My West Coast Swing journey gets started again

I’m on another dance journey!  This time it’s to learn West Coast Swing.  I took my first steps (sorry about the pun) about six weeks ago when I attended a Beginners’ Workshop run by Lee Bartholomew and Siân Kirkham in Nottingham (see link below).  I had done quite well for a first lesson, but I knew that the lack of a weekly classes in Nottingham was going to mean that my progress would falter without the chance to get regular lessons.

That’s why I was so pleased to see that Richard James was doing four lessons at the MJRoc Warmwell Weekender, which I was attending a few weeks later with my Nottingham Dance Gang friends.

Now West Coast isn’t easy and I know that progress is going to be slow, but I’m really motivated to crack this dance style.  The first reason is that it’s a way of dancing to chill-out music.  I’ve become a bit of a chill-out addict lately, and I’ve watched in awe several times on my Tea Dance Tour at couples West Coasting to the delicious contemporary music that’s played at these events.

Smooth Jive is a fusion of dance styles, and West Coast Swing is one of the dance genres that has strongly influenced the slotted dance style that I’ve seen on my Tea Dance Tour.

Dancers with West Coast experience have a lovely smooth swing action as they progress down the slot even when they aren’t necessarily doing pure West Coast Swing.  I can’t help but ask some of my dance partners where they learnt their flowing style of dancing, and it’s interesting just how many mention they’ve done some West Coast lessons.

This video is great inspiration

There is another reason that I’m motivated to finally crack West Coast Swing.  Some time ago I came across this video on YouTube.  It shows a West Coast flash mob in Sydney Australia.  It’s an outstanding advert for the beauty of West Coast Swing, and I love that the camera man captures the impressed looks on the public’s faces.

I would love to be able to dance like that, no matter how long it takes.

It’s particularly impressive when you realise that all the dancers in the video are doing a synchronised routine.  I suspect that these dancers were quite experienced, but I would occasionally spot some of the patterns that I’d been taught at my first beginners class with Lee and Siân.

Am I right that the first move was a Sugar Push, and a second a variation on the Sugar Tuck?

I also recognised the rhythm that Lee and Siân had taught us all.  This rhythm comes from the two triple steps in each pattern, and while these steps were sometimes disguised in the Sydney flash mob display, I know that they underpin the flow of the dancing on show.  I have an awful lot to learn if I am to emulate these Aussie dancers – that’s why I eagerly took my second step with Richard James at Warmwell.

Four top draw lessons for your money

Colin Shaul and Gazza, who run Warmwell had put on a comprehensive programme of lessons that included four West Coast Swing lessons.  I’m a bit of a light weight when it comes to attending lessons at weekenders as I like to reserve my energy for the main freestyle sessions, and I tend to need a lie down when some of them are on.

However I promised myself I’d do at least two, and I did.  Though how I got up in time for the ten o’clock one on Sunday morning after dancing until two the previous night I’ll never know.  Some of my dance gang friends had a lot more energy and commitment. and they did all four and they filled me in about the lessons I missed.

Richard and Ruthie are worthy of their Warmwell billing

The lessons were run by Richard James, very ably assisted by demo Ruthie Murphy.  Like all the teachers at Warmwell, Richard is considered one of the best in his field, and even before I write anything about how I got on in this lesson, I’m going to endorse his top draw billing.  Now having said that these series of article are more about my own efforts to get to grips with this style of dancing:

Richards teaching credentials are not in doubt  – it’s my progress, or lack of it that is the real story here.

Before I go any further I want to get a little philosophical.  You are never going to progress at any form of dancing unless you attend lessons, but I’ve learnt to accept that I can never remember everything I’m taught at one.  My dance brain just can’t cope, and I think it’s the same for a lot of people, so I judge a lesson to be worthwhile if I can take away just one thing.  For me the thing I took away from Richard’s first lesson was the Starter Step.

This time I retain the Starter Step

The Starter Step (see video below) is the way that most people start a West Coast dance.  It starts in a close hold, and it’s the way you and your partner get your weight on the correct foot, so that when you start the first move, or pattern as they are called in West Coast, the lead is set up to go back on the left and the follow to go forward on the right.  It also allows you to open up the slot for the first pattern.

Lee and Siân had taught the Starter Step in my first lesson, but there had been so much else to take in that I didn’t pay too much attention.  Like I said my dance brain has its limits.

I’ve embedded a video to show this step, though I must add one important caveat – it is not in any way meant to reflect how Richard taught it.  While Richard, like all teachers allowed the class to video his moves, I am happy to follow the protocol that these videos shouldn’t be posted on-line.  The video I’ve posted is only used to give people who might have no knowledge of West Coast some idea of what is meant by the Starter Step.

It’s going so well . . .

Richard then went on to teach four patterns, starting and finishing with the Starter Step.  This meant that you could keep repeating the sequence of moves, so hopefully getting them in to your muscle memory.   The first of these moves was the Left Side Pass.  Because I’d done this in my first lesson with Lee and Siân I found it quite easy to get the flow of it.  That’s the benefit of doing two lessons relatively close together.

