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It's Like Magic


Professional West Coast Swing Dance Instruction

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10 Things Good West Coast Swing Dancers Do Differently

Posted on 16 April, 2016 at 12:47 Comments comments ()
Thank you Brian B. from West Coast Swing Online for writing this. Good Stuff ! 

 There are a lot of things that separate good dancers from poor dancers and great dancers from good dancers. Background, physical talents and years in the game are all factors that come into play. As a teacher I live in a world  where I’m consumed by getting the most out of what I have without making excuses. That being said here are 10 things that you can and should be doing if you want to take your West Coast Swing dancing to the next level. 

 1. Commit to getting better Nothing starts without a goal and the commitment to follow through. You have to know where you are going and be willing to stay the course. Committing to getting better is a both a mindset and a process. 

 2. Learn to dance by yourself Too many people in West Coast Swing are limited by ‘needing a partner.’ Hogwash! Learn to dance on your own and practice on your own. All serious dancers do. 

 3. Take music seriously There is no way around this one in the West Coast Swing world. We are so driven by different kinds of music that if you don’t become a bit of a music nerd you are giving away a step to the dancers who do.  

4. Learn to love drills Learning to isolate techniques to drill them is a fast track to better learning. I personally use drills before most lessons and practices and have for almost 10 years now. They are very valuable. 

 5. Develop a relationship with a coach Notice I said relationship? Too many people in WCS run around taking random lessons from random coaches. While each coach has something to offer I think this process is flawed. I don’t have time to fully cover my thoughts on the subject but does Tiger Woods take lesson from different golf coaches ever week? Right! Find a coach that you can develop a long standing relationship with and it will pay off in spades. 

 6. Develop a work ethic You have to develop a consistent approach to practice if you want to gain momentum. Just like going to the gym or eating healthy, it doesn’t really show results if you only do it once in a while. 

 7. Learn to cope with self doubt There are ABSOLUTELY going to be periods of self doubt. Know that they will come and do your best to work through them when they come. 

 8. Take overall physical fitness seriously Sometime it shocks me why people want to move like high level dancers yet they let their basic physical fitness get away from them. Things like Yoga, Pilates are great for dancers. As we get older some form of resistance training is helpful as well. Combine these with a healthy diet and you’ll be in much better shape to take your dancing seriously as well. 

 9. Realize that learning curve is not a straight line Bad dances, bad competitions, bad lessons and crummy days are just a part of doing business. Learn what you can from them and come back smarter the next day. Don’t get discouraged. Learn the lesson and move to be better next time. 

 10. Learn to dance with different partners. One of the best things you can do is to cultivate the ability to dance with a wide range of partners. Not only partners that are brand new but also partners that are far ‘out of your league’ Its good to develope the skill and courage to dance with everyone on the spectrum of abilities. Its the essence of social dance, the essence of West Coast Swing.

The Challenge Of West Coast Swing

Posted on 20 January, 2013 at 20:13 Comments comments ()
West coast swing is generally regarded as one of the most challenging social dances to learn. The purpose of this post is to explore some of the reasons why WCS can be challenging in order to help dancers understand why learning WCS can be difficult. Obviously, I believe that west coast is well worth the challenge, but it’s also worth acknowledging that this is a demanding dance, and that it’s natural to have moments of frustration.
  • Triple steps are hard. Very few social dances use triple steps because they require a strong sense of rhythm to place the & and they demand a high level of control over the body center during the triple.
  • Dancing in open position requires a good frame.There are a lot of ways for closed position dancing to compensate for a weak frame. In open position, if you don’t maintain your own frame then you’re lost.
  • WCS is not a mirrored dance. Followers can’t just match their leader. West coast demands a higher level of knowledge from the follower than many social dances.
  • Anchoring and elasticity are high-level concepts. Not only are these concepts tricky for beginners to master, they are also fundamental to the dance. Elasticity is needed to understand the coaster step in the whip, and staying back on the anchor is WCS 101.
  • West coast is inherently off-phrase. Because WCS has six beat patterns, the dance always gets off time from the music. This enables high-level dancers to reattach to the music in cool ways, but it means that beginners can get lost in the beat.
  • WCS is a conversation. Dancers are expected to not just perform their role, but to adapt to what their partner does during the dance. This requires both partners to learn lead and follow skills.
  • There is a huge range of musical styles and tempos. Extreme slow and fast requires a high level of body control, and expressing different genres requires a broad range of movements. WCS even changes the way that patterns are counted based on the music (straight vs. rolling)!
In short, it’s OK to feel like west coast swing is a difficult dance. IT IS ! 
The key is to remember that this difficulty is not created just to mess you up—all of these challenges give WCS a huge degree of freedom and flexibility. Putting time into mastering these skills has a huge payoff precisely because developing talent at WCS forces you to learn a lot of solid dancing skills.

