dance in front all night like they won. They'll bad mouth the judges, their partners, or say the event didn't mean anything in the first place. Another example: A teacher makes off-hand, dismissive or rude remarks about another teacher when that teacher is referenced or praised.


The Nissy holds unreasonable expectations of special treatment and automatic compliance to them because they consider themselves special. Any failure to comply with their expectations is considered an attack on their perceived superiority, which often triggers what's called Narcissistic Rage. Example: A high level dancer doesn't make finals, rips off their number, stomps it on the floor and curses. Another example: A couple doesn't place how they thought they should have, and publicly yells at the event director, contest coordinator or competitor liaison.


Nissy's see themselves as perfect using distortion and illusion known as Magical Thinking. They will dump shame onto others who don't support their views. Example: Teachers who teach without real training. They may do well competitively and start teaching immediately. They are amazing at making up rules, sayings and teachings on the spot to protect their views, and will have no issue with referencing other respected instructors as "irrelevant, out of date, nonsensical," etc. etc. Another example: An Event Director will change history, facts and agreements in their heads to save money. They will attempt to shame an instructor, judge or volunteer into accepting lower wages or returns by questioning their value, their time given, etc, etc.


The Nissy does not recognize that others are separate from themselves. Others exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Example: A leader who is off-time dances with a follower who is on-time. The leader wraps his thumb and/or whole hand into a grip around her hand or wrist to control her, despite the rough and dangerous position it puts her hand and arm in. Another example: A promoter finds a competitors' flyers on the flyer table and either removes them and replaces them with their own, or simply places their own on top of the competitor's flyers.


A Nissy inflates their sense of superiority in the face of another person's skills or attention by using contempt against them. Example: A dancer takes his partner and dances in front, blocking a birthday girl having her birthday dance. Another example: A good dancer is in town. The Nissy, used to being the center of attention, asks the better dancer to dance but grimaces, looks bored or overpowers the better dancer in order to publicly diminish the better dancer.


Can take many forms, but always involves the exploitation of others without regard to their feelings or interest. They put the other in a subservient position where resistance would be difficult or even impossible. The subservience is not so much real as assumed. Example: A leader sees his follower as the subservient. Instead of the follower being danced, they are danced around. The leader expands while the follower contracts.


As I write about the sin of EXPLOITATION, I'm struck once again with the fact that the largest percentage of Nissies in our community are men. (Nissy women are quickly catching up, but it started with the men.) And no wonder. To lead a woman in Abstract Improvisation is a Narcissists’ dream. And I believe it's why talented women are leaving our sport in droves, but the ones replacing them are women who are wounded themselves... enablers... women and girls who base their identity on the approval of men, not an internal sense of power and worth. This has to be stopped.

Now that I've used a lot of big words, and have probably scared you a little, I've gone ahead and made it a little more simple. Here are some “less wordy” ways to pinpoint a Nissy in your dance community:

They Dance in Front

No matter what level they are, they believe people want to see them dance more than better or more respected dancers. They will not give way to a champion dancer, and some will actually run into the champion dancer in order to make them obtain more room.

They Appear Supremely Confident

They stand out on the social and competition floor with their fantastically stylish dress, cocky attitudes and triumphant glow. Judges constantly put them in because they APPEAR successful, despite horrific errors in lead, follow, timing and footwork. Drop your eyes to a dancer's feet and count with the music. You will be surprised how many make finals with a four (or three, or three and three quarters) count push break, if they are even on beat at all.

They Don't Take Lessons

Nissies believe they can take one workshop and teach it the next day. They think they are an expert in the dance a month in. If they do take, it's with another Nissy, and they don't get any better, just more arrogant on the floor.

They Have Terrible Floor Craft

They will not recognize another couple's established slot, even if part of the couple is an established dancer of a higher level. Again, the world exists to serve them, so your slot is their slot, should they need it.

They are Easily Disagreeable

If you, as a partner, do not smile, help show them off, help them win or do exactly as they expect, they will become moody, pouty, impatient and even angry, no matter what their level. The higher the level, it seems, the more this happens, but it may depend on location.

They Point the Finger

It is always someone else's fault. If they don't make finals, it's the judges, the music or their partner's fault. If they don't place, their partner didn't give it all they had or the judges were mean spirited, unfair and out to “get them.”

Their Partner Isn't Seen

If a Nissy is dancing with someone who ISN'T another Nissy, then the healthy person is overpowered, overshadowed and in general thrown around. If the partner ever tries to shine, the Nissy will not light up in delight at the creativity of their partner, but rather, will look annoyed, interrupted or impatient unless their partner’s actions are helping them win.

You probably have a few in mind, but honestly, there are a lot more that just aren't easy to spot. You’ll figure them out over time. After all, the more powerful in the community they are, the more they know the criteria I just listed is easy to spot.

The true NPD's that have been around for awhile are charming, witty and can talk their way out of everything. They sound amazing. They sound brilliant. They can clown and make you laugh. They make you feel so very special when you're around them. They make you want to fight for them. They make you feel like they were wronged if they don’t get their way. But after being within close quarters of them for a while, during a private lesson, workshop or meeting… when you walk away, you have a small tiny fear of their disapproval, of getting on their bad side, or a need and a determination to stay on their good side. You don't glow with self improvement. You don't feel empowered. You are left wanting... wanting to be around them again, wanting to be like them and wanting to have their approval.

