Freedom in Dance Is Best Sampled with a Little Definition

To listen to Julie Epplett of the West Coast Swing dance company Groovy, Bluesy, Jazzy, Funky, you might believe that West Coast Swing gives definition to our concept of freedom.  

West Coast Swing is a dance form based in American jazz culture and involves extensive partner-dancing. Few dance styles in our century have had the longevity or dedication as swing. Today, West Coast Swing is taught and danced around the world as an evolving form of entertainment and exercise. In 1988, the State of California declared West Coast Swing its official state dance in a senate bill, which gives a detailed description of the dance. As noted in the bill, as provided by Streetswing.com: 

SENATE BILL (S.B). NO. 2460: 

West Coast Swing, also known as Swing, Whip, or Jitterbug, came into being in the early 1930's in response to new musical forms then sweeping the land. It was created at the grassroots level of our people. Devotees of this art come from every conceivable ethnic, religious, racial, and economic background. Age is no factor, nor is gender. Among the ranks of swing dancers, one can find Judges, School teachers, to Lawyers, Waitresses, Salesmen, Doctors, Students, and so on. 

Julie has been dancing since 1968. She started out with ballet and jazz, including jazz performances with a troupe in Kuwait, and later added the Spanish flamenco to her dance repertoire. However, it was West Coast Swing that ultimately claimed this dancer. Since 1996, Julie Epplett has been a performer, teacher, choreographer and social dancer of West Coast Swing, competing throughout North America since 1997. She won first place titles four separate times and placed nine times as a finalist. “My very first exposure to West Coast Swing was at a live performance by Marcia Ball in New York City,” Julie said. “I didn’t even know you could dance to music like that -- like that! I later discovered that West Coast works with so many types of music, from the funk that I danced to in the 70’s to the latest Justin Timberlake.” 

“It’s such a great dance for women because there’s so much freedom within the dance to express your own personal style.” 

However, Julie will tell you that the best way to sample this freedom is with structure. Containing freedom in anything may seem like a contradiction but to witness these West Coast dancers stretching their bodies and hitting the rhythms, it becomes clear that the sweeter the container, the sweeter the freedom. 

Now, in dance, structure takes many forms. Julie Epplett teaches us that creative expression with a structure gives us a path to follow and a language to speak in order to find our passion.  

“In the last 10 years or so, the issue of 'swing content' started to gain credence on the competition circuit,” Julie Epplett said. “At first I wasn't convinced that I wanted West Coast Swing to have 'rules'. However, I changed my mind one night when watching a video with one of my mentors, Mario Robau Jr. The video was of a champion-level, competition in Seattle. With the music turned down, I couldn't see a single swing pattern. These days most competition rules specify 80-90% swing content, which allows other styles but keeps swing dancers 'honest' about doing the dance they are meant to be doing. Another 'tradition' that is being upheld on the competition circuit is that West Coast Swing is a blues dance, and as such, competitors are expected to be able to dance to both blues and contemporary music with equal skill.” 

"Ultimately, if you don't have some kind of structure, you'll lose the dance completely.” 
However, structure in this form of freedom, takes another form on a more individual level – between the dancer and the music.

In Dance Time Toronto magazine, she wrote, “Dance to the beat but maintain your spontaneity! Remain grounded by dancing on time. There’s a structure to most things we do, but always remember to make the dance your own by allowing your own individual style and creativity to shine through.”

Dance is like a language for the body to talk to the music. Dance as a language is particularly key in West Coast Swing because this is a partner-dance. Learning the structure, the basic tools of the dance allows the artist greater freedom and ability to express their individuality. 

Julie Epplett remarked, “For me the dance is about the magic of dancing with someone new or otherwise and 'connecting' to each other, and the music, for an unbelievably perfect three minutes. My approach as a teacher emphasizes socially lead-able patterns and cultivating the ability to dance with partners of varying skill levels.” 

“Dancing can be incredibly healing,” Julie Epplett said, “Partly because of its physicality -- just breathing, stretching, and getting your heart rate up and partly because you're a member of a community which can act as a support system. There's just something enormously satisfying about moving your body to music.”  

On ending our interview, Julie offered her favourite philosophy learned through the love of dance, “I have a quote on my refrigerator that says: "Este mundo es un Fandango y el que no baile es un tonto". It's apparently an old Spanish expression that translates as: "All the world is a Fandango (a type of dance), and he who does not dance is a fool". What it means to me, is that you're crazy not to enjoy life, so get out there and dance!” 

For more information about Julie Epplett, please visit her website at: Groovy, Bluesy, Jazzy, Funky.  

October 2007  
© lyw