May 23, 2011

The Time Has Come ©

How West Coast Swing Gave
Birth to Another New Dance
Excerpt from Telling the Truth: The Foundational Articles for Today's West Coast SwingFind this and other books by Katherine on

I've listened to our heartbeat.

For years now I've listened. I listened to former champions. I listened to fellow champions. I listened to newcomers. I listened to non-competitors. I listened to novice, intermediate, advanced and all-star dancers. I listened to judges, to event directors and to studio owners. I listened to DJ's. I listened to photographers. I even listened to hotel staff and to non-dancers staying in the hotels at conventions. I listened, and listened, and listened. I listened to the audiences and I listened to my students and I listened to the conversations taking place in hallways and dinner buffets and clubs. I listened. And I heard a lot. I heard what was being told, what was being said, what was being danced, what was being judged, what was being seen and what was being thought. I watched too. I watched carefully. I watched the Jack and Jill’s, the social floor, the dancing during the breaks and the dancing during late night. I watched the routines, the workshops and the private lessons. I listened and heard and watched.

And by doing so, I ended up taking the pulse of our West Coast Swing community.

It's not good news. I learned that we are hurting. I learned that we are divided. I learned that we are in crisis. We are confused, damaged and torn. We are sad, angry and lost. I learned that we desperately need to see a doctor. It's time for a diagnosis. We need a prescription. We need to start healing and return to a state of joy, freedom and empowerment on the dance floor.

I can help. After absorbing, analyzing and assimilating all I had heard, seen and felt on the floor, I discovered The Big Picture. I know what's going on. And perhaps more importantly, I know how we got here.

Once I figured it out, I naturally started sharing it with others, as I usually do… in lessons, in discussions, in the hallways of conventions, etc. But this time it was different. People were gathering around to listen in. Many I knew, but many I didn’t. Dancers passing by would hear my comments and would stop. They’d pull up a chair. They’d lean in. And I could see that they wanted more, much more.

At the US Open I gathered my biggest crowd yet. I believe it was Sunday afternoon, and by the time it had grown to cover and block two aisles, I realized it had become nothing more than a Q&A session… and I was able to easily answer ever Q with a very sound and thoroughly explained A.  When it finally broke up for awards, I turned to my husband Nick and said, “I think I’d better start teaching on this stuff.” He agreed.

So I spent December creating my SwingIN!s. A series of new and never-before-seen seminars, demonstrations and activities, I designed my SwingIN!s to give dancers what they so clearly desired: equipment for dancing in today's WCS world. I had no idea just how popular they would become.

My first one was held in January (Past, Present & Future), where I first taught about how we got here. During it, I outlined and explained what I’d discovered about our history: The Gathering of Great Minds, The Renaissance and The Perfect Storm. The response was tremendous. The "ah ha!" moments were overwhelming. I could tell I had started something big.

As news of Past, Present & Future spread, so did the requests for encore seminars. I held numerous sold-out encore presentations of it in studios, living rooms and dance floors across southern California. At each, I reminded everyone that Past, Present & Future was designed to prepare them for “the big” SwingIN! that was coming in April on Easter weekend. I had named it New School vs. Old School, but it was really about much much more. For five hours on that Saturday afternoon, I taught, for the very first time, about my biggest discovery: Abstract Improvisation. It was nothing short of groundbreaking. Revolutionary.

And the attendees knew it.

When it was finally over, the dancers in attendance, that included newcomers, judges, promoters, instructors, competitors and social dancers… stood up, eyes opened, and... danced their pants off that night!

Then they spread the word.

It’s been only a week and my terminology is appearing all over the social networks and my inbox is starting to fill. Unfortunately, the terminology is spreading so quickly, so fast, that I’m watching my work spin wildly out of control… as with all “telephone” whispers, sharing and gossip, my terminology from one single day was being turned into something completely different than what I’d actually taught.

And so I began this article. In order to prevent misunderstandings, incorrect deductions and incorrect terminology, I’m forced to share the most groundbreaking and healing discoveries of my work with you... One day I look forward to sharing my now famous seminars, Past, Present & Future as well as Abstract vs. Swing with you by DVD, but for now, this will have to do. I hope you will enjoy it as much as my attendees have.

