Wikipedia provides a good overview of the History of Blues Dancing
Original Blues dancing began as a vernacular African-American dance, tied to the
blues and jazz music that evolved during the early 1900's.
It is a lead-follow partner dance that involves rhythmic, syncopated, and often sensual movement.
With the resurgence of Lindy Hop during the 80's and 90's, a Slow/Smooth Lindy style developed that shares a musical tradition with West Coast Swing (WCS) and original Blues dancing. This set the stage for a recent spread of contemporary Blues dancing and the evolution of Blues-Fusion dancing.
While open-connection Blues dancing has much in common with WCS (minus the anchors) and Slow Lindy (minus the swivel hips) - unlike WCS and most other partner dances, Blues dancing lacks a "standard" basic pattern. As such, Blues dancing relies heavily on explicit weight changes, deep listening, and a dynamic connection, to convey intention. Syncopated pulsing is the aesthetic element common to all Blues dancing.
Blues dancing has three physical frames of connection: Open Connection (similar to most swing dances), Closed Frame (similar to a WCS starter-step), and Close Embrace (similar to a relaxed Argentine Tango).
MY BLUES PHILOSOPHY - THE EMOTIVE CORE
Most musical genres are recognized through their rhythms: Jazzy Swing usually has evenly-spaced taps, Rock has a boom-chick. Blues music emulates a heartbeat with a ba-boom---shhh - forming a pulse and a drive/slide.
Likewise, Blues dancing has a pulse that emulates that heartbeat - and movement comes from what I call the Emotive Core (in Contemporary Blues dancing, at the sternum, near the heart). I make a distinction between the Emotive Core, and what ballet dancers would call their Power Core (the pivot point between upper and lower body isolations). Your Power Core provides the strength in your movements; your Emotive Core is what communicates your intent.
In Blues dancing, movement (and particularly the lead) comes from the Emotive Core. If movement does not originate from the emotive core, then it's not readily communicated to your partner, leading to a break in connection (or an intentional isolation).
The location of the Emotive Core varies depending on the era of Blues dancing you are using. For Blues prior to the 1940s, the Emotive Core was somewhere between the hips and ribs - leaving your upper body free to move. Contemporary (eg Gentrified) Blues shifts the Emotive Core to the sternum, near the heart - maintaining room between the partner's pelvis.
By listening to the pulse in the music (it may be implied, particularly in Blues-Fusion music), then moving from your emotive core (letting your body/frame follow) - your partner (if they are listening) will automatically see/feel your intention. This is the essence of a body lead.
Blues dancing is a contact sport. Close Embrace involves a firm compressive connection between the Follow's sternum and the Lead's chest, similar to a relaxed Argentine Tango. The Lead moves their Emotive Core with clear intention (forward/back, side-to-side, up/down, rotation) - the Follow controls/maintains connection via compression of their Emotive Core with the Lead's right suspender line; when the Lead moves backward, the Follow will drive forward to maintain connection; when the Lead moves forward, the Follow will provide resistance. The arms may be used for stability, styling, suggestion - but should not be relied on for connection/frame.
Leads keep their torso and head upright, generally with knees bent. Follows keep their torso upright, or slightly leaned in; their head may be upright, or resting on the Lead's shoulder/chest (depending on height). A common error for novice Follows is to lean back or press their hips in - this breaks connection, causing the Lead to either lean over, or press their hips into their partner's in order to regain connection.
This is similar to the connection/frame used in WCS for the starter step, or within a Whip. The heel of Lead's hand (usually the right) is under the arm and against the lats the Follow's mirror side (usually left). The follow's mirror arm is placed on top of the Lead's arm, with the hand resting in front of the the Lead's shoulder (with some compression). The Follow's bicep, forearm and hand provide 3 points of contact for firm connection. As with Close Embrace, the Follow controls the tone by their level of compression/resistance. The partners' opposite hand may (or may not) be held in a light hand-hold - often held hanging low, or up (no higher than the shoulder); it will only be held above the shoulder for turns/spins, or certain stylistic movements.
This will be familiar for most partner dancers: one or both hands (mirrored or crossed) held in connection - alternately providing compression or tension. This is the one form of physical Blues connection where the Lead sets the tone, and the Follow generally matches. Unlike most partner dances, Blues has a "dynamic" tone in connection: the level of compression/tension is controlled by the "energy" of the dance, which will vary from dance-to-dance, with the music moment-to-moment, and with varying partners.
A common error for novice Leads in partner dancing is to 1) step, 2) pull/push their partner, then 3) move their bodies. Instead, 1) lead by moving your core, 2) driving your legs, then 3) by maintaining frame your arms will follow. Your Follow should move with your core - not your arms.
