Using Your Arms to Decorate Your
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
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
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
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
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
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.
notes for the URDC Convention, 2005,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, October 2017.