The following are the most popular terms in use:


ren•ais•sance  n.
a revival of intellectual or artistic achievement and vigor
West Coast Swing experienced what I call its "Renaissance Era" in the years around 1991-1999. Its waves lapped our shores before 1991 and left amazing treasures after 1999, but in general, our Renaissance occurred in the 90's.

Never was there such a surge of "intellectual and artistic vigor" in our art form. During those years we saw the Great Minds of WCS, Country, Shag, Hand Dancing, Hustle and even Ballroom and Salsa converge, talk, share, teach, challenge and grow the dance. It's the Era that produced tapes which non-dancers in lunchrooms across America (and my inner-city classroom, by the way) were glued to when we played them.

It's the Era when our Great Minds made breakthroughs in dance knowledge, technique and terminology that was and still is unparalleled in any other dance form. It's the Era which allowed, in Southern California alone, 12 studios (not including clubs!) to be dedicated to WCS and its sister dances. Some studios had full WCS classes every night of the week.

It's the Era we lost to the digital age.

It's the Era when we understood how hard WCS was to do, and we attracted dancers who were willing to work that hard to do it. It took five to seven years to learn WCS back then, and it was during the Renaissance that dancers applied for job transfers across multiple states to gain more training in WCS.

It was during the Renaissance that dancers who had reached their peak in other dance forms became attracted to WCS because of its depth, difficulty and challenge. People dancing for two years called themselves beginners. It's the Era when audiences gave standing ovations before a routine was even done, and an Era when routines inspired you to jump out of your seat and move your feet!


aka Renaissance Swing, Traditional WCS, Classic WCS or just...
West Coast Swing

Pure West Coast Swing is the dance I outline in West CoastSwing Essentials. It has well over 35 elements. It takes years to learn. It is a highly connected lead and follow dance. The lead is center to center. Foot positions, body positions, control, and impeccable leading and following... they are of the utmost importance.

Pure WCS requires Timing, Technique and Teamwork (The Three T’s), all of which are extremely high-end skills and none of which are easy. The body is always over one foot. It is not split weight. There is a leader and there is a follower. The leader is in charge of taking care of and leading his partner.

Pure WCS uses power points, body flight, triples, and subtleties that make you lean in and watch every second the better it is done. Pure WCS can be learned in a studio, has basic patterns and when a Novice learns it, they can dance with a Pure WCS Champion and feel like they've died and gone to heaven.

It's slotted. It has anchors. It's upright, tall and framed, but it is also grounded, into the floor and into the heels. It's easy to see when there's a mistake or a disconnect between the two partners. Pure WCS does not lend to ‘cookie-cutter’ partnerships, where everyone looks exactly like everyone else on the floor. WCS brings out a dancer's individuality, especially in its syncopations and stylings.

It's very easy to tell the difference between a novice, intermediate or advanced Pure WCS dancer. You can watch a floor and very quickly identify each level of dancer. In Pure WCS, the better a dancer becomes, the more they develop their own unique look.

You can see their personality and style while they are doing the same exact basics as the newcomers. Each dancer has their own style, their own strengths, their own creativity, their own syncopations and the magic created when a unique lead draws a unique follow is like no other. There are numerous styles of Pure WCS because of its complicated nature, patterns and difficulty.


Abstract Improvisation is the other dance form we are seeing on the floor today. Because I have not written an article on it before, I will spend some more time outlining it here.

Abstract Improvisation’s roots extend back 10 years ago. The roots grew very slowly in the beginning, but now, especially in the last three years, they've come into full bloom. In some so called “West Coast Swing” communities and clubs, it’s the only dance they know. If asked to do an actual WCS pattern with triples and wraps, they would not be able to do so without great difficulty or without removing all of its footwork and timing.

I derived Abstract Improvisation’s name from a combination of two terms: Abstract Art and Contact Improvisation. If you have not studied Abstract art or danced Contact Improvisation (two studies I would highly recommend), then here are some definitions of the two for you.

