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  1. #1
    Senior Member Sophia Maria's Avatar
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    Default Upper Body Expression

    I have a question for all you teachers out there, and anyone else who wants to weigh in.

    For a long time now in my practice I have felt an imbalance between my lower body expression and my upper body expression. What I mean is, although when I listen to music I can simultaneously appreciate the multiple layers of movement that rhythm and melody give to the song, in practice my body is very "rhythm-heavy" (as I call it). My hips, legs, and (sometimes) feet seem to mostly know what they're doing without me even having to think about it. This part of my body improvs very well. However, when it comes to my upper body, I suddenly feel like an awkward first-timer every time I dance. Although I learn arm pattern after arm pattern in order to try and make it feel more natural, I still feel awkward. This shows when I video record myself (something which I've discovered is an excellent resource). In videos, even though I have work to do on my footwork and travelling, my hip work looks natural and definitely more refined than it used to. But my arms still seem stiff and awkward, or really...they don't look as powerful as I would want them to be. I can do the graceful, flowy snake like movements well, but everything above my waist basically looks like it lacks power and intention.

    The same goes for most torso related moves...

    I guess I've always been a little self-conscious as well about my skinniness, because sometimes when I watch performance videos my twiggy arms and lack of bust seems to enhance my awkwardness. While I know this can't be the case, and that body type can't prevent anybody from dancing well, the feeling is still hard to shake ( pun intended).

    I'm trying to think of exercises to work on in my practice, any advice you all could throw my way would be appreciated: techniques, songs, dvds, exercises you have worked on with students before, etc.

    Until then, I shall continue to wave my awkward little arms.

  2. #2
    Junior Member BeatriceC's Avatar
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    For a start, you could try a bit more positive affirmation about your upper body, rather than thinking twiggy and awkward! Think lean, sinuous and flowing (you said you were good on the snakey stuff).

    As for physical stuff you can do to improve the appearance of your upper body work, the first thing I'd suggest is using your back muscles a lot more. Put a lot more effort into holding your back in position. Lift your ribcage using your back muscles rather than your front, and roll your shoulders back and down, as if you're trying to slide your shoulder blades down into your knickers. Lengthen your neck. Get a good teacher to really work you on your basic upper body Posture.

  3. #3
    Moderator Darshiva's Avatar
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    The other thing I would suggest is to practice dancing only with your upper body. That way you can learn how to interpret the compexity of the music on the upper body the same way you do on the lower body.
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  4. #4
    Moderator Safran's Avatar
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    What Darshiva said! Sit down (this way you won't let your feet and hips to "interfere" ), put on a piece of music and improvise away. Explore different "volumes" - big and small, different directions (up, down, front, sides) and make sure that you don't just work with your arms but really do involve your upper body.

  5. #5
    Premium Member Aniseteph's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BeatriceC View Post
    ...roll your shoulders back and down, as if you're trying to slide your shoulder blades down into your knickers.
    Aaannnd Aniseteph adds another item to her list of key concepts. There's nothing like a bizarre mental image to latch on to when I'm trying to fix something, and this is perfect - thank you! I'm going to use it at work too when my shoulders start to creep up to my ears.

    ITA with whats already been said - practice upper body movements to build strength and control, constant self-nagging about posture awareness until it gets to be habit, and practice upper body dancing so it gets to be natural. And self belief - no beating oneself up -

  6. #6
    Member Roshanna's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Safran View Post
    make sure that you don't just work with your arms but really do involve your upper body.
    This was the most important bit for me.
    I struggled with the same problem about a year ago (and still probably one of my weaker areas now, but it's much better than it was), my arms and upper body looked stiff and awkward and I never really knew what I was doing with them, although my hip movements were pretty solid. Luckily I've been able to take privates with a very good teacher (Gwen Booth, just in case any UK dancers want to know ) who gave me loads of exercises to work on to sort it out.

