Ballroom, West Coast Swing and Cross-Training: James Cook

Samantha StoutApril 20, 2020Ballroom Chat: Episode #2
Ballroom Chat #2: James Cook
A conversation between Samantha from Love.Live.Dance and guest James Cook, West coast swing dancer, competitor, and instructor. We talk about the differences between Ballroom Dance and West coast swing, navigating different social dance scenes, and how to be responsible for your own growth.
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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

SAMANTHA: Hello everybody. Welcome back. I'm your host Samantha with LoveLiveDance and today we have a very special guest from the West coast swing community. We have James Cook with us this morning.

JAMES: Hello.

How did you get started in Dance?

SAMANTHA: So, for the folks that maybe don't know who you are, what you do, what's the resume look like? Who are you?

JAMES: Who am I dance wise? Or who am I philosophically? I don't know.

SAMANTHA: You can answer that however you would like.

JAMES: Well, since we're on a dance stream, I'll just go dance-wise then. I started dancing in 2006. I started in Lindy hop and after that, I phased into West coast swing because I have a music background. The Lindy hop music made me want to play in the band instead of actually dance, and late at night in the place that I started dancing Lindy hop, they would play more contemporary music. Some newer age music just to mess around with it. That music made me want to dance like way more. And so everybody's like, "Oh, you must be a Westie."

And I was like, what's a what?

SAMANTHA: A what? What does that mean? Should I be offended?

JAMES: I know, right? What is that? I started in Idaho and there was no West coast swing dancing in Idaho. Shortly after that, I moved to Utah and there was a budding West coast swing community that had been kind of small for the last 15-20 years, and I stepped in full-bore and just started dancing socially, kept practicing, doing a lot of stuff. That was in about 2000. Late 2007-2008 is when I switched over to West coast swing. Through that journey, I continued to dance Lindy Hop for a while. I stepped into blues and tango a little bit through that journey, but ultimately stayed really focused in pushing for West coast swing. My first competitions was in 2008-2009, and I learned a lot. I started placing in 2010 and then I took about a three year break in 2014-16. But I came back and I'm going strong.

SAMANTHA: Nice. You are, let me see if I remember this correctly. You are considered an all star level competitor?

JAMES: Yes, that's correct.

SAMANTHA: So, I definitely want to get into a little bit of the differences between East coast and West coast and what it means when we use those terms and then how the competitions are structured differently. But you teach full time now, correct? Well, not now, but.

JAMES: Yeah not now, but I was teaching full time before.

SAMANTHA: Nice, and competing all around the world, obviously before the now times?

JAMES: Yeah. I was going to be in Korea again for the third year in a row, but that's not happening this year.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. But it's awesome that you and your partner Molly get invited to teach workshops all over the world, and you compete all over the world, and you kind of have that global aspect to your dancing career, which is really something awesome. I think that's something that not a lot of people get the chance to do.

JAMES: yeah.

SAMANTHA: Very cool.

JAMES: I've been fortunate that way. I want to continue to grow that, but right now I get to put it on pause.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Sometimes it's good to slow down. That's the mindset that I've tried to keep for the last five weeks. It's like sometimes it's okay to not go full blast, but I'd like to be able to at least do something interesting.

JAMES: I've re-learned a lot of music that I used to love but have not heard for a very long time because it's not dance music. I've re-explored that side of myself. It's been nice.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. The first week that we were both at home, my husband and I stumbled across, Oh gosh, I'm going to forget the YouTubers name. It's two former hip-hop rap scene guys based out of Las Vegas. I think it's Lost in Las Vegas. Yhey are experiencing things like country music and classic rock and prog rock and death metal for the first time and reacting to it. So we were like, yes, we can listen to Opeth and Meshuggah and Metallica.

JAMES: Well, that's great.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, so, if folks are tuning in and you have any questions for James, or if you have any clarifications about things as we go through today, please by all means pop them in the chat.

What is the difference between East coast swing and West coast swing?

SAMANTHA: So, you're part of the West coast Community. On my stream I have talked about the fact that I'm more of an East coast dancer, and we did a little bit of basic East coast swing. How would you describe the difference between the two? I feel like coming from the West coast end of the world, you're going to describe the difference a little bit different than how a ballroom dancer would describe the difference.

JAMES: Yeah. So the basic for East coast swing, at least how I explain it, is as a side-to-side action, where the basic for a West coast swing is very much a linear action in almost all cases.

SAMANTHA: So that's where you get like the slotted dance or that you're dancing on a floor beam kind of concept.

JAMES: Yes. In the basic level, that's very correct. In the more advanced levels, you can break that a little bit, but it's very true for all of the lower level parts of the dance.

SAMANTHA: Nice. I feel like too, East coast swing and Jive are very intermixed. It's much more like high energy and upbeat. I always refer to like, if you know, Mickey, then you know what an East coast swing typically sounds like, but that's not the same case in the West coast community. The variety of music you can dance to is much more vast.

JAMES: Yeah. So the tempos and the variety and the genres are very wide. You can dance anything. Frank Sinatra, which you would classify as a Foxtrot. You can dance to Snoop Dogg, to Katy Perry, to Madonna, to any of the Motown artists, right? So it's so wide. Every decade has huge chunks of music that you can dance West coast swing to currently.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, and I feel like it gives it a much more casual and social feel. Obviously, competition in the West coast community is very large and it's still a huge aspect of it, but I feel like from a social dance perspective, there's much less pressure in the early stages to make it also feel like a performance. It feels much more like a conversation.

JAMES: Yeah. That's one of the things that I really love about the community. The dance itself is pretty difficult, but the community is very open usually and very, very forgiving. You don't have to do things a certain way. You don't have all this pressure to do things perfectly right out of the gate.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Obviously, James and I have worked together. Truth be told, he's teaching me how to West coast swing a little bit better, and I might be trying to bring him to the dark side of smooth ballroom.

