West coast swing gives dancers more liberty to change the look of the dance basics than most other forms of social dancing. Having some west coast swing styling ideas to be able to modify the look of the dance within the basics is an important skill for both competitive and social dancers.
For competitive dancers, even at the champion level, at least half of the dance’s patterns are simple side passes, push breaks, and whips. The ability to add styling and color the dance makes it possible to match the music within these basic patterns and gives both partners the ability to get on the same page while setting up the money moves for that dance.
Social dancers also benefit from adding styling. With the ability to change the look and feel of patterns, a leader can keep the dance interesting without needing a million patterns. A follower who can color the dance can interpret the music no matter what the leader is leading, or even if the leader is not setting up the follower for any key moments. On either side of the slot, coloring the patterns results in a more dynamic, engaging, and musical dance.
5 west coast swing styling ideas
This series will walk through a 5 ways to style your west coast swing. Whether the song calls for a calm and laid back blue or a high-energy yellow, you will make the dance come alive for yourself and your partner.
- Styling with Level Changes
One of the easiest way to color the dance is with level changes. Any pattern can be danced at different heights: low, normal, or high. By changing between levels during a pattern, the dancers can match the patterns to the melody line of the music.
To dance at a low height, simply add a subtle bend to the knee. You should not drop more than an inch or so; if you go further, it looks like you are squatting. The bend should be soft enough to be camouflaged by your pants.
To dance at a high height, simply straighten the knee and use the ankles to raise the center slightly. Again, changing by more than an inch or two is unnecessary and will make you look unsteady. A small, controlled contrast looks much better than a gigantic lift.
The Drill—Rainbow Effect:
On your own or with a partner, dance basic patterns with the start and end of each pattern at your normal height, and the middle of the pattern at a high height. The pattern will look like the arc of a rainbow and will create a light, elevated feeling in the middle of the pattern.
The Drill—Clothesline Effect:
On your own or with a partner, dance basic patterns with the start and end of each pattern at your normal height, and with the middle of the pattern dropping to the low height. This effect, which looks like the drop of a clothesline, creates the sense of energy falling into the middle of the pattern before relaxing back to normal.
If you are dancing with a partner, repeat these drills with one partner doing the level changes and the other partner remaining at the normal height. The partner who is not doing the level changes should not feel a shift in the connection while the height-changing partner moves.
Styling with Length
Another easy way to add color to the dance is by changing the length of the slot. Although it is easier for the leader to control this aspect of the dance, the follower can request a longer slot or shorter slot by changing the length of her step immediately before the anchor.
Length changes can create different looks, depending on the energy of the patterns. In general, longer patterns look more energetic whereas smaller patterns look quieter. However, this is not a rule. Long flowing movements can bring out the lyrical quality of songs. Conversely, short slots can enable tight and fast footwork, which makes the dance look more energetic.
With or without a partner, dance your basic patterns to establish a neutral length. Then, repeat with a longer slot. For leaders, take your step immediately before the anchor slightly towards the follower in order to encourage the follower to travel further. For followers, take a slightly longer step on the beat immediately before the anchor in order to request a post further down the slot.
The same modifications can be applied to make a shorter slot. For leaders, the step immediately before the anchor should move slightly against the follower’s direction in order to set the post closer in the slot. Followers should take a smaller step immediately before the anchor in order to encourage the leader to post closer.
Once you are comfortable with dancing both distances, try applying the changes in a song. Adele’s “Set Fire To The Rain” contains great contrasts that can be brought out with this method.
With or without a partner, dance basics to this song.
During the verses, keep your dance at a short distance.
When the chorus downbeat hits on the word “fire,” begin dancing with a longer slot.
Continue the longer slot through the chorus, then immediately come back to the short distance beginning with the 1 of the verse. This set of changes brings out the vocal energy of the chorus, while dramatically taking the energy down for the verses.
- Styling with Width
A third dimension of patterns that can be modified is the width of the slot. Wider slots feel more relaxed as the pattern drifts from side to side. Dancing in a narrow slot creates a tight, crisp look. This drill is designed to get you comfortable with changing the slot width.
Need new pattern ideas to add some width and style? Our Video Catalog is a great place to learn new moves!