What is West Coast Swing ?

Posted on 20 January, 2013 at 20:08 Comments comments ()
What is West Coast Swing? 
West coast swing, or WCS, is a popular form of swing dancing that has spread from the US across the world. Part of the appeal of WCS is that it is an adaptable dance; it can be danced to a variety of musical styles and tempos, from 1940s big band swing and 60s soul to contemporary/top 40, hiphop, and of course the blues. In addition, the dance itself creates room for improvisation and interaction between the partners. Combine these elements with the ethos of a street dance—most west coast dancers resist the urge to formalize the dance into a ballroom-like curriculum—and it’s easy to see why west coast can be so hard to define!Some of the general characteristics of west coast swing, as it is danced socially, include:
  • WCS is a lead-follow partner dance that emphasizes the conversation between the partners. The leader is responsible for selecting the patterns of the dance, but is encouraged to create opportunities for the follower to shine within the dance. The follower is responsible for carrying out the intention of the leader, but is encouraged to play and interpret within the leader’s overall structure.
  • WCS is generally danced in a linear slot, with the follower moving to either end of the slot and the leader remaining in the center. Although the slot can rotate or travel on occasion, WCS is not a circular or progressive dance.
  • Every pattern in WCS ends in an anchor; the leader and follower are stretched away from each other. This stretch, or elasticity, creates a smooth and relaxed look for the dance. In contrast to other forms of swing, west coast settles into the end of each pattern through the anchor.
One of the greatest parts about west coast swing is that the dance is highly personalized. There is no “one way” to dance WCS, and dancers are encouraged to develop their own style within the basic framework of the dance.

What is Swing ?

Posted on 31 May, 2012 at 14:43 Comments comments ()
As defined by the NASDE (National Association of Swing Dance Events)
NASDE Statement of Swing to be used to identify the presence of swing in the NASDE competition divisions.
Swing is an American Rhythm Dancebased on a foundation of 6-beat and 8-beat patterns that incorporate a wide variety of rhythms built on 2-beat single, delayed, double, triple, and blank rhythm units.
The 6-beat patterns include, but are not limited to, passes, underarm turns, push-breaks, open-to-closed, and closed-to-open position patterns.
The 8-beat patterns include, but are not limited to, whips, swing-outs, Lindy circles, and Shag pivots.
Although they are not part of the foundation of the dance as stated above, 2- beat and 4-beat extension rhythm breaks may be incorporated to extend a pattern, to phrase the music, and/or to accent breaks.

