Pauline invites me to a workshop

After writing about my second step along the rather slow road to learn West Coast, Pauline Dickson got in touch to invite me to a West Coast workshop she was running over two days at Petts Wood in Kent, (on the Saturday) and Church Crookham in Surrey (Sunday).  Coincidently I was at Brighton attending Ceroc Evolution’s The Sky on the Saturday night, and so Church Crookham was just a short deviation on my route back to Milton Keynes.  I immediately put the Sunday workshop in my diary as I was long overdue another session of West Coast practice.

Pauline is passionate about West Coast Swing and is a great advocate for its wonderful smooth flowing style and it’s suitability for dancing expressively to contemporary chill-out music.

Pauline runs an organisation called WestCo’s Swing which runs West Coast classes at Pett’s Wood in Kent and Leatherhead in Surrey.  It was under the WestCo’s banner that Pauline organised the two-day workshop.  What caught my eye was the very professional way that Pauline has started to build a brand for her organisation.  I love the header Pauline has designed around an image of Estelle Bonnaire who delivered the two weekend workshops.

The photo of Estelle Bonnaire and her partner was taken by Brad Whelan.  The logo is by Sean de Burca and the overall design with help from Vincent Lewis

I’m still counting out the beat

Now it turns out that Estelle is a renown International Championship dancer. I couldn’t help thinking that this workshop might be a step too far for me. You should remember that I approached this workshop very much a beginner. I’ve only ever done two previous classes and I’m still at that stage where I must constantly count out the beat:

One – two – three and four – five and six. One – two – three and four – five and six. One – two – three and four – five and six . . .

Occasionally I vary it:

One – two – Triple Step – Anchor Step. One – two – Triple Step – Anchor Step. One -two . . .

More experienced dancers do tell me that I’ll eventually stop the counting thing. I hope so. But enough about me and where I’m at, it’s time to get inspired.

I’ll let Estelle inspire us all

And why not let Estelle herself inspire us.  Here’s a clip of Estelle dancing with her partner Christopher Dumont at an international event last summer.  It’s an amazing display of where West Coast Swing can take you.

At first, I did watch the video wondering where the One – two – Triple Step – Anchor Step came in, but the more I watched it the more I would spot this pattern, or an extension of it in the couples’ dancing.

If you look carefully you will see Estelle settle at the end of the slot with The Anchor Step.  This is another important feature of West Coast that creates a lovely smooth dance for the lady follower.

Estelle and Christopher’s dancing also shows the wonderful fluidity of the slotted style of West Coast.  Even though I know I have a long way to go, I still find value in watching performances like Estelle and Christopher’s.  They are truly inspirational, and I’ve always valued the part that inspiration has played in my own dance journey to date.  Hopefully it’s going to help me along my West Coast journey too.

The accompanying tracks are Woman by Elderbrook and Hands to myself by Selena Gomez

Estelle has the most wonderful teaching style

There is no doubt that Estelle is a beautiful dancer, but what was perhaps more important was her lovely teaching style.  Estelle is French, and when she introduced herself, she made a little joke that her French accent might impair the delivery of her instructions.

This was never the case, and what’s more I think we all hung on to every word as she delivered her gems of dancing wisdom.

The picture below was taken at the previous day’s workshop in Petts Wood, and shows the concentration on everyone’s face as Estelle explains another gem of West Coast technique.

I should here express my thanks to Pauline for allowing me to use the pictures of photographer Femma Anderson, who was also a participation in the two-day workshop.  I’ve put a link to Femma’s full album of the two days at the bottom of the page so you can get a feel of this wonderful weekender. 

The concentration is obvious as Estelle delivers more of her dancing wisdom.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

This is a big challenge for me

Having someone like Estelle teach a workshop is always going to attract experienced dancers, and so it was the case here.  When I walked in people were already practicing and my heart sank when I saw the level of dancing that was being displayed on the floor.  That I was feeling a little uneasy, was tempered slightly by the fact that Pauline had assured me that I would find it very useful.

