Words, words, words: “delayed weight transfer”

Words matter. The language we use to teach and talk about West Coast Swing influences the way we understand it and the way we dance it. This series will look at some of the terms we use in our community, with the aim of clarifying them for greater understanding and learning.

How we transfer our weight in dancing is everything. It affects our balance, our aesthetic, our timing, and our connection. And the more control we have over our weight transfers, the more we can do as dancers. After all, dance is movement, and movement is dependent on how we hold ourselves and transfer our weight through space. 

When we talk about transferring weight, we’re talking about how we send and receive our weight from one foot to the other. In West Coast Swing, we transfer weight much like how we walk. For as long as I’ve been dancing this dance, we’ve talked about “rolling through the feet” – moving our weight from one part of the foot to the other (i.e., toe to heel or heel to toe) with clear articulation. This was partly for the aesthetics of our footwork but more importantly to maintain smooth, fluid, and continuous movement as we transfer weight. The idea is that we should not be stepping flatfooted and transferring all of our weight at once, but rather gradually transferring weight as we move from one foot to the other. (Rolling count, for those of you familiar with it, was designed to help us pay attention to continually moving through the beat.)

In the last couple of years, a new term for this has become very popular – delayed weight transfer – but I find this term somewhat problematic, mainly because of the qualifier “delayed.”

Technically, the dictionary definition of delay is “the act of postponing, hindering, or causing something to occur more slowly than normal.” This last part of the definition – causing something to occur more slowly – is closest to what we want to imply when we call our weight transfers “delayed.”

Unfortunately, our vernacular use of the word delayed is more aligned with the first part, postponing… or simply being late. When we speak of something being delayed, we are saying it is late. For instance, if someone is delayed, they will arrive late. If a train or plane is delayed, it will not arrive (or leave) on time. If a meeting is delayed, it is starting late. If we delay a conversation, it means we have decided to postpone it for another time. Something may be delayed because it is slow, but colloquially, being slow and being delayed are two different things: something may be delayed without being slow and something may be slow without being delayed.

When we use a term like “delayed with students, we need to understand that they already have a meaning assigned to that word, and that meaning is likely “to be late.” This can be troublesome in a dance where timing is so important and yet so often it is a challenge. I mean, isn’t it ironic to tell students to be late with their weight transfers when we work so hard to get them to be on time?

I don’t hear it very often anymore, but we do use the word delayed with another term in our dance: “delayed double.” The more commonly used term is “kick-ball-change” but “delayed double” describes the rhythm while “kick-ball-change” describes the movement we may do to that rhythm. And what does “delayed” mean in that context? That’s right, it means to start late: in a delayed double, we don’t start our double rhythm on the downbeat but rather we hold on the downbeat and start our first weight transfer later than normal. In this context, “delayed” means late, not slow.

When we speak of a “delayed weight transfer,” we mean a slow, gradual, controlled weight transfer, but the weight transfer should begin on time. I like the way Brandi Guild talks about weight transfers, focusing on the rate of weight transfer. As she describes it, at the strike of the beat, you don’t commit all of your weight but rather a small percentage of your weight, and then through the rest of the beat you slowly transfer your weight, completing your weight transfer just before you begin transferring to the other foot at the strike of the next beat. We don’t delay our weight transfer in the sense that we start late, but rather we begin on time and control the rate of weight transfer with the beat. If anything, we delay the end of the weight transfer, but we are not delaying the start of it.

On a few occasions, I have worked with some people who interpret “delayed weight transfer” to mean they put the foot out first and then start transferring their weight after the strike of the beat. This can lead to being late or off time and a heavy or sluggish connection. This isn’t to say there aren’t times where this may or should be done, but generally speaking we should be starting our weight transfer on the strike of the beat (or behind the beat – another topic for another day) and then gradually controlling our rate of weight transfer through the beat.

The trouble with using the term “delayed weight transfer” is that we have to retrain students’ definition of the word “delayed” to mean “slow” and not “late.” It’s not that the term isn’t correct or accurate, but that we may have to overwrite the student’s understanding of the word – and distinguish it from other meanings of the same word (as in “delayed double”). This redefinition of a word can take a lot of effort on the part of both the teacher and the student, and do we really want to make learning this dance harder than it already is?

Personally, I don’t use the term “delayed weight transfer” in my classes, but I teach the same technique of controlling the rate of weight transfer. I refer to it as a gradual or controlled weight transfer, emphasizing that weight should be continuously transferred through the beat, not starting or finishing early. To help students control the rate of weight transfer on whole counts, I will sometimes count with quicks and slows, much to the same effect as it is used in ballroom dancing (e.g. a triple would be counted as quick-quick-slow). The goal is always the same: be on time, but control your weight transfer.

What do you think? Have you ever heard the term “delayed weight transfer” and how did you interpret its meaning? Did you find it challenging to learn or did the terminology make it easier for you? Teachers, do you use the term “delayed weight transfer” in your instruction? How do you get your students to control their weight transfers while reinforcing proper timing?

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