Jitterbug -“Classic West Coast Swing" - “Contemporary” West Coast
This was written in 1999 & updated in 2002. A further updated version was
written for Norma Miller in 2009 - Elsewhere on this Website
"Dancing My Way
through Time." Three Swing Forms - and I Love them all.
By Skippy Blair © 1999 Revised. 2002
Sometimes the best way to adequately explain the present - is to take a closer look at the past. I personally feel that the only PAST that anyone can accurately describe - is their own. I have been dancing some form of Swing since 1937, when I was 13 - and danced my first Jitterbug dance on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This was my hometown, and the famous Steel Pier Ballroom, 1/4 of a mile out over the ocean, hosted every top Dance Orchestra in the nation. During the war years, thousands and thousands of service men - (including dancers from all over the country) converged on the famous Steel Pier - and all of us danced the same dance - to the same music. In those days, we danced what we would now recognize, as East Coast Swing & Lindy. But in the late 30’s and 1940’s it was simply called “Jitterbug. (Frankie Manning was quoted as having said that he and his dancing buddies were referred to as “Jitterbugs”) It was many years later that he - and his buddies - discovered that what they had been dancing was the Lindy.” Carolina Shag Historians, acknowledge that Shag had its roots in Lindy and East Coast Swing. So let’s start there. At some point in time, the Shag, once simply an elegant evolvement of East Coast Swing, started taking on an identity of it's own. Shag maintained the same Rhythm Structure as the original dance - but today -you can no longer identify Carolina Shag as a form of East Coast Swing. It evolved PAST being simply a style variation, and finally became it's own - identifiable dance form. Carolina Shag had reached a point of technical "know how" to a point of recognizable "essence" and styling - which defines it as Carolina Shag. Carolina Shag is now considered one of the Classic - premiere dance forms in the World of SWING.
The reason that Shag dancers and West Coast Swing dancers get along so well, is the tempo and Rolling Rhythm of the music. Carolina Shag is in a unique family situation because the dance employs both Rock Steps - Kick Step-Steps and Walk-Walks as the entry for a lady - moving forward toward her partner - into a new pattern. It falls into both East and West Coast families. Texas spawned Push and Whip, which were once very different from each other. Today the two styles have blended and the differences are few. These dances grew out of the 6-Beat and 8-Beat patterns of the mixture of New Yorker and Lindy the same as every other Swing form. The distinctive Double Resistance on the end of every Whip pattern - characterized the style and form of Texas style Swing. That same Double Resistance move is a style variation of West Coast Swing - but is a defining characteristic of every pattern, Texas style. Texas style essentially belongs to the West Coast family, simply because the lady moves forward into each new pattern. West Coast Swing had those same roots.
The Rhythm structure has remained the same through it's unique history. In it's infancy, in the chain studios of the late 40s and early 50s, it was referred to as Western Swing. At that time, there were mainly two styles of Swing: Eastern Swing and Western Swing. The popularity of Western Swing spawned competition in local, Southern California nightclubs. In a competition, the lady walking forward produced a sharper and more interesting look and feel and was a welcome contrast to the Jitterbug days. The concept that made it different was the fact that both partners traveled in the same direction, rather than the standard Back Rock, away from each other, in an opposition move. How it GOT that way has many explanations, and there is a grain of truth in each one of them.
In the 1940’s, Jitterbugs, in Nightclubs on the East Coast, were finally outlawed from dancing their circular, open and wild moves. They were cautioned to stay in closed position, with very little swing-out, or leave the premises. In California the same phenomenon was taking place. Arthur Murray’s was the first to formally identify the basic difference between Rocking Back and Walking Forward - and actually put it into a teaching format. Granted, the breakdowns were not what they are today, but it was a great start and produced some fantastic dancers. The teaching of West Coast Swing as we recognize it today, didn't really take place until the count was changed. (For GSDTA that was in 1958) Counting One, Two -Three & Four - Five & Six did not actually become mainstream until the late 1960s.