WEIGHT CHANGES and MOMENTUM
Structured dances use rules that make it easier for a Follow to predict what they should do next: slots, momentum, anchors, patterns, basic steps, frame, etc.
While Blues may be danced in a slot, it often is not; in a crowded dance floor, the Lead may send the Follow into any open space, which may be in a diagonal direction.
Since Blues dancing is largely unstructured, it relies heavily on two "rules": clear/complete weight changes, and momentum: the Follow keeps moving/turning until decelerated/stopped or redirected by the Lead, and generally stays stopped, until accelerated/led by the Lead.
Squaring up and standing with split weight (common in old-school WCS, but not contemporary WCS) makes it difficult for the Follow to know what's coming next - as you can start with any foot/direction in Blues dancing. Instead, zipper your feet, such that the Follow's right foot is generally between the Lead's feet.
You should (with very few exceptions) always be able to lift up your unweighted foot and balance on just your weighted foot - at any point in your dance. It helps to keep your knees slightly bent, feet grounded, chest/head upright.
Weight changes should be distinct/clear enough that your partner is aware of it visually without touch, or with their hand on your shoulder with eyes closed. That's not to say that weight changes need to be exaggerated (they can be subtle), but they must be distinct.
This is accomplished by: a) bending the weighted leg, (b) letting the unweighted leg hang (or collect) beneath your body, and c) moving from your Emotive Core first.
Mirror dances, such as East Coast Swing and Lindy, tend to hit the beat at the same time. As a result, they tend to have higher tone, firmer frame, and bounce to emphasize the beat.
Argentine Tango, WCS, and Blues all support Viscosity: the capacity to Lag, where the Follow may provide some resistance, and lag behind the Lead. This allows the Follow more flexibility to express their voice and interpret the lead. This in turn allows for a lighter tone, relaxed frame, and a grounded pulse, rather than a bounce. It also allows for a dynamic tone, which varies throughout the dance - for better musical expression.
Pulsing (a syncopated intent without weight change) is the defining aesthetic element to Blues dancing. Unlike most Lindy Hop (and more similar to WCS), Blues dancing is generally not a bouncy dance. Dancers often pulse (usually back/forward or laterally, rarely vertically) for syncopation, styling, and establishing musical connection. Your head/shoulders should not be bobbing up and down, unless it's intentional to accent a bouncy song.
Pulsing generally involves planting weight on one foot, shifting slightly without a real weight change, then replanting weight on the same foot.
Nor does Blues dancing generally involve emphasized hip patterns in Open Connection common to Lindy. In Blues dancing, hip movement is led by the emotive core, rather than from the hips or arms.
A NOTE TO WESTIES
Beginning West Coast Swing dancers are trained to weight-change on every beat (step, triple-step, or break); the expectation is that something happens every beat.
Blues dancing emphasizes musicality - and the song, or simply a moment between the partners, will suggest a pause (not necessarily an accented break), where you just maintain weight on one leg - either still (feeling each other's breath), pulsing, or doing a light shimmy or sway. The music or mood may also suggest switching to quarter, half, or double-time. Follows from a Westie tradition must pay particular attention to the Lead's weight-shifts - as they may decide to just hang out in place for a bit. The beat does not dictate a step - think of your dance as another layer of instrumentation over the music.
A fundamental feature of WCS is the anchor - and while anchors may be used in Blues Open Connection (often called stretch), they often are not. The interpretation of the music may suggest an un-tensioned pause, or a bounce (lateral, not vertical) from full extension. Westie Follows will need to listen closely to interpret their Lead's intention; Leads need to be very mindful in using acceleration/deceleration to indicate their intent.
GENDER_NEUTRAL ROLES AND SWITCH
Blues dancing (particularly in the SF Bay Area) has a tradition of decoupling Lead/Follow roles from gender. Men and women dance either role, and everyone is encouraged to learn both, as it strengthens your primary role.
Some dancers will dance one role for a song, then another role for a different song/partner. Others will switch roles during a dance, usually (but not always) between musical phrases. A Follow may (when mutually agreeable) take lead, or the Lead may relinquish lead. This involves a high level of listening/connection, and allows for a deep level of communication.
BLUES FUSION DANCING
Contemporary Blues dancing, as experienced in many clubs and dance halls, is often a fusion of many dance traditions: Argentine Tango (in close embrace), Contact Improv (in closed connection), and WCS without anchors (in open connection).
In fact, as long as you maintain clear weight changes, lead with intension, and follow with momentum, you can really integrate technique from any dance tradition. It's a matter of musicality, with each dancer listening to the "voice" of their partner. Note, however, if you wish to maintain a Blues aesthetic in your fusion dance, remember to express your pulse.
- Bob Free, Founder/Organizer of South Bay Fusion