Thursday, April 15, 2010


In dancing of any kind, the dancer’s hands and arms are an integral part of her performance; both stylistically and as far as certain genre-specific or ethnic gestures go. Hand movements differ from culture to culture, running the gamut from simple and joyous hand waving in folkloric dance to the delicate wrist circles of Egyptian Cabaret to the almost aggressive, Romany-influenced gestures of Turkish dance, or the stylized, Flamenco floreo-influenced hand and arm positions of Tribal style. Many observers have the mistaken impression that hand gestures in Oriental Dance are comparable to the Hula, where the hands literally speak a sign language and tell a story. Though this is not true per se of belly dance, there are certain traditional as well as contemporary “meanings” to some of the gestures used. In Egyptian cabaret style dance, some of these hand movements may look flirtatious or even downright campy to the untrained eye, but many have roots in folkloric traditions.

Beautiful arms in belly dance are much harder to master than they would seem to be. Sloppy posture and arm positions such as slouched shoulders, "broken wings" or pointed, sharply bent elbows, lifeless, limp arms or even arms that move too much can really detract from an otherwise lovely performance. The same goes for the hands: closed-finger positions, claw-like clenching gestures, or hands that are flipping around too busily can look very amateurish.

In general, no matter what style of belly dance is being performed, the arms should be lifted from the shoulders, with the chest lifted and ribcage extended upwards; arms are gently rounded, with elbows and rotated slightly towards the back. This is a basic, classical and graceful position, which would serve any type of belly dance style. The arms should not be stiff, but have a bit of play, and should move through the air gracefully and languidly, with some muscular resistance. Even if more fluid movements and flowing wrist circles seem to elude you at first, you cannot go wrong with simple body frames and nice lines in the arms.

Arms are also used to draw attention and/or fame an area of the body. For example, when doing hip articulations, one or both arms may frame the area that is "working". Opposition works nicely here, with one arm framing the moving hip, the other extended upwards. Palms can face inwards or outwards, whatever is most aesthetically pleasing to the dancer herself or her audience.

The use of negative and positive space within the context of a performance area can really be amplified by hand and arm gestures. Arms extended out to the audience feel inclusive and welcoming; the dancer’s face shielded by her hand represents introspection; sharp and quick movements during a drum solo add to the excitement of the percussion, and so on.

Ideally, the arms should move gracefully through the air, and the hands should flow along with them, with energy extended out through the fingertips. A classic and pretty hand position is reminiscent of ballet dance, with the middle two fingers together, pointer finger and pinky separated, with the hand facing inwards or outwards, wrist ever so slightly bent. A variation on this used commonly in Oriental Dance is with the middle finger and thumb almost touching. The hand positions of tribal style belly dancers often slightly exaggerate the basic, classic hand position, with more tension in the fingers.

In most forms of Oriental Dance, wrist circles are a pretty, finishing touch, with the hands gently and slowly circling in or out, or both alternately. These circles can be soft and subtle, or take on the regal, definitive movements of Spanish Flamenco floreos. To practice wrist circles, hold the arm outwards, and SLOWLY circle inwards, pinky first, working each finger to stretch the tendons. Practice an outwards circle the same way, beginning with the index finger.

Hands can trace the lines of your body while you dance, wafting through the air, crossing in front of you for transitions, or pausing to make coquettish gestures along the face, hair or hips. Lightly circling your hands in time to the melody or to or the drumbeat your hips are following looks beautiful and finished. More energy in your hands than in your hips looks frantic, so is careful here- subtlety is the key.

Both Turkish and Egyptian-style dancers use hand gestures around the face and head in particular, with one or both raised to the forehead like a salute, almost like the dancer has a rather sexy headache. It is also acceptable to touch yourself in certain areas, like the heart, one hip, a caressing of the shoulders. It is this diva-like sensuousness that can sometimes seem to go a little overboard, so keep it clean and subtle.

Drilling hand and arm positions in front of a mirror will help to enforce them in your muscle memory and allow for smooth transitions and graceful gestures. Once you have the basics down and feel comfortable performing them, incorporate them into your dancing.

Once finger cymbals are added into the mix, you will want to drill often with them as well, so that every wrist circle, hand or arm gesture can be seamlessly performed while playing the cymbals, without losing the beat, and without compromising your hand and arm work.

Before dancing, and practicing belly dance technique, in order to gain strength and increase flexibility in the arms and hands, practice these drills which will help you gain control and limber you up.

Large arm circles going backwards and forwards

With arms outstretched, small wrist circles going backwards and forwards

Arms up above the head with fingers clasped together; palms facing the ceiling. Stretch upwards and slowly roll down, rounding the spine

Circular neck roll- slowly and gently, letting the weight of the head softly stretch the neck without forcing it into an unnatural position.

Rolling the shoulders- backwards and forwards, in unison, increasingly larger circles…then repeating the same type of movement alternating the shoulder rolls.

Outstretched arms forward, fingers flexed and pulled back gently for an easy stretch

Arms stretched to sides, and beginning by moving the little finger, describe slow, controlled “ finger fans” to aid in flexibility of the small tendons in the hands and fingers.

Photo by Dan Holmgren

To order Princess Farhana's Instructional DVD "Armed And Dangerous: Hand And Arm Technique For Belly Dance", click here:


  1. I'd also like to add to the arms issue:

    Don't forget them when you costume! Costumes can look unfinished without carrying some of the color/fabric/design/ornamentation of your torso into your limbs. Your whole dance shouldn't just be in the torso, bringing the dance into your limbs means also taking the time to accent your upper arms or wrists (sometimes both!) with the same attention you, hopefully, gave the rest of your body.


  2. Thank you. People ask me about arms often. Now I can direct them to here. I have a hard time articulating.

  3. pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!! ........................................