One of my teachers, mentors, and good friends wrote the following essay and it struck such a chord with me. So many of my students ask (some during class) why am I teaching the pattern “this way” when everyone would get the results quicker by just showing the steps. John Festa is a world champion in swing back when a routine song was often twice the speed of what we dance now. He was notorious for fancy and fast footwork even at those blistering speeds. Please take the time to read his brief essay on the essence of swing and see swing through the eyes of someone who “gets it” on a level that we could only hope to see inperson let alone reproduce.
essence:(noun) the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character.
Every dance that has evolved has done so because of a specific characteristic in music. Mambo for its clave, waltz for its 3/4 time, hustle for the driving beat, swing for the syncopated rhythm and so on. Their movements are a response to something very particular and distinct in the music. The omnipresent debate over whether the music we dance to swings or not continues ad infinitum.
We no longer dance exclusively to blues and R&B with a syncopated back beat. We now dance to pop, hip-hop, ballads, latin, smooth/not so smooth jazz, Rock ‘n Roll, top 40, alternative, new wave, urban r&b and on and on. The only musical requirement is that the music be in 4/4 time. We will dance to the sound of windshield wipers. The pros and cons have been enumerated endlessly: the dance has evolved. We are not swinging. A modern sound will bring the young people in, ect. We sold our souls years ago. Where are the young people? But this essay is not about the modern musical diversity in WCS. This essay is about the physicality of today’s dance.
What is its essence? One would be hard pressed to name the one quality that determines its character. Ask 5 WCS teachers to define our dance and you will get as many different answers. In my mind, the one quality that that makes swing swing is the center to center connection and elasticity of tention and release between two moving bodies. That a leader can anchor and the follower sit into that anchor while both expressing rhythm, only to realease all that stored energy, is one of the most glorious of all kinetic actions. I portend this is lost. As I travel around the country and dance with many different people I become more and more aware of this.
There are 2 or more generations of dancers that have never experienced this. Few Teachers teach this. It is the highest order to do so. It is one of the most difficult feelings to teach. It is intangible. Like trying to teach riding a bicycle. Words are useless until you feel it. Then all the words make perfect sense. It is much easier to teach “put your right foot her on 2, hand here on 3. Plus there are teachers that have never experienced this feeling/movement themselves. But I say this is the essence of swing. And I say this is gone from our dance. West Coast Swing today has no essence, no single indispensable characteristic that defines it and delineates it from what is not WCS.
Perhaps todays WCS lives in competition, but thats another essay. It is a distinct possibility that the divergent music has lead to this end. We used to dance to faster syncopated tempi. At these tempi, an astute connection between partners was essential. The dance would not work without it. The Laws of Physics are perfect. Dancing to 80 beats per week does not require this connection. When we WCS dancers, years back, began dancing to “other than” music, we brought with us that connection that was engrained. It was in our bodies. We were swinging to non-swing music even at slow tempi. Because thats how we danced. Now, a few generations later, where students are taught by teachers, themselves from one generation prior, who learned to dance to slower or groove music…how will anyone learn this swing connection? It is not essential at these tempi or to these sounds. Physics does not require it. Nothing has replaced it. Our dance has become amorphous.
My recent experiences lead me to believe that many dancers feel this loss. I am one of them. Projection? Perhaps. But as I play music across the country I hear plenty to support this theory. I in no way mean to point fingers or position blame It is just time to call a spade a spade. I enjoyed and helped pioneer the diversity of sounds years back and loved dancing to slower groovy and basically “other than” music. But I feel our dance has, as an art form, explored different options, traveled down a few roads and the original plan was the best. That which can deliver the essence of swing.
Perhaps simply everything old is new again and this is the freshest sound. I do not forsee us dancing to the tempi of the mid 90’s during the white hot phase of WCS. but I think a more traditional sound will again garner respect and be added to today’s mix of music. I, for one, could not be happier. I signed on for swing dancing for its gloriousness in feeling, in sound, in purity, and love.
I was so happy to come across this essay and re-affirm my goals when it comes to my classes, students, and own personal development in swing. My Passion renewed I am bringing connection back to the basics in these 2 intensives:
Black Light Ball Beginner Swing Intensive
Friday, August 24, 2012
DNE School of Dance
78 Princeton St
N. Chelmsford, MA
Pizza, Lesson, and Dancing included
Beginner Swing and Live Band Country Dancing
Saturday, August 25, 2012
7-9:30 at Queen City
9:45-12:30am at Midnight Rodeo Bar
Pizza, Lesson, Dancing, admission into MRB