Some time ago, we had a new DJ at one of our weekly West Coast Swing socials. At a café afterwards, they asked the other staff and DJs: “What makes a song a good West Coast Swing Song? I understand too slow or too fast, but I can’t tell why some rhythms work and some don’t”. Surprisingly, none of us could articulate what makes a West Coast Swing song beyond “I know it when I hear it”. Well and truly nerd-sniped, I went off and researched as much as I could, and the result is the following content.
Swing is a genre of music1, but most of us would struggle to dance WCS (West Coast Swing) to a swing standard from Benny Goodman unless you came from Lindy Hop. Unlike Salsa or Mambo, WCS hasn’t attached itself to a singular musical genre; you can’t select “West Coast Swing” as a genre on spotify. Pop charts today include RnB, rock, hip-hop, electronic, country and more, so how do we decide what to dance to? Many of us feel like we could identify a “West Coast Swing song” if we tried dancing to it, but if we attempted to explain why to someone else, I think we’d struggle. I’ve collected my thoughts on the subject here to hopefully provide others with the tools to articulate what makes a song WCS Music or not.
One of the early responses I heard to this question was “You can WCS to any song, so doesn’t that make any song a WCS song?”. This is like saying “every car is a fast car because it’s faster than walking”, which is true, but not very useful if you want to compare cars. When I say a song is a “West Coast Swing” song, I mean that it encourages dancing WCS more than it encourages dancing a different dance style.
Dancing to the Music
I’ve always liked the phrase: “if your grandma is watching you dance and she forgot her hearing aid, she should be able to tell what kind of music you are dancing to”. Or, put another way: your dancing should reflect the music currently playing.
Partner dancing introduces further complexity in that you now have to communicate your musical expression with someone else. Thankfully, in the same way that languages have vocabulary, the West Coast Swing community has a common set of physical vocabulary (e.g. the slot, anchors, etc) that means we don’t have to start from scratch with every new partner. Ideally, the music is conducive to the physical conversation that we are having, that it encourages us to speak our common WCS language.
Ideally, a “West Coast Swing song” would encourage movement in a manner consistent with the common physical vocabulary that the West Coast Swing community understands.
With that out of the way, lets dive in and see what we can learn!
Aside from tempo, I believe the most important aspect when matching a dance style to a song is the rhythm. I define rhythm as the time relationship between different events, and the relative emphasis between each event. In music, these “events” are different notes played by an instrument. In dancing, the events are marked by movement in our bodies.
We can therefore compare and contrast the rhythm created by our basic WCS patterns with the musical rhythm of a particular song.
Emphasis in West Coast Swing Rhythms
There are two basic rhythms in WCS: a “walk-walk”
1 - 2), and “tri-ple step” (
1 & 2). Is there any inherent emphasis on either the first or second beat of
a “walk-walk”? No, the notes are identical*. How about a triple step? (try dancing it!). We should be able to see
and/or feel that there is more emphasis on the
2 of the triple step than the
In a triple step, there are two main reasons why the
2 is more emphasized: Firstly, the
2 is the longest step, taking up a
whole beat, whereas the
1& are only a half-beat each. Secondly, there is a speed change
1& are faster, but the
2 is a full beat, slower than the other beats. This
change in speed helps create emphasis by building anticipation during the faster steps and
releasing it on the transition to the slow step. These two reasons appear
identical in this case, but when we look at other rhythms later on we’ll see that they can produce different
While we can modify our “walk-walks” to fit music better, a basic “walk-walk” doesn’t naturally
2 over the other. This means walk-walks can fit with practically any
musical rhythm we might encounter which doesn’t help us when trying to discern WCS music.
Thus, I’m going to consider the triple step our
fundamental WCS rhythm. After all, who has ever heard of a
judge complaining about “not enough walk-walks”?2
Emphasis in Musical Rhythms
Let’s look at rhythm in music next. Here’s a song that I often use for teaching beginner classes because of the clear rhythm: “So Young” by Portugal the Man.