Find a line on the floor that you can use as a reference point. With that line as your slot, dance side passes that move further away from the slot than normal. For instance, your 1 on a side pass can go slightly away from the slot, as well as down the line; likewise, let your 4 go all the way across the slot instead of stopping in the slot. Use an anchor variation that continues across the slot before coming back to the slot for the end of the anchor (e.g., a side and cross). This is your wide version of the patterns.
For the narrow version, again dance side passes with a line marking the slot. This time, every step should either be on the line or directly next to it (so that the edge of your foot is touching the line). Make sure that you open your shoulders by 2 so that your follower will have room to pass through. This is your narrow version.
With a line on the floor marking the center of your slot, dance side passes. For the wide version, let the middle of your side pass curve off of the slot. When you post on 4, travel past the slot with your anchor before coming back to the center for your next pattern. This is your wide version.
To dance the narrow version, every step should be directly on the line. You will need to make sure that you rotate your upper body beginning on count 2 of the side pass; the contra-body rotation is what allows you to share the slot in close quarters with your leader.
Additional Partner Details:
It is possible to lead pattern width. To lead a wider pattern, the leader can add a slight arc to the connection in order to encourage the follower to move off of the slot.
Narrow width can be led by keeping the connection directly in front of the follower’s connected shoulder, which asks the follower to keep her frame in line.
For the follower, it is much easier to suggest a wider pattern. During the middle of patterns, the follower can drift from side to side of the slot as in the drill above. When the follower is sent out (such as a throwout from a whip or the tuck of a tuck turn), she can use the opportunity to stay out of the slot briefly instead of immediately coming back to center.
The other place the follower can create width is during the anchor; it is okay to anchor slightly off-center from the slot as long as you return to center by count 2 so the leader can put you in position for the next move. Beware of anchoring too far off the slot, as that can take away options for the leader’s next pattern choice. You should be able to comfortably return to center no later than beat 2.
Styling with Footwork Activity
One of the things we notice about music is how energetic or quiet it is. Some songs are relaxed; other songs have a driving club feel. Great songs switch between these options; the song may have a booming energy until the bridge, when everything suddenly sounds muted, or a song may be contained until a build into a new phrase. One of the ways to acknowledge these differences is through the amount of activity in the dance, and the easiest area for either partner to modify is the footwork.
Have you read “Footwork Styling Basics” That’s a great first place to start
The Drill: With or without a partner, practice dancing your basics with quiet feet. Whenever possible, turn your triples into single weight changes—for instance, with a drag-step or a step-hold. Avoid any ball changes on the walk walks, since those tend to create movement. Keep your feet on or skimming the ground as much as possible: no kicks! This will make the dance seem much less energetic.
Caution! Do not take this drill as license to eliminate your triples in your regular dancing. This is an exercise, and to make the most of your practice time you can take out all of your triples. In the wild, however, and especially in competitions, triples are still a key element of the dance. A good rule of thumb is to only replace one triple rhythm in a pattern with a single; the other triple still needs to occur in order for the swing character of the dance to be visible.
To add energy to your dance, practice dancing your basics with more footwork. Instead of plain walk walks, use a kick-ball change; this both adds an additional movement (kick, ball, and change instead of just walk walk) and uses a kick to raise the energy level of the dance. If you have practiced a triple footwork variation like &-kick-ball change, throw that in on your triples. The goal is to have as much footwork as possible.
You can practice dancing these styles to a song like Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break.” Dance with quiet feet during the verses, and energetic feet during the chorus. (N.B. Quiet verses and loud choruses occur in many pop songs, so this is an easy way to put contrast into your dance on a regular basis.)
Styling with Arm Movements
In WCS, arm movements are used to either finish or dissipate the energy of a move and will really add some style to your dancing. An arm that goes up or out signals energy; contained arms or arms that finish downwards tend to look calmer and less busy. By adjusting your arm movements, you can ramp up the energy of a movement or take out the juice.
Have you read “The Ultimate Guide to Arm Styling for WCS” you’ll want to start there first to understand arm lines!
