Over years of study, practice and interacting with other dancers I have noticed a universal truth: The really great dancers of the 21st century are always noted for their arms. I started thinking about this while in Sherry of Gypsy Red Tribe’s summer belly dance intensive. I hadn’t had a class with her before, nor had I seen her perform in years. Even in that class, focusing on tribal belly dance combinations, she had such stage presence. She would instantly switch from reading her notes on a podium to a powerful dancer showing us a move. Even her goodbye gesture was stage-worthy. I could feel her energy starting in her heart and moving out through her fingertips.
On Stage Fluidity and Grace
Let your arms move with intent from position to position. Engage your entire arm, from shoulder to finger tips, and be amazed!
-Aziza of Montreal
Our arms and posture convey so much about the emotions of our dance, arms drawn in and shoulders brought up show a shy or uncertain dancer, while far flung arms convey confidence. Too much flinging, though, will make you look harried and nervous. One of my favorite comparisons are between the traditional Irish step dances(i.e. Riverdance) and Flamenco dancing (Spanish origins). The arm positions in Flamenco are strong and proud, while the Irish arms are actually non-existent. Why? The Irish pointedly do not move their arms because of the oppression they experienced under British rule. These two styles are extreme in the context of bellydancing, but they do make a great example, do you want to look downtrodden with arms at your side, or confident with arms up high?
Stage Presence Starts in the Classroom
Of the students I have taught I generally see three types of arm positions. The tired pose: arms dangling at side. This usually starts spreading through the class sometime after the halfway mark as participants start loosing their stamina. The thinking pose: arms halfway to the proper position. During complex steps and choreographies our shoulders start sneaking up towards our ears and our arms make it to about halfway of where they are supposed to be. The chicken wing: hands are pointed down but lifted to about shoulder height, the elbow is not up and instead pointed straight down. This tends to the the beginner belly dance pose I see the most. Because we teach in the “crucifix” post (arms straight out) many beginning dancers cheat and drop their elbows down.
Always remember to extend your arms fully. Never let them haphazardly drop to your sides instead move them through space with purpose. Having great stage presence doesn’t end with your arms, but they certainly separates the pro’s from the rest.