BackThe Swing

The Swing is one of the great joys of English and American dancing — in fact most contra dancers in the States expect a partner swing and a neighbour swing in virtually every dance, and they'll come up to the caller and complain if they don't get it.

I haven't finished this page, but here are a couple of unedited extracts of postings to the Traditional Dance Callers List:

Sherry Nevins:

The way I read Hugh's posting, he is asking for suggestions for someone who already has an injured back, or is especially prone to back pain.

First, recognize that the nature of contra dancing is somewhat risky for someone with physical vulnerabilities.  It involves a lot of close physical contact at fairly high speed, and its inclusiveness brings in a wide assortment of people — some who have just wandered in, some who have limited body and spacial awareness, are clumsy, rhythmically challenged, or socially inept.  Some are using all their concentration to just get through the figures, and have no attention left for the finer points of how they get there.  For some, improvement takes months — or years.  Teaching good dance skills in workshops and in the walk-throughs is important, and it pays off over time — but it won't reach everyone taking part that evening.

If someone has an injury, she needs to step back and let it heal.  There are exercises she can do to strengthen the supporting muscles of her back, arms, etc; she should probably consult a physical therapist or sports med doctor.  Other forms of dancing might be safer for her — English, where the connections are more with the eyes and hands; or various kinds of couple dancing, where she has more control over who she dances with.  I could show her some techniques in person that would help her to protect herself in contra, but they're hard to put into print.

Ok, ok I'll try….  here are some things:

  She should make sure she is standing erect, holding herself up, not leaning back against his arm.  If she moves forward purposefully into the swing she will be less dependent on his hold.

  If the hand on her back is too low (at her waist level) the centrifugal force when they swing will make her feel like she is breaking in half.  She can take his hand and move it higher, to just below her shoulder blade, for better support.  A move I've used when about to swing a guy who just doesn't seem to get it: “dip” just a little as his arm comes around, and smoothly straighten up with his hand magically in the right spot!

  If his hand is tentatively placed on her left side (usually by someone very shy) she can move it around to her back and say encouragingly “that's better!”

  She should also be supporting herself with her left hand behind his shoulder.  If his body is angled away from her, her hand slides right off; she can square his shoulders and point out “now I have something to hold onto”.

  If high velocity swings are a problem, she can influence the speed by resisting with her right hand (the “pointy” hand); also bending her knees will slow it down.  She can also say “Please slow down!” if she's not completely out of breath.

  She can make any swing into a one-step (with lots of side-to-side shoulder/arm movement and little or no rotation).

Carl Friedman:

Someone asked how to teach a swing.  I say (and this is after I've taught “counterbalance ” or “giving weight”):

Make your arms round, like you're holding onto a giant beach ball.  Everyone needs to hold themselves up.  Face a partner and take a social dance position; his right hand behind her back, just below her shoulder blade, her left hand behind his shoulder; square your shoulders toward your partner, but shift slightly to your own left.  Keep your arms round and remember to hold yourself up; but as you go around, both need to give mutual support (with his right hand, her left) to keep your partner from flying away and smashing into the wall.  Look at each other to keep from getting dizzy — you might get pleasantly dizzy, but not sick dizzy.  If you're not comfortable staring deeply into someone's eyes, look at their forehead, chin, collar — somewhere near their face.  Walk forward, like you're trying to walk behind your partner's back.  This is a walking swing (more common in Southern square dancing).

Here's a fun thing we can do with a swing.  All face CCW; put your right foot forward (the left is always trying to catch up, but the right foot always stays ahead) and everyone gallop!  Now watch what happens when (someone I point to on the other side of the circle) and I gallop towards each other and catch — that's called a buzz step swing.  The walking step and the buzz step are interchangeable — (to my partner: “you walk, and I'll buzz”; then, “I'll walk, you buzz”) — so you don't have to worry about which step you're doing.  If there's time, I line the women up on one side of the room and the men on the other, across from their partners; then all together gallop across, catch and swing (this idea from Tod Whittemore a long time ago — it is SO much fun to do!)

P.S.  — This is mainly in a workshop setting.  I don't go through all that at a One Night Stand (Barn Dance in England); I might do a very abbreviated version if it suits the crowd and adds to their enjoyment of the event.

I would not discuss weight in teaching the swing — it seems to make people lean back.  (But in a preliminary workshop, if I did nothing else, I would definitely emphasize managing one's own weight — keeping if forward, etc.)

As to teaching the buzz-step swing (I learned this from Sue Dupré — thanks Sue!): First I show them, and have them take, ballroom position.  Then I have the partners back well away from each other.  I have each person put his/her right foot forward of the left, have them aim at their partner's right shoulder, and have them say “and RIGHT, and RIGHT, and RIGHT, etc”, then think that as they walk around each other passing right shoulders, but facing each other, spiraling in toward each other until they take ballroom position and continue the same step.  Works like a charm.  Most people seem to learn a passable buzz-step swing, complete with comfortable (if not ideal) position and weight, in a minute or two.