What is play in west coast swing?

Introduction to playing

West coast swing, unlike most partner dances, encourages play between the partners. The leader can give the follower the freedom to do whatever she feels at a given point in the song, and the follower can request time to interpret the music instead of being led through a movement. This interaction, or “play,” is one of the reasons that WCS is such a creative and personalized dance.

This series will help you to play better within the dance. A couple of clarifications will be helpful before we jump in.

  • Play can happen both within and outside of the traditional WCS structure. Many dancers think that play is simply freestyle dancing. That is just one version of play. It’s also possible to play within WCS patterns with extensions, pauses, or breaks.
  • Play can be solo or tandem. It’s possible for play to occur on just one side of the dance, with the other dancer simply marking time. But, great dancers will find ways to include their partner in their play.
  • Play is not hijacking! Hijacking occurs when the follower takes over the dance without warning. Play is consensual—both partners know it is happening and give permission for it to occur.
  • Likewise, play is not an excuse for not leading! When giving followers the opportunity to play, leaders are responsible for setting up the play and (hopefully) doing so at a time when there’s something for the follower to dance to.
  • Finally, play should always enhance the dance. Play is not a substitute for WCS. It is a method to compliment the WCS conversation, and should make the dance more fun for both partners!

Getting Out of Play

Because play occurs within the WCS dance, it is important to be able to get out of play and back into WCS. Just like gymnasts begin learning tumbling skills by practicing how to land safely (and how to fall safely when the landing doesn’t work!), we will start by practicing how to get out of play and resume the WCS dance.

General Principles for Ending Play:

  • West coast swing is a two beat dance. Play should thus generally start on a downbeat and end on an upbeat. Eventually, you will want to signal the play is done on an upbeat so the partners can resume WCS on the next downbeat.
  • Whoever initiates play is responsible for ending it. If you are suggesting a change to (or extension of) the standard WCS structure, you need to make sure that your partner is on board for when it ends. Essentially, the person who starts play is taking over the leader role, and as a leader your responsibility is to take care of your partner.
  • Anchors are a great way to signal the end of play. An anchor is normally a chance for both partners to regroup before starting a new pattern, so it makes sense to use that structure to transition back into the dance. This is not a requirement—play can end in almost any position—but it’s a very safe place to finish.

The Drill: Without a partner, put on a song with a clear beat. Freestyle dance for a little bit, then perform an anchor step on a downbeat-upbeat pair. This requires two skills. First, you need to hear when you are on an upbeat. Second, you need to recognize whether you are on your normal foot for count 4 (leader’s left, follower’s right). If you are on your normal foot on the upbeat, do your anchor as normal. If you are on the wrong foot, you need to take an extra step on the & before the downbeat in order to do your anchor. Repeat until you can fluidly anchor on a downbeat-upbeat pair after freestyling.

If you struggle with anchoring when you are on the wrong foot on an upbeat, practice simply putting your weight on the wrong foot. As you listen to the song, think downbeat-upbeat and when you hear an upbeat, immediately go into your & anchor step. Once you can do this smoothly, you should be able to pull out this skill if your freestyle leaves you on the wrong foot.

Extending the Drill with a Partner: Once you and your partner can both do the solo version of the drill, put on another song and pick one person to end the play. The person who will end play should do their freestyle dance; the other partner should simply mark time by doing walk walks. The drill is for the freestyling partner to go into an anchor as soon as the upbeat happens. Although the anchor footwork doesn’t start until the downbeat, the dancer wants to move into the anchor position after the upbeat so that the other partner has time to react. The partner marking time should match that anchor (fixing the feet with an & step if necessary). Switch roles and repeat until both partners can join in the anchor once the freestyling partner has indicated the end of play by going into their anchor.

Signals to End Play

Earlier in Getting Out of Play, we suggested ending play in an anchor as a safe way to signal that you’re ready to resume the dance. This post will build on that idea by looking at the signals that play is finished.

Since we described play as a temporary deviation from the basic WCS structure (whether in terms of extending a pattern, holding part of a pattern, or doing something entirely unrelated to the pattern), play ends, almost by definition, when standard WCS resumes. 

If play ends when standard WCS resumes, there are a number of ways to signal the end of play to your partner.