But here’s the thing. As I said before:

"A narcissist is not capable of putting the organization's
(i.e., studio's, club's, partner's, community's)
needs before his or her own needs."

Remember that. And remember that their “needs” aren't normal or healthy needs, like the need for ‘unquestioning’ worship or praise, or the need to win, no matter how it’s done or what the cost is to the event, their competitors and sometimes even their partners. A Nissy promoter “needs” their community to accept no one but the teachers and pros only they deem worthy. A Nissy DJ “needs” to be the only DJ in town and a Nissy club owner “needs” the other clubs to either shut down or not interfere with their nights and their “money,” no matter how it limits the community, weakens it or divides it.

I have seen studios literally close because of Nissies. I have seen entire clubs shut down because of Nissies. I have seen dancers injured and put out for more than a year because of Nissies. I have seen the words of a Nissy stay with a person for decades and eat away at them. The Nissies have wreaked havoc upon our communities across the planet. Why?

The Nissies have great power when it comes to the unsuspecting public. We don’t expect underhanded tactics. We don’t expect that the rules of common decency aren’t held by everyone. We don’t believe it when we hear they've tried to run others out of town, or placed their dances on top of the only successful night others go to. We who are healthy in swing tend to believe the best in people, and we don’t see Nissies coming. Rules don’t apply to Nissies. They truly, honestly and 100% believe they have the right to destroy anyone in anyway who stands between them and what they want.

Bottom line?

Nissies don't build a community;
they create their own.

I encourage you to watch for the Nissy or Nissies on your dance floor. Remember, they can only wreak havoc when they descend upon the “unsuspecting” public. But if you are on the lookout, you can avoid much of their devastation.

Watch for them. They are the people you feel driven to please. They are the people you feel like you never get a good dance with, no matter how hard you try, and you feel like it's all your fault… because they are “just SO good!” (sarcasm intended). They are the people who, quite often, seem “cool” or “in.”  And above all, know that it will take bravery to identify them.

Understand that Nissies do not take it well when you no longer hold them in admiration, and most of their followers or enablers will have learned well not to question them. Often your community will not want to support you in your first separation efforts. It’s difficult to label anyone when everyone around you is in ‘hero-worship’ mode, but it can be done.

Once you start to suspect someone, especially someone who seems incredibly charming and well-loved, you may want to second guess yourself. Don’t. Your gut is one of the greatest gifts we’ve all been given. And believe me, once you finally do admit that they are a Nissy, or in a Nissy-like stage, I promise you… it will save yourself a great deal of stress you didn't realize you had! Trust me. And you'll enjoy your dancing a whole lot more. Believe me.

And then, once you know who they are, I encourage you... do not feed into their frenzy. Don't bother dancing with them unless you must. You can say yes when they ask you, but most of the time they expect others to make the effort to dance with them. Don’t bother chasing after them. It’s just not worth it, on any level. Re-read their characteristics. Get to know the consequences that come with interacting with a Nissy. That’s not what partner dancing is about.

I am aware that many Nissies feel the need to ask the better dancers in the room, just to prove they can out-dance them. I always turn these leaders down. I can see them coming a mile away, and it’s just not worth my physical health to put my technical abilities in the blender of their sub par novice thrashings or their narcissistic rage.  But a Nissy is the only kind of dancer I will turn down. I’ll dance with anyone of any level, novice and newcomer included, who treats me with respect.

We all deserve respect on the dance floor. It’s a non-negotiable in partner dancing. No matter who you are or what level of experience you have, your physical, mental and emotional well being should be respected on the dance floor. And when that’s missing from one of the partners, damage almost always follows. From feeling discarded, ugly or demeaned to sprained wrists, backs and shoulders, the dangers and risks are more than you can imagine. Until it happens to you. So try not to pursue their attention if you can. It’ll save you a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” story of your own.

On the plus side of things, Nissies are usually attracted to one another. They travel in little groups or packs, and gather in the same clubs and locations. As such, I recommend you find a monthly or a weekly dance where they don't feel special and then enjoy dancing with normal, healthy and more satisfying dancers. Try the same method with conventions too- most are riddled with Nissies nowadays, but there are still certain events where Nissies just wouldn’t be “showcased.” So it helps to look for the places Nissies are avoiding, and enjoy them yourself. Who in the world wants to dance with a partner who is absolutely NOT interested in you, protecting your needs, your physical well being on the dance floor? Dancing’s better when the person wants to dance with you, not at you.

I’m serious. Let me emphasis this again:

Partner dancing is, at its very core, an agreement between two people to love, respect and honor one another on the dance floor in order to create and enjoy a beautiful, intimate, exciting and fun experience that dancing on our own cannot create.

The Nissy will never know the potential gifts of partner dancing beyond that of being "seen" and gaining power. When two Nissies draw each other, they are in total bliss. Both want extreme exposure and both go for it… whether it mean knocking others out of their way, rolling on the floor or sticking out their tongues to get it. But that’s the kind of bliss only two Nissies would ever take pleasure in. And it's not what partner dancing is all about.

If you want your partner to see you and dance with you, just say NO to the Nissy.

Katherine Krok Eastvold

From the bestselling book Telling the Truth:
The Groundbreaking Articles that Saved West Coast Swing