What does it mean to say that West coast swing is an 'educated' dance?

SAMANTHA: Something that I like that you refer to a lot is that West coast is an educated dance. That might sound pretentious, but we'll quickly follow that up with kind of the context behind it. In the ballroom community, it is a 50-50 partnership between the dancers, but it always comes back to there being a 'lead' and a 'follow.' Until you get up to the gold or the open level, when you're dealing with more choreography and kind of showcase performance, in the ballroom community, the lead sets the dance. He or she can indicate that they would like to do X, Y, and Z, and the partner has the ability to say, no, I'm not interested in doing that, but the follow doesn't really have a voice where we can be like, "I want to do this now because I'm hearing this in the music."

That is definitely not the case in west coast swing. So what does it mean to you when you say, this is an educated dance?

JAMES: So there's like three levels to that. The first level, is that I could take somebody walking off the street that's never danced in their life, and I can walk them through the basics, but it's quickly comes to the point where I'm leading a move or two that are alluded to or where I take off the training wheels and they'll be completely lost. Because there are a lot of moves that are like, "if I do this, that means bbviously that this occurs." It's not very clear to somebody that's not dance-trained or that isn't exposed to that regularly. Just as a whole and as it gets more in depth as well.

Another reason why I also call it an educated dance is that at the higher levels, the follow knows how to add their voice to the dance and starts to bend the pattern saying, oh, I'm going to take an extra two counts because this thing is happening in the music, and I'm going to make sure that that's visible or enhanced. Or they're going to say, I'm going to leave. I'm going to follow exactly what you led, except I'm going to do it in this way. I'm not going to mess with the timing, but I'm going to do it this way instead of like the normal way that you would do it.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. It gives the follow a little bit more ability to put their creative touch on all of the patterns and how you're interpreting the music, which is very cool.

What do West coast swing competitions look like?

SAMANTHA: The other big difference I think, coming from a ballroom mindset, is how competitions are run. So you have a partner, but I guess coming from my end of the world, you're competing more in like a show dance performance.

JAMES: Okay.

SAMANTHA: So at a high level, when you have an established partnership, you're putting together choreography to a song. So you know the music, you know what you're supposed to be doing, and then you're the only couple on the floor that's performing.


SAMANTHA: Whereas in the ballroom world, even at an intro level, you're put into a partnership where you're dancing with your instructor, you have a routine, but you don't know what exact song is getting played, and you're on the floor with anywhere between six to twelve other couples at a time that are all trying to navigate and do their own thing.

JAMES: Yeah.

SAMANTHA: So, I think the reason that people are drawn, at least in my opinion, to the west coast scene is that the majority of your competitions are Jack and Jill based?

JAMES: Yes, very much so.

SAMANTHA: So for someone that doesn't know what that term is, what does it mean to have a Jack and Jill competition?

JAMES: What it means is that you enter a competition solo by yourself, and you specify your role. So I could enter as a follow if I wanted to, but I generally want to enter as a lead cause I'm much better at leading. So you enter individually and then you draw partners at random through multiple heats, and you get judged individually to get placed into the final.

Now, once you make it to finals, you get judged as a couple, whoever you draw, and that's who you stay with through multiple songs, through each of the heats and each of the, what do they call it? Semis, prelims, finals, like all of that. You get multiple songs and generally you're dancing on the floor with sometimes twenty to thirty to forty couples. So there are a lot of judges that are watching either you or your partnership in the finals. In the finals in the higher divisions they like to put you out on the floor by yourself in the spotlight. So, you get a minute and a half with a song that you didn't choose, and you get to express in front of everybody what that song should be and how to express that and show different, unique things to. Sometimes they don't do that, it just kind of depends. They just kind of mix it up a little bit.

SAMANTHA: Okay. I have occasionally stumbled across West coast swing competition videos on YouTube, and I think there was one where Benji Schwimmer was dancing and the song came on and he just shook his head and they changed the song. So can you veto songs if you're at that level?

JAMES: Since he's champion he commands a lot of respect in the community. But it depends on the event. Some events allow you to do that. Most of them don't. So it could be the event had that type of thing. It could also be that he's just swinging his influence and the DJ is like, okay, I'll appease you and get flack for it later. So it could be any number of things.

SAMANTHA: Okay. Cool.

JAMES: A different point I wanted to bring up really quick is that the only way in West coast swing to move up in ranking is through Jack and Jill competition. You have to be able to be a good leader or a good follower. It's so intertwined with social dancing skills and technique since you draw people at random. It's not always just, oh, that partner was bad, or it's not always that, oh, we didn't have a great connection, so that dance really sucked, so I'm going to be stuck in the bottom level. No, there's a lot of things that you can do to alleviate that.

There is some luck to that where you can draw some of the better people and get out of certain divisions easier, but that will also just make you stall longer in the next division if that's the case. So if you want to compete in West coast swing, the only way to move up is through those competitions. The higher you get up, the better partners you're getting, but also the more technique that you're being held to.

SAMANTHA: Am I correct in thinking that you've judged a couple of competitions as well?

JAMES: Yeah. Yeah.

SAMANTHA: Let's say that you are an individual that -- let's give them the benefit of the doubt -- is very talented and does know their stuff, but they're partnered with someone that is struggling, maybe it's just not their day, or it's their first competition, or they just aren't hearing the beat the same way that their partner is. Do you as a judge, because you are judging them separately in the preliminary rounds, give the person credit if you can still see that they are dancing their heart out, but they are not connected with their partner because there's something going on with the partnership? Do you give them credit and move them on and see if they can dance better with another partnership, or do you say, no, this is the thing with social dancing, you have to dance with a partner you're given?

