WEST COAST SWING: HISTORY

Kurt Lichtmann
Faculty, Ithaca College & Cornell University, Ithaca NY
"The opinions expressed are my own, and not to be construed as official posiitons or opinions of either above institution."


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. Many US Navy personnel seemed to be exploring the smooth style, or were just too drunk to do anything but watch the woman boogie back and forth. Please see Sonny Watson's article on this.

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.

Here is a 5/03 addenda from someone who was close to the scene (and prefers anonymity): "…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…."

Styles: Current WCS styles vary considerably. Modern WCS can be conservatively upright-postured, smooth and warm, or a funky, hot partnered-jazz dance. The current "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, I suppose, but is that "authentic?" You tell me . 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 cames in the '50s, in the studios of Arthur Murray! This man spent lavishly on Research & Development. He can be credited with the first codificatons of West Coast Swing, and its next name of  Western Swing. The followers "walk forward" at the beginning of patterns was standardised 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.
Info at www.swingworld.com

"Western Swing" was the name adopted by Arthur Murray for the dance. That Skippy changed it to West Coast Swing is the least of her achievements. Did she invent the term? It is kind of logical to distinguish styles being done one the East Coast with styles being done on the West Coast! Did others come up with the term independently, each claiming to invent it? Probably. Who discovered fire? But Skippy certainly was a major force in popularizing the new name.

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 was the name 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 bpm 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. "Patterns," the European influence, are of minimal importance. "Partnering," also from the European side is of primary importance. Jazz movement, and the valuation of individuality (even outrageous individuality) is the African influence, and of equal primary importance. Hence the term "Partnered Jazz Dance."

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?

Events: At one time California's US Open Swing was the national West Coast Swing BIG EVENT. Seems like Atlanta's Grand Nationals is becoming the big one now. In the East, we've also got some fun West Coast Swing events: Boston Tea Party, and Summer Hummer.
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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!

Sonny has the single best web article I have seen on the subject, (find a better one? Let me know!) and although he is a much more experienced cat than myself, I include some obvious discrepancies in my article...like the term SOPHISTICATED SWING: it obviously goes back to at least 1937!

Photo: Robert Cordoba & Debbie Szekey - WCS National Champs


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