Are you looking to get good at west coast swing? It is no accident that expert performers spend hours practicing the fundamentals of their craft. Every day, NBA players shoot free throws, instrumentalists play their scales, and MLB players take batting practice. In this post we are going to help you find what to focus on to get good at west coast swing as as efficiently as possible
Get good at west coast swing with basics
Science provides an explanation for why experts continue to drill their basics, and why dancers should as well!
Because the brain continually adapts through practice, the performance of any skill becomes more automatic. However, that automaticity comes at a cost:
Once a skill becomes automatic, the brain tends to pay less attention to the finer points of the action.
Lots of WCS dancers experience this kind of automaticity! If you have any habitual movements — you are experiencing this kind of automaticity.
By going back to your basics, you can keep your habitual movements from taking over your dance and improve more rapidly.
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What should you focus on to get good fast?
It’s easy to become overwhelmed trying to get good at a dance like west coast swing. There are so many patterns, concepts, and skills to work on—how do you choose between cleaning up your basics, mastering pot stirs, learning musicality, picking up new footwork variations, and understanding how to play?
Enter Pareto’s Principle Also known as the 80-20 rule, Pareto’s Principle states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Surprisingly, this principle seems to hold in many domains. Nearly 80% of the spending on healthcare comes from 20% of the patients. Microsoft found that fixing the top 20% of bug reports eliminated about 80% of computer crashes.
If you focus on the most important 20% of what you do, you can achieve an incredible ratio of reward to effort.
Applying Pareto’s Principle to west coast swing helps prioritize your practice time.
3 elements of west coast swing that will give you the most bang for your buck!
TAKE ACTION> Read – 5 Drills to improve your WCS in 30 Seconds
The Anchor Step
Each pattern in west coast swing ends in an anchor. The vast majority of WCS patterns last six beats; the anchor takes two of these beats, or a full 1/3 of the pattern. Even when accounting for 8-beat and extended patterns, about 30% of the dance is spent anchoring.
Besides the sheer amount of time spent in an anchor, the anchor is also significant because it’s one of the distinguishing features of WCS. A good anchor creates the upright, elastic, and smooth look that west coast is known for.
Because of the anchor’s central role in WCS and the raw amount of time spent on it within the dance, the anchor is tailor-made for the Pareto Principle. If you need to pick just one element of your dance to work on, this is it!
The other element of west coast swing that qualifies under both the “defining characteristic of the dance” standard and the “significant amount of time during the dance” standard is the triple step. Very few social dances outside of the swing family include triple steps in the fundamental rhythm of the dance. Since triples make up 50–67% of the beats in a simple dance, they are one of the most obvious features of the dance.
Being able to do clean triple steps will allow you to move wherever the pattern requires and to stay on time. It is very easy for a partner to notice if your triples are off-time or uncontrolled, so improving your triple steps will have an immediate payoff for your dancing.
The 1, 2 of Any Pattern
The walk-walk rhythm that has the follower progressing forward (rather than rock-stepping) is also a defining characteristic of west coast swing—and in fact separates WCS from all of the other forms of swing. In addition, every pattern begins with this element. For many of the same reasons as the anchor, therefore, the 1, 2 is a target for Pareto-optimized practice.
Having said that, there are a couple of reasons to prefer working on the anchor if you only have time to work on one element of the dance.
Do you know all the basics of WCS? Download & learn them all here
For followers, the biggest problem with the walk-walk (viz., turning it into a rock step) is eliminated if you fix the anchor.
For both leaders and followers, the walk-walk will change depending on the rest of the move; leaders will move to different sides of the slot and have to rotate their bodies accordingly, and for right-rotating patterns like the whip or barrel roll, the follower’s 2 will be executed differently.
Finally, it is extremely common to turn the walk-walk into a hitch, or to need to do a triple instead of a walk-walk in order to get back on the correct foot.
Because of all these variables, the payoff from improving the 1, 2 in a specific case is lower than dealing with the anchor.
To be clear: that doesn’t mean that the 1, 2 is less important than the anchor; it simply means that the reward to effort ratio favors prioritizing the anchor if you can only work on one of the two.
How to get good at WCS (hint. It’s not what you think)
Learning a complicated ability like dancing west coast swing is not a linear process. Your learning will go through a cycle of mastery, in which you learn a concept and then repeatedly come back to it in different and more advanced ways.
To take an example, let’s say that you learn about the concept of rolling through your feet. After a lot of practice, you finally develop the muscle memory of rolling through your feet on all your basic movements.
A while later (it might be a few months, or it might be years), you realize that you can use this technique to adjust your spacing with your partner.
Instead of changing your footwork on a tuck, you can control your roll through the feet in order to match the degree of compression offered by your partner.
Suddenly you see dozens of opportunities to apply this technique—in tucks, whips, hip catches, throw-outs, and more. Back to the practice floor.
The point is that a relatively simple dance concept can be applied in many ways, and part of learning the dance is discovering new places to apply the fundamental concepts in more nuanced ways.
