How to Use YouTube to Learn WCS

imageYouTube is a great source of inspiration, but for the most part, a horrible teaching tool. It requires too much conversion, and there is no substitute for hands-on learning. But since many of you insist on it, let’s offer some observation strategies to get what you can out of it.

Our Shared History with YouTube

YouTube has been the best and worst thing to happen to West Coast Swing. Best thing because it has given the dance (and the pros on the leading edge of the dance) global exposure and fame. Our famous WCS improv video from 2007 is almost at 2 million hits, and is the video, if not one of the videos that people constantly tell us was what hooked them on trying WCS.

But YouTube has been the worst thing to happen to learning WCS. Because people can teach themselves a wide variety of other skills and stuff on YouTube, they assume they can teach themselves West Coast Swing too <audible collective sigh>. We all know this dance demands a specific and unusual type of connection that needs to be felt, not just seen. But new dancers or dancers from other styles drastically underestimate or ignore this element.

Personal story: an international dancer who is now in AllStar/Champions once came to me as a newbie for his first ever private lesson in real WCS in the US. He was already a high level dancer in another dance style, and had taught himself his version of WCS by watching routines on YouTube. I was prepared for rough-around-the-edges, but I was not prepared for being roughed up. His connection was the hardest I have ever felt, rigid and jerky. I was so concerned for my safety, I needed to stop him after only a phrase of the assessment dance. I explained fundamental connection skills using Swing Literacy skill development, and he was a quick study, but he had no concept of what WCS connection was until he actually got to feel it live from an instructor.

Instructional Videos

I’m not knocking video learning – far from it! In fact, our instructional videos are congruent with our signature teaching style, and offer little loss in quality. We provide the techniques needed to execute those moves you are struggling with. We explain in detail, more than just the breakdown of patterns, but the skill development you need before you can even stand a chance at those patterns. But we are rare. There are several other instructors out there offering instructional video/video learning products (some of which are on YouTube!) that have a significant amount of technique explanation, but unfortunately, just as in live workshops, the majority of instructional videos out there simply breakdown patterns count by count and do not explain enough to produce success or retention. You never know the quality of a teacher until you try them, or get a referral.

The downside to any video learning is the lack of feedback. You might “learn” a new pattern, technique, or styling, but until you get a chance to try it on a live partner in a practice setting (not a social dance), you won’t have the context to put it to use or get the feedback that it feels ok. Instructional videos are really meant to supplement your live learning.  Beginners are especially vulnerable,  since some people’s egos lure them to videos that are too advanced for them. The best way to use instructional videos at any level is to study them first, then take the material you are working on to a live instructor to get feedback and guidance. A fun way to approach this is to bring your video player to your peer practica and all work on the new material together (ideally with the guidance of an instructor).

Dance Videos

The videos that are most prevalent online are not instructional. They’re not even workshop recaps. They’re mostly routines, with some JnJ/Strictlies. These really should be in two categories, as they really are two totally different animals.

Jack & Jills and Strictly Swings

These improvised competitions show the true culture of West Coast Swing. They demonstrate the conversational agreement of the dance, the spontaneous musicality, and the language of partnering. They often include popular movements for the era as well as historical movements as a nod to the culture of the art form. Best of all, due to the random partnerships, almost all the moves are socially leadable. These competitions are almost exactly what you will see when you go social dancing – they are a realistic reflection of the social dance called West Coast Swing. Studying these videos will give you a large sample of the dance scene – you can draw conclusions from noting the common elements among them, and you will start to develop your observation skills and pick up on more of the subtleties. It will give you examples of different styles of executing the same moves, so you can shop around. Going back and watching vintage clips in chronological order is a great way to learn about the history of the dance and its evolution. It’s always important to know your roots and learn the “why”.

Remember that what you see is often very different from what you feel. Dancers could be smiling through the pain, grinning and bearing it, or secretly nervous. Some moves simply can’t be seen – their secrets are too subtle, or involve invisible connection tricks. You really need to learn these live. Caveat #1: watching Pro dance videos will not tell you anything about the teaching ability of those Pros! Caveat #2: YouTube displays the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just because a video is on YouTube, doesn’t mean it’s worthy of imitation.


Choreography is the opposite of improvisation. Routines are 100% choreographed, pre-planned, pre-practiced with set partners. Sure, routines will contain some socially readable basic patterns, but there are often times when couples will plan a movement to hit an accent in the music simultaneously without involving leading and following. In fact, there are several moves that routine couples will execute that are not physically possible to replicate with someone who does not know the choreography, and I don’t just mean lifts! Yet there are YouTube addicts out there who don’t know the difference, try these moves on unsuspecting partners, and someone ends up getting frustrated, if not physically hurt.

Personal story: I had a private lesson with a leader overseas who was a big fan, and a sweet guy. During the assessment dance, he suddenly stopped and enthusiastically asked, “Did you recognize that move?” When I looked confused, he clarified, “that was from your video! You know the one with all the hits?” I was stumped. Not only was I bewildered that he thought he should learn “my moves” for our lesson, but the move he was leading was so far removed from how that move is actually supposed to work, it was unrecognizable. He did not yet have the skills to execute that move – he didn’t even have the skills to learn the skills to execute that move. Which is where I started the lesson…

Routines showcase the cutting edge of the dance, but they are a showpiece meant to entertain and be admired, not to copy socially. They intentionally push the boundaries, creating visual art to make a specific piece of music come alive. Studying moves from a routine would only be useful with a regular partner, if you were planning on borrowing that move in your own choreography. It’s also a good source for studying showmanship, but only for stage performances. Learning choreography for a routine of your own will definitely improve your own dance skills, like balance, speed control, body awareness, etc, but routines are by definition, not social dancing. Studying them will not help your social improvisation or adaptability. We have noticed in some parts of the world, this distinction is not understood. Dancers are copying patterns and entire sequences from routines they have studied, and use social dance time for competition practice: to practice these sequences with as many partners as can keep up. But they are not successful and subsequently not happy dancing with lower level dancers because they can’t “practice” on them. These dancers are training themselves in a language that only a handful of people can speak. These dancers have missed the point of social dancing. Don’t fall into this trap!

