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And What Do I Do With My Arms?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Dancing is more than just moving your feet; it is a whole body experience. Manuals describe what to do with the feet, and some cue sheets suggest how to use the arms. But mostly, arm and hand action is left up to the dancer as a personal response to the music.
In closed position, we don’t have to think much about the arms, other than to maintain a proper frame. When dancers go to open position, though—be it in Latin dances or American smooth figures—the arms become a factor. In those instances, the arms actually have several jobs to do.
Arms are a natural extension of the body. As the body moves, the muscles in the torso work in a way that should make the arms want to move. As the arms move out from the body, they help maintain balance through figures. Arms that are allowed to hang limply or are used only half-heartedly actually get in the way of executing figures. With a little practice, the natural movement of the arms will enhance the pleasure of dancing. 

Using arms also adds to the aerobic effect one gets from dancing. Folding and unfolding the arms can make turning movements easier, like skaters who use their arms to accelerate a spin or to slow down. When ladies regularly carry their free arms close to the body, between the sternum and the waist, their partners know where to find the hand for the next connection they need to make. 

In open facing position in Latins, hands and arms form the connection between partners. With tone in the arms, partners will feel connected, so that when the man moves, the movement originating in his body will transmit through his arms to his partner, becoming the lead. This connection allows the partnership to work as a unit even when each partner is doing different footwork. When a hand is not joined with your partner, its arm should be held in a natural, unaffected way, continuing to have tone from shoulder to fingers. Forced movements detract from your appearance and from balance. 

It takes practice to become aware of what arms are doing. Look in the mirror and practice moving your arms out from the side to shoulder level and overhead. Do it to music as you stand at the mirror getting dressed in the morning. 

Exercises for Better Arms

  • Stand straight with arms at your sides. Wiggle your shoulders to loosen them. Think about energy flowing down the arms. Flex and release fingers (make a fist, stretch it open, repeat). This tells your brain to start paying attention to this part of the body. It also helps relax the shoulders and arms.
  • Slowly raise the arms out from your sides. Keep a little roundness from shoulder to hand, no stiff arms. Keep them ahead of the shoulder line. You should be able to see your elbows out of the corner of your eyes. If elbows get behind the shoulder, you have that chicken wing look. Have tone in the arms; think of pushing your arm through water.
  • From arms extended to the side, bring them in front of you at chest level. Raise one hand up over the head. Feel a stretch in the upper arm muscles and back. Let the wrist rotate so the palm faces toward you and away from you. Rotate the raised arm back, down to the side and around to the front again. This may hurt unless you stretch the opposite side and turn ever so slightly to look at the arm as it goes back.
  • Arms open and close with an unfolding action. The rib cage moves first in the direction the arm will travel, the elbow will start moving in response. Then the forearm unfolds, then the wrist, then the hand and fingers. To close the arm, the elbow comes in first, then the forearm, and the wrist rotates to turn the palm inward.
  • Practice opening and closing the arms musically: Open one or both through 8 counts of music. Close through 8 counts. Open out one arm through 4 counts, the other arm through 4 counts. Open on counts 1 and 2, close on counts 3 and 4. The goal is to let this movement become as natural as moving your feet rhythmically and purposefully.

From a club newsletter prepared by Dan and Sandi Finch , September 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March 2016.


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