JAMES: So, that's. That's an excellent question. The thing that I like to talk about when I talk about judging is that you're actually judging against who else is on the floor. So if everybody else on the floor sucks and they're really good and there's really bad at partnering, then they might make it through. But if everybody else is at an equal level and they're sucking at partnering, I would be like, no, these other people are better. They're dancing with their partner, and they're bringing their partner up instead of throwing them under the bus. Right?

SAMANTHA: I like that. I think that's a good mindset to have.

We have a question from the chat. Does that make competitions super long? I think that was actually from the showcase competition comment. In the ballroom community, our competitions are anywhere from one to three days, which is a smaller competition, to a full five-day competition. West coast swing, what does your typical competition schedule look like?

JAMES: A typical competition schedule for a very large event would be two days. Two days of comps, but the way that the schedule works is that we actually compact them together. How it works is that usually there are workshops and whatnot taking up ballroom space from nine or ten in the morning. Whenever they open it up. Then they usually finish those workshops by about two or three. Usually they have competitions starting at three or four. The competitions actually run pretty quick, usually. So say we're talking about the lowest division novice - back East they also have a pre-novice division that's not required yet, but they call it a newcomer.


JAMES: So I'd say it's like the lowest division and say there's like five heats. They run it pretty efficiently, so they have everybody in the next heat line up so that when you're out on the floor, you're only taking up about, let's see here, they only play three to five songs. They only play about three to five songs per heat, but they only play about a minute to minute and a half of that, sometimes two minutes, depending on what the judges need. If they need more time, but if they need more time, it's usually on the first heat. Then they make the next heats equal to give it a fair shot for the rest of the heats. So say that there's like five heats for novice with twenty couples on the floor, at the same time, there's a judge that's only judging leads and there's a judge that's only judging follows. Usually you have three to five judges that are only judging leads, three to five follows that are only judging follows and then a chief judge that will also break ties, that type of thing.

So as it goes through, they rotate it. Everything goes in a big circle. You line up the leads, line up the follows in front of the leads real quick, and then break it out to a circle. And then you rotate the circle after every song, and then you rotate the follows forward. Like a random number. Usually it's anywhere from one to five partners. So one heat takes generally about 10 to 15 minutes, and that's five heats you're looking at. 40 minutes tops. Then you'd go straight into the next. So it'd be the answer to your question if it's super long. Our competitions are very, very short compared to ballroom competitions. there's not as much emphasis on pro-ams and we only have one dance that we're competing instead of 10 to 20 dances. I don't know how many dances ballroom has.


JAMES: Many. Yeah. So we only have one dance to compete, so it goes pretty quick, right?

SAMANTHA: Do you separate it out by age and level? Can competitors also dance in multiple ages and multiple levels, or is it very much like you are what you are?

JAMES: Excellent question. So we have a couple of different levels lined out. There are the mandatory ones that you get points for. So you have newcomer, which isn't mandatory yet, but it's starting to become mandatory. Then you have novice, intermediate, advanced, and all-star.

On this side you have ones that are not mandatory and that are just for fun. You have 'sophisticated' where you have to be 35 plus to be able to compete or 'masters' where you have to be 50 plus to compete. Now, if you're in masters, you can compete in sophisticated as well if you want to. Some events make it so you have to choose which one, but most don't. So if you're a master, you can compete in sophisticated if you want to as well. These two divisions over here, sophisticated and master, you can compete in your normal divisions over here cause these are the ones that matter and give you points. If that makes sense.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that cuts down too on the number of times that you have to run something. I think the reason why ballroom competitions can take so long is you can have one person that's dancing upwards of 200 or 300 entries because they're dancing all 19 competitive dances, plus all seven social dances, and then they're dancing it at three different level categories and two different age categories. So they're dancing everything six times, what was it, like 27 or 25 dances. It just gets silly after a while.

JAMES: That's crazy. Yeah. Here, it's just one dance. I see the other question in chat. Do you advance individual people or couples? You only advance in Jack and Jill's by an individual basis. So the judges are judging you individually, but once you make it to finals, then everything's placed as a couple. So you either place or you don't place in finals as a couple.

SAMANTHA: And you're getting a different. Partner every single round until finals, Right?

JAMES: In the preliminary rounds, you're getting a different partner every single round and every single song no matter what. So in prelims, if they play four songs, you get four different partners. If they play five songs, you get five different partners. yeah.

SAMANTHA: I like that because I feel like that gives you as an individual the most opportunity to show what you're capable of. Right? I think it kind of goes along with the question that just popped up. Does that mean that you could end up with a mismatch of leads and follows? Yeah. Well, in the initial round, I imagine.

JAMES: Yeah. In the initial two rounds, sometimes. Most of the time, it's leads being short, so leads just kind of know to stay in the ballroom. A lot of times heat sheets are posted beforehand, so the leads will know if they have to dance multiple times. Occasionally in the higher divisions sometimes the follows are short, so the followers have to know to stay in the ballroom, but you already generally will know if you need to be in the future heats. If you need to be in the future heats, generally the judges already know that, and they won't even look at you the second time you're out there. Occasionally they will, if there's a really close tie between you and somebody else that was in a different heat, but most of the time they won't even look at you. Especially if it's like an entire heat where the leads have already been judged. A lot of times those leads, the judges that are judging the leads won't even look, they won't even watch. They'll just stand and just wait for the heat to be over.

As it gets closer to finals, they'll tailor it so that it's an even match for leads and follows just to make it easier to get into finals. It makes sense. It's easier for the judges to judge and to just kind of see what the playing field is.

SAMANTHA: Okay. so shifting away from competitive dance for a couple of minutes, just in case we're driving people crazy with all this shop talk and technical talk.

How is the West coast swing scene in Salt Lake City?

SAMANTHA: What does the West coast community in Utah look like? You said that when you originally started it was very small. There wasn't a booming community. Now I feel like everywhere you go, there's a West coast swing night. It's a thing.