How to Use YouTube Wisely

Recognize bad videos to learn from 
Any WCS instructional video where the woman is wearing a flouncy skirt and heels is probably a ballroom video. Skip it – it’s not the dance you are looking for.
Many studio instructors will post their class reviews on YouTube for the benefit of their students only and forget to mark it private. These weren’t meant to be taken out of context and are not intended for the public to learn from.
Workshop reviews are simply summaries provided by instructors at the end of their workshop. They only include keywords, main topics, and inside jokes as a reminder for those who attended the whole thing, so while it may be captivating, it’s not enough to replace actually attending the workshop or taking a private from them.

Bring your favourite YouTube clips to your instructor to ask for guidance in learning the moves you admire, then use a practice partner to get feedback and work on refinements.

Playlists – don’t just make playlists of clips you like. Categorize them into routines and improv. Or maybe even more specific lists such as “one-footed spins” and “lyrical songs”.

Screenshot 2016-05-04 23.13.59Watch in slow motion: you can change the speed settings of your viewer by clicking on the gear in the bottom right. Much quality is lost, but at least you can see what’s going on more easily.

Use a YouTube clipper: One of our students made this one which you can clip, save, and label only specific segments of your favourite videos, so you can jump right to the good parts. Breka Dance Clips

Mute the music: this allows you to focus only on the movement, without being wow’ed by the musicality.

Tape a piece of paper over the screen to hide the dancers’ upper bodies: focus on the footwork exclusively.

Tally patterns of behaviour:  How many sugar pushes? How many triples? How many free spins? How many times are they caught pantomiming or mugging to the audience? This can reveal some “tells” and bad habits.

Look for UMBRA patterns: Patterns that are most appropriate for social dancing usually are: Universally leadable, Musical, Balanced between leader and follower, Repeatable, and Adaptable to different levels.  These are the ones you want most of in your repertoire. UMBRA patterns are our own concept nickname – you can see us explain and teach it live in a workshop at select events.

Count the pattern:bpm ratio Many dancers fall into the trap of just cranking out the patterns. Watch some pro videos and notice how many patterns they complete during the song, as a ratio to the bpm of that song. Then compare one of your own videos.

Watch vintage clips and identify moves you recognize – this gives a hint about which moves are wise to add to your repertoire. Like classic clothes, good moves never go out of style, but some are also valuable to have in your back pocket for those “theme contests”.

Watch how the Pro handles each phrase change – just the phrase changes.

Watch multiple videos of the same pro to note their signature moves and how they strategize in using them. Don’t limit yourself to one pro or one generation – repeat with a variety of pros.

Map the dance: write down each of the patterns in sequence. Identify each root pattern and note the variation used. Note beat extensions, invitation leads, and non-Swing movements. Don’t memorize and replicate this dance – just practice each pattern and/or variations individually.

Don’t bring your YouTube to the social dance. Your social dance partners don’t know and don’t care what your next mission is. Save the analysis and studying for practice sessions, and when its time for social dancing, let yourself relax and focus on the live humans. Remember, social dancing is a shared conversation, not a rehearsal.



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4 Responses to “How to Use YouTube to Learn WCS”

  1. Paul Diffendaffer May 5, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Great advice!

  2. Great article! A few of my dance friends have told me that they’ve learned from videos, but I’d not quite fathomed how, so thanks for breaking it down.

  3. Thank you for this, and all the other great material on this site. Even though my dance is Argentine tango I’ve signed up for you SLDM based on what I see here and what I feel I can learn from you about being a better teacher.

    “Use a piece of paper to hide the dancers’ upper bodies.” I suggest to my students that they start learning a pattern (live or on video) by paying attention *to the upper bodies* and ignore the feet. Our dance is Argentine tango, and with feet there are four parts doing possibly all kinds of crazy things at high speed, but only two torsos moving much more slowly and simply. I want to see the relationships of the dancers to each other and to the room (not so much a concern for WCS). I also get a better sense of how the leader is creating or blocking spaces for the follower. In a way, it’s much like your nice article on Isolation Drills, where we simplify the material, getting the all important connection working right first.

  4. Awesome article! I got pretty nervous reading at first when it said something like “learning from you tube might be the worst thing you can do for your dancing”, as this is my only real source of learning at this point. I live in a pretty small town, where WCS is virtually nonexistent. I have never seen a WCS lesson offered anywhere, and have almost never seen anyone doing WCS as its usually all country swing (maybe a couple people at the bar doing ECS). Luckily my saving grace is i was active in taking frequent weekly swing lessons before moving (so I have the building blocks to break down and figure out lead cues not obvious in a video), and we only practice with a lead and follow, never alone.

    When we find patterns/routines we like that we want to learn it usually takes us about 20 minutes to break down each pattern after re watching it over and over, and figure out the best way to lead through it. After we can actually make it through the pattern, if its even a bit difficult ill usually have the follow close her eyes for the whole pattern as we work through it more so its harder to back lead, and she can focus on just feeling where the lead cues need to be more pronounced as I make sure we keep the right spacing and slot travel. After enough practice we’ll try it out in an actual social dance, i’ll mess it up a few times, but eventually when my practice partner and I can do it consistently in improv then ill start trying it on people who I haven’t practiced it with and see how that feed back goes. Then eventually its a part of my mental library as long as I keep using it, Not my preferred way to learn…but its either this or nothing.

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