West Coast Swing at New Canaan Country School

Last week, I taught West Coast Swing to some students at New Canaan Country School in Connecticut. I was originally contacted a month ago from our Meetup.com web page. I was flattered and honored to be contacted as an expert in West Coast Swing and local instructor.

Exposing young adults to West Coast Swing is very important. Even though West Coast Swing is an American dance, children of this country are hardly exposed to this dance (and many other partner dances) as part of their cultural upbringing. What makes West Coast Swing special is that not only is it culturally relevant from a historical perspective danced to swing and blues music of the past, but it is also relevant today since it can be danced to many of the contemporary pop and R&B songs that can be heard on the radio.

I invited Amy Garcia to assist the West Coast Swing class. I felt that she would be an excellent representation of a young adult who has become very proficient in the dance. She is also very familiar with my teaching style, class management, and sense of humor - all tools that I knew I would be needing to work with 14-17 year old students.

The Students' First West Coast Swing Class

Learning a new dance is perhaps the most intimidating thing ever...especially if you're about 15 years old. On the outside, teenagers are the perfect physical form of a human's life. They're strong, movement almost naturally looks good on them. But give them some simple instructions like, "walk, walk, cha-cha-chaa, cha-cha-chaa" and their minds fry out with the high cognitive load. Nothing makes a teenager start talking to their closest neighbor like being uncomfortable in a dance class.

As an instructor, I have seen thousands of people struggle overcome the challenge of their first dance class. Even when I teach adults, I still see some of these same nervous traits, but they are usually more subtle and subdued. Adults also tend to have a healthy fear/respect for the instructor of the class for which they paid to attend. Teenagers don't have this fear.

It took Amy and me 45 minutes to introduce the rhythm and 3 of the basic patterns of West Coast Swing. It was raw, messy, and sometimes chatty - but we got through it. Because of my years of teaching experience, I knew that our first lesson didn't have to be perfect. Sometimes, I like to sketch before I color - all the students needed to understand was the 6-count structure of the basic patterns of the Sugar Push, the Right Side Pass, and Left Side Pass. The Leaders needed to know to step back on count-1 and the Followers needed to know to walk forward on count-1. At the end of our first 45 minute session, we had the sketch of a basic West Coast Swing dance occurring. Despite some of the nervous teenage energy, they were dancing.

The Students' Second West Coast Swing Class

 Our second West Coast Swing class with the students of New Canaan Country School occurred 3 days after the first. This time I was serious. First classes are about having fun and beginning to understand the primary information about a dance. The second class is where the imprinting occurs. If I do my "job" right, magic will start to occur.

The class started with a review of the first class: The Sugar Push, the Right Side Pass, and the Left Side Pass. Even without practice, their dancing had improved (just as I expected). We were able to accomplish in 25 minutes, what it took us 45 minutes to do prior. It was at that time that they "graduated" to learning the Whip.

The 8-count Whip is perhaps the most useful and versatile move in West Coast Swing. For this reason, it enters the lesson plan before some other 6-count patterns. It also opens the students minds to accept that West Coast Swing is built upon 2 different types of basics - a 6-count and an 8-count framework.

By the end of our second lesson, the students who took our West Coast Swing class were able to dance a simple combination. Personally, I thought they did very well.

The Beauty is in the Exposure to Dance

It is impossible to think that any dancer would look proficient in a challenging dance like West Coast Swing after two 45-minute lessons. At best, it looks a little raw and feels a little awkward. But the goal wasn't to create a room of champion dancers overnight - it was to expose them to dance. Dance is an incredible social tool. It can help form bonds with people, it can help create empathy for other cultures, it can educate about history, and it can create a lifetime of love for music. West Coast Swing is one of the most amazing dances that enriches peoples lives. Its wide variety of musical genres makes it appealing to many different types of people and many different age groups. I hope some of the students who took my classes at New Canaan Country School pursue West Coast Swing further. And, I hope I was one of the teachers that inspired them.