JAMES: Yeah, it's taken a long time to get the community to where it's at. When I started, there was only two nights that you could dance West coast swing. There was a Tuesday night and a Friday night, and they were both at the Murray Art Center, which has since been closed down. The Tuesday night was really just kind of a lesson night and then people would stick around and dance for a bit because music would be playing for another hour and a half, two hours afterwards. Most people would show up regularly for the lesson from Pam Genovesi on the Tuesday night. Friday night was run by a few different people, and on average the number of people that would show up would be anywhere from 30 to 50 people. Since the Murray art center had been there for so long, the local community kind of knew it as a place to go as like a date night type thing.

So we'd get a lot of people that would show up and get exposed to the dance and show up for a little bit, but not really be invested in the dance. So the local high school would have different things that would bring people out or have a requirement for their own social dance night that they would have to go out and social dance.

SAMANTHA: Oh, nice.

JAMES: But that had been running for like 10-15 years. People over the course of that time kind of knew the Murray Art Center as a place to go to social dance or to take a date or do different things, just something to do for a Friday night. A chunk of that community was based off of that, of a lot of non-serious dancers or like not actual West coast swing core people. That make sense. Over the course of several years, it's expanded to where there's now five different nights that you can dance West coast. So it went from like 30 to 50 West coast swing dancers to now we're, if I count somebody that shows up, like at least once a month, you'd be at four hundred or five hundred dancers now.

SAMANTHA: That's a huge growth over any amount of time.

JAMES: Yeah. It's been quite awesome to be a part of that growth and to kind of see that happen.

SAMANTHA: Well, and I think something really cool. Again, not being a member of the West coast swing community, I'm kind of seeing this from the outside perspective. I think something really cool that's come up in the last couple years is the J and T performance team.

JAMES: Oh yeah.

SAMANTHA: So I think from like a ballroom perspective, having them perform at Utah Star Ball this last year -- and they've come to the studio a couple of times to perform -- is a really great way to expose non Westies to another avenue of getting into it. Or if I'm social dancing on a Friday night or Tuesday night, I could potentially work to this. I think it's much more tangible that you can come to a competition and dance with complete strangers, just like you do on Tuesday night, but this time you'll be judged.

JAMES: Yeah. It gives it a little bit more of a open avenue for people, especially that have like a familiar ballroom backgrounds to where, "oh, this is choreo and I can learn this choreo and this'll help me learn the dance." It's very much that way. There are generally two different levels. There's varsity and there's junior varsity. So, the JV team, anybody can get on. The varsity team, you kind of have to prove yourself a little bit because it's a lot harder movements and a lot harder to execute. Usually it's faster tempos or crazy tricks and different things that you can do in the dance.

SAMANTHA: And that choreo in the music is being set by Jordan and Tatiana every season, right?

JAMES: Yeah. Every season. Six months. This most recent season has been extended, so it's going to shift how the seasons work in the future, I guess, and the timings.

How are you keeping in touch with your dance students during covid?

SAMANTHA: Very cool. So, because you're teaching - or were, it's this weird like Twilight zone - how are you encouraging your students to practice during this time? Are you doing options like Skype or zoom lessons to kind of check in with people?

JAMES: I'm just generally touching base with people chat wise. I let them reach out to me if they want a lesson or not. I'm very hands off that way. I just kind of expect most of my students to be able to do it, because I've already given them solo drills and solo practice. I check in with them occasionally to be like, hey, are you doing your drills? Are you actually finishing your homework? Because if you're able to continue to do this, you're going to see improvement and growth. If you're using this time to just kind of slack and not do anything, that's going to be really apparent the next time we have a lesson or the next time I see you out at a social dance. Right?

So they kind of know that every time I'm out at a dance and they're there, I generally will do kind of a litmus test already with what they're learning, what they're retaining, what they still need to work on, that type of thing. It's not from like a judgment standpoint. It's more of how can I help them grow better or grow faster standpoint, but it's something that I can't really turn off at any point.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. And I think that is something that a lot of instructors would echo as well. I know for me, I'm sending students like, okay, this is what I want you to be working on with your feet and you can do it in your kitchen. Or, you know, if you're sitting at your desk and you're waiting for that next conference call, stretch and lift yourself. Am I using my lats? Just sit in your chair and make sure that everything's moving together. So there's a lot of individual stuff that I think as instructors, we're hoping our students are doing at home during this time, but it'll be really up to them.

I think you made a really good point that we do see our students out on a social dance floor or practicing and yes, you are going to catch us looking you up and down and maybe we'll go (shakes finger) when we see you do that, you know. I just remembered this is eventually going to be a podcast and those movements are not going to translate. But we're judging a little bit and it's not from a, "I'm so disappointed" or, "gosh, why won't they do X, Y, and Z." It's always from a place of, okay. clearly that thing that I mentioned in passing a month ago hasn't taken hold, so how can I reintroduce it in the next lesson in a way that maybe it'll be incorporated a little bit better. Or, yeah, okay, we tweaked X, but now I'm seeing an issue with Y, so I need to go back and revisit the thing that we changed so that it doesn't start impacting all of these other things.

JAMES: Yeah. For me, I'm usually a little bit more blunt where I'm like, Oh, they clearly didn't get this concept. Let's hit them over the head with a board with that concept.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. Your toes are still turned in. How, how do I fix this without being the mean Russian ballet teacher with the stick?

JAMES: I flip the switch and go mean Russian instructor all the time.

SAMANTHA: I get so much flack from some of my students because there's a broom handle in the studio that we kind of refer to as the "teaching stick" on occassion. It's not what you think. It's not to beat students with, it's to have them hold and elevate their frame. Right? Or, you know, we'll grab a shoe box and have them put it between the partnership and if the shoe box drops, that's something that I need to take a look at. But it's just a method for you to change your perspective and for me to make you feel a little bit awkward and silly for a couple of minutes.