I should say from the onset that I did find it very useful, and actually I quite enjoyed myself, but let me tell you a little more about that anxiety.  These posts are aimed at people like myself who want to take up another challenge, and even as a very experienced Modern Jive dancer I’m finding West Coast Swing a big one.  In fact, so much of a challenge that I’m reminded of those early days at my first Ceroc Classes.

As a male lead two of the biggest worries when you are a beginner in the class are:

Firstly that you will go wrong, and so in effect waste the lady follower’s opportunity to learn her part of the move.

Secondly.  That when you actually get to dance you will only be able to do a few moves and that your lady follower will soon be bored.

Now the ladies will tell you that they remember their own clumsy experiences as beginners, and that they don’t mind that you might go wrong.  They will also tell you that they prefer a man who can do a few moves well to one who does a lot of moves badly.   The experienced ladies I danced with at Church Crookham were equally gracious but it’s a confidence thing.  I have a long way to go before those beginner anxieties will leave me.

Everyone we met in the lines was gracious and friendly.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

Gail helps boost my confidence

I was accompanied to the workshop by Gail, who has had a lot more lessons than myself.   Gail invited me on to the floor to get a sense of where I was at.  I did nothing more than the five basis patterns I’d been taught at my first two lessons, and Gail seemed impressed that I performed them quite well.  I am sure that Gail knew I needed my confidence boosting and she was always going to be gracious in her comments, but I appreciated having a chance to warm up with someone I knew well.

As I took my place in the lines of the lesson for the first time, I felt a little more relaxed.  Thank you, Gail.

I’ll feature the track that I danced to with Gail, as it will help give a flavour of the lovely contemporary chill-out music that we danced to throughout the afternoon and evening.  Throughout the article I’ll also be embedding music from the workshop itself, as Estelle very kindly sent me a copy of her playlist.  It’s worth remembering that it was my desire to dance to this slower and at times funkier music that sent me down the West Coast route.

Here then is Lauv with I like me better.  This track is featured in the Contemporary Chill-out Album I released last week (see link below).  It features many tracks that are perfectly suited to West Coast Swing as well as the smooth slotted style of Modern Jive.

This workshop was about techniques not moves

My aim with this review is not to report the technicalities of Estelle’s teaching – it would be too hard to put it in to words anyway – but to explain how participating in it helped me make another little step of progress along my own journey to West Coast Swing.  Having said that I should at least try to explain what the general aim of the workshop was and later I will give you some feedback from some more experienced dancers.  So, here goes:

This workshop wasn’t about learning new moves.  It was about learning the techniques that would bring a consistency and fluidity in to our dancing.

It doesn’t matter what style of dancing you are learning, you can never get enough practise at the basic techniques – this workshop was overloaded with basic techniques

Emphasis was put on how the male lead should give the basic patterns a structure to allow the lady follower to concentrate on her own movement.  One of the things that Estelle kept stressing was the connection between the lead and follower.  Remember, the West Coast way of dancing is a long way from the basic Modern Jive technique where the lead pushes and pulls, albeit smoothly, the follower.

A lot of Estelle’s teaching centred around the connection betwen lead and follower.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

Estelle shares her wonderful music

Before I go any further I want to feature some more music to help recreate the right vibe out on the floor.  Estelle played some wonderful music to accompany her teaching, and while there is a cross-over between my beloved smooth jive chill-out music and music suited for West coast Swing, I have to say that I recognised few of her tracks.  At the end of the lesson Estelle kindly offered to share this music with everyone and I took up the offer.

Listening to Estelles’s music has been an education in itself and I’ve featured four of her tracks to enhance my description of the afternoon.  I’ve also listed some of the other tracks Estelle gave me at the end of the review.

West Coast Swing can of course be danced to any tempo of dance music, but we tend to associate it with smoother and slower tracks.  For her lesson Estelle used mainly tracks at the slower end of the tempo spectrum, as they gave everyone the time to think about their technique.  Here is one such slow tempo track. It’s Hold me down by Halsey.  It’s a great track to work with as it has a very strong beat.

Let’s get started

The first technique that Estelle spent time getting right was how to start a dance.  Now, in Step 2 of my West Coast Journey I wrote about how I had conquered the Starter Step with Richard James during his excellent classes at The Warmwell Weekender back in November.  This starter sequence ensures that the lady has her weight on the correct foot, so that she is ready to smoothly start moving down the slot for the first pattern (moves are called patterns in West Coast).

As I said I got this in Richard’s lesson, but as I did my practise with Gail, I just couldn’t get it right.

Estelle had another take on getting started, that I found a lot easier to remember.  Now excuse me while I try to explain this technique as I will refer to it several times as I mention some key parts of the day.  With basic Modern Jive we are taught from the beginning that it doesn’t really matter which foot we step back on as we push away from each other.  Not so with West Coast Swing.

Getting the foot work right is so important

As a pattern starts, it’s important that the man goes back on his left foot and the lady follower comes forward on her right foot.  Estelle explained that the trick is to listen to the music and as you count the beat – five, six, seven and eight – on the eight the lead transfers his weight over to the right, which has the effect of making the follower put their weight on their left foot, ready to move forward on their right.

I hope I’ve got that right, because Estelle spent a lot of time on this.  The fluidity of West Coast is so dependent on the foot work being right from the start.

To practice this, Estelle simply asked us to do it with one of the basic patterns – say a Left Side Pass.  Now this was why this workshop was perfect for me.  Estelle remember wasn’t teaching complicated moves – it was about technique and the basic patterns were perfect for this and so I got lots of practice leading them.

Only once did Estelle throw me, when she asked us all to do a ‘Basket’ West Coast Style.  I bravely asked if she could demonstrate it and she was more than happy to oblige.

I know I wasn’t the only beginner in the class and I’m sure that they all appreciated that, whenever necessary Estelle took her time, so even the less experienced of us could learn these important techniques.  I’ll introduce you to one of my fellow beginners later.  Their thoughts will throw more light on to the challenge of learning West coast Swing.

Allowing the follower to anchor at the end of the slot is an important technique.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

The all important Anchor Step

The other technique that Estelle spent some time on was The Anchor Step – the end part of a basic pattern that allows the lady to settle before she sets off on the next one.  It’s this time at the end of the slot, that is so important, as it allows the lady to slowly stretch back to create the correct tension that gives West Coat it’s wonderful smooth fluidity.

If I think about Modern Jive, there is little time between moves and the lady is used to being pulled, hopefully gently, in to the next move.

One of the problems for ladies when switching to West Coast is to remember to use the Anchor Step to settle and stretch out and not to anticipate and start moving forward.

Equally it’s important for the man to provide a solid frame for the woman to stretch away from.  This male technique is sometimes referred to as Posting.  The idea is that the man provides a solid post for the lady follower to anchor against.  Estelle again asked us to do one of the basic patterns and to think about the anchoring process at the end of it.

This basic anchor technique more than anything else was the one thing that I will take away from Estelle’s Workshop.  I have no doubt that if I can get the posting right, it’s going to make the experience of dancing West Coast with me a lot smoother for the lady.

A mash-up track has many chill-out credentials

After all that technical stuff, my writing brain needs a break, so it’s time for a little more of Estelle’s fabulous music.  This next track is interesting as it uses a sample from a well-known Modern Blues track.  Aquilo’s Human is a beautiful chilled West Coast track in its own right, but it is taken to another level when the chorus kicks in and the producer makes use of the distinctive synthesised instrumentation from Marian Hill’s Blues favourite Down.

This mash up track is a great way of illustrating just how a lot of chill-out music is suited to three of the dance styles that Modern Jivers find themselves drawn to – Smooth Jive, Blues and West Coast Swing.

It explains why I’ve been seeing Westies (as they are affectionately known) at venues on my Tea Dance Tour.  This is actually a great way of promoting West Coast Swing, and I’m sure I’m not the only smooth jiver who has watched in awe at these dancers.  That I’ve wanted to emulate their smooth flowing moves is one of the reasons I’m my own West Coast journey.

Our chilled dancing is sometimes a mash-up of styles

The Aquilo track also acts as a reminder that many of us dance a fusion of all three of these styles when we find ourselves in a chill-out setting.  I mentioned in my last West Coast article that I now use a version of The Sugar Push in my slotted smooth jive dancing, and I’ve danced with ladies who put a West Coast style Triple Step in at the end of the slot.

I want go be able to dance a pure West Coast dance, but in the meantime attending workshops like Estelle’s is also enhancing my general dancing, and if I’m only making little steps of progress, it’s helping me make bigger strides elsewhere.  Thinking about how I allow my lady partners to settle at the end of the slot is something I’ve thought more about since doing Estelle’s workshop.

I wasn’t the only person challenging themselves

I mentioned above that there were other beginners in the workshop.  One of those beginners was Ceroc teacher Becki Rendell.  Like many people I have marvelled at Becki’s routines in the Cabaret at the Southport and Camber Weekenders, and last year I watched as she won one of the top titles at The Ceroc Champs.  I think I was surprised to find that Becki was in fact a beginner like myself, and I was very pleased when Becki offered to tell me a little about her own West Coast journey.

I really got started at the New Year Swing Fling at the Heathrow Radison last December.

Becki tells me that this is a big 5 Day West Coast Swing event, and running along side it are other dance genres that have their roots in Swing.  There was Vintage Swing, Zouk, Salsa, Blues and even Ceroc’s SILC, but it is essentially a big West Coast Swing get together.  Here’s Becki again:

For all my interest in the other forms of dance, I didn’t really ever venture out of The West Coast Swing Fling events.

I did have a go myself, and I so enjoyed watching the flowing style of the dance that I decided to make it a bit of a project for the next two years.

It’s interesting that Becki has given herself plenty of time to learn West Coast Swing.  It’s the same for me.  West Coast isn’t a dance style that all of us will pick up quickly and I have to say it was good to hear Becki give herself a realistic time frame to become proficient at it.  As I hopefully make progress on my own West Coast journey I’ll keep in touch with Becki to see how she gets on too.

This image could be a Modern Jive class but West Coast is very different.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

It’s as if I have to unlearn Modern Jive

Later on during the freestyle session I asked Becki how she was getting on, and she said something that really hits the nail on the head when it comes to getting to grips with West Coast Swing.

The thing is Paul, I occasionally go back to my other dance styles.  My Salsa Mambo Step is causing a conflict with the Triple Steps and the Anchor steps

That’s my problem too – not the Salsa Mambo Step, but my ingrained Modern Jive technique.  That is probably why many of us who come to West Coast Swing through the Ceroc or Modern Jive route struggle.  You see it’s as if we have to unlearn Modern Jive first.  I’ll illustrate this by explaining something that happened to me in the workshop.

Please don’t rock from side to side

Remember how Estelle had told the male leads to start off by ensuring that the lady follower has her weight on her left foot on the ‘Eight’ beat so that she is ready to come forward on the ‘One’ beat with her right foot.

Now let me take you back to a Modern Jive class.  Like many people I rock from side to side as I wait for the teacher to count us in.  Then comes the count – five, six, seven, eight and on cue I push my lady back.   As we were getting ready to start another practice pattern, I started rocking from side to side.  Suddenly my partner stopped me with these words:

Please don’t rock, it just confuses me.

I have to say that the lady was very apologetic that she had to say this, but what she said, resonated with me for the rest of the day.  You see I’ve been so conditioned to rock from side to side, and so has every other Modern Jive dancer, that it’s difficult to unlearn it.  But as a West Coast lead you have to learn a new way of connecting with the beat, otherwise you don’t make it easy for your follower.

Even experienced dancers struggle with the different techniques

And that is what I think Becki was alluding to.  Many people who come to West Coast Swing do so by the Modern Jive route.  Unlearning some things, like my rocking from side to side, is necessary before you can take on board the techniques that Estelle was teaching us.

With all her experience of many forms of dancing, Becki was still finding it hard to unlearn some things.  I’m going to take comfort from Becki’s experience.  Look, West Coast isn’t easy, but hopefully understanding this notion of having to unlearn Modern Jive, or Salsa or other styles of dance will make us more realistic in judging our progress, and like Becki give ourselves plenty of time to get proficient.

Let’s hear some funky music

West Coast is hard, but there is one thing that is ensuring that I keep on trying, and that is the wonderful music and the desire to be able to dance to it in a lovely flowing manner.  Here’s another of Estelle’s wonderful tracks.  Ever since James Brown brought funky dance music in to the mainstream in the ‘70s, I’ve loved this genre of music, and Prince Royce’s Handcuffs has a beat straight out of Funk Central.  Listening to it now on my headphones I just want to be on a dance floor somewhere.

I suppose I could do my version of slotted chill-out dancing, but as I listen to this modern R&B track it’s easy to envisage Estelle settling in to her Anchor Step, before she is invited to come down the slot with more of her flowing movement.

Estelle took a lot of time to explain the way the woman uses the Anchor Step to stretch out, and I want to be able to provide the posting that allows my partner to do the very same.  You can’t beat the feeling when you connect with your partner as they stretch out smoothly at the end of the slot.

Hot spots and not so hot spots

Because West Coast Swing is not as easy to pick up, as say Modern Jive, it has never developed a strong national coverage.  As I travel around, I have become aware that there are some West Coast Hot Spots, but I am also aware that there are many areas of the country that have no programme of Beginner Classes.  My old stomping ground of The East Midlands is one such area.  Indeed, I know of people who live in Nottingham who are having to travel almost an hour to get to a West Coast class.

My first step on this journey was when Lee Bartholomew and Siân Kirkham came to Nottingham, after they realised it had no provision for people wanting to give West Coast a try.

Sadly, I don’t think they’ve been back, which is a shame because their lesson proved there was a demand for West Coast in that part of the East Midlands.

It seems then that the fortunes of West Coast Swing have waxed and waned over the years, and this is in part due to the provision of teachers who have the passion to grow the West Coast community.  I’ve written many times of the wonderful people who work tirelessly to promote the wonderful Modern Jive dance community, and as I set out on this new dance journey, I knew I would meet people who had a passion for West Coast.  At this Sunday workshop I met one such character – Pauline Dickson herself.

Pauline has a wonderful stable of teachers to call upon

Pauline is not a teacher, but someone who is determined to help increase the provision of classes and workshops to help promote the growth of West Coast Swing.  Pauline now runs three classes and is running an increasing number of workshops.  What’s more Pauline is having a lot of success, as was shown by the fact that both days of this workshop were a sell out.

What impresses me is the quality of teachers that Pauline is able to call upon.  One of her teachers is Richard James.  It was Richard who impressed me at the MJRoc Warmwell Weekender (see link to review below).

Richard was present for both days and as well as demoing with Estelle was there to help all the ladies as they progressed down the lines.

Estelle is not the only internationally renowned teacher who Pauline can call upon.  This week she had International West Coast dance legend Robert Cordoba teaching at her classes.

Over the course of the afternoon I got a chance to talk with Pauline about her passion to promote West Coast Swing.  As I continue my West Coast journey I hope to find time to write a more general article about the fortunes of West Coast Swing and Pauline’s role as an advocate of this wonderfully smooth dance style.

Richard James was on hand both days to demo with Estelle.  Photo courtesy of Femma Anderson

Everyone will take something away

I’ve written this post as part of my own journey to learn to West Coast Swing, but most of the people I met in the lines were a lot more experienced than myself.  I had little doubt that Estelle’s detailed teaching of the fundamentals of West Coast would have stretched even the most experienced dancer.

During the breaks I chatted with several of these dancers and they all confirmed that Estelle had indeed stretched them, and given them all tips to improve the fluidity of their movement.

We all take different things away from classes and workshops.  It dependes of course what level you are at.  I’ll take away the need to unlearn a few Modern Jive techniques, particularly the rocking from side to side.  But the big thing for me will be the need to provide a solid post so that my lady follower can settle and stretch away as they do their Anchor Step.

I know that WestCo’s will be having Estelle back again and I would have no hesitation in recommending her workshops for all dancers who are looking to improve their fundamental West Coast skills.  I’ve put a link to WestCo’s Facebook page below, so that you can keep a look out for Estelle’s next visit.  The proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and in the evning I got an opportunity to see if I had made any progress by attending the Tea Dance that followed the workshop.

It is one thing to feel you have grasped a technique in a class setting, it is often another thing to put it in to practice on the dance floor.

I mentioned Richard James’s Warmwell class earlier.  I did really well in that class, but when it came to dancing in the West Coast Swing freestyle session later in the day, I struggled to remember a lot of what I’d been taught.  That’s the way it is with most of us, so I was interested to see how I would do in the evening freestyle session.

I show some progress in the Tea Dance

I have learnt to set my expectations low, but I’ll just say that I felt a lot more confident when it came to asking the ladies I’d met in the lines of the class for a dance.  I suppose that’s one of the benefits of doing a combined workshop and freestyle session – everyone is a lot more comfortable with each other.

I still kept to the basic patterns, but I think I danced with a little more fluidity, and I really concentrated on getting The Anchor Step correct.

Remember progress is progrss no matter how small, and I’d definately made some improvement.  There is no doubt that what I now need is regular classes.  Pauline has given me details of a class night in my new base of Milton Keynes.  I’ve now promised myself that by the end of March I will be going regularly, and in my next article in this series I’ll let you know how I get on.

One last piece of gorgeous music

I’ll finish by featuring one more of Estelle’s wonderful tracks.  It’s by Marian Hill, who I gave a mention to earlier.  Lovit is a very Bluesy track and shows how West Coast Swing is very suited to all forms of contemporary chill-out music.  This next weekend I’m at the Ceroc Southport Weekender.  I’ll spend a lot of time in The SILC Zone dancing in the smooth slotted style of Modern Jive.

I’ll no doubt hear bluesy tracks like the Marian Hill one, so I’m going to watch the floor and try and spot the Westies.  Then I’m going to be brave and ask if they’ll join me for a West Coast dance.  Should be interesting.  I’ll let you know how I get on.

Thanks and acknowledgements

I’d like to extend my thanks to Pauline for not only inviting me, but for answering all my messages asking for background information and checking the article over.  My thanks also to Becki Rendell for her valued contribution. I’d also like to thank the ladies I meet in the lines.  You were all very friendly and gracious as I attempted to lead you in to the manner that Estelle had taught.

I’d also like to acknowledge the wonderful photos taken by Femma.  Being a dancer herself and a participant on both days, meant that she knew where and when to point her camera.

Finally my thanks to Estelle, not only for her teaching but for supplying her music soundtrack.   Estelle also gave everyone the opportunity to video her talking through all the techniques she had taught during the workshop.  I’m sure that the videos will be a great help to everyone, including myself, over the coming weeks and months.

Femma captures all the attendees as they video Estelle as she demonstrates all the techniques at the end of the day

Related Links

Femma Anderson’s Full Photo Album of Saturday and Sunday

WestCo’s Swing’s Facebook Page

Richard James classes at The Warmwell Weekender

12 Contemporary Chill-out Tracks Volume 1

More tracks from Estelle’s Workshop Playlist

From my heart to yours  Laura Izibor

Whipping Kiiara

3 Strikes Terror Jr

Fly down Stephen

Mil Pasos Soha

Angel zoo Phlake

Lovin’ so hard Becky G

Location Khalid