Abstract / Abstract Art

-difficult to understand
-a form of art with no rules, definition or boundaries
-a removal from reality
-form and line
-a period of art which followed the Renaissance

Contact Improvisation
-a form of modern dance improvisation
-points of physical contact provide the starting point for exploration through movement improvisation
-does not have rhythms, a step pattern, or music requirements

Touchdown Dance magazine once wrote the following about Contact Improvisation:  "Contact Improvisation is a means to explore the physical forces imposed on the body by gravity, by the physics of momentum, falling and lifting. It is a complex but very open form with infinite possibilities and is a dance form that is made by the dancer in the moment of dancing." Keep this in mind, as it most definitely relates to Abstract Improvisation.

Abstract Improvisation has only four elements. It relies heavily on Teamwork but not Timing or Technique. It can be learned within a week to a month and does not require classes. It can be learned on the floor or on YouTube. It is highly improvised, "made by the dancer in the moment of dancing," instead of being pattern based.

Dancers who do 'Abstract' look very much alike. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between a novice or advanced Abstract dancer beyond their differences in attitude, confidence and attire. Abstract leaders' feet are almost always wide and flat footed. In pictures their legs look like they are straddling a pony.

"Lines, shape and form" are created by straight, stretched arm leads and follows. Turns are led with rainbow arcs, high above the head, rather than halo turns, which leads to off balance following, which leads to arching backs and sways by the followers. The shoulders ride very high and the elbows are turned outside of the body, rather than tucked in towards the floor. The leads are less about leading her body, but more like "suggestions for direction." These “leads” are all in the arms leads, not body or center leads.

The footwork is not the focus in Abstract. The upper body (waist, head, arms) is where the action occurs. Your eyes are drawn towards the upper body area where spins are arching, hair is flying and arms look like they are holding giant beach balls. If you count to the music, and then look at the feet, you will find no relation. The feet are shuffling to catch the body, not drive the center. You will also notice how often single footed spins fall or gyrate off balance and the move is exited in an archway as a cover up.

Abstract isn't danced over the heel, but over the ball or flat foot. The feet are rarely turned out. Feet are used for catching falls, for straddling, for hitting lyrics and melodies, for sliding... not for holding a rhythm pattern, moving the body or leading. As a result, Abstract Improv can be danced over any kind of music- a waltz, a samba, a nightclub two step or a hustle. This is part of the reason that when a hustle or nightclub two step is played, dancers are still dancing what they call 'swing' on the floor, but only Abstract Improvisation works over any song.

Abstract Improv requires four elements: strong knees, a flexible spine, quick reflexes and total confidence. This is why young and untrained dancers excel at Abstract Improv. Their muscles don't injure as easily and they don't have years of training telling them to keep rhythms, posture, to lead correctly or to connect fully. Abstract Improv instruction often uses the following terms: momentum, shape, channeling, improvisational, new school, flow, 3-D, free-styling, contemporary, etc. Common Abstract phrases include "the anchor is obsolete," "stretch out as far as you can go," "no leading, only suggesting," "there are no rules," "disconnect," “eliminate your triples,” “split your weight across both feet,” "dance behind the beat," etc.

When danced on beat, Abstract Improv is almost all single and double rhythm based and often the leader or follower can be seen standing in straddle position for well over four beats, while their upper half gyrates, sways or 'mimes’ the lyrics.

The man does not post. The slot is often circular and free formed. The leader can move up and down the slot (or lack thereof), “flip-flop” positions with the follower and sometimes the follower is left in the middle while the leader dances around her. Pure WCS couples dancing next to an Abstract Improvisation couple will feel like they are being constantly run over or invaded by the Abstract couple's slot.

In Abstract Improvisation, major phrases are hit by tricks, swoops and falls that are dramatic but most often messy, as are they are done split weight, with loose high shoulders and extended lats.

Abstract Improvisation is not about controlled movement, but large, “sexy,” or “on-the-floor” movements. Abstract dancers often replace the push break with a four beat ‘push and pull,’ and their Underarm Turn most often becomes a two beat "snap" by both partners to opposite ends of the slot.

