The Evolution and Spirit of West Coast Swing

Richard Powers

            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: 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.

            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!

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.

            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