    What was happening with me was that my upper body was very stiff because I'd been taught early on to lift my chest as part of 'good' posture, and was self-conscious about being flat chested so tried to lift my chest a lot to compensate. I'd also ended up moving my arms independently of the rest of my body because I'd somehow picked up the idea that *everything* had to be isolated.

    What has helped (aside from sorting out my posture) is massive amounts of work on ribcage isolations (slides, lifts, circles, sways, figure 8s...) to develop range and freedom of motion. And loads of drilling of fairly simple arm paths, concentrating on lines and quality of movement. Then yet more drilling, of arm movements that also use the upper body, like snake arms that include a shoulder roll and an upper body sway. It's the composite movements of arms and upper body that are the key, I think - but I needed to do quite a bit of preparation to work up to those.

    It has also helped me to take weekly classes with teachers who actually use a variety of flowing arm positions as a regular part of their classes, because none of my original teachers did much with their arms themselves, it's a strangely consistent weakness in my local dance scene...
    Last edited by Roshanna; 03-28-2013 at 10:09 AM.

  7. #7
    V.I.P. Yame's Avatar
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    Did I write this post? I mean, seriously? I could have written this ENTIRE post myself. I kept scrolling back up top to make sure this wasn't a post I wrote myself a while ago or something.

    I've been working on my arms for a few years now... and they've come a long way, I have to say. I do feel like they are a bit of a hit-or-miss nowadays... some days I do very well with them and they are very expressive and I get tons of compliments.... on other days, they just look like a pair of wet noodles.

    A lot of it I think has to do with also being uncomfortable with having skinny long arms... I think it's hard to make them look graceful and not goofy. Requires a lot of control. And I think I'm just goofy and awkward in general, so it's hard to get that out of my dance.

    This is something I feel like I need to work on harder than the average person. I'll have to continue to focus on it for a long time to come, but here are the things I've done so far that I feel have really helped:

    1. Ballet cross-training: it'll drill frames and paths into your body without you having to really think about it, and get you used to moving your arms while focusing on other things at the same time. I would imagine other dances that might be great to cross-train in if you want to improve your arm-work are flamenco, bollywood, and Persian (just a few examples).

    2. Drilling new frames and paths: play around in front of the mirror and figure out what you can do with your arms that looks good on YOU, in particular. Not everything will work for everybody. Play around with curves and angles... figure out what works and what doesn't. Drill just the arms and transitions without adding any hip or footwork, and make sure it's clean and elegant, and that you have a lot of energy in your arms and aren't just going through the motions.

    3. Drilling frames and paths with other movements: if you only drill the arms without anything else, you will be teaching yourself to only move your arms when the rest of your body is still. So when you start moving your hips, your arms will default to the position you keep your arms in when you drill hips (usually out to the side). So make sure whenever you are drilling any movement that you are already comfortable with, that you also think about what to do with your arms ahead of time... whether it's a still frame or moving path, make sure you are doing something interesting with your arms that isn't the things you normally do with which you are unhappy.

    4. Watching arms DVDs to get ideas: make sure you use the DVD over and over again so that your body and mind can absorb the movements and concepts.

    5. Follow along: pick your favorite dancers for armwork. Watch their videos and follow along.

    6. Gain confidence: deal with the psychological issues behind your lack of confidence with your arms. I'll delve more deeply into this in a second post.

  8. #8
    Member AndreaSTL's Avatar
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    You've received some good suggestions so far. One thing I'd like to add is to just cut loose. When you are out dancing with civilians do you stop to think about what your individual body parts are doing? I know that when "Baby Got Back" comes on I don't ponder if my arms should be here, can I move my head there, will it look bad if my ribcage does that?

    Put on some music and just dance. This is an exercise on expression, so don't be so worried about form (but don't be so lazy about it that you hurt yourself!). Don't try to watch yourself in a mirror. Close your eyes if you need to. Do what the music tells you. It will not be beautiful but it will be fun and/or cathartic. Use those awkward body parts knowing that doing so is free from judgment .

