It takes a certain type of dancer to compete in West Coast Swing dance — after all, you show up to a competition not knowing who you will dance with, what song you will dance to or even what your dancing will ultimately end up looking like. It’s a competition where you can’t prepare for what you’ll be judged on, but Jamie Callahan, EdD, a clinical professor in the School of Education, thrives on the surprise.
West Coast Swing is one of the more social and relaxed swing dance styles, but it also stands out from many of the other types of partner dances because it encourages spontaneity when it comes to partners, costumes, dance moves and music. Dancers are judged on their timing, teamwork and technique.
“Of all of the social dances, the West Coast Swing is probably the most versatile but it’s also one of the hardest, along with tango,” Callahan said. “When you go to a competition, you have no idea what music you’re going to get. When the first beat of music hits, you have to dance. And sometimes you have to dance to a song that you have literally never, ever heard before in your life.”
Competitions usually include the music genres of blues, contemporary pop and R&B, with others often thrown in to see if the dancers can dance to a variety of music. In the preliminary round of one competition in 2011, Callahan went from dancing to classic blues, to R&B, to contemporary pop (Ke$ha!) and finally to an old smoothie.
It’s just one of the dance’s many characteristics that keeps you on your toes, so to speak. West Coast Swing has a basic but flexible rhythm pattern found in other swing styles, which Callahan started dancing in 1999. She’s stayed with West Coast Swing the longest.
“What I like about it is that in many ways, it’s an intellectual challenge. With your partner, whoever that is, you’re both listening to the same music and trying to do your own part to the music, but at the same time, we’re both trying to interpret the music as we hear it while working together to tell a story,” she said.
Callahan prefers the “Jack and Jill” style of competition, in which a competitor is randomly paired with partners to be judged individually and as a unit. Her favorite video of a dance is from a competition where her name was picked out of the hat to be partnered with a random man — after she had joked she’d get matched up with him because they had never danced together before.
Other West Coast Swing competitions allow the dancer to pick a partner to dance to random music with, or pick a partner to practice a classic routine with choreography and coordinating costumes. While she does engage in those types — she’s currently planning a routine to the B-52’s “Love Shack” — she thinks the “Jack and Jill” dances are the best ways to meet people and test your skills as a true dancer.
“There’s a special community when you walk into a ballroom and there are all sorts of people who are hearing the same music and creating a different story in partnerships all across the floor,” she said.
Callahan was even inspired to write an article about what the way people interact on the dance floor (how they lead or follow, how they work well with others) reveals about who they are as a person.
“I really love the social aspect of getting to meet people from all walks of life based on who they are as human beings, not as who they are because of whatever label they happen to wear. So often, when you meet someone, they ask, ‘What do you do?’ and they want to what your status is, like your occupation. But when you’re dancing, all of those barriers are completely broken down. And it’s based on how you treat someone as a fellow dancer,” she said. “I don’t know the education level or the occupation or the age of half of the people I consider my good dancing friends.”
Callahan has met a lot of fellow dancers over the years. She socially dances about once a week, practices regularly when she’s doing a routine and has taken private and public lessons. When she first started competing, she went to 12 to 15 events a year; she goes to about half that many now. Her work has paid off: West Coast Swing dancers are assigned ranks, from lowest to highest, of newcomer novice, novice, intermediate, advanced, all-star or champion dancer. She’s an all-star.
She prefers the West Coast Swing dance communities in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and she’s even danced in a completion in Birmingham, England (it happened when she was at Coventry University for a visiting professorship). Even in Philadelphia, there are two national-level competitions, one of which is coming up in September and features a “So You Think You Can Dance” winner, Benji Schwimmer, on staff. The city has such a following that she and others teach classes on how to both lead and follow.
Which does she prefer? Following, because she can be freer with her footwork and body movements. In other words, Callahan gets a kick out of being more creative in a dance that already forces its dancers to get creative on the fly.
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