Pareto’s Principle: Making the Most of Your Practice

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by 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. For many businesses, approximately 80% of the company’s profits will come from 20% of their products. 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. In short: if you focus on the most important 20% of what you do, you can achieve an incredible ratio of reward:effort.

Applying Pareto’s Principle to west coast swing helps prioritize your practice time. Here are three elements of WCS that will give you the most bang for your practice time buck.

  1. The Anchor. As Mario is fond of saying, every 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. If you are dancing competitively, one of the first things judges look for is your anchoring technique. For social dancers, a good anchor is the key to creating the wonderful stretchy feeling with your partner.

    Because of its central role in the dance 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.

  2. Triple Steps. 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.

    From a social perspective, 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 social dancing.

    Competitively, it’s hard for a judge to not see you doing a part of a pattern that should have a triple, simply because triples are so integral to the dance. Setting aside a discussion about whether judges have become too permissive in ranking dancers who replace triples with syncopations, it’s clear that doing triples well stands out because so many dancers muddle through their triple steps.

  3. 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. 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:effort ratio favors prioritizing the anchor if you can only work on one of the two.

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