Someone who has just learned to roll through the feet in basic patterns can legitimately be said to have learned to roll through the feet, but that doesn’t mean there is no more to learn. Usually, the “more” only becomes apparent when other elements of the dance have become more developed, and then it becomes productive to revisit the old ideas in new ways.
This is the cycle of mastery:
- learn a concept
- apply it
- then come back later and apply it at a higher level
It can be frustrating if your attitude is…
“I already fixed this—why is it broken again?!”
But, if you take the attitude that now you can do even more with the concept than you used to be able to, then it becomes clear that you are making progress.
The implication of the cycle of mastery for practice is that you should make it a point to periodically revisit your core technique elements.
When you do, your goal should not be to merely clean up what you did before. Instead, seek to find new ways to apply the same concepts. As you grow as a dancer, you should discover more depth to the seemingly “simple” technique elements that you learned as a beginner. Check out this resource for people looking for a deeper analysis of how to get good at west coast swing?
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What You Practice Matters
Have you ever danced and seen someone do something that they couldn’t do just a month or two ago?
Our community is full of dancers who seem to improve every chance you seen them out on the floor. How do they improve so quickly?
Usually, the key difference between the people who get better at every event and the people who seem to be stuck isn’t how much time each group practices. What matters is what they practice.
To get better quickly, you need to spend your time practicing the things that are hard for you. It really is that simple.
There’s very little benefit to practicing easy things because you can already do them easily.
There’s also not a lot of benefit to practicing something that’s way beyond your abilities.
To effectively practice, you need to find things that are just outside your current abilities. If you can occasionally execute a skill while thinking hard about every part of it, that skill is a great candidate for practice.
Psychologists and researchers on human excellence have named this kind of practice the “zone of proximal development.”
When you work in your ZPD, you steadily expand your abilities. It can be frustrating to work in this zone; on the one hand, you are often struggling because you are working on skills beyond what you can currently do, and on the other hand you can feel like you aren’t really growing because you can almost do these skills.
Time spent on little improvements that are just outside of your current capacities quickly results in substantial improvements.
If you want to be one of those dancers who grows every time others see you, pick a couple of skills that stretch you just beyond what you can currently do, and master them.
The next time you’re on the floor, there will be a noticeable improvement in your abilities!
Are you a beginner struggling with what to practice next?
Check out our Ultimate Guide to WCS for Beginners
No partner and need to practice alone?
Read our article on how to practice alone and get good at west coast swing without a partner!
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Does Practice Make Perfect?
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.”
But, there’s also an adage that, “Practice doesn’t make perfect—it just makes permanent.”
In other words, practice only teaches you to always execute a skill the way that you practice it.
Which is right?
If practice just makes permanent, then you are actively harming yourself by practicing something wrong. But if practice makes you better, then you should expect to make mistakes along the way.
Before we answer which is right, let’s take a moment to talk about what actually happens when you practice.
For this example, we’ll take a physical skill, first because we’re talking about dancing and second because mental skills follow the same process but for different physiological reasons, so mental skills add a complication that is unnecessary for our level of discussion.
When you deliberately execute a physical motion, your brain is sending a signal through your nervous system for specific muscles to contract at specific times. Those muscle contractions are what produce physical movement.
For really complicated movements, your nervous system needs to coordinate a lot of muscles contracting in a very precise sequence, at just the right times.
That’s extremely difficult because our nervous system is surprisingly slow!
In normal individuals, signals to the lower body travel at about 40 meters per second, which means that it takes about 100 milliseconds for the brain to send a signal to your feet and get a response.
Add in time for your brain to process that information, decide on what adjustment is needed, and then send the correction signal, and a normal person can’t even make 10 adjustments per second to what’s happening in the foot muscles.
Just try balancing on one foot, and you’ll quickly realize that 10 adjustments per second doesn’t give you much room for error.
But, when you practice a skill repeatedly, you aren’t just sending lots of nerve signals.
Your body is also noticing that you are sending nerve signals and starts to make changes at the biological level in order to adapt.
The most well-researched of these changes is a process known as myelination: the nerve cells involved are wrapped in a fatty layer called myelin, which improves the nerve conduction velocity.
An unmyelinated nerve axon can send a signal somewhere between 0.5 m/s and 10 m/s, but a well myelinated axon can conduct signals at over 150 m/s!
So, your body’s adaptation enables you to control what is happening at your feet much more rapidly, and more frequently, as you practice and continue to stimulate the myelination process.
So, does practice make perfect, or just permanent?
Well, practice on its own won’t make you perfect—you will get better at doing something in the way that you’ve practiced it. But, practice also enables you to be more perfect because your central nervous system becomes physiologically more capable of responding in that situation.
It’s still up to you to figure out how to use that capacity correctly, but the fact that you can develop that capacity through practice is why practice does more than just make permanent. Serious about practice? You should keep a practice log.