Swing Discussion Boards > Is West Coast Swing taught backwards?

Discussion in 'Swing Discussion Boards' started by plugger, Jul 5, 2010.

  1. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    Regarding the original post...

    I have taken WCS classes of all levels, including many classes that are "all levels" so we have beginners through advanced dancers in the same room.

    I have found that in one teacher's case, he always begins the "all levels" class by talking about the FLOW of WCS, rather than the steps. We actually often show that you can dance WCS with all walks, rather than the 6 count or 8 count rhythms. What is most important when beginning to realize the concept of WCS is the idea that the woman is being swung, and the theory of the slot.

    In a way, WCS is really a backwards dance if taught correctly (my personal version of correct, of course.) It is really more important to learn the theory behind WCS FIRST, rather than the steps. In most other dances you begin with steps and then work your way to technique once you have the concept of the steps. In WCS if you understand the technique (swing, conveying an anchor to your partner, connection) you are far better off than having an idea of patterns and steps.

    Of course, to advance, you need to know both, but I think WCS should be taught "backwards" to ballroom dances -- technique first, steps second. And yes, I have encountered this method of teaching, and am very fond of it!
  2. jennyisdancing

    jennyisdancing Active Member

    I would agree, though I have not personally experienced it being taught this way. I sort of figured it out on my own, then had my impressions confirmed when I took more advanced classes where they explained those concepts and techniques.

    I remember as a beginner, I would watch videos of pro WCS dancers and would notice they didn't stick to "walk, walk, triple step"; they would substitute all kinds of other footwork while keeping a connection and basic rhythm. That's when the light went on over my head and I figured hey, I don't need to do a triple step on the anchor all the time; it doesn't technically serve a purpose and if the music calls for it, you can do something else as long as you keep the proper connection and leverage.
  3. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    I really hope there are WCS pros reading this thread... I have been pretty spoiled with my teacher and my dancing has accelerated far beyond what I would imagine in the short time I've had. I attribute that to the method of teaching that encourages going beyond the steps to understanding the theory.

    The thing is, WCS theory rests on the surface in the dance, whereas Ballroom/Latin dances also contain theory but they are of a more complex nature. You don't have people talking about sway and alignments when you teach a Ballroom dance to a beginner, but if you don't talk about elasticity and connection to start in West Coast, people have the potential to end up looking like scared ECS dancers for months and months while they just focus on steps.

    I know it's hard to advocate if you're not actually a pro yourself, but I think it would be really beneficial to the WCS community to have more beginner/beginning intermediate classes that focus on WHY you get there, not the exact HOW.
  4. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member


    How much of a background in dance do you have?

    I ask because I'm thinking it may be very pertinant to the discussion. I'm trying to put things in context for my own understanding.
    Jenny, I know, often writes things that I can understand and agree with, and I'd like to think maybe we are at a similar level.
    You are both making a compelling argument!
    But I'm wondering...

    I know I was taught Argentine Tango as being "improvisational", but I had been dancing for mayde 6 years, and the dance, as taught, has little structure, unlike the way other dances are taught.

    In many ways the dance is different than it was when it was first taught with the
    1 2 3&4 5&6 predominating. "Compression" and "leverage" aren't in the early texts, although "push" and "pull" are, so maybe everyone looked like scared East Coast Swing dancers back then! (but you were supposed to be proficient at Swing in general before you did WCS/Western Swing.

    (The only WCS/Western Swing I've really seen on film from back then is in Hot Rod Gang.)
  5. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    I wasn't around for the early days of WCS, I only discovered the dance a little over a year ago. I have background in belly dance, jazz, and ballroom, but if I had to choose I'd stick with WCS hands down. I prefer the fact that if one knows the theory, one does not have to have been introduced to the exact pattern to get through it -- sometimes the result can end up working better than the original pattern! (This goes for both lead and follow, many WCS leaders don't even use footwork for every step they lead.)

