Choose Your Own Adventure

When we learn patterns, we learn them from start to finish. We’re shown the beginning, the middle, and the end and how they flow together. We learn them with a set rhythm, a set timing, a set progression.

And that’s the problem. Patterns are taught as whole units with a prescribed beginning, middle, and end. Once a leader starts, he moves towards the end that he was taught follows the beginning. And followers in the same class also develop the same expectation, which is only reinforced when the leader does as he was taught. In this way, both leaders and followers become what we call “pattern dancers.”

And so we usually know the end when we get started. As a result, we lose a sense of spontaneity and we take away creative opportunities – opportunities to engage with our partners and to respond to the music. If both partners know the set pattern, it’s all too easy to disengage from your partner and just go through the motions. After all, you don’t need their guidance or assistance because you already know the end of the story. And of course set patterns may or may not fit the music well, but if the partners aren’t open to new endings, then they each take away the chance to adapt to what they’re hearing.

I don’t often teach patterns anymore, but when I do, I try to teach at least two or three similar “patterns” but each with some unique variation. (Think of whip variations.) It helps the leaders to disconnect beginnings from ends and see that each is an element that can be pieced together in different ways. It also tests their ability to lead – both in terms of thinking on their feet as well as seeing the options and executing clearly. For followers, they are programmed to pay attention, expect the unexpected, to not know the ending, and therefore to be open to more possibilities. This makes them stronger followers and better partners.

For me, much of the joy of West Coast Swing is in the spontaneous creation between the partners with the music, but to have this we need to break down patterns into elements of movement and to be open to piecing them together in different ways. That way together we get to choose our own adventure as we go along.

How have you been taught patterns and how has it affected your dancing? Do you notice pattern dancers while you’re dancing, either in yourself or your partners? Teachers, do you pay attention to how the way you teach patterns affects your students’ dancing? Do you have methods to help avoid training them to become pattern dancers?

One comment

  1. Like most WC swing dancers, I was taught where and when to move my feet in patterns. As a more natural leader, learning to WAIT for the lead, and FOLLOW (and not anticipate!) was a big challenge for me, and something I worked at for years. (I still catch myself anticipating once in a while!)Now, in my desire to have dance be an expression of what I'm hearing in the music – and, most importantly, to have the dancing partnership be a conversation about the music – I find that patterns can be limiting.When a leader has a good sense of a song and creative ideas of how to move to the music, it can be quite enjoyable to relax and share in his ideas about, and expression of, the music. Without musicality, patterns feel confining.

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