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Using Your Arms to Decorate Your Dancing

by Brent & Judy Moore

The action of arms and hands form a part of dancing, especially the Latin and American Smooth styles, that may not be essential to executing the figures but do add a significantly expanded dimension to our dancing. With a little development, arm and hand work can greatly enhance the appearance of our dancing. Good use of the arms and hands decorate each movement with individuality and style that lifts simple, even mundane, dancing to a higher esthetic level.

However, since there is sparse guidance on using our arms and hands, we tend to develop our various modes or styles of arm/hand work by trying to emulate others. This is fine and good, but there are two catches in dancing that many times result in arm and hand use that do not enhance our performances. The two traps are 1) much of dancing is illusionary . . . what you think you see may not be created the way you may think; and 2) our kinesthetic awareness lags behind performance . . . we simply do not know exactly where a body part is at any given moment without practice and confirming feedback.

Almost all of our basic use of arms and hands comes to round and ballroom dancing from ballet. Of course, these basics have been adapted, amplified, modified, and influenced by other dances to suit various needs, but the roots are in ballet. So, let's begin with a look at arm positions and movements from ballet.

Just like foot positions, there are five fundamental positions for the arms in ballet. First position is with the arms down with a slightly bowed shape and the hands in front of the body slightly below the waist. Second position is with the arms to the side with the arms slightly bowed and wrist in the same position and the palms facing slightly in and down. Third position is one arm up over the head with a slight bow or bend without raising the shoulder, palm turned slightly in and one arm to the side as it was in second position. Fourth position is one arm up over the head with a slight bow or bend as it was in third position and one arm is extended forward with a slight bend, palm turned slightly in. Fifth position is both arms up over the head with a slight bow or bend without raising the shoulders, palms turned in.

Now that the positions have been defined, we'll move on to moving the arms from position to position. All arm movement starts not in the arms but in the body. Some say that the energy starts from the floor, but all agree that the body is involved before the arm moves. We'll stick to the body for now. In moving from an arm-lowered position (first position) upward, the first movement is the rib cage on the side of the arm to be moved shifting to the side. That is followed by a movement of the shoulder to the side then the chin or head. After these heavier parts are in motion, the arm moves. In ballet, the normal action is to move the arm as a complete assembly maintaining the arm shape and wrist shape. In most Latin/rhythm dances, the process has been adapted in many ways. The most common is that the arm loses its bend to become straight and the wrist flexes away from the movement. The wrist flex gives the illusion that the arm is bent. At the termination of the movement the wrist straightens to align with the arm. If the destination is to the side (a second position), as the hand arrives the wrist straightens to align with the arm with the palm down. If the destination of the arm is overhead, as the hand arrives, the arms can be lowered to a fourth position as an assembly by allowing the arm to arc forward to the position (or continue to first position). More common in our dancing is that the arm is allowed to bend at the elbow, and the hand is lowered to first position passing close to and in front of the body. This movement begins with a slight decompression of the stretched rib cage. The arm can also be arced to the back and down to first position, however, the arc is not a true circular motion behind the body but has a side and back action due to the limitations of the shoulder joint. Despite this skewed sweep, the movement appears to be circular from most angles (one of the illusions). Another non-balletic approach is always to bring the hands back through the center of the body, then project it to the new position. In such cases, the arm always will bend at the elbow to enable the action. Most accomplished dancers utilize both types of actions depending upon the situation.

One of the features of classic balletic am movements is that the hands are not allowed to touch the body. Here we have some major deviations. In almost all Latin/rhythm dances, there is a definite effort to caress the body with the hands as they move . . . especially from an overhead position. It adds a great deal of sensuality to caress the head and body as it lowers. The amount of pressure applied and the openness of the hand affect the perceived degree of sensuality.

Speaking of hands, let's think briefly of hand shapes. The basic shape of the hand in ballet is to form a slight "c" shape. Ladies typically have more separation in the fingers, with the middle finger lower than the index and ring fingers, as if holding something small between the middle and the thumb. Men have the same "c" shape but a tighter spacing of the fingers. They can even be together and the feeling should be as if you are holding a larger object than the lady . . . there is more space between the thumb and fingers. One of the basic guidelines for use of the hands is never to show the palm of the hand to anyone in front of you. That's the standard position. Using other hand shapes, such as widely spreading the fingers and showing the palm (the jazz hand) can add energy and expression to the display in some circumstances.