    My experiences with AT have been very poor, so I can't equate it to WCS in one way or another.

    When I learned WCS to start, I was a newbie ballroom dancer. While I considered myself a "dancer" in the general term at that point, my technical knowledge of ballroom actually got in the way of my development of WCS. Forward poise, far too heavy connection just in hopes of doing it right, lack of follow and more of a focus on "doing the steps"... all these things that were slowly weaned out of me by a teacher who focused on theory over syllabus. (These are also where the "scared ECS dancer" idea comes from... being ready to pounce rather than settling back to anchor and not sticking to the track but dancing around one another.)

    Like I said, I wasn't around when WCS was developed. All I know about that era is what I hear in classes I take: "Before, WCS used to look like THIS.. now the common standard for this move is THIS." You really can see a change, from the major effort put in on the lead's part in "Old WCS" to the effortless smooth style that seems to be creeping into "New WCS." Regardless of the style, I think the original question of this thread was about the way the dance is taught, theory vs. steps.

    Every pro teaches differently, and everyone's learning style is just as unique. I can't impose my own preference for the way -I- think the dance should be taught/learned, but I do have to say that I feel my ability to improvise and follow has to do with understanding the nature of the dance, not just what foot goes where for each count. You can't do this in every dance... try to improvise a waltz with a partner and all that will happen is bruises, injured toes and perhaps an intimate face-to-face visit with the floor. BUT, the fact that there is a freedom in WCS means that the potential for improvisation is there, if you ingrain it in people's understanding of the dance from the beginning.

    I know that people with limited dance experience (or those who have been trained in formal dance styles for numerous years) may take longer to understand the concept of WCS beyond just 6 count and 8 count patterns. However, I think that if people are going to take the time to give the dance a chance, they should be introduced to the overall ideas of the dance at the same time they are learning the basics. That way, when they step into the intermediate level, they know there is more to it than just syllabus figures and they can really start to play around in a way that both lead and follow will correctly interpret. (And hey, once you get there, there are a lot of AT patterns that I see used in WCS all the time!!!)
  6. kayak

    kayak Active Member

    How would you teach something really simple like a right side pass based on technique without footwork?

    I ask because I don't think very many beginning followers could describe why it is important to do a french cross. Even with good leaders, most beginning followers struggle to not just shuffle their feet and actually cross them. So how would they know, outside of repeating the steps hundreds of times, how import that crossing step is to the dance?
  7. Dancelf

    Dancelf Member

    You're kidding, right?


    Emphasis Added.
  8. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    [Note: I got tired of putting "in my opinion" in every place in this post, so please do note that this is just my opinion, there are varying ways of teaching every dance out there and I am just a student sharing her personal learning experience, not a pro.]

    Getting yourself (the follower) to do a french cross has to do with the toe on your "two" step being at a slight angle, so that you force yourself to step outside of the track on three. (Then your foot can just slide right through to do the cross!)

    I think of that more as a "step" in itself, not what I was talking about technique wise. Yes, it's a "technique" in the ballroom sense of the word, so I suppose I should try to find a different term for what I feel is the most important part of WCS (and the hardest to learn, which is why I advocate you start learning it from day one)... the concept of connection and swing. (Ok, that's two things.) Maybe I should call it "theory"?

    To introduce someone to a right side pass, a left side pass, a sugar push.. really any of the 5 basics, just tell them to walk through it! You can do every basic pattern with walks instead of triple steps. This introduces a beginner to the concept of going down the slot and anchoring at the end. Once you are comfortable with the basic concept of just walking, adding in swing can be done at this point without the burden of "doing the steps perfectly."

