How To Develop Style & Musicality in West Coast Swing

Everyone wants to LOOK GREAT and EXPRESS MUSICALITY when they dance. That’s likely what attracts us to a dance in the first place – we see something we think is beautiful, cool, sexy, romantic, or fun and we want to experience it in our own bodies.

Musicality keeps us INSPIRED – it’s exciting to watch good dancers show us something in the music that we didn’t realize was there.

We wonder, what is the path to being stylish and musical in a dance? Many students seek out styling and musicality classes to unearth the secrets.

But the secrets don’t live in learning styling, and that’s why I don’t teach Styling Classes. I’ve got a different approach.

Styling and Musicality are Different Things

First, I’d like to distinguish between the concepts of Styling and Musicality.

Styling, or Style, is a dancer’s unique quality of movement expressed within a dance. Footwork, body movement, embellishments with the arms or hair all fit into the category of Styling. Shines in salsa/mambo are obvious expressions of an individual dancer’s unique style. Arm styling is a trademark of Hustle. Footwork is a hallmark of Carolina Shag. In West Coast Swing, it’s all about elasticity and fluidity.

Simply the way one moves one’s body through a dance is Style, too. It can take some time to develop or fully understand your unique style. For me, I’ve settled on powerful, classy, and rhythmic. I want to express that style in any dance I do.

Musicality is a dancer’s unique expression of the music within a dance. This is about how one HEARS the music; where and when one chooses to APPLY styling to accentuate what they hear. Some examples of Musicality are using movement to interpret a lyric, or “hit” an instrumental embellishment, or mark a “break”, or match a phrase change.

It’s necessary to distinguish between Styling and Musicality because they require different skill sets and different pathways to develop.

How Style Develops

Style develops over time, on three pillars:

  1. Technique: to free the body to move in unique ways and to explore movement outside the “basics” of a dance, a dancer must develop strong balance, timing, and connection.
  2. Intention: to develop specific, desired movement habits, a dancer must direct their attention to the desired goal.
  3. Repetition: for styling to become natural, it must be repeated and practiced often enough that it is an integral part of one’s dance.

The mistake I see most students make is focusing on number 2 and 3 before mastering number 1, technique. It’s my firm belief that style will develop NATURALLY the better your technique becomes and the more comfortable you become in moving through a dance.

Styling is a higher-order skill set that requires a solid foundation to work. A leg flare isn’t stylish if the dancer is off-balance, sickle-foot, or otherwise out of control of their movement. Arm accents aren’t stylish if the dancer doesn’t understand extension. Footwork isn’t stylish without mastery of foot positions.

No, excellent technique is not necessary to develop personal style – everyone has their own style of movement. But without technical mastery, style is accidental. With technical excellence comes the power to look and create what you desire, not merely what you’re capable of.

Trust that, if you devote time and attention to becoming an excellent DANCER, your style will emerge naturally, and it will look amazing.

A good coach/instructor will be able to show you how to improve your technique and will be able to observe and reflect to you the natural strengths in your movement, which can be crafted into intentional style.

How Musicality Develops

Musicality also develops and deepens overtime, based on four pillars:

  1. Good timing
  2. Understanding of musical structure
  3. Mastery of movement
  4. Presence of mind

To be musical, you must train the ear as well as the body – and not at the same time. If your mind is focused on executing technique or patterns, it’s not available to express musicality.

  • You need to hear the beat or rhythms AND coordinate body movement to match.
  • You need to understand the structure of a song AND coordinate (leaders) or influence (followers) the structure of the dance to match.
  • You need to become an intentional mover AND match your movement to what you hear and wish to draw out in the music.
  • You must have great timing, mastery of music, and movement AND express it during a dance – that’s presence (I’m still working on it)!

As you become comfortable with the structure and technique of a dance, and grow into your own style, musicality will emerge as you apply style to create greater musicality.

The Problem with Styling Classes

Styling Classes are like drugs: a quick fix that can feel very satisfying in the moment but do nothing to build the foundation that is the basis of NATURAL STYLE.

Styling Classes provide an artificial environment – such as choreography – to efficiently teach the concepts and movements. It’s very difficult to replicate this “in the wild” or even in practice sessions.

For those students who are trying to work on styling, I generally need to revisit basic technique (like balance, weight transfer, timing, pitch, or connection) to help them execute the styling attractively and without disrupting the dance/connection.

Styling Classes ARE great for some things, though. They can:

  • Reveal what basic technique is broken, because it will become evident when the student attempts to execute the taught styling.
  • Enlighten a dancer from one style about the unique stylistic qualities of a different dance style.
  • Give more experienced dancers insight into how other dancers interpret movement – that can be inspiring!
  • Push you outside your comfort zone of movement and educate you about what your style is and is not. (I once had a “Tatiana Moment” – in an Advanced workshop with Jordan & Tatiana, I successfully executed a Tatiana “trick” styling and had a transformative moment in which I understood deeply what makes Tat Tat … and simultaneously why I should never try to be like her!)
  • Help identify limitations and habits that may be blocking your ability to achieve the look you desire.
  • Give you new movements and drills to take home and practice to integrate into your own unique style.

Fast-Track Your Ability to Style and Express the Music

As you’ve probably guessed by now, my approach to “teaching” style and musicality is to get the technical foundation solid. Quality of movement trumps manufactured style any time.

These are things I do to help students advance their style and musicality:

  • Technique and practice. We focus on one thing at a time, moving “up the value chain” to build a strong foundation of ability.
  • Every regular student of mine has an inventory of videos of their dancing, which we watch, analyze, and use to plan and track development.
  • Before having a student try to express musicality in the dance, I teach musical structure, song mapping, and get them listening to music proactively and analytically. There are numerous exercises and drills to improve one’s ability to “hear” and respond to music.
  • Insist on regular social dancing, because you can’t get better at a movement art without moving, a lot. Social dancing provides a variety of opportunities to improve nearly every element of one’s dance, style, and musicality – you just need a few strategies to do so.
  • Direct students to watch professionals and champions who have a compatible style or aesthetic to the student’s natural tendencies.

One of the joys of dancing is the opportunity to explore oneself – personality, expression, ability, habits – in a very embodied way. The benefits are worth the time and effort!

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