With all the hubbub about where this dance is heading and what has happened to west coast swing, I can’t help but ponder a bit on the topic. Given the intensity of the discussions recently, I thought I’d actually attempt an explanation, of sorts.
Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am opinionated and will gladly debate any number of topics. They also know those very few topics that I am most passionate about, with this being one. Allow me to offer a bit of background on how swing and I came to meet.
My mother figuratively (if not literally) grabbed me by the ear one day when I was 15 and announced that it was time for me to learn to dance. “All men should know how to dance.” Given that we are from Texas, that training naturally started off in country and western where I learned 2-step, polka, schottische, and jitterbug. Since we happened to live in a small town with a large Latin American population, that introduction was extended to include cumbia and waltz (I know many will wonder why I put waltz with cumbia – it is because I never once heard or danced to a waltz when at a C&W dance – only at quinces, and that is where I was taught the dance, as well). While fun, none of it really stuck. The music didn’t really interest me and I wasn’t much for the C&W dances that I could go to, nor where there that many quinces for me to attend. Needless to say, I remember very little of what I was taught.
I remember my mother dragging me to her dance practice once, where they immediately drafted me for a team/exhibition thing they were doing. I enjoyed the attention of all the women and did my best to learn what I was being taught. This led to my learning the Houston Whip. I asked my mom if I could take lessons in whip and she agreed to take me with her. I started attending the Southwest Whip Club’s Wednesday classes at the Melody Club (then called Al Mark’s Melody Lane Ballroom). I instantly fell in love with the music and have been pretty much hooked since.
My first introduction to competition was a Saturday Jack-n-Jill at The Rusty Bucket. This was after I’d been dancing for about 2 months. I was paired up with a pretty blonde lady, and proceeded to not have a single clue what was going on. Seems like anything I led went wrong. There was no connection, at least not what I had been taught. There was no hip sway, no advanced triple, no ladies hook step. To this day, I still don’t know who she was. I just remember sitting back down with my mom and asking her, “What’d I do wrong? She didn’t do anything I tried to lead.” That was my introduction to “different” styles.
I know now that my mom was being polite. The woman I danced with had been taught wrong. She learned at a studio that produced students that could only dance with other students from that studio. They couldn’t go out on Saturday night and dance with the rest of the whippers. What I took from that experience is that I never again wanted to feel that way when I danced with someone. I never again wanted to question, “Why can’t I dance with this person?”. I made it my personal mission to be able to lead anyone, regardless of region or style, so long as it was swing (I feel I’ve come a long way toward that goal). I have since danced with many, many followers whose styles were neither whip (in the early years) nor west coast swing (in recent years), but included shag, hand dance, lindy, east coast, bop, jive, push, savoy, hollywood, and imperial (to name some of those I think I recognized).
I have spent innumerable hours over the last 25 years dancing, watching, competing, teaching and learning all about this dance. I have watched the styles change. I have heard the music change. I have seen the dance grow. I have seen many, many people come and go. I now count my primary styles of dance as 2. They are west coast swing and slow whip. My wife and I teach a weekly class as well as actively compete in west coast swing. We teach workshops in west coast swing and slow whip. I also DJ for our dances and at a few events. I consider myself a dancer, teacher, competitor and DJ. But most importantly, I consider myself a swing dancer.
Which brings us to the question of what is this dance? I’ll give my opinion on that later.