Patterns vs. Technique

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

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.

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