It’s 4:30 a.m. and the beat is still pounding from the speakers next to the dance floor. I thank my current partner and make a beeline for another, and as the music starts and we begin to dance west coast swing, the wave of tired hits me. We finish the dance and I head for the table, drenched in happy sweat, to grab my backpack and room key. A few minutes later I’m passed out on the floor of the hotel room. My alarm is set for 10:30 because there is a workshop I want to hit at 11:00.
Such is the life of a West Coast Swing competition. I was introduced to West Coast my freshman year, and I’ve moonlighted as a westie ever since. People in both communities have asked what I see in the other, so this month I’d like to take a moment to talk about why I do both, and why I love them for different reasons. I’ll start with the familiar.
Competitive ballroom dancing is where I got my start in the world of dance, and I love it. The pursuit of an idealized form drives my interest in it’s infinite secrets. Not only do I need to put my foot there, I must do it with sway, drive, and the right degree of rotation. My frame must look like that. It’s exhilarating. The movement with a committed partner is huge, and the opportunity to pursue the limits of shape, arm styling, and connection only come from having a deep bond with your competitive partner, something that is developed over weeks and months. I am also, surprise-surprise, quite competitive by nature. I love testing my mettle against others in front of the judges.
West Coast Swing appeals to me for different, but complimentary reasons. The social aspect is incredibly strong, with dancing focused on building connection skills that are transferrable to any partner that one might encounter in social dancing. By specializing in one form and adapting it to many styles of music, this dance engenders incredible depth in its variety and variations of movement. What’s more, the focus is on spontaneous interpretation and creation in partnership, not the long, thought out amalgamations and lines of a ballroom routine. This comes together with lyrical, inventive music to form a dance that is as much a conversation as it is a performative dance. Through the course of a dance with a stranger I may or may not learn their name, but I certainly learn something about the way their human form moves.
All of this is not to say that the qualities of one are not found in the other. There is certainly spontaneity and sociality in competitive ballroom, just as there is structured movement and technique in West Coast. Still, it is the different emphasis placed on these qualities that make the two areas so interesting for me to explore. That social, inventive nature is what allows me to dance West Coast into the wee hours of the morning, and the competitive drive and distinct technique of ballroom keeps me grinding away in practice week after week.
Ultimately, I am happy to be a part of both communities, and I look forward to dancing both styles. Lessons from one, inevitably help me in the other. Be it for ballroom or West Coast, I look forward to seeing you out on the floor!