Today's West Coast Swing curriculum starts every pattern with the lady's Walk-Walk on counts 1-2. Few dancers today, remember back far enough to the days when the lady counted 5-6 when she walked forward. I had been a Jitterbug in the late 1930s and early 40s, and only had an inkling of walking forward, when I partnered with Red Rex - a native Californian, who became my dance partner in the 1940s. We danced a mixture of styles and won the big contest on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. However, I didn’t develop a real passion for West Coast Swing until the early 1950s. It was still being called Western Swing, (Sophisticated Swing in some circles) - but I equated the feeling of musical rhythms with my long time love affair with tap dancing. Here was a partner dance that used some of the same Rhythmic connections that I felt in the music when I was tap dancing. I loved the dance - but in 1956 - the Arthur Murray Studio where I was teaching, was still counting the Walk-Walk as 5-6. I opened my own Dance Studio in Downey, California in 1958, with the sole purpose of training dance teachers who could perpetuate this exciting dance. There were lots of Swing dancers then - but very few teachers who agreed on how the dance should be taught.
In 3 short years our Studio in Downey, CA grew from a one building store front - to a four building Dance Center. We were on TV every week - on the Al Jarvis Let's Dance show. We danced all kinds of dances - but we specialized in Swing. From 1958 to 1968 we produced a multitude of Swing Teachers who saturated Southern California Parks & Recreation, as well as the local College circuit. They all taught West Coast Swing with the lady starting each new pattern, walking forward on 1-2. By 1965, the influence had taken hold, and most of the teachers that we knew were counting the 1-2 as the Walk-Walk - whether they were part of GSDTA or not. The dance became officially West Coast Swing. (no longer Western Swing but that's another story and you can read it in the Historical Chapter written for Norma Miller, in 2009.) It would be another 10 years before Eastern Swing would start becoming known as East Coast Swing, (no doubt following the example of West Coast Swing.) During that period of time, many changes took place. GSDTA (Golden State Dance Teachers Assn.) had developed "Anchoring" to replace the use of the Coaster Step. The Coaster is still popular in Ballroom circles, but serious West Coast Swing dancers are frequently evaluated by how well they demonstrate the skill of using proper anchoring techniques.
The original U.S. Swing Dance Council was instrumental in accepting and developing the standard West Coast Swing Curriculum that is currently used all over the world. I had the privilege of serving as National Dance Director for that Council for 9 years. That curriculum and other elements of West Coast Swing were taught at Teachers Training sessions at the various competitions, nationwide. The original list was gleaned from the GSDTA curriculum, along with the gradual evolution of the dance. Another monumental development was the introduction of the 4-Beat Starter Step. That went a long way toward stopping the old count of 5-6 for the Rock-Step or the Walk-Walk. Another major breakthrough in the development of the dance was the discovery of Pulsing. The Universal Unit System, states that every dance - in addition to having specific timing and floor patterns - has a Pulse that further identifies - and elevates the performance of - that particular dance. GSDTA focused on Pulsing in the late 1960s. However, by the 1990s - Pulsing had become a popular buzzword - along with better clarification of Centering. GSDTA pioneered the concept of Centering over the Unit foot, (starting in 1958). In 1958 - the Universal Unit System was in it's infancy, and this concept was only being taught to teachers. By 1978 - it was being taught to advanced students and performers as well.
Today, GSDTA teachers teach Centering - Pulsing and Critical Timing at the very beginning of any form of dance training. Another interesting evolution of West Coast Swing includes the fact that it was once mainly a man's dance. The follower had no say in the presentation of the dance. Her job was simply to follow (and be thrown around in various directions) Today - reflecting the attitudes of the moral and social codes of the day - West Coast Swing is a 50/50 presentation. SHE is as responsible for the partnership as he is. He leads - but she needs to know enough about the dance to ADD to the performance. Swing is no longer a "Me Tarzan - You Jane" world. In the 1960s and 70s, local competition dancers held their practice sessions at our original studio in Downey. It was an exciting time in the history of WC Swing. Dancers shared their material with other dancers and I had a ball - breaking the material down into counts. Little by little, most of the swing dancers in that group learned to count patterns - starting with the walk-walk on 1-2. Those of us who were teaching in the colleges, had to supply Lesson Plans that would cover a full semester. It would have been impossible to do that - if most of the curriculum had not been established in the early 50s. In those days of Bronze, Silver, and Gold level Swing - the Arthur Murray Studios had a curriculum for their "Western Swing" that at least allowed the dance to progress from simple to complex. Additional categories of Movement - Music Elements and Drills were supplied by GSDTA. That list became a starting point for the development of what we now refer to as Classic West Coast Swing.
