In 2018, West Coast Swing is thriving on the sovereign city-state of Singapore in Southeast Asia. Under the leadership of Wee Tze Yi and Dalena Lee, as well as their team of passionate instructors out of their new studio, Ziggy Feet, the community is growing quickly and boasts a unique vibe that visiting Westies rave about. Just search #awcso2018 on Facebook to see post after post gushing about the Asia Open that just took place a couple weekends ago in Singapore–so many international and local dancers, like Jacques-Oliver Hache, a French Westie who’s lived in Singapore for the past five years, left the event moved by the warmth and joy-filled acceptance that they experienced.
How have Tze and Dalena created this environment in their scene, and how can other dance communities learn from and replicate this kind of supportive, accepting environment for themselves? How does the Singaporean culture affect the structure of their West Coast Swing community, and what new ideas can we draw from them for our own dance scenes around the world.
Dalena describes the Singaporean culture as “very organized and efficient,” and says that “we do like things with structure and hierarchy (to some extent), and… competitions and exams are big here.” Her and Tze appeal to this aspect of the Singaporean culture in their studio by leveling their classes and making sure the students have a clear idea of their current learning level as well as a path for measuring their progress. Dalena explains that this part is similar to the European WCS scene.
“The competitive aspect of WCS also appeals to a lot of the serious dancers here because it’s a very orderly way of tracking your progress. It’s like taking exams! Which for us are like progressive milestones we check upon graduation from primary school to high school (O Levels, A Levels, etc). Here the serious dancers generally love the thrill of ‘graduating’ from one level to another and we are pretty results-focused.” -Dalena Lee
This relates to something I’ve also observed in the Zouk scene, where they give dancers a clear path for how to “get good” at the dance by joining local teams that go through a progressive training. It’s common knowledge that much of the US West Coast Swing community writes off workshops (especially local lessons) relatively early on in their dance development, but perhaps if there were more leveled workshops where dancers couldn’t progress without “graduating,” it would be easier for dancers to get into the dance and progress further due to having clear milestone goals to aim for. In France, months of workshop lessons are sold in chunks right off the bat, to ensure commitment and progress. I doubt that would work in many cultures, but one benefit of formatting ongoing leveled workshops is that it can help strong community bonds to form as dancers come together to learn and progress as a cohort. It also gives competitive people a sense of accomplishment as they rise through the levels.
Dalena explains an important characteristic of the Singaporean scene that often gets lost in other competitive environments saying, “Our scene mingles across all levels, and we highly encourage them to do so because while we want to ‘level’ the dancers for classes, we don’t want that to happen socially to avoid ‘level snobbery’. So everyone dances and hangs out with people across the levels, there’s no like ‘better dancer syndrome’ (or we try to stamp it out asap).” I think a lot of community leaders will be curious about how they pull this off, so we asked for more info.
French Westie and teacher at Tze’s “Ziggy Feet” studio, Jacques-Oliver Hache, has lived in Singapore for five years now. He explains, “We make it clear from day one that we want the scene to be very inclusive. We dance with everyone, no matter the level, and enjoy it, so we expect our student to do the same. At some point in their training they will get a social dancing class. We explain that everyone should dance with everyone, that you shouldn’t be afraid of asking a higher level dancer, and that it’s the better dancers job to make the dance work. Everything is the better dancer’s fault. If you think you’re a good dancer, you should be able to dance with anyone. Since the scene is still fairly small here, we can kind of babysit our students and make sure that message passed.”
I love the idea of including a “social dancing class” as part of a West Coast Swing dancer’s training. It stands out to me that he even uses the word “training,” and how the instructors “babysit” their students. My impression is that new dancers in the Singaporean scene are noticed and taken care of, even having their “training” watched over. They are introduced not only to the dance, but to the culture that Dalena, Tze, and their instructors have chosen to cultivate in their community. This kind of intentionality and unified vision is powerful and I’d love to see more of this!
Jacques-Oliver Hache explains that “The community here originated from salsa. A lot of our original dancers came from it.” Tze, Dalena, and many of their instructors are highly involved in the Salsa/Bachata scene in Singapore and throughout Asia and Australia, so they have many dancers who cross over from that scene into West Coast Swing. This has created a cross-dance culture that has been able to reach more people because of this. Still, Tze states that “social dancing is not very mainstream.”
Tze describes Singapore as having “a strong East meets West culture” saying, “We are brought up with Asian values, but our education system and what we follow comes from the West.” Could this be one of the reasons why West Coast Swing is doing so well in Singapore? At the higher levels the dance requires a lot of self-expression and improvisation for competitive success. Many Asian cultures are traditionally reserved and more comfortable with precision than self-expression, but the Singaporean culture has a balance of both.
Tze and Dalena have done a phenomenal job of drawing from the cultural elements of East and West with intentionality, to figure out how their students will excel the best. They’ve created a clear route for competitive skill progression, while intentionally cultivating a culture of acceptance. Their instructors are taught to pay attention to their students and guide them as they progress in their training–training which not only includes dance instruction, but also systemized tutelage in the culture that they want to foster in the local Singaporean WCS community.
Does the Singaporean community give you any ideas for your own local scene? Not everything will work everywhere, but the hope is that the more we share ideas and discuss what’s working. The more our worldwide WCS community becomes a collaborative environment, we can continue to grow the kind of warm, accepting dance scene like Tze and Delena were able to foster in Singapore. This is what, I think, we truly all desire.