Stretching the anchor step in west coast swing can be difficult. The stretch, of elasticity, of west coast swing is one of the defining characteristics of the dance. Learning how to stretch the &a1 before each pattern is an essential skill to master in order to understand the connection of the dance.
TAKE ACTION> Watch our video Stretching the Anchor Step
Step 1. Staying back in your anchor step
Now that you know how to perform an anchor, the next skill to master is staying in the anchor position. For leaders, stopping the forward momentum into the anchor is a challenging skill. Because the leader is traveling towards the follower right before the anchor, it is easy to continue towards the follower, which eliminates the follower’s ability to settle into the anchor. For followers, the momentum flows into the away connection of the anchor. The challenge for followers is thus to avoid bouncing out of the anchor early. This usually happens when the follower doesn’t control the away momentum and runs out of room in the connection. The following drills are designed to help both partners control their momentum through the anchor.
The Drill—Leader Version:
Do the leader’s footwork for a push break right in front of a wall or door. Start the pattern so that your step on count 4 takes you directly in front of the wall, with your left foot about to go into the wall. (On a push break, you are stepping directly towards the follower on count 4. For side passes, you are stepping back into the slot, but there is still a slight movement towards the follower. In either case, count 4 is the furthest you will step down the slot.)
Stop on beat 4 and gather your right foot to your left, without passing the right foot in front of the left. You should be able to settle your right foot into a third foot position without ever bringing the right foot level with the left.
Repeat this exercise, making sure that no feet move closer to the follower than your left foot on beat 4. There are three checkpoints for this drill:
- On beat 5, your right foot should be behind your left.
- On the & of beat 5, your left foot should not move forward from where it was. No inching towards the follower!
- On beat 6, again your right foot should remain in third position behind the left.
By stepping beat 4 directly in front of the wall, you have an immediate warning if you try to move towards the follower at any point during the anchor.
The Drill—Follower Version:
The follower’s version of this drill is slightly more complicated because the follower has to pay attention to both foot positions and distance. If trying to think about both elements at once is too challenging, first do the drill without the sink and just paying attention to the foot positions. Then, add in the sink part to replicate having your arm connected to your leader.
Do the follower’s footwork for a push break while holding onto the edge of your kitchen/bathroom sink. On count 4, when you step away from where your leader would be, you should have a slight bend left in your elbows.
Stop on count 4. At this point, your weight is on your right foot. Your right foot is not allowed to travel any further back during this drill. Gather your left foot behind your right, in third foot position, and perform your anchor triple. The key is that you must perform the anchor triple without moving the feet out of third foot position, without losing the bend in the elbows, and without bending forward. There are three checkpoints for this drill:
- On beat 5, your left foot should be behind your right and you should still have a little bit of slack in your arm. If you are overextended, it will be extraordinarily difficult to keep your 6 back.
- On the & of beat 5, your right foot should not move at all. If you moved towards your leader, it is a sign that your step on 5 was too far back or that your 4 needed to be closer in order to leave a bend in your elbows. If you moved backwards, chances are good that you pitched forward!
- On beat 6, again your left foot should remain in third position behind the right. If you ran out of elbow room earlier in the anchor or if you shuffled your right foot backwards on beat 5&, your left foot will no longer be in third foot position.
Step 2. Stretch your anchor step (& ah 1)
With a partner, connect in anchor position and put your weight on the your non-anchor foot (leader’s left, follower’s right). You are about to do an anchor, slowly.
Take the first step of the anchor triple with your weight on the ball of your anchor foot. (Let’s say this is a six-count pattern, so you are stepping count 5). As you replace your weight onto the forward foot for count 5&, again place your weight on the ball of the foot. Finally, step on the ball of your back foot on count 6.
Stop at this point. You should both have your weight over the front part of your back foot. Although there will be some energy in your arm connection because of the distance, your centers are not yet pulling away from each other.
Now it’s time to stretch.
Elasticity is generated by the partners’ centers moving away from each other without moving the point of connection. We’re going to generate that elasticity all the way from the anchor to the beginning of the new pattern. That means we need to fill the entirety of the time from 6& through the &a and up to the 1.
Slowly transfer your weight from the front of the foot to the front part of the heel. Imagine every inch of your foot slowly taking your weight as you settle backwards. When you are done, your weight should be on your heel, but you should still be perfectly balanced over your foot. If you feel tipsy, you went too far back on your heel, so try again and don’t roll as far back.
