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Arms -- I Can't Do A Thing With Them

by Sandi & Dan  Finch

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 doing nothing?

How We Use Arms

Perhaps we don’t work 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:

  • Swing

  • Rotate

  • Sway

Swinging arms 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.

Hula hoop arms 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.

Swaying arms 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 rhythms 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: When 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 the general rules include:

  • When raising your arm for an underarm turn, think of lifting from your elbow rather than the hand. It will be lighter for your partner.

  • When 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.

  • When extending 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.

  • The strength 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.

  • Arms don't 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

The following exercises can help improve the use of your arms:

First: Learn the Arms Positions --

Learning the 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.

Second: Turn Doorknobs --

Turning doorknobs will help you to feel how the upper and lower arms work together or separately when extended to the side or overhead.

Extend both arms to the 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.

Third: Practice Imaginary Bowling --

Use bowling to create 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?

Fourth: Reach for the Money --

This exercise provides 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.

These principles and exercises will help you to achieve lighter, more artistic, more functional arms during your dancing.


Dan 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.



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