JAMES: I actually use all sorts of weird things. Like, I'm holding up a water bottle right now for the future podcast, so you guys can know, and it's mostly full at the moment, but I'll use this to be able to make it so, to try to set muscles in the right place. So if you're holding it from your back versus holding it through your shoulder or your arm, like I am. I use objects a lot when I teach to try to help my students shift how they hold their frame, or where they hold their frame from, or how much force they need to hold the tone for, to create different movements at different tension levels and different acceleration points, that type of thing.

SAMANTHA: Well, and I think that makes an otherwise intangible concept tangible, right? For those that watch the Wednesday and Friday teaching stream, my husband Matt always gives me a little bit of flack because I'll go into what he refers to as like artsy, hippy nonsense, where I'm like, I need to feel a light coming from your sternum.

It's like, what the heck does that mean? If I instead make you hold bands and stretch it across from elbow to elbow, you're gonna feel real quick if your lats are engaged or not.

JAMES: Yeah. Occasionally, I have a few literal students like that, so, I turned very literal for them very quickly.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, the big shiny red apple doesn't work for everything.

JAMES: Exactly right. Yeah. Using one of my own teaching word-isms against me. I see how it is.

SAMANTHA: Only because you have said that to me a couple of times now. I am switching between the student brain going this is just silly nonsense and the teacher brain going, okay, I get what he's coming from.

JAMES: And, Oh, this totally works. I need to use this myself.

SAMANTHA: I wouldn't take it that far.

JAMES: That's great.

What are you looking forward to after Covid?

SAMANTHA: So what are you looking forward to most post current situation?

JAMES: Probably just social dancing, honestly.

SAMANTHA: Do you have a timeline in your head for when you expect social dancing to come back? Because I imagine that social dancing is going to be not the first thing, right? I have a feeling that we're going to get back to private lessons first for awhile and social dancing is going to be a little while off still.

JAMES: I have a feeling it won't be till July or maybe after July before we'll start to see social dancing.

SAMANTHA: You're much more optimistic than I am.

JAMES: Yeah, it might end up being August, but I really think it will be July when we'll start to see it happening.

SAMANTHA: I'd like that. I'd like to go back sooner rather than later. I know that you and Molly were planning on traveling a whole bunch and competing a whole bunch. So, from the competition end of the world and the workshop end of the world: the competitions that were scheduled for March, April, May of this year have obviously been canceled or postponed. Are they rescheduling for the fall or are they just pushing back to 2021?

JAMES: Most of them pushed to 2021. There's been a few that have postponed to like November and December timeframe, so that might ended up being postponed even more. We don't know yet, but most everything has been closed and just pushed to next year.

SAMANTHA: Same in the ballroom world. Yeah. Question from the chat. Do we think that non-touching stuff might become more popular, like Zumba type things? No.

JAMES: No. Honestly, I think that once everything goes back to normal, everybody's going to crave that physical connection. More than not.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think there's going to be a little bit of a struggle for a couple of months where things have opened up and restrictions have lessened, and we do crave that and we want to get back to it so quickly, but I think for a lot of us, we're going to have this voice in the back of our head that says that you still want to avoid things and you still want to wash your hands compulsively. You still probably are going to want to wear a mask. You might not be as willing to switch partners as regularly and as frequently. I think there's going to be this little bit of like putting the toe back in the water, to kind of see what's possible and what's comfortable.

JAMES: It'll definitely be a little bit of testing the waters at first, but, if everything kind of just fades away, then it'll come back. One of the challenges that I face that I'll be facing in my group classes is that it's pretty much mandatory. Everybody rotates. It's not exactly mandatory, I always leave it as an optional, but it's social. I've cultivated a community mindset that everybody rotates. If you rotate, you get better, faster by feeling different connections and different leading or following styles. it pushes you to get better at your role, and I think it'll be a while before we're able to get back to that. So that'll be a challenge that we'll have to recultivate in my group classes.

SAMANTHA: Especially on the part of instructors, I think there's going to be a little bit of like a transition period where we're like, okay, we're so glad that you're back. But we're going to understand that we're all trying to now navigate in this hypocondriac world.

JAMES: Yeah. A couple of thoughts that we're having right now is when we start group classes back, I think we'll start it up with a limited class size and have multiple different hour signups. Since we're not going to have social dance anymore, we can have multiple different hours of group classes running that will be the same material, but it will be limited on class size and will keep teaching as long as people, as long as we have signups for those class times.

SAMANTHA: I like that. I like that kind of limiting the group class size to 10 or 12 people, whatever the new minimum is. And then just offering more classes during the week to kind of make up for the difference.

I like that. I think that's a good work around.

Learning ballroom dance after west coast swing

JAMES: Samantha mentioned earlier that she's taking lessons from me on how to be better at West coast. She didn't mention how frustrated I am about learning ballroom. It's kind of a nightmare.

SAMANTHA: I can assure you the frustration that you feel about ballroom is the same frustration that I feel about West coast.

JAMES: Well, the thing is, I get to know one dance, which is West coast. However, there's like four variants of it, depending on the type of music you're dancing to at my level. There's four to five to six variants that you kind of have to know really well, but they're all West coast swing and they're all like shades of the same dance, and there's minor nuances because of XYZ. We can get into that. In ballroom, you guys have so many freaking dances and like one completely conflicts with a different one, and it's like, oh, this one, we do have to have a toe lead or a heel lead, but, this one, we're actually doing this opposite thing.

So it's kind of a nightmare to keep it all straight. There are things that I can do, except I just can't do them all at the same time yet.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. It's okay. Right? If you started your dance journey with one very specific dance style, suddenly getting thrust into this world where it's like 19 different competitive dances and they all have their own patterns and timing and footwork. There are some through lines, but you aren't going to see those through lines for like the first three months. I can see how that can be very overwhelming.

JAMES: Yeah, it was a bit crazy.

