The Elements of Swing Dance

The term "swing dance" is an umbrella term that embraces a wide variety of swing dances including Lindy Hop, Balboa, Bal-swing, East Coast swing, Jitterbug, St. Louis shag, Collegiate shag, Carolina shag, Texas Push, D.C. Hand dance, West Coast swing, Rodeo swing and more. 

Swing dance was born in the United States at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1920's and spread across the U.S. The first swing was called Lindy hop after Charles Lindbergh hopped the Atlantic. In the 1930's the jitterbug swing was very popular followed by Western swing, which later came to be called West Coast swing. In 1988, the West Coast swing became the official state dance of California. All the different swing dance genres are composed of similar elements but each type uses different styling guidelines. 

Watch Boogie, Lindy, Shag & West Coast Swing videos here!

In the 1940's, dance studios  were instrumental in spreading swing dance from coast to coast. Each region of the country had its own style that developed over time. The Carolina's developed the Carolina shag, St. Louis shag in St. Louis, the Texas push, sometimes referred to as the Houston or Dallas Push was a form of West Coast swing, Imperial swing and Collegiate shag, the D.C. Hand dancers in Washington D.C. and even a four count Rodeo swing in the Country Western dance clubs.

The swing dances are built in two beat increments that are sometimes called "units," a concept and term created by Skippy Blair

A unit is two beats of music and the swing dances can be dissected into sets of two beat units.  The basic 6 count triple rhythm swing is composed of three units: walk, walk (2 beats), triple (2 beats), triple (2 beats) or double, triple, triple. All the swing dances use single, double, triple and delayed single rhythm. One step for two beats is single rhythm, two steps for two beats is double rhytym or three steps in two beats is triple rhythm. There are some other rhythm possibilities but these are the most common ones and the rhythms can be mixed. 

There are many different styles of swing dance. Most all of the swing dances use walks or sometimes rocking steps and moving or static triples or single steps. They use a combination of hand positions: one hand, two hand, cross hand, hand shake and a few others. Swing dancing uses various dance positions like closed, promenade, skaters, shadow, etc. They use the same turns like clockwise or counterclockwise turns for the lead or follow with any number of hand positions. Generally, swing dances have much in common but each style has some distinct features that distinguishes it from the other forms of swing. The differences are somewhat subtle but important to know when learning several forms of swing. There are very specific differences between the Lindy Hop, East & West Coast Swing and Jitterbug.

The knees are used differently in the West Coast swing than in the Lindy hop. The Lindy hop often uses both knees bent and outward swiveling action, which is not commonly used in West Coast swing. Starting a swivel turning right when the right foot is stepping was quite common in the 1970's  but very seldom used currently. Also, West Coast swing is more upright since normally one knee is straight while the other is bent on weighted steps. The upper torso is also held upright with the lats engaged and the shoulders down. The Lindy hop is more relaxed and less upright, often using the hips pulled back to form almost a jackknife position.  Also, the legs slice past each other staying fairly close in the West Coast swing as it often is done in a single track while many of the other swing dances are done in a two track formation.

Shaping is one element that is widely used in all forms of partner social dancing. This is accomplished by using contra body position as one passes their partner. Contra body movement position (CBMP) is essentially when the right foot is forward the right shoulder is back or when the left foot is forward the left shoulder is back. When both partners use CBMP while passing it improves the feel and aesthetics of the dance. While this is not the only form of shaping it is widely used throughout social partner and ballroom dancing. Watch this short film on contra body movement.


In some movements another form of shaping is used like in the prep for an inside roll in the West Coast swing, it is called same side leading, of instance, on count 2 of the walk in of an inside roll from a right to right hand hold, the follow uses a left foot forward and left shoulder forward. This creates an opening of the body to increase the velocity of a spin or turn.

Shaping in dance is one part of body movement, an important aspect  for all forms of social dance but especially important in the West Coast swing. Once a swing dancer has reached Intermediate levels of dance, it is important to start working on the body movement that is essential to continue progressing in ones dancing. Body movement includes ribcage isolations, hip action, shoulder figure eights and things like ripples or rolls.

It is especially important to not get caught up in the "pattern junky" mentality and to expand ones scope of learning dance to include work on elements like establishing a great connection with the partner, learning to roll the feet and use rolling count, learn body isolations to add spice to  your dancing and work on the lats to improve posture. These are crucial elements in learning to become an excellent swing dancer or any other form of social partner dancing. Watch this short video on rolling count.


When checking out swing dance lessons, make sure to find a course that offers instruction on these elements to expedite becoming a better dancer. Dance classes should focus on movement, connection, body movement, styling, timing and technique. Avoid becoming preoccupied with patterns or amalgamations, dancers that focus on patterns never become good dancers. The best dancers have great timing, connect well with their partner, engage muscles using body movement, maintain good posture and often smile!  

Swing dancing has continued to be a favorite American dance form but in recent decades have spread globally. Presently, all the various forms of swing including East Coast swing, Lindy Hop, Carolina Shag and Jitterbug (single rhythm East Coast Swing) can be found around the world. 

Also, the swing era dances like the Lindy hop, Collegiate shag, Balboa and Bal/swing are great dances that are high energy and great for improving ones fitness through dance.

There are a wide variety of swing dances to select from once you have decided to start. I recommend the Jitterbug for newcomers  to dance and then either the East Coast swing tiple rhythm, Lindy hop or the West Coast swing once you have acquired the basic swing elements.

Learning to swing dance opens up a whole new, fun community of people that love to swing dance and many venues that are offered almost every night of the week. So if you haven't already started, get started now and learn to swing dance, you won't be disappointed! If visiting or live in San Diego, check out our weekly Swing Dance Venues here!

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Pattie Wells Author Bio

Pattie Wells is a dance educator, writer, poet and curator of artistic dance videos for her website, Pattie spends her time writing, traveling and teaching private dance lessons. She resides in San Diego, California where she is working on a linked stories novel and translating a book of poems by Eugenio Montale titled Xenia, while looking for a publisher for her book of poems, Fire In Rain. Click here for Pattie's complete bio or private dance lesson info and Pattie Wells' contact info.

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