If you're familiar with musical notation, I've transcribed the basic rhythm below:
What can we hear in the rhythm section? There is a bass drum on every
1, snare on every
a hi-hat on
1 & 2 &.
What beat stands out the most? Most of us would say count
2, where the snare drum
lands. Snare drums have a sharp, percussive sound, at a pitch that humans are more sensitive to
3. The repeated accent on every second beat is called a
backbeat, and is the foundation of
jazz, blues, soul and hip-hop music 4,5. Count
has the bass drum which provides less emphasis than the snare drum.
This brings us to the first metric that I use to help me tell if a song is a WCS song:
emphasis. Does the music emphasize (or accentuate) the same beats as WCS? Since we’ve already
established WCS emphasizes the
2, we can simply ask: Does the music emphasize count 2? In the case
of “So Young” it does, and so I consider it a natural (if somewhat boring) WCS song.
Let’s listen to some more music and see what we come up with: Here is “Maps” by Maroon 5:
Notice how the every beat has the same emphasis, particularly in the drums? This rhythm is called a four-on-the-floor. You can WCS to this, but this rhythm is more suited to something like Modern Jive6.
A different rhythm is used in “Play that Song” by Train:
While the snare drum can be heard on every
2, if you listen closely you’ll notice that the
there is also a fairly strong emphasis on every
1, which indicates to me that this is 6/8
The emphasis on
1 comes from a few things:
- The lyrics, which often put a stressed syllable on the
- A synth/brass note on the
1(during the chorus)
- A double-kick on the bass drum which finishes on
This repeated emphasis on every
1 detracts from the
2. So while it’s still dancable, I don’t consider this a natural West Coast Swing song.
To summarize our first metric, emphasis, we can say:
A West Coast Swing song should emphasize every second beat, to match the emphasis of a triple step
Timing of West Coast Swing and Musical Rhythms
How do we measure timing in West Coast Swing? Most dancers, at least when talking about basic patterns, would say “we look at the strike of the foot on the floor”. But what are we comparing each foot strike to? If two people are dancing perfectly even triple steps, but starting at different times, how do you tell who is off time? We must compare the timing of the triple steps to the timing of the music. This brings me to the second metric that I use for discerning if a song is a West Coast Swing song or not: Timing. How compatible is the timing of the music, compared to the timing of our dance?
In our basics, timing is the strike of the foot on the floor. Let’s listen to the first song, “So Young” again:
In this song, there is bass drum on count
1, snare on count
2, and the hi-hat in between (
2&). In total, the song marks
2&. A West Coast Swing triple step marks
2, so by doing our basic footwork rhythm, we are always “on time” with the music.
Here is another song I often use: “I Got the Blues”, by Brother Yusef
Notice how the “&” counts have been shifted towards the end of the beat? Rather than evenly spaced
it more resembles
1...&.2...&.. This is swung
which is often notated with an
a replacing the
1.&.2.&.1.&.2. We can still dance WCS triples to this,
as we can delay the middle step of our triple steps to match the timing of the
Now for a more complicated timing structure, “Hold the Line” by TOTO:
This song marks three evenly-spaced notes (on the piano and hi-hat) for every beat, which are called (musical) triplets. This is often notated
1 e a 2 e a but it can also be considered a 12/8, or “shuffle” rhythm, where you could count “1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12”. I’ll use the
1 e a 2 e a notation as it is more similar to the
other notations I’ve used. This rhythm doesn’t affect our timing much
because we can still dance a WCS triple on the
1 . a 2 by just ignoring the
If you tried to dance on
1 e . 2, it would feel a bit weird, because the biggest change in speed now
happens on the
e, which has the effect of shifting some of the emphasis away from the
1 . a 2, 12/8 feels like a natural WCS rhythm, and it’s personally one of my favorites
because it can give modern pop songs the swung feeling. Some of the more commonly played songs with a 12/8 rhythm
include “It serves you right to suffer - The Avener Rework” (listen to the
hi-hat) or “Right Round”
by Flo Rida (where the triplets are carried by the vocals). I also have an entire
playlist of “pop but
swung” songs if you want more.