As Richard and Ruthie clearly explained and demonstrated each new pattern, I confidently added it to the last one.  I was making progress.  This lesson was proving surprisingly free from stress and increasingly enjoyable.  I’m used to a lot more stress, particularly when you have to put all four moves together.  But then I hit the wall.

. . . then I hit the wall

The last move was linked in to the Starter Step so that we could repeat the sequence of patterns again.  I’d mastered the Starter Step at the beginning of the lesson, but for some reason I just couldn’t add it on to the end.  I kept going wrong and so was not able to easily lead in to the first pattern – the Left Side Pass.

I had felt I was doing well, but this is what happens sometimes.  I just felt I’d reached the limit of my concentration.

I’m sure anyone who has attended a lesson has had a similar experience, however my Dance Gang friends got through to the end without any real problems.  I decided because of my difficulties at the end to pass on Richards next afternoon class.  My friends however all attended Richard’s second class, and came back to the lodge to say how much they had enjoyed it, and how once again they had managed to master the four pattern sequence:

You would have been OK Paul.  You must do the one tomorrow morning

But the fact I missed this afternoon’s lesson.  Wouldn’t I struggle tomorrow?

I agreed to do Richard’s third lesson.  At a weekender, the lessons usually get progressively harder.  I think that this was the idea with Richard’s lessons, but they were so skilfully put together that it didn’t matter if you missed one.  I, along with the whole class, was helped by the fact that Richard quickly went over the patterns from the previous lesson.

I’m pleased to say that I was able to pick up the new four pattern sequence quite easily, and this time I was able to link the last and the first together, and so I felt particularly pleased with myself.

All of Richard’s lessons had a great turn out

Sadly the wall is waiting for me in the afternoon

In Richard’s third lesson I had avoided the wall, but sadly later in the afternoon I would hit it once again, but more of that experience later.  I’d done my two lessons, so I passed on the forth one.  My Dance Gang friends, who were all beginners like myself,  managed to find energy for the final lesson at mid day and all said how much they had enjoyed it again.

There is no doubt that Richard’s lessons were designed in such a way that beginner’s would get something from all of them, but my friends who did all four were of the opinion that there was enough variation to the patterns to be a challenge for improver level dancers too.  This opinion was shared by Dawn a more experienced West Coast Dancer:

I have progressed beyond beginners, but I enjoyed going over the basic techniques again.

You can not beat going over the basics again.  It’s a great way of ensuring that you don’t get in to bad habits.  But there was content for intermediate dancers in all the classes.  Here’s Dawn again:

Richard did manage to weave in to all the lessons some moves that I wasn’t fully familiar with, and I enjoyed learning the variations of the Whips that he taught.

But lessons are one thing.  It’s important to get out on the floor and do it for real, but that’s where the wall was waiting for me.

DJs Nick and Kane serve up a West Coast playlist

On Sunday afternoon DJs Nick Stephens and Kane Jenner provided the music for a West Coast Swing Freestyle.  I knew I had to try out what I’d learnt for real.  There would be no better time, particularly as the patterns were hopefully still fresh in my dance brain, or so I thought!

Sadly none of my Dance Gang friends were around so I had to ask someone I didn’t really know.  When I go on my dance travels I often find myself in a venue where I know on one.  Asking for the first dance is always a little daunting, but as an experienced dancer I usually just take a deep breathe and I’m soon asking someone to join me on the dance floor.

But I’m a long way off being a confident West Coast dancer.   Even after Richard’s two lessons and my workshop back home I was still very much a novice.  I would need to choose my first partner carefully.

I soon spotted a friendly face I recognised from the class.  I had sensed the lady was a beginner herself and so as the next track started up I asked her to dance.  It didn’t go well!

It wasn’t the lady’s fault.  I’ve always thought that if a move goes wrong it’s because the man leads it incorrectly.  That was the problem – my lead just wasn’t confident enough.  But that was only half the problem.  The other half was the music.  Now there is no doubt that Nick and Kane are experienced West Coast DJs and all the music was suited to this style of dancing.  But there are of course different tempos.

Richard had been at pains to tell his class that West Coast can be danced to all tempos of music, but he obviously chose the slower tracks for the lessons.

I had chosen to dance to a slightly faster track.  No wonder then I crashed in to the wall!

Confidence plays a major role in learning any new activity and my confidence had been knocked.  I could have quite easily have given up there and then, but thankfully I had enough in me to ask for one more dance.

Experienced dancers are a God send

I spotted another lady from the class,  This time I checked the speed of the track, and as I asked for the dance I got my apology in quick:

I’m not very good at this, but would you still like to dance please?

Warmwell proved to be the friendliest of weekenders and the lady happily followed me on to the dance floor.  I did the Starter Step just as Richard and Ruthie had demonstrated and off we went.  The lady turned out to be an experienced dancer and I think that helped.  The slower pace of the music certainly helped.

