What is West Coast Swing?

BarnaWesties – West Coast Swing Barcelona

West Coast swing is a contemporary swing dance genre that was developed in the 1960’s on the west coast of the United States.

West Coast Swing History

Moreover, it originated from the Lindy hop, a 1940’s dance that started at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in response to early jazz music with a swing beat. Furthermore, swing dancing continued to evolve and split into several dances including the East Coast swing, Carolina & collegiate shag, Balboa and jitterbug.

In the 1950’s, a smooth form of swing developed in the Los Angeles area that was called Western swing. Dean Collins and other swing dancers created a smooth style of Lindy H op and swing dancing was featured in many Hollywood movies. Ultimately, the name was later changed to West Coast swing. Finally, in 1978, the West Coast swing became the Official State Dance of California.

Meanwhile, in the past few decades the West Coast swing has been influenced by several other dance genres. For example, disco, hustle from the seventies, country western dancing in the nineties and salsa in the two-thousands all influenced the West Coast swing.

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“This is West Coast Swing”

by Maxence Gross

Recent History

Eventually West Coast swing dancing spread across the country as swing conventions became more popular and with advent of media like video tape and now YouTube. Meanwhile, in the latter part of the two-thousands the west coast swing dance went global. Consequently, it is now found in France, England, Australia, Brazil, Russia and many other countries around the world.

West Coast Swing: A Living Dance

The West Coast swing has been referred to as a “living dance” due to the fact that it is constantly evolving with contemporary music. In recent years, it has changed dramatically with musicality becoming more essential to the dance genre. In addition, it is one of the most innovative dance genres because it allows the dancer a lot of freedom of expression since it is based on two count rhythm units. Also, it is unique as a dance genre due to its form of call and response between the lead and follow creating a dialogue between the dancers.

Benji Schwimmer & Susan Kirklin at SwingDiego

(Benji Schwimmer & Susan Kirklin@ SwingDiego Dance Championships, YouTube)

The West Coast Swing dance genre is one of the partner swing dance styles that originated from original swing dance, the Lindy Hop. In fact, the Lindy Hop developed in the mid-1920’s in Harlem, New York at the Savoy Ballroom during the Jazz Era. Also, the jazz musicians inserted a swing beat, a type of syncopation, in the music and the dancers added this rhythm to their dancing.

West Coast Swing Dance Festivals & Competitions

(Brazilian Open 2014 – Diego Borges & Jessica Pacheco)

West Coast Swing Global Organizations:

West Coast Swing Dance Style

Over time the original dance was referred to as “swing,” and it spread across the country into regional variations and swing dancing continued to evolve from that time forward with contemporary music. Additionally, each region of the country had its own variation of swing dancing like the St. Louis Shag, Carolina Shag and East Coast Swing.

In Southern California, Dean Collins and other swing dancers created a smooth style of Lindy Hop and swing dancing was featured in many Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, the name was changed to Western Swing and then in the early 1960’s to West Coast Swing. Finally, in 1978, the West Coast Swing became the Official State Dance of California.

National WCS Competitions

(Gary McIntyre & Susan Kirklin@U.S. Open Swing Championships 2014)

West Coast Swing Conventions:

WCS Characteristics

West Coast Swing is composed of walking and triple steps danced in a slot rather than in a circle. It uses walking steps instead of rock steps that are used in many other forms of swing like Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing and Jitterbug. Also, a majority of the common patterns and figures use 6 beats or 8 beats but as the dancer becomes more accomplished beats and/or triple steps are added or eliminated to fit the music and desired expression for the dance.

Many basics are composed of two walks on counts 1,2 followed by two triples for 3&4, 5&6 (or rolling count) for six count patterns and the insertion of two beats, an extra walk-walk between the triples for eight count patterns. Additionally, some swing dancers like to start with a 4-count starter step followed by a walk-walk. In the 1960’s and 70’s many dancers used a coast step for the last triple, which later changed to an anchor step.

