Many dancers want to improve their west coast swing arm styling. If you want to style your arm effectively, you first need to become comfortable with where your arm will end up. This post will help you develop your vocabulary of typical arm positions.
Ultimate Guide to Arm Styling for West Coast Swing
This is the ‘ultimate guide’ to arm styling so we will cover a lot. This is not a step by step guide but more of a ‘choose your own adventure’ guide. Inside you’ll find tips and articles that will help. If you want more styling ideas beyond just your arms, check out our styling resource page or our musicality resource page to help you put it all together.
We will be covering 5 things:
- Arm Styling Basics
- What to do with your free arm
- Moving your arms naturally
- Putting your arms into patterns
- A way to think about arm styling
Arm Styling Basics
We’re going to base our work on the standard ballet arm positions. Although WCS dancers will modify the lines of these positions in order to create more relaxed, “cool” looks, the ballet arm positions provide a great foundation to start with.
If you haven’t done ballet before, there are tons of YouTube videos walking through the basic ballet arm positions, including the one below:
As you can see, the ballet positions cover the common arm locations: in, out to the side, out and up, in and up, both up, and both down.
Once you’ve seen the standard ballet positions, stand in front of a mirror. Go into each position, and play with that position until it looks like a good pose for you. It can help to think about where you might use each position. Some common examples:
- With both arms in, first position could be used during a free spin
- Second position could appear in a slingshot throwout as you stretch away from your partner
- With one hand up and the other hand counterbalancing to the side, third position could occur in a sugar tuck
How does this apply to west coast swing arm styling?
Again, it’s unlikely that you will use the ballet positions verbatim in your WCS. Instead, use those positions as foundations for your own positioning. In front of the mirror, play with each position until you find something that looks good on you.
There are a couple of general tips for arm locations. Not only do these principles improve the look of the arm, but they also reduce stress on your shoulder.
- The elbow should stay in front the shoulder, to avoid a chicken wing effect
- There should be a slight bend in the elbow so the arm doesn’t look rigid
- Keep tone in the arm without being stiff. You want to engage the muscles but not make them look tense.
What to do with your free arm?
Styling with the free arm is one of the most common ways to add interest to the dance. Your arm can complete a movement, make the dance louder or quieter, lyrical or funky, and more. But what do you do when you don’t have a specific styling in mind?
Developing a comfortable neutral position for your free arm is the foundation for all styling. If you have a quiet, relaxed neutral position, it’s easy to draw attention to your styling when you want to. Conversely, having an awkward or unnatural free arm position immediately detracts from the look of your dance. Fortunately, it’s easy to develop a comfortable neutral position.
The Drill: Without a partner, stand in front of a mirror. Turn so that your free arm side is towards the mirror. Pretend to hold a bottle of beer (or soda, if you’re underage). While holding your drink, bring your free arm up so that your forearm is parallel to the floor or just below parallel (i.e., your wrist is no higher than your elbow).
Once you are in this position, go through the following list of tweaks:
- Your elbow should be at or slightly ahead of your shoulder You don’t want the elbow to sneak behind your shoulder, since that creates an ugly chicken wing.
- Your forearm should be relatively level. It’s ok for the wrist to be slightly below the height of the elbow, but not by much. The wrist should not be higher than the elbow.
- Your wrist should be straight. Don’t bend the wrist down or up—think of the hand forming a straight line with your forearm.
- Your imaginary beer or soda bottle should be relatively straight. If it’s turned too far outward, the bottom of your arm will be facing up. If it’s too far down, the side of your arm will be facing the mirror instead of the back of your arm.
Now, without moving your arm, rotate yourself so you are looking in the mirror.
Make the following adjustments, if necessary:
- Make sure your elbow is not pinned to your side. Think of holding a tennis ball in your armpit (or actually use a tennis ball!)—this should create a couple of inches between your elbow and your side.
- Your wrist should be slightly closer to your body than your elbow. From a perfectly straight position (where the forearm is pointing directly at the mirror, just bring the wrist in an inch or two.
Got it? Notice how this position feels. Now drop the arm to your side and relax. Try to go back to that same position, and use the mirror to check yourself. A good goal for beginners is to find that neutral position five times in a row.
Bonus Variations: Once you can find the neutral position on your own, try incorporating that position into your basics. With or without a partner, dance your basics and stop periodically to check that your arm is still in the correct position. With the exception of two-handed or closed position moves, you should be able to dance any pattern with this neutral arm position.
Move your Arms Naturally
West coast swing tends to have subtle arm movement. In general, the arm doesn’t draw your attention unless there’s a specific accent…or unless the arm is frozen against the body. In this exercise, you’ll develop your natural arm motion so your arm can flow with your body.
Beginners are taught to hold their arm in a neutral ready position. This fixes the problem of having a dead arm laying against your side. But, as you develop your body flight, the rest of your body will be moving smoothly, and so you need to add that same fluidity to your arm motion.
