Anatomy of a Phrased West Coast Swing Dance
~ by Maria
At a recent West Coast Swing Musicality workshop weekend in Ottawa that I hosted with guest instructor, PJ Fritzler, we provided a phrased approach to putting the structure of music into our bodies, and then into our partnerships. Phrasing is not the only way to be musical in dancing, but it’s a foundational skill for musicality. And even if phrasing a dance is the ONLY musicality you express it offers many benefits, such as:
- Ensures that the dance itself reflects the structure of the song being dance to
- Helps partners quickly “get on the same page”
- Is a method to adjust quickly to a song you are unfamiliar with
- Helps creative people (like Maria) to organize their ideas so that their choices are more meaningful and more easily understood by the partner
- Helps analytical people (like PJ) to structure the dance for best creative expression and give more creative partners the satisfaction of musical dancing and a musical partnership
At the end of the weekend, PJ and I did a demonstration dance to a perfectly phrased song (no unusual bridges, just verse after verse of predictable 32-beat sections). Our dance demonstrates one basic (although not necessarily simple) way of being musical in West Coast Swing: phrasing the dance to mark the minor and major phrase changes in the music.
Here’s the video, followed by a written musical breakdown of the phrasing of our dance. I hope it helps on your WCS Musicality journey!
Below, each verse/chorus of the dance shown in that video is broken down into 8-beat sections (verses & choruses). You may observe things that I’ve missed, but these are the broad-stroke elements that I think are important to understanding the “phrasing” musicality demonstrated.
16 beats – Warming up to the song and to each other. During the last 4 beats of the Intro phrase, PJ keeps the connection open and both PJ & Maria style to accent the build-up to the first major phrase change.
1. Starts with a walk-walk on the 1,2, which is always a satisfying start to a WCS dance
2. PJ leads rotation for the entrance into the MINOR phrase change & marks the next “1” with his own styling. This shows Maria that he understands the music and she can relax knowing he probably won’t miss anything important.
4. PJ leads rotation for the entrance to major phrase change as well – Maria adds to it…
1. … Maria marks the major “1” with a deceleration+head whip+level change; PJ allows her to hang out there for 4 beats, grooves with her; starts new pattern on 5
2. PJ leads open entrance to minor phrase change for Maria to style through, Maria uses repetitive side-step footwork with hip and upper body movement, while PJ also does footwork to mark the minor phrase transition
4. PJ leads into a tandem pose, both add repetitive styling ramping up into the major phrase change
1. PJ leads a rotation to mark the start of the new verse
2. Tandem repetitive grooving again to move into the minor phrase change, Maria adds styling through upper body movement (head, arms) and a level change on the 13, 14, 15, 16
4. PJ sets up to lead an outside rotation but Maria STEALS it! and creates a direction change, shape change, and some footwork going into the major phrase change. PJ adjusts and allows the connection to stretch, then leads a tandem rotation to mark the 1. Both further mark the 1 with independent rondée leg styling.
CHORUS/ VERSE 4
*The phrase change between a Verse and a Chorus usually has the most emphasis in the music, so it’s a great place to get creative. The chorus also usually contains the song title, which often lends itself to acting out the lyrics.
1. Both do some lyrical “telephone” acting on “someone please call 911”
2. PJ rotates himself and faces audience for more drama on the minor phrase change
4. PJ leads rotation to ramp up to major phrase change
CHORUS/ VERSE 5
1. PJ reverses the rotation into a catch to mark the new phrase
2. PJ leads an open tuck for Maria, she changes the slot direction going into the minor phrase change
4. PJ leads rotation into a dip to mark the major phrase change
1. Big dip on the 1!
2. Maria adds a bit of legwork on the 13, 14, 15, 16; PJ also adds a leg styling
3. …Maria continues the leg play through the minor phrase change
4. PJ leads tandem play to enter the major phrase change & sets up the 1…
1. PJ leads a “sunshine sugar push” using arms to emphasize the major phrase change
2. Maria adds quite a bit of energy/drama on this set of 8; PJ leads rotation to mark the minor phrase change
4. PJ finishes with a pose on this phrase change, as DJ fades music
Wanna see another? Check out one of the dance’s musical greats, Mario Robau Jr., dancing a social (unchoreographed) WCS dance with Deborah Szekely. He also phrases his pattern choices to hit the major phrase changes. I LOVE watching this dance!