3 tips to staying on time in west coast swing

How to Stay on Time with The Music

The #1 struggle we hear from new west coast swing dancers is that they struggle to stay on time with the music.

While they might be ok when dancing just the basics, things tend to fall apart as they dance more complex moves. If you struggle to dance and keep the count going at the same time this article is for you!

TAKE ACTION>> Download our VIDEO – 4 Keys to Staying on Time

Being able to move on the beat for any kind of dance requires skill, and this is particularly true for west coast swing because WCS music tends to feature breaks, syncopations, and other unique rhythms that make the beat less obvious.

The goal of this article is to develop the ability to find the beat and to keep moving on the beat even when thinking about other aspects of the dance.

Phase 1—Hearing the Beat: 

The first element to finding the beat is simply being able to hear the beat. In the section above we covered how to hear the beat. I’ll repeat it again in case you missed it. I’ve you’ve got this part covered jump to “Phase 2-Moving to the Beat” below.

Struggling with hearing the beat in the music?

Please read The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Beat in our blog.

This video on counting the music is from our course “The Ultimate Guide to Musicality”

If you’re serious about musicality for west coast swing, you’ll want to pick this awesome course!

Phase 2—Moving to the Beat: 

Put on a song with a clear and steady beat again.

This time, instead of clapping, take a step on each beat.

You should focus on putting your weight onto the new foot as the beat hits.

At first, you may stumble; this is probably because you didn’t start moving your body until too late.

Continue working on stepping on the beat, and you will gradually learn when you need to start moving your body in order to land on the beat.

Phase 3—Downbeats and Upbeats: 

Most music for dancing, with the exception of waltz music, has beats occur in pairs.

The first beat of each pair is the downbeat; the second beat is the upbeat. Being able to distinguish downbeats and upbeats is important because WCS begins each pattern on a downbeat.

You can read more about the 2-beat structure of WCS music

In pop music, downbeats and upbeats and generally played with different instruments.

The downbeat is usually a drum or bass (a low pitch), while the upbeat is a cymbal or other higher pitched instrument. If you try say “boom-chick” along with the song, the boom is the downbeat and the chick is the upbeat.

For this part of the exercise, put on a song that clearly distinguishes between downbeats and upbeats.

Good songs to practice this to:

  • Juke Joint” is a good song
  • Prince’s “The Word” also has a clear distinction, especially during the chorus (the downbeat is more subdued during the verses, although the upbeat remains very clearly accented).

As this song is playing, you should do step-taps: step on the downbeat and tap your free foot on the upbeat.

This is a single rhythm unit, which means that you will change weight once every two beats.

Phase 4—Keeping the Beat Through Complications: 

Now that you can dance on the beat throughout a song and can distinguish between downbeats and upbeats, the next challenge is to maintain the beat in your movement when the song isn’t helping you.

One of the ways that music can be more interesting is by having the instruments or vocals do stuff that doesn’t perfectly match the beat.

Although the beat of the song stays the same, the song itself isn’t marking the beat for you.    

Here are 2 different complications you may encounter:

#1 – A song with a break

You might have a song that just has a break; in this case, the music stops and you have to finish counting the phrase on your own and keep dancing to the beat when the song isn’t marking the beat for you.

Examples of this kind of music include:

#2 – A song with a syncopated rhythm

The second way that a song can obfuscate the rhythm is by having instrumentation that is syncopated against the beat

  • Robin Thicke’s “Cocaine” is an extreme example; the syncopation is so strong that beginning dancers have an extraordinarily difficult time staying on beat.
  • “She’s Right Here” by Ne-Yo(featuring Brandy) A more subdued example. The bass drum on the & before the 3 encourages a syncopated triple rather than a standard triple, which usually results in beginners rushing the upbeat and getting off time.

When practicing to these kinds of songs, try dancing both walks and triples. While doing triples, focus on delaying the triple as long as possible. 

Struggling to stay on time to the music?

  • Do you struggle to stay on time to the music?
  • You know your patterns….
  • You understand how to lead or follow….
  • But when the music comes on your timing falls apart!

We’ve got your covered!

Learn to stay on time while dancing to music with this video!

DOWNLOAD>>  4 Keys to better timing

Bounce a Tennis Ball to Strengthen Your Timing

Once you’ve learned to hear the beat, it can still be challenging to dance on the beat. You need to train yourself to move your body before the beat hits, so that you are in position to land at the same time as the beat.

Today’s drill will help to strengthen your timing by pushing you to think about time you spend moving before the beat. With practice, you’ll be able to anticipate the beat and land precisely on time.

The Drill: This drill works as a solo exercise, but it gets really interesting with a partner or a small group. Stand on a hard, flat surface like a wood floor. Have everyone hold a tennis ball, and play a song with a clear, relaxed beat.

Your challenge is to bounce the tennis ball at the exact same time as the beat. Start by bouncing the ball on the 1 and 5 of the musical phrase; as you get more skilled, you can try doing more beats. (To do every beat, you probably need a slower song and you will need to crouch down so the ball is not as far from the floor.)

This exercise is great in groups because you will probably hear a ripple of tennis balls bouncing at almost the same time. Keep practicing until all the balls are hitting in unison.

As you work through this exercise, you will discover two things. First, you will notice that you need to start throwing the ball to the floor before the beat. The exact timing will vary from person to person, but the principle of starting before the beat will be the same. This lesson translates perfectly to WCS—stepping on the beat requires you to start moving before the beat, and you will need to practice you own body’s mechanics in order to figure out exactly how soon before the beat you need to start moving.

Second, you will notice that it is much easier to control the precise timing of the ball if you throw it to the ground. Simply letting go of the tennis ball and having it hit at the exact right moment is really tough. In this exercise, you can control the ball by throwing it down. In west coast swing, that same control comes from using the sending foot.

Want to take your musicality to the next level?

Check out musicality for west coast swing dancers. Once you can stay on time with the music, you’ll want to start to understand how music is phrased to really connect your dancing to the music. That’s what makes west coast swing magical.

Are you a follower who wants a simple way to accent the music? Check out accenting the music for followers.

Maybe you’re a leader that wants to accent the music. Lean to accent the music as a leader with this post.

4 thoughts on “3 tips to staying on time in west coast swing”

  1. Hi Brian,

    Which video are you referring to in tip #2? There’s no video linked in line “TAKE ACTION>> Watch a video of this drill” unfortunately.


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