Don’t Be a Pattern Junkie

Quickly, leaders: what’s the best way to make sure that your follower has an amazing dance?

If you answered, “Lead all of your cool patterns so she knows you’re a rockstar,” we need to talk. There’s a much better way to create a dance that will leave your followers breathless and gushing.

Inexperienced leaders tend to think that the job of the leader is to lead lots of fancy moves. After all, those leaders have spent their time at lots of workshops that teach flashy combinations, and they see advanced dancers doing mind-boggling tricks during their competitions. Since the job of the leader is to lead the dance, doesn’t it make sense that better leaders lead more stuff?

Actually, no. If you talk to followers, you’ll hear them complain about the “pattern junkies”: leaders who lead move after move after move. Dancing with that kind of leader is exhausting: not only is the follower running from end to end of the slot constantly, but she has to be reacting to every little change in the lead. If the leader isn’t an All-Star, the lead is probably not as clear as it could be, so the follower also has to guess what the leader meant as she’s racing around. Finally, the follower doesn’t have a chance to put her own style into the dance, because as soon as she’s finished one pattern she’s immediately being pulled into the next one. That kind of dance is no fun.

So how should you think about the dance?

Shift your mindset. The leader’s job is no longer to lead patterns. The leader’s job is to create the dance for both partners. Yes, leading patterns is part of that—but it’s a small part. Some things that are more important: taking care of your partner, leading clearly and comfortably, and providing the follower space to contribute to the dance conversation.

If you watch a leader like Mario Robau or Robert Royston on the social floor, you won’t see a ton of patterns. What you will see is perfectly executed moves that create opportunities for the partners to share the musical experience. Followers walk away from those dances beaming because they are made to feel like the center of the universe for those three minutes.

So leaders, don’t be pattern junkies!

Keep learning patterns, but use them as tools. The point of learning patterns is not to have a million moves to throw at your follower: the point is to understand how movement is created so that you can use those principles throughout your dancing. If you can create movement well, you don’t need a triple backflip pattern in order to make your follower feel great. And, unless you can create movement well, the triple backflip will probably backfire. In short: create the dance; don’t lead endless patterns.

Patterns vs. Technique

Lots of dancers love learning patterns. It’s easy to see this on the leader side of the dance—there’s a reason some leaders are referred to as “pattern junkies”—but followers can also be addicted to their play patterns. However, truly excellent dancers learn that patterns are not really the important part of the dance. Instead, excellent dancers focus on technique. Why are they so interested in technique?

One answer is that doing the double-backflip patterns requires a lot of good technique. It’s simply not possible to do the move of the year in a social setting unless your technical skills are up to par. This is part of the answer, but it’s not the whole answer.

The real answer is that there is a level of dancing beyond patterns, in which the dancers are purely reacting to each other within the structure of WCS. This level of dancing is where the magical moments of improvisation and the jaw-dropping moves come from. This level of dancing is what gives birth to those late night dances that take you far beyond what you’ve been capable of before. And this level of dancing is only possible if your technique is absolutely solid.

When discussing his experience on So You Think You Can Dance, Benji Schwimmer describes how his solo dancers were almost totally off-script. Instead of doing the routine that he had rehearsed, he felt like there would be a better energy if he danced “live”. So, as he got ready to go out, he told the camera operator that he would be entering from a different place than in rehearsal and that the operator should just track him. He was completely free to dance whatever he felt in that instant, based on what he was feeling from the music, the audience, and himself.

But, Benji emphasizes that this freedom to dance in the moment was only possible because he had trained more rigorously than his competitors. His technical foundation was so strong that he could go off script and still be absolutely confident that he would execute the moves, hit the right lines, etc. In other words, he had drilled his technique so deeply that his conscious mind didn’t have to worry about it, and he could spend all his active mental energy on connecting to that moment.

There is a role for patterns. At a basic level, patterns give you the vocabulary of the dance and help you grasp the framework of WCS. Well-chosen patterns can be used to highlight certain technical elements like connection, flashlighting, and foot positions. But for elite dancers, patterns are no more than a means: a means to practice the technique that makes the movement of west coast swing come alive. Once they have mastered the technique, they can take it out of that pattern and apply it in dozens of other moves. The truly amazing dancers specifically practice their basics for the sole purpose of integrating high-level technical elements into the core of their dance.

If you want to become a better dancer, you should be just as interested in technique as the top tier. Technique is what makes the dance come alive, and whether your technical skills are at a beginner level or an all-star, the quickest way to improve your dance is not to add new patterns but to improve the technique that makes your existing patterns shine.

Still wanna be a pattern junkie?  Let me help 😉

A few years back we created a ‘move of the week’ video. Each week (or so) we send out an awesome WCS video via email. Some weeks its a pattern, some weeks a tip but its ALWAYS something that you’ll enjoy. Looking forward to helping you be the best you can be at west coast swing.  All my best, Brian B

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