Now for a totally different rhythm: “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran
The dominant rhythm in this song is called a tresillo, which comes
from Afro-Cuban music and made its way into modern pop through artists and songs such as
and “Sorry” by Justin
Bieber. A tresillo marks the
How does the tresillo fit with WCS timing? Both rhythms feature a note on
1, but none of the other
Some dancers might suggest a using a swung triple, e.g.
1..a2, which allows us
two of three steps matching the music. but I’ve never actually seen anyone do this in real life. Dancing
increases emphasis on the
2, but a tresillo rhythm doesn’t marked the
2 at all. Most people end up
dancing evenly divided triple steps (
1.&.2), which is smoother, but it means two out of three of your steps
aren’t on time when compared to the musical rhythm. If this song gets played in a competition and someone is judging
your timing, what rhythm are they going to compare your foot strike to? The fundamental West Coast
Swing rhythm? Or the rhythm of the music? I’m not going to answer that question here, but the
conflict between our footwork rhythm and the musical rhythm means I wouldn’t consider this a natural
WCS song. Interestingly, Ed Sheeran’s acoustic version of this song has a different
This version does mark the
2, with a
1a2 rhythm, making it immediately more natural
for dancing WCS.
However, the presence of a tresillo doesn’t always prevent a song from being appropriate for West Coast Swing. For example, “Josephine” has a persistent tresillo played by a synth, but it’s quiet enough to stay in the background and doesn’t have much of an effect on the prominent backbeat. We tend to focus on the most dominant and repetitive rhythms when classifying music.
Not all tresillos are as subtle though, and in some cases they can shift the resulting emphasis of the song. For example, “Kiss and Make Up” by Dua Lipa:
The rhythm of this song is a tresillo mixed with a backbeat (or four-on-the-floor, as it varies throughout the song),
which results in
1..a2.&.1..a2.&.. While the addition of the backbeat/four-on-the-floor gives us a
helps with our timing metric, the overall emphasis of this rhythm is not the same as a WCS
triple step. The normally-dominant
2 is overshadowed by the
1 takes over as the longest and most emphasized note. This a rhythm I
would expect for Samba or Zouk, but not for West Coast Swing.
The tresillo + backbeat rhythm exemplifies how note duration and fast->slow transitions can emphasize different notes in
the music, as mentioned earlier. The longest note in a tresillo +
backbeat is the
1 (taking 3/4ths of a beat), but the fast->slow
transition occurs in the
To summarize the timing metric:
“The timing of the rhythm in the music should be compatible with the timing of a basic triple step”.
Hopefully between the emphasis and timing metrics you can now explain why a song may or may not feel like a “West Coast Swing song” to you. However it’s worth remembering that music theory is not an exact science, and an individual’s perception of rhythm will vary. Pop music is created primarily for listening, not for dancing, so any structure we try to impose on music is going to be an approximation at best.
One of the obvious follow up questions you might have after reading this is “Should we dance WCS to non-WCS music?”, and I’ve been avoiding this question because people tend to get rather… passionate about it. But maybe I can provide some insight without starting yet-another-internet-argument.
One of the great strengths of this dance is that we’ve been able to keep up with different genres of music as they’ve evolved, and so I think we should keep trying on new genres of music to see if they fit. That said, if you ever have the responsibility of choosing music that others will be dancing to, you should keep in mind the context in which it will be played.
What do I mean by context? Well, who’s your audience? How experienced are they? Is it a competition? Or a social event? If you’re DJing at 4am on the Sunday of an event then your main priority is to keep people dancing, so you should play whatever achieves that. But if you’re teaching a beginner class and you’re telling the students “we triple step on 1-&-2”, then your music should probably have a “1-&-2” that your students can follow along to!
Tamlyn G. N. (1998). The Big Beat: Origins and Development of Snare Backbeat and other Accompanimental Rhythms in Rock’n’Roll ↩