Arms -- I Can't Do A Thing With Them
by Sandi & Dan
Hands and arms are
highly versatile parts of the human body, capable of making fine,
delicate gestures or big dramatic movements. They connect us to our
partners; they complete figures in open work; they help us rotate,
speed up and slow down; and they give an artistic quality to our
dancing. With so much to do, why do arms so often look like they are
How We Use Arms
Perhaps we don’t
the arms out of self-consciousness or because our training never got
past our feet. Using the arms should feel natural, and will be after
a simple understanding of how their movement is generated by the
body. Arm work then can become your personal interpretation of the
music. Arms move around the body, depending on how the body is
moving, and they should move in harmony with the body’s movement.
Arms generally work in three ways when they are not making a
connection with a partner, as in open or skaters position:
move from front to back as the body swings forward and back. Swinging
arms match the rise and fall of the body, helping to produce energy
to power movement. They can swing like a pendulum from the shoulder,
or the swing can be carried up and over into a full circle.
are rotational, moving around the body horizontal to the floor, as
the body spins, turns, and rotates. The energy of a moving arm helps
pull the body into a turn. Sudden wrapping of the arms to the body
will speed up a turn, and allowing the arms to expand out from the
body will slow down rotation.
move out away from the body sideways in the direction the body is
moving. Sway is the inclination of the body toward the center of a
turn, used as a “brake” going into a turn. The amount of sway
depends on the amount of energy going into the turn. The arm going
“uphill” with the sway is for balance. Think of the arm on the
inside of the sway as a high jump bar that you are going to lift over
so you don’t let the shoulder and side drop.
Consider dancing a
right turn in skater’s position. Ladies will have one free arm (her
right) that she sometimes uses to hold her skirt. But she can also
extend the arm out to help balance the body, either by staying
parallel to the floor so the side doesn't collapse on the inside of a
turn or by shaping on the outside of the turn to match the body’s
sway to slow down the turn.
In Latin slow
especially, the arms seem to move only for the purpose of creating
pretty lines and telling the story of the dance. Even these artistic
arms will start from a sway, a rotation, or swing and will
move delicately or forcefully as an interpretation of the mood of the
music. The hands will finish the line as a caress, a beckoning, or a
sweep following a curve of the body.
General Rules for Arms
Men’s arms should
have enough tone to look strong; ladies’ arms also should have
tone, but the hands and fingers will have a softer look for caressing
actions and seductive sweeps.
Number one rule:
an arm is free (as when the hand is not being held by the partner),
make it an active extension of your body movement. Let the arm extend
the sway, spin, or swing the body is creating.
You need to be as
intentional about moving your arms as you are about where and how you
place your feet. Don’t leave them to chance, or they are likely to
hang limply. Imagine the muscles that make the arms move; feel how
they move from the center of your back. Take a minute and try moving
your arms in the ways previously described. See if you can feel the
muscles activated for each movement.
Some specifics on
general rules include:
your arm for an underarm turn, think of lifting from your elbow rather
than the hand. It will be lighter for your partner.
connecting hands with your partner, maintain an upward energy in your
arms to avoid being heavy.
Make sure your
arms do not extend back behind the plane of the shoulder.
your arm, it should “unroll” starting from the shoulder instead of
being flung to the side all at once. The elbow will project out, then
the forearm unfolds, then the wrist and then the fingertips.
of your frame in closed position comes from your torso, not your arms.
Arm muscles tire faster. If your shoulders and arms are working to stay
in frame, you will feel the pain and lose the frame.
finish at the wrist, they finish at the fingertips. For a prettier and
fuller arm line, complete it through the extension of the fingers.
Exercises to Improve the Arms
can help improve the use of your arms:
Arms Positions --
of the arms will help you to develop tone and muscle memory. The
traditional dance genres (i.e., ballet, ballroom) have arm exercises
to create muscle memory for working the arms. Ballet teaches five
positions; ballroom works with eight. Memorizing the specific
positions is less important than understanding what the exercise is
designed to accomplish.
In basic first
position, your arms hang loosely with a slight curve at the elbow so
your palms are to the front of and facing your thighs. You should
feel like you have a tennis ball under each armpit. Raise your arms
keeping the palms toward each other, until your arms are extended
forward at chest height. Take the arms out to the sides feeling the
muscles work in your back. The arms will finish slightly forward of
the body in a gentle curve. Take one arm overhead. Lower it out to
the side, then lower both arms to the sides feeling a softness and
float in the wrists. If the arm worked from the back, you will have a
prettier arm than one that feels pulled into place by the fingers.
The arm will also be under your control, so you can match its speed
to the tempo of the music. Extend your hands to the front again and
draw them back, allowing your elbows to extend to the side and relax,
so that your hands are about four inches in front of your body at
ribcage level. This is a good “home” position for the lady’s
free arm so her partner will know where to find it without "hunting"
for it as you change positions and hand holds.
help you to feel how the upper and lower arms work together or
separately when extended to the side or overhead.
Extend both arms
side and slightly forward at shoulder height, with palms facing
forward. Imagine each hand is holding a doorknob. Turn the doorknobs
by rotating your hand forward (so palms would be facing down) just
using the forearm and the wrist. Do it again but rotate the entire
arm from the shoulder joint. Notice how the shoulder blades moved
forward as the whole arm turned forward. This awareness opens up new
possibilities for arm shaping.
Imaginary Bowling --
Use bowling to
an upward energy in open position for a light, positive connection.
Hold an imaginary bowling ball at your side in your lead hand (right
for ladies, left for men), with palm facing forward. Move your
arm back in preparation for throwing the bowling ball. Swing your arm
forward, release the ball, and notice that the arm ends in a lifted
and outwardly rotated position. Leave it in the air but turn the palm
downward and place it into an imaginary leader’s hand. The external
rotation of upper arm gives your arm a light upward energy. To feel
the contrast, let your arm hang at your side and pull it up to put it
in the hand. How does the energy feel now?
the Money --
a light feel in closed position. Ladies who plop their left arms onto
the man’s upper arm in closed position create an unbelievably heavy
weight. To keep her left arm light, she should stretch her left arm
up and out to the side at closed position level, turn the palm to
face up, and “reach for the money.” This movement engages the
muscles on the underside of the arm to lift her arm, rather than the
muscles on the top that work when she lifts her arm to place it with
a downward action onto his arm.
exercises will help you to achieve lighter, more artistic, more
functional arms during your dancing.
and Sandi host two weekly
Carousel Clubs and teach a weekly figure clinic on advanced basics in
Southern California. This article comes from clinic notes prepared for the ROUNDALAB Convention, June 2012, published in the Journal, Fall 2012, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, September 2013.
If you would like to read other articles on dance
position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit
the article TOC.
If you are not a member of DRDC,
do consider joining. The group sponsors triquarterly weekends with
dancing and teaching, and the newsletter is one of the most informative
Past DRDC Educational Articles archived here.
Aditional articles and dance helps by
Sandi & Dan Finch
& Susie Rotscheid
Go beyond this site. Good instructional
books and videos, both new and used, are available at low prices from Amazon. Find other references on our Sources and Links