    There is a point in the middle of every pattern where the woman is essentially "leading herself." Once the leader "suggests" a pattern, say a left side pass, the heavy connection goes slack momentarily while the follower passes the leader. However, that connection needs to return on the anchor to signal to the leader "Ok, I'm ready." Sometimes it is tricky to visualize the path of the swing even when told things like "the woman is a pendulum, the anchor is like reaching the peak of the swing before it drops back down." However, taking footwork out of the equation at this point takes one more burden away. (Edit: Adding to the "theory" column the idea of "beginning" "middle" and "end" of a pattern... more of an intermediate concept but I have seen it mentioned in beginner classes just to give people more introduction to what WCS is and how it differs from other dances.)

    While you won't see beginner dancers intentionally playing around with their steps, having the concept in your mind is beneficial to all stages of learning.

    Going back to the question about why a french cross is important, you could explain it in relation to the flow of the dance. Shuffling your feet, doing a chassé, turning around and running the steps backward, all of these beginner variations on the 3&4 break the rhythm of the dance. Your feet need to flow, pass one another smoothly while your body is angled to the side. If you can explain in a memorable fashion that the angle of the body is important in relation to the count (walking when facing straight on to the slot, triple when at an angle) it might help, but to be honest that is more of something that comes with instinct rather than lecture. Doing a french cross is important, but it is also difficult, just like taking heel leads in fox trot or foot placement in swing. There is always a block between mentally comprehending something and having it switch from feeling awkward to being second nature.

    It is nice if an instructor keeps an eye out for their students, to make sure that as their dancing grows they are understanding things correctly. You can't expect someone to have a perfect french cross the first time, but if they are neglected and learn it incorrectly (say for example cross behind or something) it will be harder to unlearn.

    Reading through my post it is clear that I am discussing two different concepts. Let me clarify that I don't think all WCS instruction should focus solely on "theory" (connection/swing/structure) and not on steps and "technique" (french cross, how to place the feet for the anchor, etc.) I think that a class that mixes the two from day one will lead to a more successful WCS dancer. Any time you have to learn something and then "unlearn" it in place of a new, higher level concept is not beneficial to the learning process. Sometimes it is necessary, if only to keep a student from being so overwhelmed with information that they can't even begin to learn... but in WCS the dance lends itself to this method of teaching. I am sure it is much easier to teach beginners the steps alone, but without being taught the theory they'll remain beginners forever.
  9. Chris Stratton

    Chris Stratton New Member

    I think pretty much any dance can be subject to forest vs. trees issues, as the ballroom examples you use for comparison demonstrate.
  10. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    Not sure I know what the "forest vs trees" issue is, care to elaborate?
  11. kayak

    kayak Active Member

    I guess I have always had the good fortune of having an instructor who teaches both together. So theory has been at the core from the beginning. However, steps are important as well.

    I think Chris is pointing out this same issue exists in all the partner dances. Speaking about rising, falling and hovering is critical in Waltz to making the jump from plodding along with six steps to Waltzing. Fortunately, I also learned that dance with a combo of technique and concepts at the same time.
  12. jennyisdancing

    jennyisdancing Active Member

    Agree...I wish it was done more this way...instead, everyone is taught to focus on precise footwork, sometimes to the point of neglecting technique. No, all that fancy footwork (such as french cross) does not come naturally, it does need to be taught. The natural thing for an untrained dancer to do, is just to sloppily walk/hop/shuffle/whatever through the move. So, sure, footwork needs to be taught...just saying I agree that it doesn't have to come first.
  13. Chris Stratton

    Chris Stratton New Member

    Being unable to see the forrest for the trees is an expression for situations in which details obscure an understanding of the overall picture or purpose.

    Take for example the slot - a fairly widely taught idea in wcs with generally recognized implications. Well, it turns out that waltz also has a "slot" of sorts - a usually linear path of travel between the peak of rise in one figure and the peak of rise in the next. Add that to the idea of staying in a fairly fixed position on a partner, and most of the dance can be deduced - technique, ideas that work, and ideas that don't.