Because of such quick movements, Abstract Improves seems much more big, bold and energetic than Pure WCS, and so Abstract dancers are put into finals instead of Pure WCS competitors, despite having a complete lack of timing, connection, technique or swing.

Yes, I said swing. Abstract Improvisation looks, feels and reflects many of the attributes of Contact Improvisation, which is a postmodern contemporary dance form, rather than any partner or rhythm based dance with steps, rules, leading and following. Therefore I classify Abstract Improvisation as a rudimentary contemporary dance (not to be confused with contemporary music), or modern dance. It’s very similar to improvisational club dancing at young city nightclubs, but it is not a swing dance.

I've heard many times that Abstract Improvisation is really WCS "evolved." However, the world "evolved" connotes a movement towards a higher level of skill or movement. The fact that Abstract Improvisational dancers cannot do a series of WCS basics with critical timing, posture, centering, skilled leading or following, or any of the other incredibly difficult levels or patterns that Pure WCS demands, debates the idea of any "evolvement."

An elimination of excellent leading (“we don’t do ‘prep prep’ anymore”), following (“don’t wait for me, you should do your own thing now”), of centering, of foot positions, of syncopations, of timing… all of this only indicates a "devolvement" in my opinion, not an "evolvement.” We would be wise to see these claims for what they really are: an excuse to keep students from going to any other instructor, to protect their own "revolutionary" brand, to gloss over training they don't have and to protect a dance that only they understand and therefore only they earn money off of.

Abstract Improvisation is such a far cry from Pure WCS, that the students of this new dance often find any other teacher’s methods a threat. If they are at a convention and attend a Pure WCS instructors workshop, they will sometimes declare that they “only want to learn (fill in the blank: “contemporary,” “new school,” etc, etc.) swing” and will sit the class out. And since Abstract Improvisation doesn’t have any rules, students have walked away from conventions learning eight different ways to “anchor” or “replace their anchor,” six different ways to hear the music, “feel it,” “dance the emotion of it,” “dance the lyrics,” “dance the melodies,” but never dance on beat, which is now, unfortunately, the rarest of finds at most conventions and many dance scenes across the country.

Let me clarify. To “dance on beat” refers to the dancer’s feet dancing to the beat of the music. I often hear students and judges say that Abstract Improvisational dancers “hit every beat” in the music, when in reality, their upper bodies hit all of the breaks. This is actually pretty easy to do. What’s difficult to do is lead and follow with your feet on beat AND hit the breaks. If you look at these “flashy” improvisational dancers’ feet, you will suddenly see how very little skill is actually being executed.

The Time Has Come.

As you've probably figured out by now, I've discovered that we as a community now have two completely separate dances on our hands. I understand that this has been hard to see, especially since a handful of our top pros are able to do both depending on what music they are given, the audience they have, the judges they have, etc.  But they comprise less than 1% of our community. And they’ve been dancing and teaching this new dance for a few years now, and we have been unaware of this shift. We’ve just seen the dancing change, but we didn’t know how or why.

It is time to face reality. There are two dances.
It is time to admit the truth. There are two dances.
It is dangerous to deny it and stay on the path we are on.

And I mean dangerous.

First, it's dangerous physically, emotionally and mentally to our dancers. When a Pure WCS trained follower draws an Abstract Improvisation leader, she gets physically hurt by the clash. She feels totally lost and thinks she’s in over her head. She is yanked off her anchor with no warning because Abstract Improvisation never moves on the same beat or even on a beat. She is put into precarious positions where she's not quite sure what's expected of her and gets hit in the head when trying to go down the slot.

When a Pure WCS trained leader draws an Abstract Improvisation follower, he can't figure out how to lead her, to connect with her, how to even get a push break out of her. She will be extremely light, to the point of complete disconnection or she will be extremely heavy and pull him off his anchor or timing. He will never ever get her on the foot he's trying to get her on, because she is not expecting him to lead her feet into positions.

