Here is a beautiful example of how Alina Cojocaru's arms and head are just as important as the difficult Pointe work she does with her feet and legs. Her hard work and effort is not reflected in her upper body, which is the trick to making something difficult look easy. The arms finish the movement and give it artistry.
With so much focus on legs, extension, pointed feet, the back and core, it's easy to forget about our arms. Yet, arms are the icing on the cake, they complete the package of a dancer, and start and finish every movement. They tell the story, show the character, and can either add gracefulness and poise, or awkwardness and stiffness.
In this article from Dance Magazine (April 2010), writer Lauren Kay offers advice from professionals on how to break bad habits with your arms to get the grace and artistry you need to take your dancing to the next level. (here's my skinny version)
Arms can be the ultimate signature of a dancer’s artistry. “How a dancer uses the arms has a profound influence on the quality of movement,” says Carinne Binda, co-artistic director of Sacramento Ballet. “And it’s a true sign of artistic maturity. If you haven’t made the choice of engaging the arms expressively, the dance looks static.” Dance Magazine spoke with Binda, as well as Nan Giordano, artistic director of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and Megan Richardson, physical therapist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, for advice on using the arms expressively—and with strength.
HABIT: Droopy arms A wilted port de bras is no way to captivate an audience. According to Richardson, “The tendency toward droopy arms happens when a dancer tries to hold a long, heavy arm without support from the back and scapula.” She adds that this habit also arises from trying to appear graceful or soft. Binda agrees: “There is a lot of confusion between being soft and being weak. They aren’t the same thing.”
BREAK IT: “Instead of engaging the small arm muscles, which can’t hold the arm up themselves,” says Richardson, “use the larger back muscles—especially the lower and mid-trapezoids. Think of pulling each scapula in and down toward your opposite back pocket, forming an ‘X’ of support across the back.” Binda notes that in warm-up, the upper body deserves as much attention as the legs. “At the barre, even in pliés, do different port de bras and plenty of cambrés to get the arms ready to dance.” Giordano suggests imagining the arms moving through water to give them a strong, pliable energy.
HABIT: Not engaging the back Without a connection to the back and core, arms can look not only droopy but also disjointed, as if stuck onto a mannequin. Balancing arm movement with core and back strength is essential for freedom of movement in the arm itself. Think of the arm as a lever: The farther it reaches from its origin (your core and trunk), the more strength and connection to that origin is required.
BREAK IT: Richardson believes that the first step to engaging the back is understanding the physics of the body. “The arms are attached to the spine through the scapula and clavicle. They come from the back anatomically. The arms, core, and spine deeply affect each other; the relationship goes both ways.”
Giordano suggests this exercise for sensing the arm/back connection: Stand in front of a partner. One partner tries to keep their arms in “long jazz arm” position—“a classical rounded second, with elbows facing back and palms facing the floor”—while the other presses down on the forearms. “This helps you find your back and center,” she says, “and a feeling of resistance and power in the arms.”
Binda sees integrating the arms with the back as a matter of making firm artistic choices: “Consciously choose how you use your arms as part of the whole-body movement. Do you want your arm to finish or lead the movement? Do you want the motion to be lyrical or sharp? Considering these things will help you connect your arm to your back and core, where all movement starts.”
HABIT: Tense, brittle arms In contrast to droopy arms, some performers battle stiff arms accented by tense hands. Binda says this tension can come from holding the breath or isolating the arm, “thinking of it as a separate, rigid fixture, instead of connected to the entire movement.”
BREAK IT: “Think of the air and movement of the arms as you dance, instead of bones and muscle,” Binda suggests. “Tense arms are counterproductive! You aren’t launching a 747 jet, even when you jump.” Richardson adds that moderate weight-lifting can enhance stability in the shoulder, which diffuses tension in the arms. “With control from the shoulder and back, the arm can be loose, fluid and articulate,” she says. “But if you think of holding your arm up with your arm, there is tension that can’t be escaped.”