Belly dance is, at its core, a dance of the pelvis and torso. (Did you catch my pun?)
This means that while we’re focusing on creating movement in our ribcage and hips, our arms… well, sometimes they get forgotten.
It’s been written many times by leaders in our genre that the arms are frame for the body, particularly for the hips. This was one of the first things I remember about arms in belly dance.
For beginning belly dancers, keeping that constant awareness in the arms and shoulders can be difficult. Learning belly dance, particularly Salimpour Format, is a bit like learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission. One foot on the clutch. The other on the gas and brakes. One hand on the gear shift. Another on the steering wheel. And eyes on the road… while scanning the rear-view and side-view mirrors. There’s a lot happening, and we need to keep a low hum of awareness on all of them at all times.
Eventually, all this awareness becomes a habit. And dancing is about developing fancy habits.
To help you get into the habit of creating energetic and performance-ready arm shapes, here are some arm positions that dancers sometimes struggle with… and how to improve them.
One of the first arm positions we learn in belly dance is actually quite difficult to get “right.” In the Salimpour School, we call it “Modified 2nd.” The arms are out to the side, slightly in front of the body. The elbows are slightly lower than the shoulders, the wrists slightly lower than the elbows, and the palms are slightly pressed without creating over extension in the wrists. Fingers are relaxed but somewhat close together so that they aren’t splaying out to the sides.
Just like a plié in ballet, we continue to work on our “Modified 2nd” position for as long as we’re dancing. And everyone’s arms are different, so you’ll have to make adjustments to make this arm line work for your body proportions.
What goes wrong: Dancers who are not yet used to keeping their arms in this position allow their elbows to creep in towards the sides of the ribs, eliminating that negative space under the armpits and forearm. They also let the hands float upwards, so that they are at a higher level than their elbows.
Arms can also creep behind the side-seam midline of the body, which can then over extend the upper back and bring the pelvis out of alignment.
How to fix it: Think of creating space under the armpits, and lengthening through the tops of the wrists and hands. make sure that your arms are slightly in front of the body, rather than directly out at the side. Also, check in with your elbows and wrists, making sure that the elbows are slightly lower than the shoulders, and the wrists are slightly lower than the elbows.
You should have a slight bend in the elbows. The fingers are together, with the thumb and middle finger articulating towards each other a bit more than the other fingers.
Low 1st, framing the hips
What Goes Wrong: Dancers often bring their arms down and then lose the energy in the back of the arms. Or, they’ll press out their elbows, and then the front of the chest caves in, bringing the collarbones together and shortening the sternum.
Dancers will also lose awareness of the extension of their wrists, either over-extending them—breaking the line of the forearm to the fingers—or over-flexing their wrists, pointing the fingers in towards the hips rather than down towards the floor.
How to Fix It: Imagine that you have strings on the bony part of your elbow. These strings are gently tugging your elbows away from your core.
Then, that the collarbones are spiraling out away from the base of your throat, getting longer and longer into infinity.
If you tend to curl in your fingers too much towards your hips, point your fingers down towards the floor. Imagine that you have little holiday lights at the tip of each fingernail, and that light is shining directly downwards, creating little points of light along the outsides of your feet. Also think of lengthening the wrist, particularly the soft part right above the palm.
This position is a classic shape, particularly for when the Saidi kicks in and you’re rocking that Counter-Clockwise Pivot hip “drop.” But because it is asymmetrical, the body can get lazy, forgetting one side of the body or the other, making your “S” look a little sloppy.
What goes wrong: Often dancers will have awareness in one arm, and then they’ll forget about the other. If the top arm is energized and elegant, the bottom elbow will creep in towards the body and the fingers might curl in. Or, the top arm loses its shape, the elbow bending, and the shoulder edging up towards the ear.
How to fix it: For the lower arm, check in with your elbow. Also look in the mirror to make sure that the lower arm isn’t downstage of your hip. Your arm should be around the hip, drawing attention to it. Also check in with your fingers, as you would for your low 1st.
For the upper arm, treat it as you would an arm in 5th position. Keep a soft curve in the elbow, long fingers, and a long wrist. Check to see if your fingertips are drooping down towards the top of your head. Check in with your reflection to see if you’re creating that flowing “S” shape.
While this is a position quite specific to the Level 2 Finger Cymbal Drum Solo for Salimpour certification, I mention this position because, well, lots of you dear readers are in the Salimpour School.
What goes wrong: This position is particularly difficult because of of shoulder placement and the bend in the elbows. Most dancers might think they’re creating a line in the arms that looks long and straight. But what can happen is that the elbows bend or hyperextend (breaking the line) or the shoulders come up into the ears.
How to fix it: Relax the shoulder blades on the back of the ribs. Look in the mirror when hitting this arm line and figure out just how much or how little bend in the elbow you need to create a long, triumphant High V shape. Experiment with different degrees of bend in the elbow as well as different angles of the V itself. How wide or narrow should your “V” be to create that victorious, strong shape?
Arms are fluid and dynamic
Even though these are arm positions, these are meant to be fluid and dynamic. They shouldn’t look like they have tension or rigidity. They are also positions that you can call upon if you’re improvising and feeling stuck. Play with variations of these positions, and figure out what works for you.
Hey look! I made you a video!
Work on your arms with this video I made for you to help you refine the four arm positions in this post.
If you liked this post and the accompanying video, consider buying me a coffee.