Learning Both Roles in West Coast Swing

– posted by Maria Ford

Some dances are “mirrored” dances. That is, an instructor can stand with followers in front of him/her and leaders behind him her, and everyone can learn the footwork together. The instructor demonstrates the leader’s footwork and the followers mirror it. For the same reason, students of these dances are often encouraged to learn both roles nearly from the beginning.

In street dances like West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing, Salsa/Mambo, Hustle, etc., there are few if any mirrored patterns. (In WCS, only the Sugar Push is mirrored, so it’s not surprising that pattern is taught as “The Basic” in ballroom studios).

Thus, in West Coast Swing we typically learn one role of the dance before the other, and in some cases never learn the other role.

Benefits of Knowing Both Roles

West Coast Swing is a “Double-Axis” dance — that is, the partners do not share an axis as they do in, say, Waltz but instead each maintain their own axis. As such, each role is quite unique. Even a basic side pass is completely different for each partner. So, it’s really not possible to appreciate the other partner’s role without trying to learn it in earnest. It’s also not possible to truly understand the whole dance if you know only one role.

These are the benefits I have personally experienced by learning both roles:

  • Better overall understanding of the dance. When you understand what your partner is trying to accomplish, it becomes much more apparent how the partners affect each other’s ability to execute the dance.
  • Much improved connection. Particularly in WCS, where individual style and “play” are encouraged and even expected, understanding how that movement affects the other partner is gold.
  • Better conversation skills. The more you appreciate the role of the other partner, the better you’ll be at understanding what they are trying to communicate during a dance.

Learning vs. Dancing Both Roles

From personal experience and from talking to others who learn both roles, I can say that there is a big difference between “Learning” the other role and actually “Dancing” it.

Learning comes easier and faster — it’s not all that difficult to learn a pattern, which is what you must first do when you decide to learn the other role. Actually dancing in the opposite role comes later, and for some it may not come at all. It was a good few years between my being capable of leading WCS and my actually BEING a leader — that is, thinking like a leader (which is completely different from thinking like a follower), and ENJOYING the other role.

I began Learning the other role because I didn’t want to teach anything I couldn’t do. Now I also DANCE as a leader because I enjoy it. I don’t enjoy it as much as following and probably never will, but it’s truly a different mindset that I’m in now. I’m on a similar path in Hustle now — having committed to regularly practicing the Leader role, I’m slowly beginning to actually dance Hustle as a leader (not just “know” the other role).

The video above shows David and me dancing opposite roles in an Invitational Strictly Swing Competition that we won last year in Montreal. 

Getting Started: West Coast Swing Foundations Group Classes

At Smoothstyle’s weekly event, Ottawa’s Weekly West Coast Swing Event, students are encouraged to repeat the West Coast Swing Foundations class numerous times, and to eventually take it in the “other” role. Taking a group class in the “other” role is probably the best way to start. I invite you to do so with Smoothstyle.