A little musical background to the concept of swing an Essay by Justin Locke

Who Is Justin Locke?

Justin Locke has been a swing dancer in the Boston Community since I can remember. He spent 18 years playing bass in the Boston Pops, and his music education programs for children are performed around the world.  Next week his “Peter VS the Wolf” will have its Polish premiere and I am honored to have him authoring an article on my website.

Justin Locke On Swing:

If you go way way back to the beginnings of written music, well, in Europe, for centuries most of the music written for the church.  This music, as well as folk music and military marches, was all “square,” that is to say, on the beat.  If a basic musical bar is 1-2-3-4,  most early European music was all ‘on the beat, i.e., ONE,, two, THREE, four.  You can see this in most national anthems, Gilbert and Sullivan, and in virtually all early American (Caucasian) folk music.   For example: (1)GLOR-, y (3) GLOR -y Hal-le (1) LUH (3) JAH; or, “I’ve been Work- in’ on the Rail Road . . .”
My own personal theory (Justin Locke) is that European music was designed primarily to serve Monarchs as a unifying / obedience inducing rhythm, that made people more obedient to a martial marching beat.
But then you start importing Africans for slave labor, and their musical traditions are not at all like European march beats.  Instead, it’s all syncopated, i.e. the accents are all on the “off” beats.   I can give you dozens of examples of African American “Spiritual” music which has enormous emphasis on off beats (a.k.a. back beats).  It’s about joy of moving (not to mention more overt expressions of sexuality), not about marching in lock step to battle.  This evolved into American pop music, first with ragtime, and eventually into jazz, boogie woogie, swing, and rock ‘n’ roll.
A definition: Why do we call it “swing”?  Well, remember as a kid getting on a swing set?   It is just fun to fly all the way to the end of an arc, where your weight is drawn first by gravity and then by  inertia.  When you get to the end of a forward arc, now your weight “swings” back to the other side.
Swing dance music is a very similar idea, in terms of physics.  Making your weight swing from one point to another is what makes it FUN.   And there is much delicate rhythm involved in being on a swing, or pushing someone else who is.     Here Is a Great Example of Two Pros Swing Dancing
So, when you combine African off-beat rhythms with off-beat movement, and you get . . .  Swing music.
On an actual playground swing, you alter your position relative to the chains on the swing to cause gravity to swing you back and forth.  In swing dance, you do the same thing;
On the ONE, you put your foot out to invite gravity to pull you,
and then in response, you swing to the furthest arc on the TWO, a.k.a. the OFF beat.
So in a basic WCS step, we all know walk-walk triple-step triple-step, but that rhythmic count of steps only applies to the movements of the FEET.  The “swing’ is rhythmically elsewhere.  Here, using the word AND as the moment of the “swinging” of your CENTER from the top of one foot to another, a true WCS swing beat is walk AND walk AND triple step AND triple step AND.
What is even more fun about West Coast Swing is, the “swinging” is not even.  Sometimes there is one beat between swings (walk walk) and sometimes there is a two beat duration (triple step) between “swings” of weight/center.
The real fun of swing dance is, unlike a playground swing set where you swing pretty much by yourself, in WCS (and ECS too of course) you are “swinging” from one side to the other in rhythmic unison with someone else.
However, to do this, the music must provide a “rhythm bed” of clear downbeats, and more importantly, off beats, so that both people involved have a clear idea of when to swing weight.  The music also provides us with essential permission to move in ways that, were there no music, would seem odd.
If the music becomes too abstract, if the main beats or the off-beats become erratic or vague, then it becomes harder and harder to coordinate with your partner.  Without that permission and timing instruction, you go into “H” mode of not being in (shared balance) A or V coordination with your partner.  At that point, even thought you are holding hands, you are then dancing alone, not with your partner.
Theoretically, you can WCS to virtually any music, including a waltz and Brahms’ First Symphony.  But the music that works best for swing is music that abets the intrinsic motion of the dance, which initiating the footstep swing motion on the beat, then moving your center swinging back and forth at precise off-beat musical moments.
Now let’s face it folks– swing music is old.  90 years?  Rock music is old.  65 years?  Hip hop is old.  35 years?  While the 20th century saw the creation of ragtime, blues, boogie woogie, swing, rock and roll, disco, funk, and hip hop, for various reasons there has not been a new dominant pop music/ dance idiom created in a long time.  I can understand the hunger for something new, in part to give identity to the latest generation.
But no matter what you do, the fundamentals of beat have to be respected, otherwise you careen into abstract “art” that is only “art” because someone is telling you it is, otherwise you would not have any reaction to it at all.  You can only subtract just so many of the off-the-beat rhythmic pulses from a piece of music before it stops being swing music.
The old age of our current pop music idioms is inviting much experimentation.  In the process, it is very common for certain kinds of abstract art to become fashionable.   It becomes so arcane (see John Cage’s “4’33″”) that only the cognoscenti can appreciate it, and it allows one to make outsiders feel inferior, and this has enormous appeal.  There is also a market motivation to sell new music by saying the music you currently have is no good.  Also, the way music royalty payments are structured, it is more profitable to write a new song than re-do an old one.  But the real test is, does it make me want to get up and dance?
True art of any kind exposes our true deep human vulnerability, and this is frightening, but it is also delicious, as it permits the interpersonal connection we all so desperately seek.  Giving 200+ otherwise shy reserved people permission to get up and gyrate in public is a lot harder than it looks.  And this is what great dance music is.