Looking for some syncopations for west coast swing? Just like most moves in west coast swing can be broken down into two-beat increments, most footwork syncopations can be broken down into smaller pieces. By practicing the elements that make up the vast majority of footwork syncopations, it becomes much easier to synthesize them on-the-fly into more advanced combinations.
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Learn the Syncopated Triple
West coast swing pulses on the upbeats, so our normal triple step is designed to give a full beat of music to the upbeat; the & of the triple comes between the downbeat and the upbeat.
The syncopated triple rhythm flips this pulse: the & count occurs before the downbeat in order to make the downbeat feel accented.
The Drill: Without a partner, put on a song and practice doing triple steps with the basic rhythm. Then, switch to syncopated triples. Since the & now comes before the downbeat, you need to start the & count as soon as you finish the previous upbeat. There’s no time for a coffee break.
Once you can fluidly do the syncopated triples, try dancing basic rhythms and alternating between syncopated triples and standard triples.
A word of caution: It is very easy for syncopated triples to become your basic rhythm because so much contemporary WCS music has frequent accents on the downbeats. Push break and tuck-based moves are particularly vulnerable, since it is extraordinarily easy to use the &3 to hit an accent and then dance out on the 4, rather than letting the compression build through 3&. When you are practicing syncopated triples, be sure that you are doing them deliberately and that your basic still remains the standard triple rhythm. For the tempting moves like push breaks and tucks, I would strongly recommend that you finish a session by practicing those moves a couple of times with normal triples to make sure that you reinforce the standard rhythm.
Beginner to Intermediate Syncopations:
Put on a song, and practice performing each of the elements of footwork syncopations one at a time. Remember to practice starting on both feet!
- Walks: Simply step on each beat on music.
- Slow Walks: Step on the downbeat and hold the upbeat.
- Touch Step: On the downbeat, touch but do not transfer weight into your free foot. You can touch at any angle that is comfortable for you; generally, you should stay within the arc that goes from straight forward to back at a 45° angle. On the upbeat, transfer your weight to that foot.
- Step Touch: On the downbeat, step to your new foot. On the upbeat, touch the ground with the free foot but do not transfer weight.
- Kick Ball Change: Keep your weight over your supporting foot. With your free foot, kick on the downbeat. On the & beat, put your weight on that foot but keep the foot under yourself, then step back to the original supporting foot on the upbeat. During this entire syncopation, your weight should remain over one side of your body rather than shifting from side to side.
- Point Ball Change: Same as the kick ball change, but with a point into the ground instead of a kick.
- Hold Ball Change: Same as the kick ball change, but the free foot does nothing on the downbeat. A popular version of this move is to straighten the free knee or both knees to a “pop” before performing the ball change.
You will notice that some of the syncopations alternate the free foot, while others end in the same position that they began. The double rhythm variations (walks and ball change steps) should end on the same foot as you started. Conversely, the single rhythm variations (slow walks, touch step, and step touch) will end on the opposite foot.
Once you are comfortable with the rhythms of the syncopations, you can begin to stylize them by changing directions or modifying the free foot. For instance, a step touch can become a step ronde. A touch step can become a smearing of the foot across the floor before stepping. Walks can add foot swivels, touches, points, and kicks can go in different directions, etc. Play with these styling options to find something that’s comfortable and looks good on you!
The vast majority of footwork syncopations are built from a handful of basic movements. By drilling those movements, you can easily combine the pieces into a more elaborate syncopation to match the music.
The Drill: Without a partner, practice the basic movements for syncopations.
Single Rhythms: For these movements, you will have a different foot free after every two beats.
- Slow walks; take a step on the downbeat and hold the upbeat.
- Step-touch; step on the downbeat and touch your free foot on the upbeat without transferring weight.
- Touch-step; touch your free foot on the downbeat without transferring weight, then step on the upbeat.
Double Rhythms: These movements contain two weight transfers over two beats, so you will have the same foot free after completing each movement.
- Walks; take a step on both the downbeat and upbeat.
- Kick-ball change; kick with your free foot on the downbeat, then perform a ball change on the & and the upbeat.
- Point-ball change; same as above, but point instead of kicking with the free foot.
- Hold-ball change; same as above, but now you simply hold instead of kicking or pointing on the downbeat. You can add a knee pop by straightening the knees on the downbeat.
Triple Rhythms: These movements contain three weight transfers in two beats of music. You will have a different foot free after performing each movement.
- Triples; do a triple step, transferring weight on the downbeat, &, and upbeat.
- Step-kick-ball change; step on the & count before the downbeat, kick on the downbeat without transferring weight, then take two weight transfers on the & count before the upbeat as well as the upbeat.
Quad Rhythm: This movement hits every beat and & count, from the & before the downbeat to the upbeat. Because this movement contains four weight transfers, you will end with the same foot free after completing the movement.
- Ball change-ball change; ball change on the & downbeat, then do another ball change on the & upbeat.
Un-Syncopate Your Triple Step
Many dancers habitually syncopate their triples. Instead of dancing 3&4, they dance &3, 4. While there’s nothing wrong with a syncopation when done intentionally, doing it all the time is a bad habit that should be corrected.
Syncopating the triple is common on tuck-type movements because it creates the compression on the downbeat, which is very useful when you need to accent a musical hit. However, many dancers use that syncopation inadvertently in all of their movements—regardless of whether or not there is an accent or if the syncopation would show anything in that pattern.
The syncopated triple introduces some problems when done habitually. The biggest issue is that it encourages rushing. In order to step the & before the downbeat, the dancer had to cut short the step beforehand (e.g., count 2 before a 3&4 triple that was syncopated to &3, 4). Now the dancer has to done several short steps and has to fill the time for both the 3 and the 4 with one step per beat. Many dancers struggle with that change. Newer dancers will frequently end up off time—too early—for their anchor. More experienced dancers will delay their movement to start the anchor on time, but lose body flight during that time because they can’t control their movement that slowly.
Habitually syncopating the triple also affects your partner. It can change their timing if you are not good at maintaining your body flight unchanged when altering your footwork. Syncopating unintentionally can also take away styling options from your partner. As a result, it’s important to be deliberate when you want to syncopate—and to keep the standard rhythm as your default.
The Drill: Put on some music and dance basic patterns while concentrating on the timing of your first triple. Be certain that your first step of the triple happens on 3, not before. It can be helpful to have a friend watch without dancing and check your timing (or record yourself to check on video).
Be vigilant about your timing. Because the syncopated triple is an unintentional habit for many people, you may not realize that you are stepping before the beat. Having a partner or video as an objective reference is helpful, but ultimately you need to become aware of when you are moving your feet. Pay attention!
Because the syncopated triple is so common in tuck-style patterns, be sure to dance a lot of passing tuck turns, sugar tucks, etc. to non-syncopated timing.
You may find it easier to practice this exercise with music that does not feature many accents on the downbeats. Blues music or old school R&B are great choices; contemporary music is more likely to accidentally reinforce your bad habits because the music naturally includes hits on the downbeats.