(Swing Through the Ages Video Compilation)

WCS Basic Patterns include a 4-count starter step, left side pass, right side underarm pass, sugar push (push break), tuck turn, inside and outside rolls and whip variations (8 count).

West Coast Swing is danced to a wide variety of music genres including blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, soul, honky-tonk, pop, rock, C&W and medium tempo contemporary music including ballads. Tempos may have a broad range but contemporary dancers prefer a range of 100 to 130 beat per minute (BPM’s).

What makes West Coast Swing unique?

It is a living dance. Essentially, the movements that compose the dance continually evolve to better fit contemporary music while still maintaining its core fundamentals. The dance is an improvisational dance genre, designed to allow more freedom of expression than any other partner dance genre. The freedom to express is performed within the structure or framework of the dance.

Ben Morris & Victoria Henk @US Open Swing Championships 2016

Why is West Coast Swing the dancer’s dance?

Why do accomplished dancers love this style of dance? Its complexity and the ability of the dancer for free expression are attractive elements of this dance. There have been attempts to codify or standardize the WCS for competition but this has been strongly resisted against, especially among social dancers but many competitors are also against too much conformity in this dance. Also, the wide use of compression, leverage and emphasis on core movement plus the stretch in the body movements add beauty and technique to the West Coast Swing.

Is West Coast Swing a difficult dance to learn?

The fundamentals are attainable with the proper instruction and drilling of the basics but the advanced level of West Coast swing takes a lot longer to grasp and acquire. Many dancers continue to work on this dance for decades. Even after the dancer has become accomplished it is necessary to periodically return to it to update the movements. Largely, because it has changed dramatically through the decades. Here is a general Quick Guide To WCS Techniques.

Influences on the West Coast Swing

Skippy Blair and the Golden State Teachers Association (GSDTA) has been involved in the evolution of the West Coast Swing starting in the early 1960’s to the 21st century. She started dancing swing in the1938 in Atlantic City, New Jersey and won a Jitterbug Champion title in 1941 and was instrumental in the creation and promotion of the West Coast Swing to it becoming the California State dance.

Skippy and the GSDTA. Skippy Blair and the GSDTA mentored many of the world renowned West Coast Swing dancers, performers and teachers.

(Benji Schwimmer & Nicole Clonch @ US Open Swing Championships 2016

There were many changes from the early swing dances to the 1960’s early Western Swing. For instance, there was the name change for the dance. Also, in the 21st century “lyrical swing,” was introduced, where dancers respond to the lyrics of a song. There have been considerable debate about what composes the West Coast swing among judges, coaches and teachers. Swing competition has had a huge affect on the dance in the two thousands through the present.

Three arenas of West Coast Swing

There are three major arenas of West Coast Swing: performance, competition and social dancing. The focus of the dancer for these three areas is quite different with very different goals.

West coast Swing dance couple

For performance swing there must be attention to the aesthetics of the dance. For example, the choreography, the picture lines and body movement must be considered. Additionally, attention must be given to the general high level of technique. Elements like foot positions, arm styling and head position are important. Also, there is a story between the lead and follow, attention to fitting the dance to the musical piece. Many of the performers hired by the organizers of festivals and competitions as entertainers. The professional dancers entertain attendees at competitions around the world.

For competition one must adhere to the rules of competition. For instance, points are earned for connection with the partner, musicality, patterns, perfecting timing and showmanship. Also, charisma is factor in the judging as well.

Social West Coast Swing is all about lead/follow techniques, connection with partner, adaptability, style and musicality.

WCS social dance party at Pattie Wells’ Dancetime (2013)

West Coast Swing Goes Global

West Coast Swing can be found in West European countries like France, UK, Germany and Italy. Additionally, there is West Coast swing in Scandinavian countries like Norway & Sweden. Also, it can be found in countries like Romania, Latvia, Netherlands, Finland, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Hungary. In addition, there are many West Coast swing dancers in Brazil, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Israel and Korea.

(Watch International Flashmobs WCS 2017 here or photo)

Articles On West Coast Swing