The Drill: By yourself, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Let your arms hang with no tension. Shift from side to side and let your arms swing with your body. Don’t try to move the arms; just feel how they swing with the momentum of the body.
After a few minutes, you should begin to feel how the arms flow from the movement of your center. In particular, notice what part of your arm is moving. You should feel like your arm motion begins from the shoulder, goes down through the elbow, and then finishes at the hand. We’re going to try to recreate that feeling in a controlled way.
As you continue shifting from side to side, let the momentum start to swing your arms, and then slowly continue that motion until your arm gets to chest height (somewhere below your shoulder but above your waist). Focus on how your arm moves rather than where it moves. Your goal is to replicate the fluidity and natural swing of the arm. Feel the motion naturally working down your arm, from the shoulder all the way down to the hand.The point of this exercise is to develop the feeling for a natural arm swing. This is a feeling—it’s not an exact science. It will take a lot of repetition to figure out what feels natural on your body. As you practice, it’s a good idea to check how it looks in a mirror every now and then, but remember that you’re trying to develop a feeling.
When you have this feeling, you can start making the arm movements smaller and finding places to include that flow within your basic movement. We’ll talk more about that in a future post.
Adding Arms into Patterns
In this drill, you’ll learn to put a natural arm motion into your basic patterns. This drill is an extension of finding the natural swing of your arms, so review that exercise before trying this.
So, you’ve found your natural arm swing? Quickly do that drill again, and focus on feeling the connection between your center’s movement and the initiation of the arm swing. We’re going to look for that moment in your basic patterns.
The Drill: Slowly dance through your basic patterns. For each step, feel how your center is moving. If you were to continue that motion, how could the arms follow through?
As you discover places for the arms to follow through, try adding that motion as you dance. Start by focusing on the timing and direction: when should the motion start, and which way should the arms follow through? And when should the motion end (because your center has now moved in a different direction)? Concentrate on filling the time with your arms.
Once you have the timing down, look at the magnitude of your movement. A video camera, mirror, or friend can be helpful for this step.
You want to make the size of your arm motion match the energy from your center’s change of direction. A fast, sharp change of direction will have more momentum, and so the arm should move more. For smaller center movements, the arm motion should stay quieter.
As you play with the size of your arm motion, remember that you still need to fill the time with your motion. If you need a smaller motion, you will need to sustain the motion’s energy through a smaller range of space, so make sure that you take your time in getting to the end of your range of motion!
Many dancers want to improve their west coast swing arm styling. If you want to style your arm effectively, you first need to become comfortable with where you arm will end up. This post will help you develop your vocabulary of typical arm positions.
A cool drill for arm styling in west coast swing
Everyone starts learning to dance WCS with their feet, but great dancers expand so that they are dancing with their entire bodies. In this exercise, you’re going to practice continuing your dance all the way through your arms, hands, and even fingertips.
The goal of this exercise is to develop the feel for having your entire arm dancing, and not just being dragged along with the body. This is an exploration—you will almost certainly do things that would throw you or your partner off balance in a real dance. That’s ok, because right now you’re trying to discover a feeling so you can learn to control it later.
The Drill: On your own, start dancing your basics. As you do so, focus on where your arms and fingers are in space: are they hanging limp, stiff, indicating a direction, folded back on themselves, etc.? For now, don’t try to change anything; simply become aware of their positioning and intention (or lack thereof!). Just doing this part of the exercise for a while will be valuable because it improves your own kinaesthetic awareness.
Once you have brought your extremities into focus, it’s time to become intentional. Visualize a beam of light that begins at your center, continues through your shoulder to the elbow, from the elbow to the wrist, and from the wrist through the hand and out the tips of the fingers. Dance again while maintaining this visualization. Think about having each joint in that path directing the beam of light to the next joint. This does not mean that the joint needs to be straight. You want to maintain intention without tension. Stiffness is bad because it freezes the energy that you are creating with your body’s natural movement, and limpness is bad because the energy you are creating leaks out the limp joints. Experiment to feel that space in which your entire core-to-fingertip pathway is active but relaxed.
Now your arm is dancing, but you are still limited to your own body. Great dancers managed to fill the room with their presence, and doing so requires dancing beyond just the physical endpoints of their body. The next part of this drill is to visualize the beam of light extending from your core to your fingertips and continuing on until it hits the wall. You are now visualizing that your energy is projecting as far as it will go. As you dance, think about keeping that beam of light energized even after it has departed your body. Your fingertips are no longer an endpoint—they are now responsible for continuing the path just as your elbow is responsible for sustaining the energy from the shoulder to the wrist.
From Ballet to West Coast Swing
Watch Emily Larsen from WCS Online discribe some basic arm styling concepts from her ballet background to help your arm styling in west coast swing