A Two Beat Dance

Although west coast swing is composed of six- and eight-count patterns, the actual dance itself is a two-beat dance. Every movement in west coast swing goes through a downbeat-upbeat pair. Those pairs of downbeats and upbeats are then joined together into a full pattern, an extension, a chunk of play, or anything else within the dance.

Consider a basic side pass.

We normally count out the pattern as “walk walk, tri-ple step, tri-ple step.” This language reveals the two-beat increments underlying the pattern: a walk walk, a triple, and another triple. If we want to change the pattern, we will do it by changing a full two-beat rhythm. For instance, we could replace the anchor triple with a delayed single like a drag-step. We can’t just change one beat of the pattern since that would affect our footwork on the rest of the rhythm unit.

Sometimes, our syncopations will affect multiple rhythm units. Even in this case, the dance is still altered in two-beat pairs. Suppose that you syncopate an anchor by doing a double instead of a triple. You are now on the wrong foot. For the next pattern, you will adjust your footwork on the first two beats; e.g., you could do a triple step instead of a walk walk. Anyone watching the dance will see your dance change over all four beats; no one will say that you changed from the & of 5 to the & of 1.

Likewise, if we wanted to extend the pattern, we would extend by a two-beat increment, and we would put that extension between two of the rhythm units that we already have. You could extend your side pass by adding a walk walk after the first triple, or you could add the walk walk before the first triple, but you can’t add the walk walk between the parts of the triple. In order words, you would never dance “walk walk, tri walk walk ple step, tri-ple step.”

So how do you make use of west coast’s two-beat foundation?

For starters, every movement belongs to a downbeat-upbeat pair.

If you are having problems with a move, break it down into each downbeat-upbeat pair to see where the problem lies.

Second, all of your footwork happens in two-beat increments.

If you want to learn footwork syncopations or variations, you should practice the two-beat chunks: kick-ball change, tri-ple step, step-blank, etc. It’s much easier to do footwork on the fly if you can pull from two-beat increments rather than trying to memorize full syncopation sequences.

Third, playing happens in two-beat increments.

If the follower wants to do something on the downbeat, she also needs to fill the upbeat. If the leader wants to re-start the dance, he needs to do so on a downbeat rather than an upbeat.

Finally, at higher levels the dance breathes through every downbeat-upbeat pair. This breath, or pulse, is what gives west coast swing its vitality.

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