SAMANTHA: Well, and you're working with me on smooth, but then you're also working with Dallas on rhythm.


SAMANTHA: So what dances have you learned so far? What dances are you working on?

JAMES: I can't say that I've learned any dances so far. I've become accustomed to the concepts that are prevalent in, let's see here, Chacha, Foxtrot, a little bit of tango. What else? There was another one. Waltz. I hate waltz. I've hated waltz ever since I started dancing.

SAMANTHA: Okay. I know we were winding down, but let's get into this.

JAMES: Okay.

SAMANTHA: Because I want to know why. So what you've mentioned in the past is that you are frustrated when you watch a social dance waltz and you're like, yeah, it could be more. I get totally get that. But are there other reasons why you find waltz so frustrating?

JAMES: So waltz is very pedestrian. It's literally walking down the freaking street. There's nothing. Yeah. It's just walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. It doesn't make sense to me. And then they're like, oh, but we're going to make this so complicated that you can't do it. I have watched like world champions dance waltz and it's gorgeous. But everybody else, it's like, eh, I'd rather watch anything but this right now.

SAMANTHA: You're really selling people on taking ballroom dance lessons.

JAMES: From my perspective. Okay. Sorry. Maybe I should tone it back a little bit.

SAMANTHA: I think that is valid. I think a lot of people get into the ballroom world and they're like, yeah, I want to learn waltz. It's because waltz looks so easy. Then they get into lesson two where your instructor is like, okay, we're going to talk about rise and fall and using your ankle and using your knee, and then the difference between foot rise and body rise, and that's going to all commence on the half beat before one, and then you have to rise at your highest peak in between two counts -- but there's not a step there -- you just have to create it with your body. And then the eyes start rolling back in their head.

JAMES: Yup. But then they're just like, fine, we're just going to do waltz walking down the street style then, and then all the instructors want to shoot their brains out. Yeah. That's great.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. To be fair, that reaction and that frustration is the exact same feeling that I had when I walked into my very first West coast class a decade ago, and we did a sugar push and a sugar tuck, which are both six count phrases, and they're very logical. I was like, okay, I can do this. That's not a problem. Then we're going to do an eight count whip, and I'm like, wait, so you have two different timings? How do I know as a follow which one is which? You don't until you're in it, and then you're just expected to do it. But why? But how? I need to know if I'm going forward on this count and doing X, and I'm going back on this count and doing Y. No, that's not how West coast works. Oh, and by the way, you're a lady, so please put whatever styling you want, and the lead is just going to lead you on the first two counts. After that, you've got four extra counts to do whatever the heck you want.

JAMES: Yeah. Artistic freedom. It's good times.

SAMANTHA: I would much rather listen to someone be like, no, you were rising too early on this 'two-and'.

JAMES: Yeah. I teach beginning classes the way you would prefer, but it's been quite a while since I've taught beginning classes. Most everybody wants me to teach advanced classes because I can push the advanced students a lot easier than some of the other instructors locally.

SAMANTHA: Do you find a freedom in that? At the point that you are teaching a lot of intermediate and advanced classes, when you go back to a beginner and you have to teach like they have no knowledge whatsoever, do you find that freeing or do you find that frustrating?

JAMES: Oddly enough, I don't find that either. In a private lesson setting, I actually wipe the slate clean and I just look at what is relevant to them in the moment and where they need to get to for their next big step. So whatever's lacking, I just make sure they understand what that is. I approach my teaching in a private lesson setting as what are the big boulders that I need to focus on that will give them the most movement forward when they achieve that concept. I have learned to ignore small pebbles that a lot of other instructors will get caught up on. Oh, your foot strike is happening on the wrong count. Well, if they do this other thing, that's going to happen naturally, and this other thing fixes like 10 other things that are happening right now. So we're going to focus on this big Boulder. Over time, if those other small things are still taking place in the next couple of weeks or so, or whenever we have another lesson, if those other things are still happening while they've fixed this big Boulder issue, then then I might start to bring up the smaller points, but most of the time I just focus on those big, big, overarching issues in a private lesson setting, in a, in a group class setting, it's, it's very much different where I view it as, okay, how do I get everybody in this group class on the same track and progressing, not too slow and not too fast? Yeah. And in a group class setting, I basically focus on the middle of the class, and when I reach a mid saturation point, I move on and I'm not going to stay on the subject until everybody gets it, because occasionally I have a few students that if that would be the case, we would be still on the first pattern for the whole hour, which I will not. Stay that long on that.

SAMANTHA: Absolutely.

JAMES: It's not fair to the higher end of the students.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. And then I think that's a thing that people really need to understand about group classes is you might have a quality instructor in a group class, but you will not often get quality instruction from a group class. If you are looking to find the best way to progress you individually or you as a couple, you have to invest in private lessons. Group classes are very much, okay, I'm going to come in with a game plan, I'm going to teach a pattern or I'm going to teach a concept, and when the middle of the class has figured it out, I'm going to move on, and if you're at the high end or the low end of that class, it is not going to serve you as well. You can still find nuggets of information, like by all means, like if there's a masterclass or a group class in your area go cause it's still a great experience. Yeah. But if you're, if you are wanting. To take your dancing to the next level. One private lesson is going to give you the same information that 10 group classes would gave you.

JAMES: Yup. If not more.

SAMANTHA: Absolutely.

JAMES: Yeah. Well, most of my students that take a private lesson for their first time, they leave. Okay. I don't do this on purpose, but I want to make sure, like, I treat most of my students as being very intelligent and being very proactive. So I give them more information rather than less, and I expect them to work on it. So I give them a ton of information and I'm like, okay, these are the solid takeaways and this is what I want you to work on, so that next time we can cover new material. Right? The first time somebody's been through a private lesson with me, their eyes like their brain is like shut off from overload, and their eyes are like the size of like dinner plates.