  • Anchor: Every pattern in WCS ends in an anchor, so no matter what craziness happened earlier, the anchor is a time to get back on the same page. Anchoring is particular useful for signaling the end of play because it gives your partner two beats to realize play is ending and to prepare for the next move (whether that’s the leader getting time to think of a pattern or the follower having the opportunity to put herself in the right position physically to follow).
  • Square up: Squaring up is the dance equivalent of conversational eye contact. When you square up, you are telling your partner that you are listening to what they have to say with your undivided attention. Followers, ending your play by squaring up tells your leader that you are listening to what he wants to say next. Leaders, squaring up signals that you want to speak up next, and it encourages the follower to prepare for the next lead.
  • Connect: It’s a lead-follow dance, so restoring the normal connection is a simple way to tell your partner that you are ready to move on. One of the reasons the anchor is a good signal for the end of play is because the anchor connection is one of the easier connections to find in WCS. But, even if you are playing in the middle of a pattern, resuming the connection enables the partners to get back into the dance together.
  • Phrase: When you and your partner both understand musicality, phrasing becomes a way to indicate the end of play. Generally, you want to end your play at the end of the phrase so that the new move can begin with the new musical sentence. By timing your play with the end of the phrase, it makes it easier for both partners to resume normal WCS at the same time.

The pro tip for these signals is that you don’t have to choose just one!

Especially if you are dancing with a less experienced dancer, combining the signals is the best way to help your partner understand when you are ending the play. If you end your play by squaring up, anchoring, connecting into that anchor, and doing it at the end of the musical phrase, it’s almost impossible to not realize that play is ending.

There is not a specific drill to practice these elements, but it’s easy enough to work on with a partner. Have one person initiate play. That same partner should then use some combination of these signals to tell that play is ending. Keep practicing until both partners are able to smoothly transition from play back into the standard dance.

Getting Into Play

Now that you know how to get out of play, it’s time to get into it.

Play is a temporary break from the standard WCS structure. So, you can indicate that play is starting by departing from what would normally be expected in the WCS connection.

For these drills, we’re going to take a basic left side pass. With your partner, dance a couple of left side passes and notice what the connection feels like between 2 and 3. It should be an away connection, and we’re going to give it a number. On a scale of 1 (almost no connection) to 10 (the heaviest connection you could possibly dance), what you normally feel at that point is going to be a 3. Dance it a few more times and mentally file away what 3 feels like.

The Drill—Leader-Initiated Play:

Leaders, getting into play on your side really means giving the follower an opportunity to play. You don’t have the ability to force her to play, so you get into play by telling the follower, “You can take this if you want it” and then giving her that opportunity. The easiest way to do that is to dial down the connection so she knows that she isn’t being asked to do anything in particular.

The drill for leader-initiated play is to dance a left side pass. After count 2, the leader should dial down the connection from 3 to 1. There is still a little connection, but it’s noticeably less than it would normally be. Followers, that’s your cue to do your thing. Match the level of connection he’s giving you, and proceed to play. Restart the side pass and practice doing a normal 1, 2 and then the leader dialing it down to 1 by count 3, until the leader can reliably change the connection and the follower can reliably match it.

The Drill—Follower-Initiated Play:

Followers, you are welcome to request play at any point. However, you need to do so in a way that allows the leader to say “now’s not a good time” if necessary. Otherwise, you are hijacking the pattern rather than playing. The easiest way to do this is to turn up the connection. With the side pass, you are going to turn the 3 up to a 5.

Again, dance a left side pass. This time, at count 3, the follower is going to increase the connection to a 5, and the leader will match it. This act of matching tells the follower that playing is ok. Practice the start of the side pass and the follower-initiated play until the follower can reliably change the connection and the leader can reliably match it.

Building a Play Vocabulary

You can get into play and you can return to the normal dance. Now what?

This is the part of the process that is different for everyone. In short, you need to develop your repertoire of movements that fit you and your dance style so that when you want to play, you have a dance vocabulary to draw from. This drill is the first step in discovering the movements that make sense for you.

The Drill: This drill is done without a partner. Actually, it’s done without anyone: get away from the kids, close the door on the pets, and draw the blinds. You may also want to have a glass of wine on hand.

Put on a song that makes you want to dance and freestyle. Whatever comes to mind, do it. This is not the time for self-censorship: if you have an urge to air guitar or booty shake, now’s the time. There’s a reason you closed the blinds earlier.

About 80% of what you do will be awful. If over half of what you’re doing is not bad, you’re not trying enough new things. Again, this is not the time to hold back—dance like a fool.

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