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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 sweeps. They connect us to our partners; they complete figures in open work; they help us to rotate, speed up and slow down in spins; 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?

Arms are especially important in latin rhythms because they are free more of the time and flop at your side if you don’t think about them. They should help tell the “story” of the dance—love, loss, machismo, flirtation.

Perhaps we don’t work with our arms out of self-consciousness, or because our training never got past our feet. We teach that arms should move naturally. We describe how to use them in cue sheets but then advise that written arms movements are merely suggestions. Even on Dancing With The Stars this week, one contestant was praised for her natural ability to use her arm extensions to complete her lines. Natural ability?

For some people, arms do come naturally. For the rest of us, there are rules and tips and exercises. You’ve heard these before but they are worth remembering again:
  • When raising your arm for an underarm turn, lift from your elbow rather than pulling up from the hand to feel lighter to your partner.
  • When extending an arm, let it “unroll” starting from the shoulder, then elbow, then wrist, and finally the hand, to avoid flinging it to the side all at once. 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.
  • When an arm is free (as when not being held by partner), make it an active extension of your body movement. Let the arm extend the sway, spin, or swing created by the body.
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 will hang limply. Imagine the muscles that make arms move; feel how they start from the center of your back. Take a minute and move your arms and see if you can feel which muscles were activated.

Arms work in three ways in harmony with the body. Swinging arms move from front to back as the body swings forward and back. They match the rise and fall of the body, helping to produce energy. Hula hoop arms swing around the body horizontally to the floor as the body spins, turns, and rotates. 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 arms to expand out from the body will slow down rotation. Sway arms move out from the body sideways, used as a brake or for balance going into a turn. In shadow turns, the arm on the outside of the turn is for balance; think of the arm on the inside of a turn as a high jump bar that you are going to lift over so you don’t let the shoulder and side droop.

Some exercises to create better arm awareness:
  • Turning doorknobs -- 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 one hand so the palm now faces the floor. Use only 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. This awareness opens new possibilities for arm shaping.
  • Bowling to create a lighter connection -- Hold an imaginary bowling ball at your side in your lead hand, palm facing forward. Move the arm back in preparation for throwing it. Swing the 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 down and place it in an imaginary partner’s hand. The external rotation of the upper arm gave your arm a light upward energy. To feel the contrast, let your arm hang at your side and pull it up to put in the hand. How does the energy feel now?


From a club newsletter, April 2015, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2018. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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