Concentrate on controlling your movement so that you can take a long time to complete that final roll. You and your partner should be able to start and finish the stretch at the same time. Specifically, you should be able to feel your partner’s center moving backwards through the foot, which results in the body moving away from the point of connection, and you should try to match that rate of motion on your side. When done correctly, you will both be able to move continuously and reach the end of your motion (when your heel is weighted but you are not tipping backwards) at the same time.
Step 3. Roll through your feet to stretch your anchor step
Many dancers struggle to roll through their feet.
Especially when the music gets fast, it’s easy to dance flat-footed or fall through the foot so quickly that the roll gets lost.
Most footwork exercises emphasize rolling through the last step of the triple because that step gets more time, and so there’s more opportunity to roll through the foot.
This is an important foundational skill.
But, if you only practice taking time through the “step” of “tri-ple step,” the first two weight changes of the triple get neglected.
In this exercise, we’re going to give our focus to the first two steps of the triple so they aren’t neglected.
TAKE ACTION> Watch our video Stretching the Anchor Step
TAKE ACTION> Watch My favorite Anchor Step Drill
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This drill is a corrective: we’re going to over-emphasize the first two steps even if it means the last step gets short shrift.
In the wild, you’ll want to strike a balance so all the steps get their appropriate length, but for this drill we’re going to err on the side of putting too much focus on the first two steps because it’s so easy to neglect them during practice.
Put on a slow song and dance triples while rolling through your feet. As you do so, think about the tri- and -ple parts of the “tri-ple step” cadence being really long.
Normally, dancers think about triples with the focus on the last beat. The cadence tri-ple step encourages you to draw out the last foot action by lengthening the step into something that sounds like “steeeeep.”
By contrast, tri- and -ple become quick sounds.
The effect is to dance “short short long” (or even “short short looong,” really drawing out the long sound).
In this exercise, make the tri- and -ple weight changes long sounds as well. Think “long long longer” rather than “short short long.” As you dance to long sounds on the first two steps of the triple, concentrate on feeling your foot articulate all the way through the sound.
At first, you will probably be late on your weight changes. That’s ok. Keep practicing.
Eventually, you will be able to sustain the long sound on the first two steps of the triple while staying on time.
Doing so requires a lot of control, so keep working at it!
The end result will be much better footwork through your entire triple, not just the last part.
Learn Your Maximum Stretch
Great dancers are always in control of their bodies, and that requires knowing the limits of how far they can go for certain movements. Today, we’re going to look at the anchor with an eye towards learning where your body should be at the end of every pattern.
The goal of this exercise is to train yourself what the right body position is for yourself. No one’s body is built exactly like another person, so you need to learn what looks and feels good on you. Once you have found that position, you can train yourself to recognize when you’ve reached that position, and gradually learn to control your movement so you never get beyond your own limits.
TAKE ACTION> Watch this drill on video
The Drill: With a partner, set up in front of a mirror and get into an open position anchor, like you would be at the end of most patterns. Check your body positioning: posture, foot placement, hand height, and any other criteria you have been taught for your anchor. Once you are satisfied that you and your partner are in a good position mechanically, look in the mirror. Are you happy with the visual created by this position? You may notice that your body positioning wasn’t quite correct—maybe you were arching your back a little and you didn’t realize it without the side view. Go ahead and adjust. Are you too far away from each other so that your arm looks overextended, or your shoulders are rounding forward? Move closer and fix it.
Once you have created the right visual, you need to train yourself to find that position consistently, without a mirror. One of the best indicators for distance is the feeling of stretch in your back, on the connected side. Pay attention to the side your back around elbow height and a couple of inches above: this is where you should feel the stretch in your lats and your rotator cuff muscles that keep your arm from being pulled forward. How much work are these muscles doing? Train yourself to remember this sensation, because what you are feeling right now is your personal maximum extension.
To habituate this sensation, release the connection with your partner, shake out your body, and then attempt to return to that position and use the mirror to check yourselves. For now, don’t try to get into the position from an actual pattern: that adds a degree of difficulty because you might need to adjust your pattern spacing, and right now you’re trying to learn a specific distance and position rather than how to get to that position. Keep repeating this exercise until finding the right amount of stretch through the side of your back is instinctive.