    This is key to understanding the dance, but how often is this idea taught? When a teacher first suggested it to me, I had to do a week of testing the details of the dance that I already knew against this new concept before I really believed her.
  14. kayak

    kayak Active Member

    My point is the importance of knowing the various dance elements. OK, so a woman might stumble upon doing the french cross but then what? Being able to do chaine', platform and pivot turns by accident seems unlikely to me. I think there is just a lot more going on than send her down the slot and it will all work out. As we all get better, even the idea of the "slack moment where the woman is leading herself" gets replaced by ever more complex timing and leads.
  15. Artemia

    Artemia New Member

    There's definitely a lot to WCS.. there's a lot to every dance. I'm not advocating for things like french crosses/etc to be saved until later in the dance to be learned, I'm advocating for the "theory" of the dance to come into play on day one alongside things like that. I hate to sound like a broken record, so that's all I'm going to say on the subject. (In this post!) :D

    Well.. that and: I do agree that it is difficult for people to stumble upon proper footwork technique, so you definitely do need to focus upon that while also gaining proper knowledge about why we dance WCS in the fashion we do. (Theory bit again.)
  16. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    (Not pickin' on you Jenny, just a good place to jump off from.)

    This, I think is a reflection on the teachers. A well thought out method of teaching dance would aim to combine as many essential elements as possible in an order that would facilitate learning.

    If you've been around here for a while you may know that I've been making a serious effort to find everything in print regarding WCS, and if precusor, Western Swing. And I've had a chance to see Skippy Blair's West Coast 101 teacher training up close and personal.

    All of the authors of the books I've been reviewing had years of experience with both dance and teaching dance before writing what they did.
    Some of the things they nearly all mention seem to be consistent across a large number of dances. (ALWAYS there are exceptions)

    We talk about musicality from time to time, and yet, as has been pointed out, a very basic thing like being in time to the music isn't covered in the lessons that I see being taught where I dance.
    Alma Heaton taught at Brigham Young, where there is to this day a highly regarded ballroom dance program. (He wrote several books about dance and included Western Swing in 2 of his books.)
    He would probably tell you (based on his writing) that it would be better to have people practice a rhythm from the beginning, and to make it consistent. This rather than, you can just walk now and we'll get to different rhythms later, because you have to relearn something. (Heaton's book are my latest find.)

    Teachers who adopt Skippy's methods will introduce students to both 6 count and 8 count moves, with corresponding footwork, which are pretty much basics today (as far as I know!) while being familiarized with a number of basics. Each "pattern" has a purpose.

    As I've written before, while I'm willing to consider the possibility that teaching WCS in a completly different way may produce better results than current methods, (Here I don't count those people who have no real methodology and are just winging it and just teaching steps) I'd have to see lots of information that something new works.
    Maybe it WOULD work better than untrained teachers who have "limited" experience. (I'm talkin' years vs decades.)

    I was very lucky in AT that I had good teachers who acually knew about music, posture, etc. and did pretty well in giving me what I needed (I think!).

    P.S. I remember how my ex used to rail against the Suzuki method of learning to play music.
  17. JohnEm

    JohnEm Well-Known Member

    I feel like an interloper here . . . .

    It's a complicated thread but this resonates with me as a lapsed WCS
    dancer. Everyone says how complicated it is and because of its technical demands
    many drop out. I dropped out because others did until there were no partners locally.

    Starting with the mention of Ceroc in the OP, this is a commercial exploitation
    of Modern Jive, itself a French evolution from wartime swing based jives.
    To get people dancing they don't teach footwork so we get to the question
    that if people don't do footwork are they dancing? If they step to they beat
    I'd argue they do. Problem is many don't because its not taught and many men
    are almost planted on the spot. Whatever happens it can be a very flat feeling dance
    though some people would say smooth. I could tell more but it's irrelevant to this topic.

    Modern Jive (Ceroc) is an open hold dance, can be circular as Lindy, can be danced
    slotted as WCS. I do both at different times and step on the beat. Undoubtedly
    it's improved with the rhythmic connection of both partners dancing together,
    in time and mirroring. It's almost as if you're dancing!

