2.2 On Arm Tone

"*Arm tension is possibly the most important aspect to good dancing. Sometimes very firm arm tension is required, and other times, spaghetti-like arm tension is needed. Followers and leaders, over time, should develop a good sense of when to have strong arm tension and when to be loose. It is especially important in West Coast Swing to use different levels of arm tension depending on the figure (see Sensitivity exercise 3). In general, firm arm tension is desired."

Followers: In general, the side to side motion of your arms should be connected to your body, while the vertical movement is free. That way movement in the horizontal plane causes the follower to move or turn, while the vertical movement is free for underarm turns, etc. You should not have spaghetti-like arms in the horizontal plane, or provide resistance in the vertical direction (other than in say, a death-drop). Keeping one's arm loose to move up and down but firm in a direction in which moving it would turn your body is very difficult to learn. Women who are learning alternate between keeping the arm too loose in all directions and too stiff in all directions, not realizing that they need a combination of both at the same time.

Trying to find the ideal balance between "tone" and "relaxation." It is NOT an easy concept to integrate, even after one is consciously aware. Something I think is helpful to get the proper feel in your arms is to face a wall from a distance an inch or so farther than your extended arms' fingertips. Fall toward the refrigerator and PUSH yourself back to erect. If you don't catch yourself soon enough or with enough tone, your nose will let you know. If you push too hard, your feet will let you know. If your arms are too stiff, your shoulders and/or neck will let you know.

Another general rule of thumb on tone: When dancing, try to maintain the same level of communication between your hands and your partners hands. That is, whenever possible, maintain an equal amount of pressure against (with) each other. This makes both dancers extremely sensitive to one another since any slight deviation in pressure is a clear indication of what lead is being given. There is a marvelous subtlety in leading and following that can be experienced if both dancers eliminate dead space in the communication that exists between the hands and body.

"*Don't let the movement of your lower body interfere with the non-movement of the upper body. That is, do not create noise in your arms when you move your hips or kick with your feet. Maintain proper arm tension..." Don't be a "busy body" - a quiet body allows woman to distinguish leads, and looks much better.

"*Your arms are an extension of your body, not a separate entity. Thus, your body should be responsive to anything that is done to your arms. If you have spaghetti-like arms, you will not be responsive since you will miss indications from the leader. You will miss these indications because they will be absorbed by your arms instead of sensed by your arms. If you press your finger into Jell-O, it will just get absorbed, but if you press your finger against a rock, the rock will move. Do not separate your arms and body (except in a few advanced figures)."

"*Close your eyes sometimes when dancing to really try to understand that much of this dance is done with communication in the body and arms (recall the tension tip earlier on arms and body not being separate entities). Dance an entire song with your eyes closed and just try to listen to one another through your arms and body. Don't do complicated figures, of course, but play around with different types of tension and listen to one another through your arms."

Typically, the word "tone" is used since the arms should not be tense, i.e. where extending and retracting muscles are both "on". Instead, the arm should act like a spring with a matching opposing force either pushing or pulling. Sometimes you have to react to a lead by simply moving, other times (boogie walk or jive walk in east coast swing) giving the exact amount of counter resistance. This "connection" is a harder thing to quantify than textbook technique.

In order to overcome spaghetti arms many teachers use the word "resistance". Resistance, while getting the immediate result, creates a whole new set of problems. Any top teacher knows that arm "resistance" is wrong. Instead of locking the biceps and forearm muscles to create resistance, a good teacher teaches to isolate the upper pectoral muscle which locks the entire arm in place eliminating the spaghetti arm yet making for a easily leadable follower. Skippy Blair uses the term Action/Reaction which while partially explaining lead and follow, is more suitable than "resistance".

While many teachers teach beginners to lock the biceps & forearm muscles and pull, we (Enio Cordoba) teach that you lock the upper pectoral & lattisimus dorsi muscles while keeping the arm and forearm relaxed , pliable and responsive (toned).

In my experience, the stiffness or heaviness in a follower's arm is often an unconscious protective response to leads that are too strong and/or dangerous (or leads that are perceived as such). For example I really dislike being led in a barrel roll on a crowded dance floor, because I fear crashing into my partner or being sent crashing into other dancers. To paraphrase something Maxwell Ho once said: You have to *train* your followers to trust you.

