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East- and West-Coast Swing, A History

by Kurt Lichtmann

East Coast Swing, most commonly known in its simplified 6-count triple-step form, is not a street dance -- it is a ballroom studio adaptation, derived from various street swing dancing patterns and styles (especially Lindy Hop) at the height of the swing era. The American Society of Dance Teachers, a group of independent instructors (many of whom were former Arthur Murray teachers) debuted the Jitterbug, aka Lindy, aka American Swing syllabus in 1942. East Coast Swing (its most modern name) appeared on the scene decades later than the dance itself, as it was being taught to movie dancers quite a bit before 1942. (The modern related ballroom style, International Jive, is a British Ballroom Studio creation.)

An aside: Prior to the introduction of Triple Step Swing into the ballroom repertoire, foxtrot was the ballroom dance for swing music. According to Arthur Murray, foxtrot was the most popular of the studio dance styles in the late 1930s. Arthur Murray's 1937 book "Let's Swing It" is a foxtrot manual.

It is worthwhile to note that during the swing era, street dancers used the names Jitterbug, Lindy, and Jivin' (UK) as umbrella terms to refer to any kind of swing dancing -- they did not refer to any specific style or step pattern. In fact, a lot of dancers did not use any kind of step pattern. Just like today, the average unstudied swing-era dancer (the majority) was not even terribly concerned about moving with the actual rhythm of the music. Big Band members had a name for dancers that danced in the rhythm they were playing -- "Rhythm Dancers." This information comes from my own conversations with numerous old timers.

SIX COUNT? -- East Coast Swing's 6-count basic pattern has 3 variants: Triple Step, Touch Step (double Lindy), Single Step (Single Lindy). Ballroom instructors tend to favor the triple step pattern, hence that is the most common form seen in the ballroom. But note: 8-count patterns, with Lindy footwork, make up over a third of the Bronze East Coast Swing Syllabus.

MOTION -- The triple-step East Coast Swing basic pattern moves smoothly either forward and back (in closed position), or side to side (in closed or open positions). It also naturally circles freely around the floor. It is meant to mimic the "all-over-the-floor" characteristic of what we now call Lindy Hop. A not uncommon dumbing-down of Triple Step Swing makes its default pattern into a tedious spot dance (rock step - step three times - step three times) -- beginners look like they are squashing grapes, pumping the legs up and down in place.

TRIPLE STEPS have a long ancestry. The triple step is a type of “chassé step,” developed in ballet, dating to the 14th century. In popular partner dance, the polka (created in 1830 by a Polish country girl) has an alternating triple step as its basis, with a strong lift of the leg into each triple. The “sashay step” (a kind of Anglicization of the word “chassé”) of contra-dance and square dance has the same root. Cha-Cha has triple steps too. The 3rd beat in the triple receives the strongest weight, and this is perfect for swing music with a backbeat – an emphasis on the even beats. Many dancers fudge and fake triples. But triple steps have a character, they are not just something dreamed up by an evil dancemaster. First, triple steps have a pulse, they don’t just glide along. Top dance pro “Swing Daddy” Mario Robau said that even in West Coast Swing, usually thought of as a smooth dance, there can be as much down-up-down pulse with the beat as in Balboa or Lindy. And there is a well-defined “push” into the beginning of each triple. Dances like Jive (International Ballroom) extravagantly emphasize that push with a polka-like lift of the leg on the upbeat (“and triple step”). Boston west coast swing pro Jennifer Lyons likes a small abdominal tuck on the upbeat (“and triple step”) before each triple to help define them -- I found that her method really works great and feels great! In this way, rather than have triple steps make you lose the beat, fudging your way through them, triple steps can actually become an expressive and pleasurable part of your dancing.

HIPS -- In the ballroom, East Coast Swing is categorized as a "Rhythm" (as opposed to "Smooth") dance, hence there is plenty of hip movement for both men and women the hips relaxing into the weight shift, as in Mambo, Cha Cha, and Samba, but even more so. Ballroom hip movement in "Rhythm" dances tends to be far greater than that of street dancers -- swing, as well as latin. Many street dancers feel that too much hip motion, especially for guys, looks like a parody of the dance style.

West Coast Swing

West Coast Swing is the state dance of California. It's origins are definitely in Lindy Hop, but "you've come a long way, baby!" It's distinctive "dancing in a slot" approach derives from San Diego dance halls as far back as 1938. The kicking jitterbugs would frolic in the center of the floor, with the smooth dancers grooving on the periphery.

