A Dance That Won’t Stay Put

Posted on 2011 December 15

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The lovely, talented, vibrant, and outspoken Katherine Krok Eastvold has blogged recently about the decline of classic West Coast Swing, the state dance of California and one of the legendary dance styles of the Jazz Age. Katherine (or KKE, as she puts it) has excoriated judges and contestants at West Coast Swing competitions for allowing the dance to morph into an unrecognizable mush. She’s especially exercised about people she terms “nissies”, whose pushy narcissism on the dance floor may have worsened the situation.

In one blog, KKE posted links to classic West Coast Swing competition routines from 1995, videos she believes exemplify authentic Westies: here’s one, and here’s the other. KKE suggests that true West Coast loyalists will prefer this style of dance. “But a few,” she warns, “will want their slow grinding, ‘check out’ not ‘check in’ dancing and their boom boom or strum strum music.”

Basically, KKE is a dance conservative. This can be a good thing: conservatives help us to remember what we’ve gained, alert us when we’re tempted to throw away valuable stuff, and hold us to certain standards. Her complaint, in essence, is twofold: (1) recent West Coast Swing competitions use choreographies that emphasize the “abstract” (read: “whatever you fee like”) instead of respecting the dance’s basic essentials; and (2) real West Coast styling reached an apex in the mid-1990s and has deteriorated since then. I think she’s got a hit and a miss. I’ll explain.

First, a little history: Swing dance evolved out of the explosive 1920s Harlem nightclub scene, especially at a joint called the Savoy Ballroom. Here, dancers developed Lindy Hop and East Coast Swing, soon known to the public simply as “Swing” or, sometimes, “Jitterbug”. Related styles soon followed, including Balboa and Shag.

A young and ambitious dancer, Dean Collins, earned his chops at the Savoy, then moved to Hollywood, where he plied his trade as a choreographer for dozens of movies. His version of Lindy — slowed down, smoothed out, channeled into a “slot”, and performed to the latest pop music — was easy to film, and before long it was a popular dance style at California night spots, where the name “West Coast Swing” eventually caught on.

As musical tastes changed and rock ‘n’ roll vaulted to the top of the charts, dancing became more free-form, and Swing faded from the social whirl. Still, diehards kept the West Coast Swing tradition alive, even joining up with the Hustle craze in the 1970s. (The two dances have similar tempos, and for a time they shared Disco music, so they were natural allies.)

It’s essential to point out that, by tradition, West Coast is danced to pop music. Other Swing dances, especially Lindy and East Coast, are generally done to classic Big Band jazz; their forms have remained largely unaltered despite the decades. But the sounds and rhythms of pop music have changed greatly, and West Coast styling has adapted to those changes. Dean Collins himself grew to detest West Coast: “It’s an abomination to the dance floor,” he groused, disowning the very dance he invented. Perhaps it had something to do with the ascent of rock ‘n’ roll, which most old-school Jazz enthusiasts hated.

The 1990s saw a renewal of interest in all forms of Swing, and West Coast Swing benefitted. KKE entered the Westies scene at that point, and it’s this “Renaissance” moment she prefers.

But time marches on, and two things have impinged on the burgeoning West Coast world to alter it. One is the everchanging voice of pop music, to which West Coast always responds; the other is the explosion of dance shows on national TV.

“So You Think You Can Dance,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and other network programs have greatly revived the public’s interest in dancing. Many styles, including ballroom (like Rumba and Foxtrot) and nightclub (like Swing and Hustle), have been featured. However, Hollywood is notorious for making up stories about reality: just as it’s foolish to expect historical accuracy from a movie, it’s unwise to expect TV dance choreographies to reflect authentic dance styles. Instead, the steps are designed to garner the biggest ratings; show producers lose no sleep over inaccuracies that crop up during rehearsals. The more glorious, the better, and the Devil take the syllabus.

The effect, among the untutored public, is a false expectation about how the real dances are done. New contestants enter the arena dreaming of dancing like their heroes of the TV screen. There’s a basic conflict, then, between what they want to achieve and what’s known to be authentic. And this is where KKE lands critical punches like a prizefighter, scoring against the fakery of “abstract” styles in Swing competitions, dealing blows to the exotic imports — Zouk, Tango, Salsa — that have invaded West Coast competition routines. Without voices like hers, West Coast Swing might devolve into West Coast Abstract or Zouk Coast Tango.

Luckily, these trends haven’t had a major impact on recreational dance floors — at least at Southern California venues like the Hacienda, Sonny Watson’s, etc. — where the very vacuity of “abstract” styling makes it hard to incorporate into casual dancing. The other recent influence, however, has influenced Westies, and there’s not much I or KKE or anybody can do about it. The music has changed. And, with it, so has West Coast Swing.

If you click on those dance-video links, above, you’ll see terrific dancers doing rather fast-tempo Westies to music from the ’70s and ’80s, when rock and pop music had much bouncier beats. Today — influenced by the slower, grander rhythms of alternative rock and the heavy drone of Hip Hop — pop music has shifted into a smoother style with (how shall we put this?) a serving of suave, a pinch of the proud, and a touch of the lascivious. Toes point more, a la Salsa; shoulders sometimes roll and shimmy, like Zydeco. It’s the relentless, pulsing beat of modern pop music that has led to this reshaping of West Coast Swing.

The only way back is to stop playing the latest hits by Lady Gaga and Usher and Katy Perry and Ne-Yo. But that would eviscerate one of the chief strengths of West Coast, which is its ability to welcome the next generation’s music. Removing recent Top-40 tunes from Westies playlists would chase away young dancers who’ve lately flocked to the scene, and who have — at least on the recreational floor — managed to do hold onto the heritage while adding style points that match the new songs.

I got involved with West Coast in 2003, and I loved how its style had adjusted to match the current music hits. It made for one of the most beautiful and satisfying dances I’d ever tried — and I’d spent decades dancing professionally. I’m by no means an expert Westies dancer, and I’m not involved in the world of competitive dancing. And much of what I happen to love about modern West Coast is the same “boom boom” music KKE seems to deplore. But I’m well aware that time is short, that pop music will change, and West Coast will move along with it, perhaps to wander away from my own tastes. I can’t hold back that tide, so I’ll just surf it until it’s no fun anymore.

To sum up: KKE has a point about the degradation of West Coast Swing in competitions, though her chief enemy is more likely network TV than nissies. And I understand her wish that Westies return to what they were when she found them, back in the 1990s. But the tune helps make the dance, and nothing can slow the ever-shifting world of pop music . . . and, with it, the changing soul of West Coast Swing.

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UPDATE: In her 2012 January 30 email “Katherine’s Dance Word: Weekly Note #14”, Ms. Eastvold says: “I know people like to say that the real reason swing isn’t swing anymore, is because the music has changed. It’s such a narrow minded view of things. Oh, it [sic] certainly a problem, but switching back won’t solve everything. It’ll help, but is it the sole solution? No.” (So she does wish for the older music!) Eastvold continues with examples of how some studios lately avoid older teachers in favor of “Abstract” instructors whose steps aren’t “impossible” to learn. (Read: “Too hard for us lazy people.”) And that is a problem: Abstract styling is now being force-fed to social dancers. A dance that’s difficult, but rewards patience, may evolve into something blah.

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