In the review of my first class I had written about the fact I was constantly counting out the steps.  One – two – three and four – five and six, or put another way One – two – Triple Step – Anchor Step.  I still found myself counting every beat.  Now you know that joke about men can’t multi-task.  Well, because my dance brain was constantly counting, there was sadly little capacity left to remember the moves from Richards lesson.

I found myself constantly repeating the five basic patterns I’d learnt in my first class, and I remember doing a Left Hand Pass three times in a row.

My lady partner was very gracious, and while she probably won’t remember this dance, I’d like to thank her for her patience.  You see that’s the thing.  Experienced dancers are so important to helping people like me through those first few dances.  It’s the same in Modern Jive classes, and it’s a reason I love to see experienced dancers in the lines of the Beginners’ Classes.

Ruthie to the rescue

Thankfully my Dance gang friends soon arrived, and I got more chance to practice, but it all seemed a little stiff.  Watching the video of the Dancers in Sydney you soon notice the smooth flowing action that makes West Coast such a joy to dance.  After a few more dances I decided to switch to dancing in my new favoured way – the equally smooth slotted style of jive.

Nick and Kane’s music was equally suited to Smooth Jive and I now enjoyed myself dancing in a style I’m a lot more at ease with.

I can’t help wonder if this love of dancing Smooth Jive will get in the way of my learning West Coast Swing, and that given the choice I’ll keep opting for style I’m a lot better at.

As I came off the dance floor from another smooth slotted dance, I spotted Ruthie, Richard’s demo, standing at the side.  I went over to chat:

So how’s the West Coast going?

To be honest, I’m struggling a little.  I’m giving it a rest and dancing in a Smooth Jive style, which I’m a lot more confident with.

Do you want to try a bit of West Coast with myself?

Yes I’d love to.

The next track was thankfully of the slower variety.  I duly led Ruthie on to the dance floor, and adopted a close hold.  I waited patiently to move my feet on the correct beat.  I got it, and off we went with the Starter Step.

Ruthie gives my confidence a boost

Ruthie did what all great teachers do.  She somehow made me feel that I could do it with a proficiency better than I thought I possessed.  I kept going wrong, but I quickly picked up the beat again.  I still did too many Left Side Passes, but it was all a lot smoother than my earlier attempts.

Then suddenly a pattern from Richard’s lesson came back to me.  Ruthie also helped relax me, and my dance brain was freed up a little.  I suddenly remembered a variation to the Left Side Pass – the one with the Inside Turn – from one of Richard’s lessons.  Ruthie recognised my signal and turned with a flowing gracefulness.  A pleasing thought flashed through my head:

Ruthie, you just made me look good.

Confidence is everything and Ruthie had just boosted mine. I’m not sure of the track we danced to, but this track from that afternoon’s freestyle certainly had the same feel.  It’s a gentle paced version of Ed Sheeran’s Shape of you by EZA.

As I listened to it, while working on this section, I couldn’t help but count out the beat:  One – two – three and four – five and six, or put another way One – two – Triple Step – Anchor Step.  I also had a little smile on my face.  With the Left Hand Pass Variation I’d cracked another pattern.

Everyone got something from these lessons

Richard and Ruthie’s lessons were excellent, and I’ve no doubt that everyone from complete Beginners to Improver Level dancers found them very useful, and took something away that will help improve their enjoyment of West Coast Swing.

Having said all that, the lessons were a challenge for beginners like myself and my Dance Gang friends.  Of course we weren’t the only ones to find it difficult.  Jenny also did Richard’s lessons.  Here’s her take on her Warmwell West Coast experience:

I did do the West Coast Swing lessons, but even though the brain was willing my feet and coordination were not.

I will not let it beat me though, and I will be starting at a weekly class after the New Year.

Many people remember, go to a weekender like Warmwell and still have no idea what West Coast is about.  Here was an opportunity to dip your toe in, and see whether you liked it.  For all her lack of co-ordination, Jenny tells me that she was inspired by seeing Richard and Ruthie demonstrating the flowing action, and is determined to give West Coast a proper go.

Regular lessons are the way forward

Of course Jenny realises that she will have to go to regular classes.  That should be the next step for me too.  You see since Warmwell I haven’t had the chance to do any West Coast.  If I wait too long, I’ll forget all the things that I did manage to retain from my lessons with Lee and Siân and Richard and Ruthie.

There is one positive thing that I can report.  I’ve long realised that the Smooth Jive, that I so love now, is itself a fusion of different styles, and West Coast Swing is one of the major influences of this way of dancing.   I have now started to use some of my West Coast patterns in my own Smooth Jive routines.  I regularly use a Sugar Push and a Sugar Tuck in my routine, and I’m thinking of how I can make use of a triple step too.

I very much hope that Step 3 in this journey is a regular weekly class night.  The problem may be finding one, but I’ll keep you posted.

Related Articles

Step 1: Workshop with Lee and Siân in Nottingham

Other Warmwell Articles

20 Things we love about MJRoc’s Warmwell Weekender

The Spirit of Warmwell 2018 in Ten Top Tracks