The Drill: Without a partner, practice arm movements that you use on patterns that create momentum, such as tucks, throw outs, and hip catches. For each movement, drill a “loud” version and a “quiet” version.
Some of the ways you can create a “loud” version include:
- Keeping the arm parallel to the ground
- Raising the arm slightly above neutral
- Taking the wrist outside of your elbow
- Moving the arm to the end of your range of motion rapidly
The “quiet” version can be created through these options:
- Taking the arm downwards (at an angle or straight down)
- Keeping the wrist inside the elbow
- Moving the arm to the end of the range of motion slowly
Note for Leaders: In general, your arm movements should be more contained than the follower’s. Opening your arms wide is more dramatic on the leader side of the dance, so it’s easy to overdo it. Keep your arm variations a notch quieter than the follower’s unless you are deliberately going for a massive hit.
Leader’s Option: Leaders, you can create the look of big arms by leading two-handed moves. Two-handed moves look busy, and they also visually emphasize the open position distance between the partners; both of these factors raise the “volume” level of the movement. By leading more two-handed moves when the song is loud, you can call attention to the energy in that part of the song.
Another way to add some styling to your west coast swing is through rotation. Increasing or decreasing the amount of rotation in a pattern can dramatically change the feeling of a movement. In general, changing the amount of rotation in a pattern is done by the leader; followers have more control over whether they overrotate or underrotate turns. Thus, this drill will focus on ideas for leaders to alter the rotation of the dance. Overrotation is more common because it adds energy to the dance, but you can also play with moves that have less rotation to take the juice out of a movement.
CAUTION! Rotation is a tricky element to play with! Other forms of coloring, like modifying the height or length of patterns, work all the time because they obey the rules of WCS. Rotation bends (sorry for the pun) the rule that WCS is a slotted, linear dance. That means two things. First, you won’t be able to rotate patterns with every partner. If your partner is a beginning social dancer, rotating patterns is asking for trouble. Second, especially in competition settings, know that rotation is outside the standard scope of WCS. Make sure that you demonstrate the essence of the dance consistently and only bend it sporadically.
The Drill: This drill is more of a suggestion of patterns to try. There are hundreds of ways to change the rotation of patterns; consider this post as a starter kit of ideas that you can build on or modify. No matter what pattern you pick, the leader needs to remember that he is responsible for establishing a slot for the follower. If the pattern rotates, the leader thus needs to be extremely clear about where the slot is at the end of the pattern and needs to guide the follower back to the slot, if necessary.
Push break to the side: This push break goes into the triple as normal, but the leader builds more compression in the right hand than the left by opening his left side while remaining in the slot. On 4, instead of sending the follower back, the leader sends the follower to his left at a 90 degree angle by sending through the right-to-left connection. The dance can continue with the slot rotated, or the leader can rotate both his body and the connection back to the original starting point in order to bring the follower back in an arc. Followers, if the leader rotates you back, you will probably need to adjust your footwork on the anchor: side-cross-side is a great way to travel back to your original slot.
Rotated inside roll: This pattern takes a normal inside roll and rotates it 90 degrees to the left. Lead an inside roll as normal. When the follower is tripling through the spin, the leader should connect to her back with the right hand as if he were picking her up in closed position. But, instead of staying in closed, the leader should use his right forearm to steer the follower to his left as he rotates his own body. The key to this move is making the rotation happen before count 4; by the time the follower steps back on 4, the rotation needs to be completed.
Overrotated whip: In this whip, the leader and follower rotate up to an extra 90 degrees on count 5. Up to count 4, the whip is the same. On count 5, the leader needs to really rotate his body to the right, because the follower’s extra rotation is determined by how much more the leader rotates. A rotation of a full 270 degrees (the normal 180 plus an extra 90) rotates the entire slot; if there is a smaller degree of rotation, the leader needs to direct the follower back to the slot on the anchor so she knows where she is supposed to be.
Rotated right side cutoff: This move works similarly to the rotated inside roll. The leader leads a right side cutoff whip (where the hand crosses in front of the follower, like a right side pass). By slightly accelerating the rotation and using the right forearm on the follower’s back to guide her around, the leader can direct the follower to his right (from the perspective of where the leader started the pattern).