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