SAMANTHA: I encourage my students to either bring a note pad with them or videotape. I'm fine if a student wants to videotape part of their lesson because I feel the exact same way. I'm going to give you as much information as I can in this 55-minute period, and I don't want to treat it like a practice. I have a number of social students where this is their date night. This is their day away from the kids. This is like the one hour that they have to themselves every week, and it's just fun and it's just a practice and we're not going to make huge progress every lesson. I get that, but for the students that are highly motivated and they've set goals and they're like, I want to compete here or I want to perform here in X amount of time or I want, I want to get to the point where I don't have to worry about what pattern I'm going to lead next on a social dance floor. It's like okay, be ready because cause you are going to get all of the information in my brain that I can give you in this time and you're going to remember 2% of it if you don't write it down and I'm going to expect you to work on it for the next week. And already have it mostly figured out and in your muscle memory by the next time I see you.

JAMES: Yeah. High goals for teachers. Yes.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, and then immediately having the voice in the back of your brain that's like, okay, I understand why you didn't get to this level. I'm not disappointed, but we'll go over it again.

So, you don't like waltz, you've made that very clear. Foxtrot versus tango. Do you have a preference between the two or are you still trying to figure out both.

JAMES: Still trying to figure out both, since I do country two-step, Foxtrot feels weird.


JAMES: Yeah. So. Yeah. I've acutely learned the difference between Foxtrot and country Two step.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Good. I wanted to make sure that if you got nothing else out of that Foxtrot lesson, the two are not the same.

JAMES: Yeah. some of the moves can be the same, but how you get into them and out of them are completely different. Yeah. That would be like, so an East coast swing, there's actually very similar moves. I'm in West coast. Yeah. But they're led completely different. Right. So that'd be kind of the same concept.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I think you figured out really quickly that if you don't remind me ahead of time or you don't overlead what is it? A left side pass? In a way that I turn to you, I'm going to treat it like a throw out from East coast swing every single time. Yeah. The hand is going to come up and over and I'm just going to run forward. I'm not going to remember that I'm supposed to curve my step and cross my feet.

JAMES: Yup. And stay facing your torso. Alignment to your partner throughout. Yeah.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. And then there's just tango. I like tango. Of all of the dances, I think tango is probably my favorite at the moment with smooth, but I feel like beginners tend to not like it in the beginning.

JAMES: So my challenge is that I've actually done Argentine tango for about a year, so this is like, I have to think of it as a completely different dance because it quite frankly is, yeah, it has the same similar base step, but that's about it.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I try to tell students all the time, Argentine tango, you are connected in an a frame. So you're, you're connected at the top and your feet are farther apart. In American and international tango, which were the ballroom end of the world, you're connected in a Y frame, so your bases are very close to each other, and your top lines are, are very far apart.

JAMES: Yeah. It creates a completely different feel and a completely different movement set because of that.

SAMANTHA: Absolutely. Well, and I think it makes a whole lot of sense for you to cross train West coast with Argentine more so than ballroom, because I feel like the lead and the conversation aspect of those two dances are more closely aligned.

JAMES: Yes. However, there's other challenges that arise because of cross training with, Argentine tango. Cause then Argentine, nobody ever looks at Aesthetics of the dance. That's all about the feel of the dance and how everything created. And the connection points in Argentine are not at all similar to West coast.

Right. But the communication and the, and the pastor and the play interplay between the partners. That's about the only thing that's really similar. Yeah. Like there's ways you can modify each of the dances to become more similar to each other, but then somebody that's a true form of West coast or a true form of like a pure dancer that only dances one or the other. We'll be able to tell that you're definitely not doing something that's common. Yeah. Or like they're like, Oh, you definitely have a flare of something else in your dancing. That's not what I'm used to. Right. So. Yeah,

SAMANTHA: and I, and I will say, and this is, this is not meant to scare anybody that is thinking about coming into any one of these communities. We are very open. We are very welcome. But something that you kind of have to understand is there is a West coast swing community. There is a Lindy swing community. There is an Argentine tango community. There is a, yeah. Blues community, a country community, a salsa and bachata community. Although those two are now splitting, which I find fascinating. Yeah. and then there's just ballroom. And within the ballroom umbrella, you get people that are like, Oh, I'm an international Latin dancer. Oh, I'm an American rhythm dancer. And you get like these sub communities within ballroom, but for the most part, it's ballroom. And then you have all of these little social communities and people within their community get, I get a little intense at times about people from other communities coming in and trying to dance that style.

I feel like as a ballroom dancer, I get called out all lot in West coast and salsa for like, you're dancing that like a Mambo or you dance that too much. Like an East coast ballroom dancer and it's like, but I'm trying.

JAMES: Yeah. There's always the higher level dancers from the social scene. This is going to sound weird, but a lot of the lower level social dancers in all of the social communities that you named, not the ballroom community, but all of the others, there's always going to be the top level dancers that are going to be frustrated or not want to dance with you because you don't fit their mold. They're not going to find their own type of enjoyment out of dancing with you. They just need to get over themselves, in my opinion.

SAMANTHA: Agreed. 100%. Agreed.

JAMES: Yeah, but there's also going to be a massive chunk of that community that is going to be totally happy dancing with you because you actually understand the basic concepts of the dance, and you can execute and have at least a base level communication and lead-follow play with what's going on.

You're always going to find those purists that are chasing what in reality they can only get maybe one or two of those dances that they're seeking a night and they're dancing with you out of pity or out of hope or out of whatever. I don't get it. I used to be that. I used to be that type of a dancer, but now I just see where you're at and I'm just like, well, let's see if I can modify what I'm doing to be able to allow XYZ to occur. Right? So it becomes more of a challenge to me to be able to see if I can create movements out of you that you never thought you could do. That type of thing. Right.