(I love this description) Personally, I like a good strong "breathing" connection for W.C. Swing. Like you say, this does *not* mean rigid, but there should definitely be some sensuous push and pull to it 8^).

The woman's arm should be in a comfortable position, not overly extended (nor stiff) nor overly bent (nor too relaxed). If her arm is fully extended, it's not natural nor comfortable, it's difficult to absorb shocks, it's tiring, and it looks silly. It's much better to have a slightly bent and relaxed arm position, not quite fully extended. The man's arm position is similar. Both have to have tone (if the body moves, the arm moves with it.) Some say the default level for hands is the woman's center of gravity. Where is that? About 2 inches below her navel.

Bev Donahue, a former International champion who now coaches pros and judges comps like the Ohio Star Ball, and other pro teachers stress the use of "short arms" in swing (and jive). "Short arms" means never extend fully, always keep them bent. The angle varies as you dance. "Short arms" look better and give you and your partner better control for leading and following. The idea is not to be rigid; you want to convey strength AND flexibility - a certain springiness. There is body weight involved, and a good, simple exercise is: partners face each other, elbows bent about 90 degrees, hands more or less at waist level, and connect with a pistol grip: lady's hands are palms down, wrists lowered, fingers hooked over guy's; guy's palms face each other, fingers bent inwards so lady can hook hers over the top. No grabbing! The hands are loosely hooked, that's all. Now lean into each other, then away from each other, feeling each other's body weight. The trick is to match each other's use of body weight to maintain your balance as a couple. That's the kind of connection you want to feel in swing. When you get used to it, it feels VERY good, and you and your partner can be most responsive to each other using this technique. It applies to most if not all rhythm and Latin dancing as well, and can be used with other types of connections such as "patty-cake" and "sugar-push" hand-holds. This advice applies to both partners. If leaders can use their posture, dance frame and body weight effectively, they'll never have to "strong-arm" a woman to get her to follow. The quickest way to learn this is to practice it with a pro and get corrective feedback.

Watch out for "chipmunk arms" - elbows down, paws up in front of the chest, as well for as "chicken wings" - elbows bent and sticking out far behind your back.

The lady should generally match the leader's arm extension. When you shake hands with someone, where do you put your hand? In their face or chest? No, you extend it midway between you both. Same for dancing. In WCS, the angle between the man's upper arm and forearm changes from 90 through 135 degrees. For the woman, this is 90 to almost 180 (straight) - never lock elbows (or knees) when dancing. One of the reasons is that you cannot maintain connection if you lock your elbow.

Both short arms (bent at the elbow) and long arms (extended but not locked, with shoulders down) are appropriate at various times in West Coast Swing, as long as:

  1. a good, centered body line in both partners results, and
  2. it matches a lead/follow resulting from movements of the dance.
This usually means (for me) short arms for the usual "basic" patterns, and anytime the woman is turning or moving by me in the slot, and "long arms" in an extended line, sometimes with the man well into the right knee, left leg pointed straight out to the side, woman in a sit break, or some other leg line (a "show off" pattern of some sort")

The follower should match the arm extension of the leader. On a crowded dance floor, the leader might keep his arm in close. If the follower does not match and keep her arm in close, the leader may not be able to keep his partner from crashing into someone else. Also, when the music is fast, the arms usually extend less to reduce the movement. Both short arms (bent at the elbow) and long arms (extended but not locked, with shoulders down) are appropriate at various times in West Coast Swing, as long as

This usually means short arms for the usual "basic" patterns, and anytime the woman is turning or moving by me in the slot, and "long arms" in an extended line, sometimes with the man well into the right knee, left leg pointed straight out to the side, woman in a sit break, or some other leg line (a "show off" pattern of some sort")


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This file is part of the lead/follow FAQ list. These are articles compiled from the newsgroup rec.arts.dance by Mark Balzer. Html-isation by Victor Eijkhout, victor at eijkhout dot net. See also the Rec Arts Dance FAQ list Copyright 1996/7/8/9 lies with the compiler, the maintainer and the contributors of various parts.

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