It's the same the other way around. I'm hearing stories nearly every week about how an Abstract Improvisation leader draws a Pure WCS follower and accuses her of deliberately fighting him or getting in his way, when she is simply assuming he's doing the same dance. My inbox is jammed with horror stories of the meeting of these two dances on the floor. They are stories ranging from physical harm, to emotional harm to mental harm... and dancers are falling out of love with the dance. They just don't understand that there are two completely different dances on the floor today. Which brings me to my second point.

If we don't acknowledge that there are two dances,
the future of the West Coast Swing industry is in jeopardy.

It's already suffering. Highly trained WCS professionals feel pressured to teach poor technique. Novice and intermediate dancers are suddenly instructors. Event directors are hiring unskilled teachers and dancers because they are cheaper and seem to be the "hot ticket" instead of hiring highly trained real WCS instructors. Classes are shrinking across America. Because Abstract Improvisation is just that, improvisational, and requires almost none of the skills and training that Pure WCS does, it doesn't have to be learned in a studio.

That doesn't mean there aren't people teaching Abstract Improvisation. There are. But people hear them say, in their so called “WCS” classes that, "we don't do that anymore, we do this now," and the students feel like they have to start all over in the dance. But the reality is that Abstract Improvisation really doesn't take any training. I'm meeting more and more dancers at conventions who have never taken a single WCS lesson and are having a blast.

In fact, Abstract Improv dancers, for reasons I've briefly touched on, make finals over Pure WCS dancers, which only promotes the idea to onlookers that classes, privates and lessons in general are not needed to be successful in the dance. Why spend money on Pure WCS, which absolutely has to be learned in a lesson setting and takes a long time to master, when you can learn Abstract Improvisation on YouTube for free? If we insist on calling Abstract Improvisation "Swing," then we are contradicting every single real WCS teacher out there and setting up all of their students for confusion, bitterness and failure. We will, ultimately, lose them. And then we will lose our instructors.

And then we will lose the dance.

We need to face facts. We need to remember what ‘normal’ is in the partner dancing communities. In healthier communities, like ballroom, the fact of the matter is that when someone has been learning a ballroom dance for three months and then dances with a ballroom pro, they feel like they are on top of the world and can do no wrong. It's like dancing with a dream. They are then are inspired to keep going, keep learning, keep expanding their knowledge and enjoyment of the dance.

But if a WCS dancer has been taking lessons for three months at a studio or a club and then asks a supposedly higher level dancer (because points tell them they are so, not other dancers) to dance, it will not be a pleasant experience. Those who have racked up points in the past five years are almost all Abstract Improvisational dancers, and they will completely run over this new beginner to our dance. The newcomer will be completely lost and feel defeated, not inspired. They will feel confused and torn. They will stick with lessons for about six months to a year and then they will give up, because they feel like they aren’t getting any better.

In reality, they are learning one dance and yet asking someone who does a completely different dance to help them measure their progress. What a catastrophe for these dancers! It’s heartbreaking, hearing their stories. Because we haven’t admitted this other dance, our newcomers don’t realize it’s another dance that they’re clashing with, never mind a lesser art form. And we should take a stand for them.

It is time, everybody.

People are done. People feel left behind. People feel ugly, misunderstood, confused, angry and they feel scared. We are hemorrhaging veteran dancers at an astronomical rate. We are allowing our most talented individuals to feel "old" and we are attracting a demographic of dancers who would rather not work at their dancing because it's not "fun," and allowing instructors into our community who have absolutely no problem giving watered down shortcuts to technique, slandering our most knowledgeable and respected legends and calling an extremely difficult and praiseworthy dance "out of touch."

Non-dancers have a better eye than we do now. Lunchrooms don't watch our videos after 2002. But they can't get enough of our Renaissance Era. They’ll watch those tapes for hours.

It's time to put an end to the madness. It's time to equip our students, our fellow judges, our newcomers and our fellow dancers with the knowledge to walk into a studio, into a convention, into a workshop and say, "Okay, that's Abstract and that's Pure West Coast." And then they can make informed decisions. Then they can dance with freedom. Then they can understand what they're watching. Then they can understand what's going on…

And then we can heal.

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

Photo from Australian Blogger: