Basics of West Coast Swing
West Coast Swing Basic Patterns
In West Coast Swing, there are a few key terms that are helpful to know. Here you will be introduced to the “core patterns” that every West Coast Swing dancer knows (or will soon learn). Having these patterns built into muscle memory takes repetition and is crucial to learning how to manipulate patterns to play with the music and experiment with improvisation.
To jump right into the basics of West Coast Swing, check out the video on the right.
Walk | a single step forward, backward, to the side, or in place that takes up one count of music. “Walks” are usually done in sets of two in the beginning.
Triple Step | a set of “three steps,” forward, backwards, to the side, or in place that takes up two counts of music.
Anchor Step | a “triple step” that signals the end of a pattern that takes up two counts. The anchor step allows both the leader and follower to start establishing stretch to enter into the next pattern.
Connection | the feeling of “pressure” in our hands with our partner. Connection is a type of communication between dancers to indicate intent of momentum, typically forward, backward, or in place.
Extension & Compression | another type of connection, where the leader and follow are “pulling away” or “pushing into” each other. The earliest form of extension and compression you will experience is during the Sugar Push Basic, when partners are “pushing into” each other before sending the partner away and into an anchor step.
Slot | In West Coast Swing, you and your partner are dancing on a “slot,” or a line, or track on the dance floor. You and your partner will be moving back and forth along this slot and generally stay on this slot for the entire dance (instead of traveling around the room). There are some instances where the leader “steps off the slot” to allow the follow to get to the other side.
This video and playlist goes over the West Coast Swing basic patterns, taught by Brian Barakauskas, who runs West Coast Swing Online.
Like any type of dance you pursue, getting the basics down are critical for mastering the dance and becoming comfortable with it. The more you do the basics and understand the technique with each pattern, the more natural it will become.
It’s all a matter of doing patterns with enough repetition that it becomes second nature, by embedding it into our muscle memory. When steps, patterns and adaptions enter the muscle memory, our skills as a dancer will start to take off!
Never stress over a pattern not “going well.” Everyone starts at the beginning, and if you ever feel like it’s not clicking, that’s a good sign! Learning patterns and technique is pushing your comfort zone and teaching your body’s nervous system something completely new.
In other words, it’s the first step that everyone goes through! I’m always excited when I get frustrated about not doing something right the first time. It means I’m on the edge of a new breakthrough in dance.
Just keep at it and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Westies are always happy to help. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of repetition and practice!
Basic West Coast Swing Patterns
These patterns are the “fundamentals” to West Coast Swing. All of the slick moves and patterns you see more experienced Westies do are built off of these fundamentals. Once you get them down into muscle memory, you’ll start to learn how to manipulate them to the music.
Like any other dance, knowing the core patterns and technique is the true foundation of becoming a better dancer. The best way to learn any of these patterns is, unsurprisingly, by a professional instructor (either in a private lesson or during a group workshop). Videos are another great way to see and hear what is intended during a pattern, but the following information can help you to become familiar with the intent and terminology of each pattern.
Leading & Following
“Leaders” of a dance initiate each pattern and “followers” try to complete the pattern initiated by the leader. Leaders are typically males and followers are typically female, but in WCS this is not always a requirement. We will generally refer to “he” as the lead and “she” as the follow, but know that these roles are not tied strictly to gender (and we encourage you to explore the role you are interested in)!
Timing in West Coast Swing
Most of WCS’s earliest patterns involve 6 counts of music. The timing for both leaders and followers is:
- Walk — Walk — Tri-ple-Step — Tri-ple-Step
- Walk — Walk — Tri-ple-Step — An-chor-Step
- 1 — 2 — 3 & 4 — 5 & 6
- Slow — Slow — Quick-Quick-Slow — Quick-Quick-Slow
Compared to other dances, the West Coast Swing timing takes some time to get used to. Just keep practicing and it’ll quickly become second nature!
Sugar Push Basic
Leader: You will be “pulling” the follow into you, compressing, and then pushing the follow away into her anchor.
Follower: You will be walking at the leader, compressing into his hands, and then walking back into your anchor.
Left Side Pass
When passes are referred to as “left” or “right,” they are from the point of view of the leader. Therefor, a “Left Side Pass” happens on the left side of the leader.
Leader: You will be walking back and off of the slot (stepping off on the right of the slot), opening your shoulders to the left, and letting the follower step past you. You’ll then step back onto the slot as you and the follower do an anchor step.
Follower: You’ll be walking forward, just like in a Sugar Push, but will continue to walk forward as the leader steps off the slot. You’ll finish by turning around to anchor step, facing your partner.
Right Side Pass
A “Right Side Pass” happens on the right side of the leader.
Leader: You will be walking back and off the slot (stepping off on the left of the slot), opening your shoulders to the right, and letting the follower step past you. You’ll then step back onto the slot as you and the follower do an anchor step.
Follower: You will be walking forward, just like in a Sugar Push, but will continue to walk forward as the leader steps off the slot. You’ll finish by turning around to anchor step, facing your partner.
Passes with an Inside/Outside Turn
Inside and Outside Turns can also be added into Left Side and Right Side Passes. Turns are usually done with a small “prep” prior to initiating the turn, to give a “heads-up” to the follower. Early on, it’s important to remember that your turns will continue to travel down the slot.
Each type of turn can be done on both the Left and Right Side.
Leader: Your footwork remains the same for both Inside and Outside Turns for both Left and Right Side Turns, but the turn may be initiated on a different count.
Follower: Unlike the leader, your footwork changes to accommodate a turn down the slot, depending on which turn is being led. Remember to continue to travel down the slot during your turns so that you can get to the end of your anchor step with your partner.
The Tuck Turn is the earliest turn that a follower will experience “on the spot” in her slot that does not involve passing the leader during a Left or Right Side Pass.
Leader: You will walk back, like a Sugar Push Basic, and will lift your hand to initiate a Tuck Turn. The follow will turn underneath her own hand and you will both finish by doing an anchor step.
Follower: You will walk forward, like a Sugar Push Basic. The leader will lift his hand to build compression and you will turn to the right so that you can do an anchor step with your partner.
The Whip is the usually the earliest 8-count pattern that Westies will be introduced to. Up to this point, all of your basic west coast swing patterns are down in 6 counts. The Whip will add 2 extra counts in the middle of your pattern. The usual pattern involves the leader bringing the follow into a closed position, spinning around eachother, and sending the follower back out back into the same position both dancers began.
The timing changes from (1 — 2 — 3 & 4 — 5 & 6) to (1 — 2 — 3 & 4 — 5 — 6 — 7 & 8). This means two extra “Walks” are added after your initial 3 & 4. Your anchor is still at the end of your pattern, but ends on a 7 & 8 instead.
Leader: You are bringing the follower in and begin to do the same footwork as a Right Side Pass, while catching the follower’s back. As you’re stepping back onto the slot, the follower will be spinning 180 degrees and moving back in the same direction she came from. As you add two extra “walks,” the follower will spin again and walk back into her original position.
Follower: The specific directions you are turning will vary based on the type of Whip that is being led. Generally, you are walking forward, doing a 180 degree spin and building “stretch” into the lead’s arm. You’ll do another 180 degree spin to walk back down the slot towards the direction you came from, anchoring in the same place you began.
* Note that there are MANY variations to the whip and all of the “basic patterns” we’ve introduced. West Coast Swing allows you to adapt each pattern to fit the music and “play” within the dance.
* This is not a comprehensive guide to your patterns and should only act as an introduction to what you can expect in your earliest West Coast Swing dances.
Learn more about musicality and manipulating the dance here (coming soon).