The Evolution and Spirit of West Coast Swing
Who created West Coast Swing?
Many dancers contributed to the evolution of West Coast Swing over the decades. All of them were lateral thinkers (see below).
Then there was a healthy black-white ping pong of influences through the decades:
- Background: African American dancers at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom created Lindy hop from an earlier form, the 1910 Texas Tommy from San Francisco, also an African American creation. WCS proponent Skippy Blair wrote, "The styles change... the music changes according to the beat of the day... but a swing dancer is a swing dancer, no matter what the style." So to answer "Who created West Coast Swing?" we can't overlook the dancers at the Savoy who created the genre of swing dancing.
Side note: beware of the Web "histories" of WCS which only mention the white contributors to West Coast Swing. Several Web pages, including Wikipedia, also claim that WCS was done in the 1950s or 60s, but those earlier styles weren't very similar to today's WCS, in either structure or appearance.
- During the 1950s, teenagers made many regional modifications to swing dancing (mostly 6-count), partially to adapt to rock'n'roll music. These modifications were widely varied – you could even tell what high school teens attended by the way they danced. However one local style ended up being especially influential.
The black kids of West Philadelphia influenced the white kids in South and North Philly, who added their own variations and departures from traditional swing. The result ended up on American Bandstand, influencing thousands of teens across the country.
Many (or most) of the evolutionary changes in WCS steps, patterns and music occurred during this 1950s phase. In fact the basic structure and timing of swing was turned inside-out by some of the fifties teens. See some of the specific changes at the bottom of this page.
- Hispanic teens in New York kept this "Bandstand style" of swing alive during the 1960s, while the Twist had pushed couple dancing to the background elsewhere. When the disco scene erupted in NYC in 1970, the local Latinos style of 1950s swing was adopted, becoming a family of Hustle steps, most notably the 6-count Latin Hustle. The steps and figures were essentially unchanged from 1950s Bandstand swing, but the style was new – simply walking through the figures. The walking style of Hustle became the look of West Coast Swing less than ten years later. See the full disco story here.
- Dancers in Southern California borrowed and blended elements of seventies disco Hustle, fifties Bandstand swing, eighties Country-Western styling (Urban Cowboy caused a Country-Western boom in 1980) and L.A.-style Lindy hop to evolve West Coast Swing.
Los Angeles Lindy hop had been influenced by Dean Collins' smooth and anchored style of dancing swing, especially in the 8-count swingout (becoming the WCS Whip), but it's important to note that this influence was merely stylistic. It does not mean that "Dean Collins invented West Coast Swing," despite the claims of several Web pages. The Whip is essentially the same step, both in structure and timing, as the Savoy Lindy Hop swingout, so the Harlem dancers still deserve most of the credit for the WCS Whip.
- Skippy Blair, based in Southern California, embraced and promoted West Coast Swing since the late 1970s. She contributed perhaps more than anyone else to the final coalescing of what we know today as West Coast Swing. And Skippy Blair embraced the original lateral thinking attitude of swing. She could have turned it into a rule-based discipline, but she chose instead to keep the true heart of swing. In her original 1978 description of "West Coast Swing – Golden State Swing," Skippy Blair wrote:
"The most fascinating part of swing dancing is the individuality of the dancers. Stylings are flexible… the style one chooses should be as individual as the clothes one chooses to wear."
"The only problem that exists in swing is when someone decides there is only ONE WAY to dance it." (The caps were hers.)
The spirit and attitude of West Coast Swing
West Coast Swing is much more than a style and syllabus of figures. It embodies the West Coast attitude about dance, a mindset of freedom, ease, flexibility and infinite possibilities.
I once heard this theory:
Is this theory true? In many cases yes, but not always. There are too many exceptions – many rule-based dancers living on the West Coast and many adaptive, experienced-based dancers living on the East Coast, like the history of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem for example. And the dancers between the coasts are left out!
- East Coast dancers focus on definitions and rules, categorizing and standardizing the categorization. Does it belong in this box or that box? Which style is correct? So there is understandably an emphasis on technique, more specifically on defining and enforcing one correct technique.
- West Coast dancers focus more on the way dance feels, the subjective experience of dancing. How does it impact us? How can we enhance the experience? How can we enhance the experience for our partners? West Coast thinking therefore embraces more creativity and flexibility, to adapt to partners who are different from our own style.
The geographical division is an oversimplification. So I prefer to think of it as lateral thinking vs. vertical thinking, which can happen anywhere.
These terms were coined by the theoretician Edward deBono who wrote:
Welcoming chance intrusions is one of the fundamental components of creative thinking. Lateral-thinking dancers see deviations from what they expected to happen, as opportunities, not mistakes.
- Vertical thinking is selective, lateral thinking is generative.
- Rightness is what matters in vertical thinking. Richness is what matters in lateral thinking.
- Vertical thinking selects a pathway by excluding other pathways (leading to the jokes about "illegal moves" in strictly ballroom dance). Lateral thinking does not restrict but seeks to open up new pathways.
- Vertical thinking moves only if there are directions on how to move. Lateral thinking moves in order to generate directions.
- Vertical thinking depends heavily on the rigidity of definitions. It often depends on identifying something as a member of some class or excluding it from that class. If something is given a label or put into a class, it is supposed to stay there. With lateral thinking, classifications and categories are not fixed pigeonholes but signposts to help navigation.
- Lateral thinking welcomes chance intrusions. With lateral thinking one welcomes outside influences for their provocative action.
Word of the Day: Pedantic
Some advice from long ago is timeless, like this from a 19th century dance manual: "Never be pedantic on a dance floor."
pedantic adj., 1. characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for formal rules; overly concerned with what are thought to be correct rules and details; marked by a narrow, often tiresome focus on or display of learning and especially its trivial aspects.
2. narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned.
3. unimaginative, pedestrian.
Etymology: From ped, form of piede, foot, in meaning of servile follower.
(Random House Dictionary)
Never forget that social dance is social.
According to original Whitey's Lindy Hoppers superstar Leon James (shown at right),
"Want to dance Savoy Lindy Hop correctly? Then don't be real concerned about 'correctness'!"
As I wrote on this page on Intelligent Dancing, I believe that both vertical and lateral thinking are valid where appropriate. Vertical thinking makes perfect sense for ballet and competition ballroom dance for example.
But one of the strangest mismatches you'll find in the dance world is when someone applies a rigidly vertical thinking attitude to a totally lateral thinking dance form like swing or salsa. It's astonishingly unperceptive, in my opinion, to try to master the technique of West Coast Swing while missing the essential spirit of the dance. And there's a true loss when the spontaneity, flexibility and freedom of West Coast Swing are replaced by an emphasis on rules and restrictions.
So how about that geographical division?
(1) Even though there are exceptions, yes, you tend to find an emphasis on vertical thinking on the East Coast
and an emphasis on lateral thinking on the West Coast, but it's not a strict division at all. (2) Overall, the United States has more of a lateral-thinking tradition than northern Europe (see this page). And (3) there are also cultural divisions on that side of the Atlantic: You tend to find more vertical thinking in British, German and Scandinavian mindsets, while you tend to find more lateral thinking in Latin and African traditions.
Therefore you see an especially strong display of lateral thinking when American, Latin and African dance traditions merge, especially in swing and salsa.
Then when you factor in the East Coast - West Coast difference, it's no surprise that lateral thinking is especially embodied in West Coast Swing (at least among the dancers and teachers who truly understand West Coast Swing).
Don't let WCS become another stodgy rule-based dance, buried in layers of pedantic details. Keep the original spirit alive!
More thoughts and musings