Discussing social dance communities and not being anxious about being a new dancer

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I think that's a good mindset for dancers at any level to have. It's okay, you know? We all had to start off somewhere and we only got to the level that we're at because we had some positive reinforcement along the way and we had someone that was better that kind of gave us a hand up and was like, here, I'll help you. Okay. If you're a purely social dancer, you probably had a lead or follow that was like, okay, I see what I'm working with. Let get you to the point where you're confident that you can dance this at your level and look really good doing it, right, or have fun on a social night, you know? I would not be teaching or dancing if I had someone early on that was like, well, you don't know your left from your left foot from your right foot, so why are you even trying?

I'm sure that you have similar stories of being early on and having kind of that positive, like, "I'll help you along, I've walked this path before. I know what's ahead of you, and here's my kind of golden tips to getting through it." So I feel like if you are a social dancer or competitive dancer, like just leave the ego at the door. We get it. You're good. You're not the best in the world, and if you are the best in the world, you could still be better, so help people behind you.

JAMES: That's true. And even the best in the world will generally help people instead of being arrogant about it, you know? The only reason I'm in the dance community is that the third week that I showed up social dancing, this guy that had taught the beginning class -- like I'd show up to the beginning lindy hop dance lesson, but after the lesson, I would stay for the social dance, but I would sit in the corner and watch because I knew where I wanted to be, where I knew what the dance was capable of, and I knew I wasn't there. It was more frustration and knowing that I couldn't do what I wanted, or I couldn't do what I wanted to and envisioned myself doing. So it ended up being where I would sit, not just because I was socially awkward or anything, but because I was frustrated that I couldn't do what I could see the potential of the dance being.

This guy that had taught the beginning class, he came up to me and he's like, you're not going to be able to get better by sitting and watching. You have to just get out and do it. So he grabbed a follow and he's like, just dance. It's okay. It's okay to be bad at this dance. He understood where I was coming from. I don't know how he understood where I was coming from, but he knew that I was functional and he knew that I was not shy and he knew that I was just who I was because he saw me interact in the beginning classes. So that's the only reason I'm still dancing today is because of him, and I don't even know his name.

SAMANTHA: Just some guy. There's some guy.

JAMES: Just some guy.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. I love that. I think the big tip that I would want to give every beginning social dancer is to just say yes. Like, obviously don't say yes if it's creepy or uncomfortable or not safe, but if you're around safe people just say yes. Just get out and move and try, because it's mental, and it's muscle memory, and if you are not actively dancing, you're not building muscle memory so you won't reach whatever potential you're trying to get to.

JAMES: The growth is happening through. Experience and another way to say the word experience is also failure. Most people are afraid of failing at something, but the way that most of us learn is through failure and trial and error, right? So trial and error, there's more error than there is success, but you learn more from failing than you learn from having successes, beause you're not understanding the parameters yet of what that success is until you fail.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Don't play it safe.

JAMES: All of my students that grow the most are the ones that are unapologetic. That's kind of a weird way to say it, but they're always the ones that have a goal in mind and they're going to it and they accept their own failure, but they also accept that they're moving forward. They learn from it and they just keep pushing. It's almost like they have a drive and they don't understand that failure is supposed to make you feel sad. They're like, no, I'm growing, I don't care. Got it. So those are all my students that learn and grow the fastest or are the ones that are driven and are not set back by failure.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. A term I use a lot of time with my competitive and performance students is to commit to it. I don't care what choice you're making in this moment, but whatever you do, commit to it. Because if you commit to it and it's wrong, you'll feel it and you'll learn from it. If you commit to it and it's fantastic, then you are going to try and seek out that same feeling every single time that you're on the dance floor. Either way, it's a learning opportunity. If you don't commit to it, you're not going to know whether it was a good choice or a bad choice.

JAMES: In that gray area where you didn't commit to it, that's kind of where that failure already is. You didn't commit enough to it and you're already failing at that point. So you either need to choose to succeed or choose to get a better learning experience out of that.

SAMANTHA: Try to fail, but don't fail to try.

So how can people find you if they are interested in following your competition journey or if they want to get lessons on the books for when all of this calms down? How can they find you?

JAMES: I'm mainly just out of Facebook, so reach out to me on Facebook. So if you just go to

SAMANTHA: That should be the link that is below James's photo right now on the stream. So if you're tuning into the stream, it should be right under your bright shining face, and I'll make sure to include it in the show notes when we post this everywhere that we post it. And you are currently based out of BallroomUtah?

JAMES: Yes. I teach all my private lessons out of there.

SAMANTHA: Prior to this, and hopefully after this, there's a West coast group class and eventually social night on Tuesday nights out of BallroomUtah as well.

JAMES: That starts at seven, unless things change. Coming back into things might be changing. If for some reason the Facebook link doesn't work, you can also reach out, via my Gmail address, which is

SAMANTHA: and I'll make sure to put that in the post notes.

JAMES: Cool.

SAMANTHA: Yeah. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me. Loved having your opinion, loved talking a little bit more West coast swing shop, because I'm learning, I'm still trying to figure out what it's all about. so thank you so much. again, you can find James on, I'll also include the email address that he mentioned, in our show notes.

I'm Samantha. You can find me at, on Facebook at "stoutballroomdance," or over on Instagram at "lovelivedance slc." We do this podcast every Monday morning at 10:00 AM mountain time. Okay. over on Twitch. So if you want to tune in and chat with us live, we'd love to have you.

Next week's guest is Marcos Martinez of Marcos Martinez dancewear. He is a Utah designer of dance attire, and he has made my last three competition dresses. And he is incredible. so wanted to talk to him, next week about dance wear in the ballroom industry and kind of what his design process is and all of those fun, fun things to talk about. but yeah, so thank you so much for tuning in. Thank you again to JAMES for coming and talking with us. And, we will see you guys next week. Stay, stay happy, stay safe, stay healthy. And bye guys.