3 tips to staying on time in west coast swing

West Coast Swing Online Beginners, Musicality & Timing 2 Comments

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

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1. Count the music

Some people learn to dance without spending a lot of time counting music, and they tend to dance by feel. No matter who you are, or how skilled you are at feeling the music, counting always elevates your dance. Counting gives a way for both partners to be simultaneously directed to the same thing. Even if you are great at feeling the music, you will always be more precise if you are also focusing on the count.

When your counting is rock solid, you’ll be able to deviate from the beat and reattach seamlessly.

How do you improve your counting?

First, spend some time listening to WCS music and counting throughout the song. (I do it in the car) As that becomes more comfortable,  progress to dancing your basic patterns by yourself with no partner. (a partner will complicate things at this point) Finally, give it a try while out while social dancing or while practicing with a partner.

Focus on counting through the entire song.  No matter how you count, the key is to keep the count running through your head for the entire song.

If you are a dancer who moves by feel, this may take a while to become comfortable with counting and dancing. That’s ok: you are reprogramming the way you listen to music so that you can perform at a much higher level, and that’s going to take some time. One of the tips I use is to ‘sing the counts’ in my head which creates a more solid connection from the counts to the music.

2. Learn Downbeats vs Upbeats

Because west coast swing is a two beat dance, recognizing the difference between downbeats and upbeats is an essential skill. As patterns become more complex and as the dancers introduce more play in the middle of patterns, you need to immediately know which beat is which in order to stay on the correct timing.

Downbeats are the 1, 3, 5, or 7. Upbeats are the 2, 4, 6, or 8

Put on a song and start counting the music in downbeat-upbeat pairs. Listen to make sure you are starting on a downbeat of the music (the 1, 3, 5, or 7 of the set of 8) and count downbeat, upbeat, downbeat, upbeat, …. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8

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The purpose of this exercise is to train yourself to instantly recognize whether you are on a downbeat or upbeat. To get to the point of instinctive recognition, you need to practice well beyond the point of conscious understanding. This drill will feel simplistic after a short while, and that’s okay. It’s much easier to keep the rhythm of downbeats and upbeats in your head when you have no other distractions. Your goal is to practice to the point where you can’t lose track even if you are distracted.

Once you have this exercise mastered, practice by skipping your music player to the middle of the song and see how quickly you can correctly identify which beats are the downbeats and which are the upbeats. Or, carry on a conversation with a friend while music is playing in the background, and re-identify which beats are which throughout the conversation. This part of the exercise trains you to make the identification quickly when you haven’t been following the music closely, which is similar to what will happen in the wild when you lose the beat of the song and need to quickly reset your internal metronome.

3. Understand wcs as a 2-beat dance

Although west coast swing is composed of six- and eight-count patterns, the actual dance itself is a two-beat dance. Every movement in west coast swing goes through a downbeat-upbeat pair. Those pairs of downbeats and upbeats are then joined together into a full pattern, an extension, a chunk of play, or anything else within the dance.

Consider a basic side pass. We normally count out the pattern as “walk walk, tri-ple step, tri-ple step.” This language reveals the two-beat increments underlying the pattern: a walk walk, a triple, and another triple. If we want to change the pattern, we will do it by changing a full two-beat rhythm. For instance, we could replace the anchor triple with a delayed single like a drag-step. We can’t just change one beat of the pattern since that would affect our footwork on the rest of the rhythm unit.

How do you make use of west coast’s two-beat foundation?

For starters, every movement belongs to a downbeat-upbeat pair. If you are having problems with a move, break it down into each downbeat-upbeat pair to see where the problem lies.

Second, all of your footwork happens in two-beat increments. If you want to learn footwork syncopations or variations, you should practice the two-beat chunks: kick-ball change, tri-ple step, step-blank, etc. It’s much easier to do footwork on the fly if you can pull from two-beat increments rather than trying to memorize full syncopation sequences.

Third, playing happens in two-beat increments. If the follower wants to do something on the downbeat, she also needs to fill the upbeat. If the leader wants to re-start the dance, he needs to do so on a downbeat rather than an upbeat.

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