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What Do Irish Dance Judges Look For? #9—Perfect Arms & Hands

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Ariel Bennett, ADCRG, is a teacher and judge who has been Irish dancing for 30 years.

The way Irish dancers hold their arms by their sides is one of the most distinctive features of our art form. What other kind of dance highlights the intricate footwork by keeping the arms completely straight and still?

However, keeping your arms down while you dance isn’t as easy as it looks. Your body is designed for your arms and upper body to help you when you walk, run, and jump, so doing the athletic moves of Irish dance without the aid of your arms takes a lot of practice.

Here are some important things to remember as you work on your arms:

1 – Your arms won’t stay down unless your posture is correct.

Previously, we talked about the importance of good posture: If your upper body moves around or leans forward while you dance, your arms will come away from your sides automatically to help you keep your balance.

To prevent your arms from coming out, you need to keep your upper body straight up and down and completely still. The key to good posture is a strong core, so you need to do core exercises every day.

2 – It takes strong muscles to keep your arms down.

Many Irish dancers think, “My arms aren’t doing anything, so I don’t need to exercise them.” That’s a mistake. The muscles in your shoulders, arms, and back all have to work hard in order to keep your arms from swinging when you jump.

To strengthen these muscles, you should do upper body exercises every other day. Paula Goulding demonstrates some good arm and back exercises in her Thera-band workout.

Other good exercises that you can do easily at home include pushups and dips. Find videos online that show you how to do these exercises with correct form. If you can’t do very many at first, don’t give up—just do as many as you can each time, and within a few weeks you will see improvement.

3 – Devote some of your practice time to working on your arms.

Just like with your footwork, you need to practice holding your arms down in order to improve. Make sure that at least a few minutes of your practice time every day are dedicated to working on your upper body.

When you dance, your shoulders should be pulled gently back, with your arms touching your sides so that there is no space visible between your body and your arms. As you practice, concentrate on either your wrist or your elbow touching your side the whole time you’re dancing. Think about pulling your wrist or your elbow in toward your body (don’t just let your arms hang).

4 – Don’t forget your hands.

Your hands should be in fists, with the thumb inside the fingers. Your arms should be rotated so that all four fingers are pressed against your body—even if you have your back to the judges, they should not be able to see your fingers.

Here’s an exercise you can try for your arms and hands: take two index cards or small pieces of paper and put one between your arm and your body on each side (you may need to experiment to find the best place to put it). Now put a penny in each of your hands. Do one of your steps. If a piece of paper or a penny falls out while you’re dancing, do the step again. If the papers and pennies stay in place, go on to your next step. See how many steps you can get through without anything falling.

The judges are looking at your posture, arms, and hands from the moment you walk out on stage until the moment you exit, so make sure that you practice until your arms are perfect every time.

Photo credit: Flickr User Brendan Lally

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  1. Great article! I agree with all the above.

    I especially want to applaud your use of the paper and pennies trick. When I was young we were taught to hold onto our shorts, but this only trains your outer shoulder to pull away from your body. It is MUCH better to pin something down to your sides! Thank you!

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