    So to WCS. I believe from experiences with all sorts of dances besides WCS
    (Lindy, Balboa, Ballroom & Latin) that the 6 and 8 count basic step pattern
    is fundamental to the (rhythmic) connection. I also believe that both triple step patterns
    should be taught keeping in time to the music along with the other basics of the slot,
    the travel, the springy tension and compression etc.

    But . . . for a while at least get people used to and understanding that
    the step pattern is continued no matter where you're moving. Move your
    body first, keep your feet under you and maintain the pattern and let your
    feet/legs go wherever the body requires them. Problems new dancers seem
    to have is in moving the whole body, not leading with the feet and often
    taking too large steps as a consequence and, mainly with men but not exclusively,
    not keeping feet close together enough resulting in the planted on the floor
    effect. Then they have to learn to be free with their feet in allowing them to go
    wherever needed.

    Using this principle, cross over patterns should occur naturally once learners
    have got used to the idea that their feet go where their bodies movement requires.

    As an aside, over here I get the impression that triplestep footwork is being
    taught as optional. If so it's a shame. It provides a distinctive look and feel,
    it's the core of the rhythmic connection and it's what differentiates the dance
    from just being a slotted version of a posy slow jive.

    Hope you all don't mind the intrusion but I feel better now!
  18. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    No, hey, glad to have you join us!
    Having really gotten into the early recorded history of Western Swing/WCS, it's obvious that since 1960 there have been regional variations of the dance.
    Although there were many similarities, each teacher who wrote about it presented "Western Swing" differently, emphasizing some steps, leaving others out, etc.
    I did a frame by frame look at a Sugar Push like move Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan did in one of their movie appearances. Man she barely moves her feet while pivoting and making it look like a million bucks. Dean does sort of modified triple steps.

    Western/WCS was known for the advanced level of the dancers and the use of all three rhythms: single, double, triple; a swing dancers swing dance,etc.
    Blair has ponted out the advantage of "rolling" a count, and from the beginning teachers wrote that the triples weren't "equalized". You can see this at work in the frame by frame of filmed performances from the 40s. 'Course, those folks were the best of the best. Still, people were taught about this as a matter of course.

    Now, not so much. But, probably as always, the more advanced dancers are onto it.

    One question, is the anchor step taught even without the triples? or what?
  19. JohnEm

    JohnEm Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the welcome Steve.
    You know they always say, rules are there to be broken.
    But I would say, not at the expense of the dance.
    Perhaps preferably play with them rather than break them.
    But first you have to know them and mastered them.

    Here I've only been taught starting with a solid triple stepping base.
    But my experience of showing/helping other learning dancers seems
    to me to indicate there's a better way of getting a mastery of the feet
    to the extent that it becomes second nature.

    Yes quite, they were on top of it and could play with it.

    But you're probably looking at people who were totally
    dedicated to dance to the exclusion of everything else.
    It's the same as in film clips of Lindy dancers, look beyond
    the paid help at the front doing aerials etc and towards the
    back where the extras are fudging their way through to see
    what the rest of the dancing population were actually doing socially.

    Never to me, always with triple steps.
    Can it be an anchor step if you aren't stepping in place?

    One WCS dancer I actually Tango a lot with told me the
    first time we sneaked in a quick WCS 3 minutes after milonga
    in answer to my comment that triple steps were optional after
    a year. Hmm, not for me there not! And the dance was distant,
    it's not that the lack of her triple stepping got in the way,
    not at all, but some of the synchronisation feedback was missing.

    Is that understandable?
  20. jennyisdancing

    jennyisdancing Active Member

    Not sure why you would need to see someone do a triple step to remain in sync. As long as they are on rhythm and keeping good connection, it shouldn't matter. The leader and follower don't need to be doing the same footwork at the same time.

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