Perceptions and Expectations

Posted on 2 April, 2012 at 12:10 Comments comments ()
I am often asked what do I need to do or know to do well  in a Jack and Jill or Strictly Swing ? 
Another loaded question !
First it depends on the level in which you are trying to compete.
Second is what part of the country or world or where are you going to be dancing or competing.
Requirements to do well for each level can change with every different panel of judges and sometimes even with the same panel of judges it can be different from one day to the next.
Each event judge has their own perception and expectation of what makes good west coast swing or dancing in general..
 Some judges look at the dancers feet..are they rolling ? Are they connected to the floor in a smooth action or transition from one step to the next. Does the footwork add to the over all look of the dance or does it or the lack of it take away from the quality of the dance ? Is the timing correct ? Are the dancers knees bending and straightening properly for the dance ?
Some judges are looking for good body flight and smooth movement in and out of each position the dancer(s) find themselves in throughout their dance. Does it add to the connection and overall look and feel of the dance and the music for the dancer or couple..? Is their elasticity or stretch ? Does the leader allow the folloer to do her part...? Is the follower patient ? Do they take the time to actually feel what the leaders connection is telling them ? or do they over react ? Does the leader over lead.. ?  Are the dancers moving or not moving from the correct part of the body ?
Some Judges are looking simply for great posture.. does the dancer look like a dancer..? I have personally observed dancers being dropped several placements simply because the did not possess good posture and poise..even though the dancers in question were more musical and appeared more connected than anyone else on the floor...bad posture and frame killed their chances of placing as well as they could have or evening winning the contest. definitely something to think about.
Some judges are looking for good centering and balance.. in short...those judges are looking for control of one's self and awareness of the moment, the music, are they focused on achieving the best dance possible. Such things are usually very obvious to the trained judges eye.
Some judges are all about the connection and the music...regardless of what the competing dancers do or do not do...for them it must match or fit the particular music at the time.
From my own observations.. the most experienced judges are looking simply  for the best combination of all of the above. the more experienced the judge the easier it is to see who on the floor has or does not have any or all of the above requirements ..
The presence or lack of any of the above mentioned elements can make or break one's ability to do well on any given day..
My advice would be for one to stick to what you do well ! Try to be as clean and as precise as possible with what ever you do. If it is a good as you think it is.. you should do well. If it is probably will not do so well.
To correct the problem.. simply put in the time and energy required to make it better. Take a lesson or lessons from a reputable instructor in your area that either PRESENTLY competes at a high level and frequently does well OR  JUDGES MULTIPLE LEVELS and events per year. 
Doing the same things the same way again and again and expecting a different result is not going to help you ! Their are in most cases numerous ways of doing something correctly. Find the one that works best and looks best on you..
As odd as it may seem.. for those who do not compete and have no plans to ever compete..the same skills noted above are also what makes a great social dancer !


Posted on 2 July, 2011 at 21:55 Comments comments ()
I have had similar conversations in private lessons I was teaching with different students thru the years....Thank you Michael Kiehm for summerizing it so nicely. 
"Musicality" by Michael Kiehm (Starlight Dance-San Diego, California)
Everyone wants to considered "musically gifted", but very few can claim ownership of this title.
It's as though every move they make seems choreographed to the song, even if they've never heard the song before!
Well, for those gifted in this concept, you may want to read this as "light reading" and please, please, just appreciate your skill. (also, feel free to add any ideas you may have to help others get better)
For the rest of you, try these tricks to make you more aware of the music and to take your dancing to the next level;
   First of all, you need to identify the feel or genre of the music......blues, pop, funk, contemporary, lyrical, disco etc. 
   Then, identify what stands out to you most in the music......the guitar, the piano, the vocal...whatever you can clearly hear with consistency throughout the song.
You may want to separate all the different instruments (write each one down. you will be surprised at how many you hear. remember, vocals are considered instruments as well)
   Now listen to the rhythm of one of those sounds.  Find one with a repetitive rhythm, and match the rhythm with your feet while standing in place.
   You can also divide the movements between your feet and your body (like adding a body wave or using a head turn)
   Now dance a simple pattern, like a sugar push, and change the rhythm of you basic footwork to match the rhythm of your sound.  It may not be a simple 1,2, 3&4, 5&6,    It may be something like  &1, &2, 3 & a 4, &5, &6.   (Remember to try to cue the partner in on your  rhythm change through your connection). The "&" counts can be taps, kicks, hesitations, and even quick steps.
   Going back to the genre detail....if the music is slow & bluesy, keep smooth and release your hips a bit to give it a swinging from step to step feel.   If the music is funky, add body pulses on the down beats (sometimes even on the up beats)  You can still dance smooth through the feet, but you should show the pulse somewhere in your body or through the pattern you are leading.  I think you get the idea!
Try using subtle "Hip Hop" movements for the funky music and use classic or even jazz like movements for the smoother style....I like to use lyrical movements for the slow groove songs (my absolute favorite!)
The Stretch concept is great for this.  Some argue "it takes out too many triples, but I believe you can show the triple rhythm with more than your feet sometimes...Hence, body pulsing and tight and loose hand connections for light and shade movements.

Music !! could not have said it better myself.

