Body flight in west coast swing

We often describe great dancers as having “body flight,” but what does that mean?

Body flight is hard to define, but you can see it when the movement of the center is perfectly controlled during the entire process of moving from one foot to another.

There are a lot of skills that go into creating great body flight, including rolling through the feet and using the sending foot.

The human body is not symmetrical from front to back. The spine is not in the middle of the body; the head, ribs, pelvis, and feet stick forward from the spine. As a result, the body’s movement is different when moving forward and when moving backwards.

Moving Forward in West Coast Swing

When moving forward, the body maintains a slight pitch forward. The head leads the foot, but in mid-stride the foot accelerates to catch the head (and the rest of the body). Walking forward is actually very similar to a controlled fall, with the feet landing underneath the body just quickly enough to keep from hitting the ground.

This drill puts a number of these skills together.

You will practice controlling your center’s movement as you go incrementally through the foot and to the next foot, using both your sending and receiving legs to control the flight of your body’s center.

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The Drill: Find a space where you can walk forward in a straight line.

Start with your feet together and put all of your weight on one foot.

Throughout this drill, you are going to imagine that there is a laser pointing straight down from your center to the floor so that you can see where you weight is.

Right now, the laser dot showing where your weight is should be in the middle of your foot on the front-to-back axis and centered or slightly towards the inside on the left-to-right axis.

Use your supporting leg to slowly move the dot forward, towards your toe base. As you get to the toes, let your free leg move in front of you and place it down, but do not commit any weight yet. The dot should still be over the toe base of your rear (supporting) foot.

Now, continue to push through the rear foot while simultaneously using the front foot as a brake to your movement. You should be able to move the dot so that it rests just in front of your rear foot. In this position, you are literally split weight—your center of gravity is hovering between your legs.

Now using your rear leg to push you forward and your front leg to control the energy, continue to slowly move the dot forward until it reaches the heel of your front leg. At this point, there should be no weight on the rear leg.

Slowly move your weight forward from the heel up to the toe base of your supporting leg, and as you get to the toe base let the trailing leg move forward past the supporting leg.

Repeat this drill as you continue to move forward step by step.

Moving Backwards in West Coast Swing

Previously we worked on controlling our center movement during forward steps.

Walking backwards works differently. Because the feet, ribs, etc. extend in front of the spine, the body is extremely unstable leaning backwards. So, the body needs to maintain a forward pitch, even when moving backwards. That changes the mechanics of movement. When moving forward, the head leads and the feet follow. Moving backwards, the picture is reversed: the foot needs to move, and then it is in position to catch the head when the head follows.

The following exercise will help train you to move forward and backwards with the correct body mechanics.

Now it’s time to extend that drill so that we can have just as much control when going backwards.

In this drill, we’re again going to imagine that there’s a laser pointer aiming straight down from our center to the floor, and we’re going to watch how the dot on the floor moves through out feet.

The Drill: Start with your weight fully on one foot, and visualize the dot that represents where your center is over the foot.

Adjust your positioning so that the dot is directly over the ball of the foot (front to back) and either in the center of the foot or slightly inside of center (left to right).

Slowly move your center backwards, visualizing the dot moving from the ball of your foot through the middle of the foot and all the way back to the heel.

When the dot reaches the front edge of the heel, continue to slowly move the dot backwards as your free leg brushes past your supporting leg and then reaches back.

As the toe base of your free leg makes contact with the ground, the dot should be around the center of your front heel.

Using the toe base to control your motion, continue bringing the dot backwards until it is just behind your front foot.

You should feel like your back leg is bracing you, although the weight is closer to the front leg.

Control the motion of the dot as you smoothly transition your center through the space between your feet.

You should feel like you are working the toe base of your back foot.

As the dot reaches the toe base of your back foot, you should be able to release your front leg. Leave the leg in place, but without any weight, as you move the dot through the new supporting leg, and finally gather and move the leg backwards as the dot reaches the heel of the new supporting leg.

Moving backwards (trouble shooting)

One of the characteristics of west coast swing is the away connection on the anchor. But, many beginner dancers misinterpret what an away connection is, and so their upper bodies pitch back. Instead of looking graceful and solid, they instead look off-balance. Today, we’re going to fix that.

The purpose of this drill is to get you thinking about human movement. In general, humans are not symmetrical front to back: our spines are towards the rear of our bodies, our ribcage and pelvis come forward from the spine, and our feet stick out in front of us. Because the human body has more weight forward of the spine than behind the spine, we naturally pitch forward a couple of degrees whenever we move. This pitch has a dramatic impact on how we move forwards and backwards.

When moving forwards, the movement is initiated from a higher place because the pitch of our body causes the upper half of our body to move beyond our current base of support (i.e., the feet) first, and then we take a step in order to catch our body in a new location. If you try to go backwards from a high place, though, you’ll immediately end up off balance. Trying to move backwards from a high place is one of the key reasons that beginning dancers look off-balance and unnaturally arched back. It’s also a major factor in why beginners struggle with straightening their legs: if you pitch your upper body back, that creates a lot of stress in the lumbar spine, and the body’s natural way of compensating is to bend the knees.

So how do you fix the issue? Simple: you move backwards from a lower place.

The Drill: For this exercise, you are going to walk backwards down a set of stairs. This drill is great for teaching you to move backwards from a low place because you’ll immediately feel uncomfortable if you try to initiate your movement by taking you upper body back.

First, make sure that your stairs are clear of any potential hazards (piles, pets, or anything that might be a tripping risk). Start towards the top of the stairs and face towards the upper level. Take your time to step down a step while still facing the upward direction. You should feel like your movement starts from the somewhere near the hips.

If you’re not sure that you’re moving correctly, just try to move down from your upper body. For this, start only one step above ground level and hold onto the railing for safety. Slowly move your upper body back until you feel like you need to take a step. It should feel dramatically different, and there should be no question in your mind about which is more stable.

Go back to walking down backwards with your lower body leading. Go as slowly as you need to feel stable—this is not a speed drill. The goal is to train yourself to feel what it is like to initiate your backwards movement from a lower place. When you can do that consistently, move away from the stairs and try to move backwards on a flat floor using the same idea.

Improve your spins with this drill!

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