If you’re going to learn one style of popular partner dancing, east-coast swing is surely the most versatile. You can use it for dancing to swing and big band music but also for boogeying to blues, Western swing, and rockabilly. There’s a wonderful community around this kind of dancing, and it’s simple enough that you can easily teach it to a partner in a matter of a single song.
But to get this Swiss Army Knife of dancing skills, you’re going to have to do a bit of work and get some experience on the dancefloor. Here are a few of the things I wish I knew earlier on that would have helped me:
1. Establish your minimum viable dance. Know your six-count swing steps and get a feel for the beat of a song before anything else. That is your safety zone and the minimum viable dance you can take a partner through. Most swing songs are only a few minutes, and the basic step will sustain you. If you ever do get fancy and then make a mistake, you’ll know what you can fall back to.
2. Play along. In my intermediate dancing lesson (yes, that’s right – *intermediate* – it’s kind of a big deal), I learned a valuable insight about learning from my partner ways to enliven a dance. Watch what your partner is doing and try to play it back to them. This is conversational dancing: if your partner decides to do a wobble-step, you do a wobble-step right back. If your partner decides to do a twist, do a twist.
3. Mix things up. Make your dancing more variable by adding little flourishes. These can include the ones mentioned in #2, little hops, promenades, multi-step spins, jazz hands, and more. If you can move just about any body part (with confidence and swagger) to the beat of a swing song, you could probably make it work. These flourishes help you to loosen up, and they give your partner permission to do the same.
4. Lead well. You can often be so focused on getting the steps right yourself that you fail to provide clear leadership to your partner (or you do something really embarrassing, like spinning them into another couple). You will be able to provide better leadership through better signalling of where you’re taking your partner. For this, I like a two hand connection, so consider starting with that. Especially if your partner is new to swing dancing, you’re going to have to really work to set the beat and get them to move to it.
5. Get to know your partner, and give them a good time. One of the best parts of social dancing is the opportunity to meet lots of fun, outgoing, and sometimes attractive partners in a short amount of time. It’s like a big speed-dating event. Don’t be so focused on getting things right that you fail to get to know and to delight your dance partner. A fair number of people at swing dances are fairly new to dancing. They aren’t going to remember the small dancing mistakes you make, but they will remember whether you made them laugh, expressed interest in them, or had good conversation.