    When you are ready - it could be the second time, it could be months from now - record yourself. See what you like and what you don't. Try to focus on your form as a whole rather than parts (arms, bust, etc.). This is definitely harder to do, but a lot of what you are self conscious about can be camouflaged with costuming. Some movements look better on one body type over another, and it's hard to be clinical and take a detached look at this type of thing without insecurities coming into play. If you have a friend or instructor that you trust maybe you could book a private lesson at this point for some honest feedback. If you aren't comfortable with that or if it isn't even an option you can still do it on your own. Just try to see more than a small chested skinny girl with long arms. (hugs!)

  9. #9
    V.I.P. Yame's Avatar
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    So regarding the psychological aspect behind good armwork... I think this is a really big one. Think about yourself and your personality and how you present and express yourself in daily life. I find that people who are shy and/or introverted and who do not use their hands/arms to express themselves normally will tend to have difficulty doing the same in dance.

    Also think about how much opening up our arms leaves us vulnerable. I am used to keeping my arms close... even crossing my arms often. That's a very protective stance to have, and it's hard for those of us who are used to that to open up, especially in performance when we have a full audience in front of us, and where we have to REALLY open up, really elongate the arms and do different things to it.

    Now if you add insecurity with your shape to the mix, then you really have a hurdle to get over. I could really relate to you saying you feel insecure about having thin arms. For the longest time, all I wanted in my dance was to draw attention away from my skinny, long arms. My solution was to do as little as possible with them so that people would focus on everything else. Well, newsflash to me, that didn't work so well. Not working on my arms meant my arms remained uncoordinated, without energy and purpose, just hanging there in second position or down, it just ruined the lines I could be creating.

    I think that simply practicing arms and practicing performing will help you get over the first hurdle. But the insecurity with how your arms look, you have to get rid of yourself. This is why it's so important to watch yourself in the mirror and play around and discover what looks good on YOU, what works for your shape. You need to see it and start to appreciate the things your body can do. So when you do this, really work on your poses and your lines, and take the time to think and maybe even say positive things about yourself, particularly about those body parts that you are insecure about.

    Another thing that helps is to find good role models... find dancers who look similar to you (at least in regards to those things that make you insecure), good dancers you can watch and look up to as examples, so that you start to appreciate those things about yourself. I find that it's very hard to love yourself if all the examples out there are people who look totally different from you. This is what I love about belly dance, almost anyone can find a really good dancer who is similar to them in a lot of ways, so they can have that inspiration and that role model and they don't have to spend their life wishing they looked different. The reason so many women have so many body image issues is because what we see in TV, magazines, etc is very specific and makes people feel that if they don't look like that, they aren't normal, or are ugly... but that's a topic for another thread!

    So anyway, this is what really helps. For me, I feel like my lightbulb moment came when I took a private with Lulu Sabongi on arms, and she was able to critique me while still being very kind. She said a lot of things that made so much sense, and I still remember them to this date and still try to work on them. Her advice was so good that years later, it's still sinking in and getting absorbed. But probably even more importantly, she made me realize that my arms weren't something to be ashamed of, they were tools with so much potential and so much to add to my dance. She kept saying my arms were beautiful and how she wishes she had such long arms (I think her arms look great, which is a testament to how well she uses them), which made me realize some people actually view it as something positive. Up until then I used to envy people with shorter arms, but now I can appreciate my own shape along with theirs. I think my arms have improved steadily ever since.

  10. #10
    V.I.P. Yame's Avatar
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    Having said all that, also remember that upper body expression isn't just about arms. It's also about your head, your face, your chest, your shoulders... everything above your waist. I focused on arms for my posts because I feel that they are a huge topic, and that they take a lot of work and a lot of time (at least for people like us) to master, and because it seemed from the original post that they were your main concern. But don't ignore the rest of your upper body, either, because you need it to convey different emotions.

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