Posted on 2 June, 2011 at 14:01 Comments comments ()
More from Michael Kiehm....
 June 2nd. Music appreciation/interpretation; 
   Let's face it, we are not going to like every song played at an event. Instead... of complaining about the music choices, try challenging yourself to dance in a way that would convince anyone watching you, that you actually like the song. Yeah, I know, I am just as guilty as the next guy when I say comments like; "What the heck is that Dee Jay playing" or, "That song really sucks!". We've all said that more than once or twice :). It's easy to dance with positive engergy, embellishing the breaks and preparing for those awesome cresendos when your excited by the song, or you recognize the song as a current popular hit. Here's my tip, Every song has something within it that is not always obvious to listeners. Find that background musical instrument, vocal riff, or that subtle repeating rythm and bring it out of the song so that someone watching would say to themselves, "Hmm, I did not even realize that sound was in the song until that dancer projected it". When you put your focus on this concept, you start appreciating songs you don't usually even pay any attention to. To bring out the sound that you are hearing, you might make a small movement with your head, or you might press your foot into the floor to accent the sound. Try motivating your partner by being creative and inspiring. You never know, your partner might actually assist you in making the song more exciting once they feel motivated by your dancing. Give this a try guys. In the end, we are dancers first, so we should be able to make any song within reason come alive! Until next week, keep dancing from your heart! Michael Kiehm

Basics, Basics, Basics !!

Posted on 1 June, 2011 at 13:58 Comments comments ()
Thought I would share this with students and dance friends everywhere...I teach this, and say it all in many different ways...This comes from my good friend in San Diego, Ca.  Mr Michael Kiehm... good stuff !! Enjoy.
Basics, Basics, Basics, You can't work on them too much! 
I'm sure you've probably heard this a million times, but lets face it, watch any advanced dancer and what do you remember??? It's HOW they danced, not what they danced. An advanced dancer can captivate you with nothing but basic patterns, simply because they have mastered their ability to maintain a consistent connection between themselves, the floor, the music and the space around them. They never seem rushed or off time, and they never use more lead or follow then necessary. THERE IS NO WAISTED MOVEMENT! Even when they "play" the are able to "Keep the conversation" (stay connected to the partner).I see so many dancers dancing solo while holding on to a partner! This is a result of a lack of good basic skills. When the basic connection is solid, both partners can continue complimenting each others embellishments with matching movements or at least support throughout the movements.One of the best pieces of advice I or any other coach could give you, would be to SLOW DOWN and pay more attention to your partner. If you are in control of your balance and your spacing, miracles will happen. A perfect example of this is non other than Tatiana Mollmann. Here is a very talented follower that can take a movement that most any other follower would fall flat on the floor with, and turn it into the coolest move! Why, because she understands her body's limitation and is always in control of what it is doing. If you watch any video of Tatiana, you will see that she stays very calm and continues to dance basics in between each flurry of extravagant movements.Try keeping your feet as close to the floor as possible and think about keeping your posture strongly over your feet. Try to be aware of how you are placing your feet on the ground (what part of the foot, and how much time the foot is action and the placement of the foot) If you think about it in this detail, it will cause you to slow down slightly, which is a great thing! KEEP WORKING ON YOUR BASIC SKILLS....I DO, and I've been dancing for over 30 years.
Me too Michael !!!  Thanks for writing this !!
Courtesy of Michael Kiehm, Starlight Dance Studio- San Diego, Ca

Full Circle ?

Posted on 14 March, 2011 at 14:13 Comments comments ()
 In contemplating what to write here in my first post.. all that comes to mind is how much west coast swing seems to have changed thru the years... or has it. ?
 My journey through the world of West Coast Swing has taught me many things about myself and life as well as the dance itself...
  So I believe that it is not entirely true that the dance has changed that much.. but rather I myself have changed in my thoughts, perceptions and expectations of what exactly west coast swing is. The more I learn about it the more different it seems than my original perception. The more I learn the more fun it becomes.
  My most profound discoveries have come from simply sitting down and talking to those that are still with us that are between 80 and 95 years of age that lived the dance as it was coming into it's own. Their descriptions of what we call west coast swing today versus what it was then...have boggled my mind more than once..particularly when they talk about the music and the rhythms they used and taught each other to do in the dance. Some times .. in order to understand the present..we must visit and even revisit the past...
They really danced the music as it was made. They adapted their timing and footwork to fit the changes in the music in 2 and 4 beat intervals... which allowed them to always hit the accents in the music as well as the minor and major phrase changes with ease..which ironically is exactly what todays very best west coast swing dancers and teachers are doing. So in some ways the dance has now come full circle. Teachers are getting better and the knowledge available to them regarding the dance is much more extensive than it was in the past. So.. full circle.. ?  Or is it really just getting started ?