The elements of West Coast Swing have been clarified and classified over the years and those who have participated in its history - still share a love of this unique and exciting dance. In the 1970's West Coast Swing became known as one of the educated dances. The term educated referred to the fact that the lady had to know something about the dance in order to participate. Traditionally, this dance mainly featured the man, but in the 70s it became OK for the lady to do simple syncopations, as long as she did not interfere with his lead. Prior to that time - syncopations, such as Benson's Shuffle - were performed with both partners doing the same syncopation at the same time - and only when it was led. EVOLUTION of West Coast Swing.
During the 1980's, the epitome of Classic West Coast Swing styling was when Jack Carey and Annie Hirsh formed their partnership. It was an evolutionary time. The contrast that became their signature was exhibited in Jack's slow and easy styling within the pattern, contrasted with Annie's quick, sharp, staccato syncopations. They were the toast of the town wherever they went. (and are still a joy to watch in 2002!) (UPDATE - STILL fun to watch in 2009) During the 1990s, various dancers and styles seemed to expand the perimeters of West Coast Swing, and we even went through a Swustle stage. Several Swing Dancers added Hustle styling to a point where it was hard to determine what dance was being danced.
The one thing that influenced that style of swing - was the habit of dancing Swing to Hustle music. A variety of styles used the influence of Jazz, Hip Hop, and Hustle. To complicate things even more, most competitions of the 90s did not specify or clarify West Coast Swing. The Phoenix competition specifically stated: West Coast Swing - but slowly grew to accept various forms of Open Swing. While other forms were taking place, Wayne and Sharlot Bott were evolving into the new look of Classic West Coast Swing. The elements that define the dance were stretched into a longer slot, developed into tighter musical interpretations, and the elegance that emerged was being inter-nationally applauded. The best example of SEEING the evolution of West Coast Swing during the early 90s - is to observe the Videos from the Phoenix conventions during those years. Being all Jack and Jill competitions - The Phoenix Convention allows you to observe the social development of the dance thru the years. (HERE it is - 2009 and it still holds). Well here we are, half way through the year 2002, and West Coast Swing is at another Crossroad.
The music of the day has gone through Funky and settled into a Hip Hop feeling and look. Many of the dancers (including myself) love dancing to that beat. A few years ago, when the newer dancers started to dance Swing to Funky music, the Look of the dance started to change. The really good Funky dancers all had one thing in common. They were all exceptional swing dancers BEFORE they danced Funky style. Many people assumed that this was another evolution of West Coast Swing. It actually is not a real evolution. On one front the dance was evolving - but on another front - this very different music was giving birth to a totally new dance - a new look - a new attitude - and a less technique oriented form of characteristics. Classic West Coast Swing has evolved into a sophisticated dance, with an elongated slot, critical timing, controlled movement and pulsing that can run chills up your spine. The upper level technique of Classic West Coast Swing today, has reached an artistic level, worthy of being classified as a Performing Art. However, if this New Kid on the block turns out to be Funky or Hip Hop Swing, it is not doing well with new dancers. The music has become defined. Standard West Coast Swing music covers a broad spectrum of music. The TEST is: Can you DO the dance? Swing Music that allows the dancer to dance a Rolling Count even if that count is not prominent in the music, lends itself to Classic West Coast Swing. (also crossover music for Carolina Shag.) Some Contemporary music has a steady beat that almost fights a rolling count. BUT, the Rolling Count is identifiable in the body movement of the upper level dancers. FUNKY style dancing, along with funky music, is exciting, fun to dance, creative, and entertaining, but lacks some of the finesse & professionalism of Classic West Coast. There is an overall influence from one dance to another, when dancers get together and share each other's music and share each other's dance. Through recent years, West Coast Swing has been influenced by Carolina Shag - by Hustle - and now by the popularity of Contemporary music. The influence from Hustle has finally faded a little on the West Coast but has gained momentum in Chicago & other parts of the country. Hustle is now coming into it's own, with it's own followers and it's own Competitions (NOTE - It is now 2009 and time to move on to another UPDATE - one written expressly for Norma Miller elsewhere on this website - It was written just prior to the death of Frankie Manning. His death affected all dancers everywhere. Frankie was a walking legend - and will be missed by all of us).