East Coast Swing For the Fences!

Americans are hard workers. We build railroads and lay highways. We have a 40-hour workweek, two weeks of vacation if we’re lucky and everybody moonlights. We force poor Aisha Tyler to work 14 jobs and smile through it. Americans do everything to the absolute maximum. In some ways, this is a great thing (e.g. The Moon Landing). In others, not so great (e.g. morbid obesity).

When it comes to the American Style, our work ethic still shines through. In fact… maybe a little too much. There is an unfortunate habit among American Style students and teachers to go a little too far. It’s never a bad thing to use and editing eye — take out the unnecessary and be clear about what we’re trying to communicate, what skill we’re trying to show. If the difficulty-level is raised and our bodies or minds are unable to rise to the occasion, we might end up looking sloppy or rushed. There’s a reason we use the word “Open” at the highest levels. It’s not “Advanced”. Do whatever you can do well, show your understanding and you will be rewarded.

In the ballroom dance world, the style I see this happening to most often is East Coast Swing. If you’ve never danced a day in your life, let me make this easy for you: “Yes”, “Kinda”, “NO”.  These are the answers to the questions I’m usually asked when first discussing east coast swing. “Is there a west coast swing? *hold for laughs*”, “Kinda like Lindy Hop?” “Don’t they also call that jive?” All important questions that the more jaded dancer will find so obvious to think and speak but not to dance. You see, a lot of people know a lot about east coast swing (‘swing’ from now on) but there is an unfortunate habit by many to walk out there and dance like they’re putting out a fire in their shoes. I always marvel at the difference between couples walking off the floor from a jive and the couples finishing swing and preparing for their bolero. They’ve both done a lot of the same things but the swing couples often seem so much more wiped out and they danced at about half the speed of the jivers. Why is that? Because American Style dancers are hard workers. And when they head towards the East Coast, they tend to work just too damn hard. So grab a towel, wipe off that sweat and let’s talk a little bit about how to streamline our swing so as to not burn out halfway through our program.

I feel I should firstly make something clear. Swing is hard, you guys. Like, really. Even great professionals can lose it on their swings because it requires so much of one thing: control. Control is the name of the game in swing. You’ve got speed, you’ve got syncopations, body action and bounce. Put that all together and you’ve got a recipe for disaster without a clear understanding of managing that myriad of factors. So let’s work our way up:

Starting at our feet we’ve already got troubles a brewin’. The feet make a huge difference in how your swing will be danced and as luck would have it, this is one of those places where a lot of things are “acceptable”. Heel up or down? Doesn’t matter! Ball or ball flat? It all works! Lots of teachers have differing opinions on this and even teachers’ manuals make allowances for different ways of doing the two basic swing actions: rocks and triples. They’ve got little charts and parentheses of all the allowable way of doing these two theoretically simple things. The sad part is: they’re right, all of those ways work. Personally, I’m okay with keeping all those concepts bouncing around in my head and then picking and choosing in the moment based on my music, partner and routine. But that’s not an efficient way of moving or practicing. So let’s figure out what’s concrete and reliable.

The most important thing for me in swing is to stay very forward on a turned out foot so as to stay very agile. I can do a lot more for my speed and balance by staying much, much more forward than if I’m rolling through to a flat foot. Heels are personae non grata in swing. Therefore, on rocks I prefer to keep my heel up. This is not done in the same way as Hustle or other dances where I’m trying to create a hip lift action — that just doesn’t really fit all that well to me. I am merely trying to propel myself forward on to my standing leg so I can track through and continue. Because I won’t be using quite the same settling action with my legs, I want to keep my rock as simple and continuous as possible in order to also contribute to a continuous and even bounce action through my body.

This is also a large matter of contention between swing and jive in that jive uses a strong heel-lowering action on the rocks in order to create a strong twist throughout the body. In swing, we don’t use as strong of a rotation because we’ve already created a great deal of body action with our triples and we don’t need as much compression and leverage to contend with the speed. Lastly, because we have so much extra time compared to jive, we can’t physically rotate any further around our spines and so the energy will plainly die if we lower our heels and over-twist our rocks. Additionally, the lack of a flick/snap/rebounding leg action means we don’t have to set up camp on one leg while the other leaves the floor. Repeat after me: Swing is not jive. If you want to dance latin, dance latin.

Aside: we’re literally only two steps in. See what I mean when I said it was difficult?

I’m less particular about triple steps. I find they are somewhat more up to one’s preference, ability and choreography. Even with the timing, it’s hard to find a consensus. Because there is always the quandary of the breakdown. Swing timing of 2/3 – 1/3 – 1 or straight timing of 3/4 – 1/4 – 1? The answer depends on the song, more or less. A swingier song requires swingier timing. My response is to streamline it and sing. “Triiii – ple – stepppppp” is really all you need to know. Like any lyrics, you can adjust them to the music backing them. So long as it’s broken down length-wise as “medium – short – lonnnnng”, your triples will work fine. Then once that’s mastered, you’ll gain the freedom to syncopate.