NAMES: In 1938, the song "Sophisticated Swing" was recorded by several bands, including Bunny Berrigan, Jimmey Dorsey, and Count Basie. The song lyrics appear to be about a new dance style. Was Sophisticated Swing the first name for what became eventually known as West Coast Swing? When Southerners today refer to "Swing," they are not using the term generically: it is their name for West Coast Swing. This is how they distinguish it's similar look from their own regional dance, the Carolina Shag. A dancer once told us, "When I got out of the Korean war in 1954 (I was 21), I went to work for Arthur Murray in Seattle. At work we called it SOPHISTICATED SWING (Arthur Murray 's term) but at night (five nights a week) we went on the town and danced WEST COAST SWING, and all the folks around Seattle called it WEST COAST SWING. In 1954, I taught with a guy that was in his fifties, and he told me how he learned to dance WEST COAST SWING in California in the late 1930's, and they called it WEST COAST SWING then."

STYLES: Current WCS styles vary considerably. Modern WCS can be conservatively upright-postured, smooth and warm, or a funky, hot, partnered-jazz dance. The "Cosmo-girl" approach in which the woman explores her flirtatious sexuality to the max is by no means universal, although it does have historical precedent in the origins of the dance. Same comment on the "I'm just a gigolo" style of some guys. WCS can be chaste, however, a lead-follow dance with lots of room for the woman to play out-of-the-box is definitely a common characteristic.

DEVELOPMENT: When Jitterbug was banned from virtually every serious dance hall in the late '40s (too many injuries to self and others from kicks, jumps, etc.) "Sophisticated Swing" began to flourish. The real push behind its development came in the '50s, in the studios of Arthur Murray. This man spent lavishly on Research & Development. He can be credited with the first codifications of West Coast Swing, and its next name of Western Swing. The followers' "forward walk" at the beginning of patterns was standardized in his studios. Where did this "walk forward" derive from? Swing-era leaders infatuated with the "Whip" move, with its follower "walk-walk" (instead of a rock-step) probably helped evolve an entire genre. And followers, if a leader pulls you forward while you are trying to rock back, guess which way you are going to end up going?

DEAN COLLINS: A breathtaking dancer, brilliant choreographer, and clever adapter of dance styles. Without him, where would West Coast Swing be? He certainly popularized the "slotted Lindy" approach, and an exploration of the smoother style. Did he create it? Did he see it elsewhere and adapt it? Strangely, he denied any connection of himself with West Coast Swing! His classic refusal to discuss swing history was, "It's all swing!"

SKIPPY BLAIR: After her years of teaching under Arthur Murray in the '50s, Skippy became extremely influential in the teaching and development of West Coast Swing. The USA's top performers and competitors study with her to this day. Skippy observed that only 1 in 500 dancers has that natural quality that "simply takes your breath away." Why? Her continued reflection and analysis of this topic has led her into the very marrow of dance technique. She has developed teaching methods that have enlightened not only the top few of the dance elite, but even the least talented, on whom most instructors would prefer to simply give up.

MUSIC: In the 1940s, the dominant musical style in Southern California seems to have been Country Swing aka Western Swing, the type of music played by Bob WIlls and The Texas Playboys. So it is no surprise that that name was adopted by the Arthur Murray studios for the dance Laura Haile observed. By the '50s, Rhythm & Blues had become the standard WCS dance music. Additionally, plenty of WCS dancers still enjoy smooth swing to music that others might use for slow Fox Trot. 112 - 120 beats per minute for WCS is optimal. Yet, for some, things really heat up at the slower tempos: 90 -100 bpm. In the post-disco era, "groove dancers" thrive on funky non-swing 120-ish bpm disco. Disgusted beginners (and others?) retort, "This isn't swing!." Yet, many of the best WCS dancers today evolved from the disco era, and really dig disco grooves for WCS. And it is incredible to watch them: do they get turned on! Accomplished dancers also relish occasional faster grooves: 140 - 150 bpm. At this point, naive beginners accost the DJ that "this is not appropriated music for WCS."

FUNK: In reply to conservatives, the "funk & groove" WCS dancers are certainly closer to the spirit of original swing dance than one might think. Why? Original Lindy Hop is simply this: Partnered Jazz Dance . Lots of full body exploratory rhythmic movements, waves, twists, etc. All organically created in a partnered context, fueled only by personal and inter-personal interpretations of the music.

INFLUENCES: Latin styles (Salsa) and Hustle influenced WCS from the '70s on up. Beginners seeing Hustle and West Coast Swing often cannot distinguish them -- not surprising, since Hustle dancers tend to Hustle-ize WCS. Check it out: is the lady getting space to play during, and at the end of of passes? Is play with the connection part of the dance? Is there breathing space and pauses, or just non-stop move after move? Do you see Jazz movement and complex footwork, or ballroom posturing and unchanging footwork?

Reprinted in the DRDC Newsletter, November & Decemberr, 2019, with permission, from an article published on Ithaca Dance, dance classes & private lessons, and "thanks to Skippy Blair, Sonny Watson, Buddy Schwimmer, Jonathan Bixby, Dan Metzrich, Bill Cameron, Steve Pastor, and others who don't wish to be named, for helping me get the info to put this page together!"


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