Some rhythms, such as cha cha or jive, require more energetic movements, and to achieve them, some simple parameters need to be followed. First, a basic good idea is to keep the elbows in front of the hips (unless you are making an arm circle), since leading should be from the hip or center body position. A forward and back or "boxing" movement of the hands is a common way to give a sense of energy in arm movements. Also, in many dances, keeping the hands in front of the hips, close to the body, is considered a "ready for action" position. Allowing the arms to swing in response to body turn is also an effective way to utilize the arms to add flow and energy to movements. This idea of having a relaxed arm in some actions is really important in some figures . . . like the spot turn, where the arms are relaxed and the body turn tends to cause a wrapping action of the arms. In that case, the body turns into the arms, since the arms are not held rigidly. Using the arms can also add great speed to some turning actions by using the same technique that skaters use in pulling the arms inward to accelerate rotation. But here, we are diverging from using the arms to create display.

We've discussed the various methods for moving the arms from position to position and the basic balletic positions. We now need to talk about other positions for the arms in creating display. One thing to keep in mind about arm positions is to always have a sense of seeking the possibility of aligning the arm with other parts of the body. Which parts of the body to align the arm with can vary depending upon the effect you are seeking and the figure. The arm can align with the unweighted leg as in some lunges or just as effectively with the weighted leg. In some cases, you may wish to align the arm in contrast to a leg or body position. Arms at angles to other body parts tend to add tension and energy, whereas aligning arms with other limbs imparts a sense of strength and power Both are effective depending on the rhythm and figure.

Being aware of the options for arm movement and position is a big step toward creating effective arm actions and display in your dancing. But, that knowledge is not effective without the ability to apply it at any time . . . that ability comes from practice with good feedback. Even the most visual and auditory learners need some kinesthetic activity (practice)  to ensure that the arm goes where you think it should and goes the way you think it should . . . every time. Creating a line in front of a mirror is a time-tested and proven method to get the instant feedback needed to develop body awareness. A method we use is to repetitively work in front of the mirror in deciding the arm movement, its ending position, and the exit movement, until it is automatic. We do this with the common figures occasionally to keep up the skill and uniformity, and always when working on new choreography. Videos can also be helpful for some figures, and a coach can always help in deciding how to move and in choosing a position, but both lack that instant feedback that mirrors provide.

Developing arm and hand actions that support the body movement and create that extra something in your dancing takes understanding and practice. With that practice and using the fundamentals of balletic arm position and movement to underpin your work, you can create the "added dimension" to your dancing.

Here are some common examples of arm "decorations":
  • Open Break -- Arms up and down through the center -- also can be to the side or at an angle -- typically using an out and retract action.
  • Explosion -- One arm up, out, around, and down, usually assoceated with a body turn to the moving arm.
  • Sunburst -- Both arms up, out, and around, usually not associated with body turn.
  • Fence Line -- Usually a line of extension with arms out, parallel to the floor, with the unweighted leg adding a sense of support to the upper body -- the sense of using the rib cage forward into the movement is important.
  • New Yorker -- Thru hands should be down and hands away from the check up and out, but this can be illusionary in that there is a body shape that can cause the hands to appear more up than actual.
  • Aida -- The common arm line is up and out -- the big variety is how it is taken there -- the movement can be a projection out from the body, it can be a swing either up and over or down and up -- if swing is used, the usual exit is to continue the swing motion, but not always.
  • Side Lunge -- The arm line can be varied -- extend as in a fence line using both arms or extend only one arm (the one toward the movement) with the other supporting at the hip or aligning with the body -- also common is to align the moving arm with the unweighted leg to create a larger display -- exiting movement depends on the next figure and the arm line selected.
  • Samefoot Lunge -- Can have several shapes of body and arms -- standard position is out to the side, but can align with unweighted leg in an up position (especially for the lady) or down (more common for the man) -- in closed position, it's usually best to keep the trail arms in position.
  • Cuddle -- The arms and body work together to create shape and have the arms embellish -- the arms usually extend to the side, but body shape make the arm appear to have been placed at an angle.


From clinic notes  for the URDC Convention, 2005, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2017.


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