Most west coast swing dancers are better dancing musically to social songs than competition songs. One key difference between the two is that most social songs last for three to four minutes. By contrast, competition music fades out after 90 seconds or at most two minutes. Because most people dance more songs socially than they do in competitions, they have a lot more experience in fitting their musicality into a four minute span than into a 90 second span.
If you have ever competed and felt like you ran out of time before you could show your musical abilities, this exercise will help you fit more of your musicality into your competition dancing. However, this drill requires that already know your musical options and be comfortable executing them. If you need to build your musicality repertoire first or need to improve your fluency so you don’t look frantic on the floor, do those things first.
The Drill: To practice fitting your musicality into competition-length songs, try putting on a song and stopping yourself after 90 seconds. This exercise works with or without a partner; if you practice with a partner, be sure to practice the sharing element at the end of this drill as well as the primary skill.
You can stop yourself in a variety of ways: set a timer on your phone, have a friend fade the song, or make a copy of the song that cuts out after 90 seconds. The important thing is that you need an external cue—don’t rely on yourself to watch the clock because you need your brain power to focus on musicality.
The first couple of times you practice, you’ll feel like you were cut off just as you were getting into the song. If you were dancing socially, that’s exactly where you would be, but now you’re practicing for a different time length.
Focus on identifying when you are dancing filler patterns in order to plan ahead, change handholds or body positions, or just waiting for the next opportunity to do something musical. Work on limiting those patterns to one at a time, so you are doing a musical moment, then a single pattern to reset, then another musical moment. For leaders, that means setting up musical moments more quickly. For followers, that requires taking fewer patterns to find a moment that you want to express. Both sides of the dance can benefit by learning to hear more things in the music, becoming comfortable with a larger repertoire of musical skills, and practicing hitting more musical moments independently from your partner.
As you get more experience, you’ll find that you can fit a greater number of musical moments into that 90 second span without feeling frantic. Keep pushing yourself to decrease your filler time. Remember that you don’t need every hit to be big! Use a mix of larger and smaller hits in order to dance more musical moments without looking frantic.
Partner Work: Sharing the Music If you are practicing with a partner, you can extend this exercise by practicing sharing musical moments. If both of you are trying to fit in as much musicality as possible into 90 seconds, you may find yourself fighting over the music: the leader may be trying to set up patterns constantly and taking away opportunities for the follower to contribute, and the follower may be trying to assert her musicality to the detriment of the leader’s ability to structure the dance. When that happens, practice finding ways to include your partner. Leaders, use patterns that give the follower opportunities to play or create space for her to style independently. Followers, look for ways to style and embellish within the structure that the leader is creating. For both sides of the dance, seek opportunities to connect with your partner and include them in the musicality that you are creating.
The goal of learning to share the music is to make it so your dance together is more than the sum of your individual dancing parts. Too often, musicality in competitions ends up being a contest about which partner can assert themselves the most. Unfortunately, those dances often end up as train wrecks where neither partner shines—and especially in finals, when you are judged as a couple, those dances are scored poorly.
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