The thing I can say about good triple step footwork is that it includes a ball-change (ball, ball flat sequence) of some kind. So long as they are not the shuffle-shuffle-shuffle triples most of us started off with, a triple step with a ball change will foot nearly any bill. The two main styles of “ball flat, ball, ball flat” and “ball, ball flat, ball flat” both have their particular pros and cons. The former helps contend with speed a little better. The latter creates a greater swing of the hips and is more grounded. Personally, I use them pretty much interchangeably depending on what it is I’m doing. I find the ball flat method works well when I’m tripling around the floor and trying to create space and the ball method works best on compact triples in place.

Given the modularity of triple steps, our goal then becomes to keep our body actions consistent across every basic variation we do. There are two constant actions at play in swing that we try to manage: bounce and swing.

Bounce is an on-going an internal tic that should be present independent of foot actions. If you just stand there, compression through your lower body in timing with the music produces an even bounce. This isn’t the song explosive bounce of samba but an ever-present internal action syncing your body with the music. The bounce to me is a matter of connecting your internal metronomes (e.g. your heartbeat) with the external metronome that is the music. There is an enormous disparity when a person never finds a way to connect themselves to the music more so than what their ears will allow. Musical dancing comes from inside and is not a matter of chasing the beat but of becoming in sync with it. Bounce is the body’s mechanism to connect with the rhythms at hand so the feet and center can cope with the syncopations.

The swing is a little different. For a long time, I didn’t really understand the swing of the hips in swing dancing. Was it like Cuban motion? Was it like sway? I could never grasp how swing action worked in swing nor could anyone give me an answer I really understood. Then it just sort of happened. I was dancing in another teacher’s swing class to fill out the ranks and every time another teacher rotated to partner me, she and I would dance all out. We were still doing as we were asked and weren’t showing off but just dancing the combination as if there was no tomorrow. And as we ran through the sequence over and over again I began to feel that hip swing I’d heard so much about and began to realize how it worked.

Swing action is in some ways the opposite of Cuban motion. Cuban motion is a lot of contraction and squeezing through the body to create rotation, lift and compression — most of which we want to avoid in swing. Swing action comes primarily to me from relaxing and allowing my lower body to swing laterally. Much of the energy is generated over the first two steps of the triple step. As we dance our 1a aka our “trip-le”, we begin to allow our ribcage to prepare and precede our feet, moving in the ultimate direction of the triple step and in turn creating a stretch between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the pelvis. Meanwhile, I do everything in my power to keep my hips from slipping out from underneath me. After putting our body into suspension over our feet with either ball-change action we then release all of that energy onto the landing leg of the triple step, finally allowing our until-then compressed hips to swing and catch up with the ribcage that went ahead. Once arriving on 2 or “step”, we don’t want our hips rotating or twisting in a figure-eight manner, but merely all of our body and all of our energy to head in the same direction seeing as previously mentioned we don’t have the time to separate the parts of our body and still recover before the next action.

And what dictates all of this work and creates the need that it be do clear and deliberate is the music. The music for swing dances is pretty unmistakable. I’ve seen people mistake boleros for rumbas, rumbas for cha chas, cha chas for mambos. It’s not great but it’s by and large permissible due to the interrelation of all of those styles and their Cuban roots. Swing is distinctive. Swing is its own little island in the middle of your rhythm program where the tone shifts so abruptly that your ears can’t help but demand your eyes see something very different. Mainly, they want to see a correlation to the twos.

Those even swing beats are so heavily accented that it becomes almost a burden to the dancer to hit them with full force. In most Latin styles there are so many layers of sound that we are licensed to syncopate and alter the timing as needed in order to best express the particular rhythms. As swing choreography advances, we oftentimes lose sight of those definitive accents and the need to be reminded where our musical priorities exist. For any action we must be sure to give those even beats our attention lest the musicality of the style be forfeited. As one dances basic six-count actions, the conclusions of the triple-steps should be emphasized actionally in order to create a musical effect. It doesn’t hurt matters that the final step if the triple and that full beat gives us the most time to dance our actions to the fullest.

A good place to observe this is in any type of basic figure including turn for the followers — be it inside, outside or tuck — where the placement of the turn can determine the emphasized beat. If the turn is broken up over the course of the triple, there will be no direct correlation between the music and the action. However, if the entirety if the turn is taken on the final step of the triple and the preceding steps are merely a setup, the movement and music will be in sync. For choreography less particular to swing — such as walks, kicks or swivels — the musical need still exists. One would need to utilize that internal bounce to a greater degree to demonstrate a conscious acknowledgment that the music still requires their interpretation.

With a greater understand of the style and where to focus our energies, hopefully swing will maintain its reputation as the wild child of rhythm but the kind of wild child who’s responsible enough to have a paper route or babysit your kids. Because swing is a great style… It’s just a little misunderstood. If you take the time to get to know it you’ll come to realize that not only is swing a very simple dance to understand but also one of the styles that makes American style great.