How to Improve Your Arm Styling in Salsa & Bachata: 14 Tips

Follow does arm styling while dancing bachata with partner
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Arm styling is one of the easiest ways to add personality to your dancing. It can create elegance, sensuality, playfulness, drama and more. It also helps our body movement to look more natural.

Yet arm styling is also surprisingly tricky. It takes practice and know-how to avoid stiff, awkward movements. Fortunately, there are several tips and tricks that will help you create fluid, natural movements that add style and pizazz to your dancing. Here are 14 tips that range from technical to creative and basic to advanced:

1. Know When and Where to Use Arm Styling

Every single follower on the social dance floor has tried to do arm styling only to miss a led move or accidentally hit someone. Quite a few leaders have done it, too. It’s a common mistake that’s part of the learning curve of dancing.

You need to learn to recognise the indications that it’s safe to style, as well as the moments when you’re better off keeping your arms in a neutral position. For example, when following, it’s generally safe to use arm styling after you’ve finished a turn or when you have a free hand. When leading, you’ll want to save it for when a follower won’t interpret it as a lead, e.g. when they’re turning.

It’s not just about when, though. It’s also about where. It may be safe to style to your side during a move, but not above your head. Or you may find you have enough space to touch your chest or head but not to fully extend your arms.

Bear in mind that as dance styles evolve, the safe moments may change. Take the yoyo move, where the lead and follow are in a wrap/cuddle/abrazo, then the follow is spun out and back in again. At one point, teachers commonly taught follows to raise their free arm above their head on the return before bringing it down over the lead’s head. Now, however, in bachata, leads often add a head roll, dip or body movement to the end of that returning spin. This means followers are better off keeping their arms in neutral turn position as they return—although immediately after spinning out is still, for now, fair game.

The lesson to take from this? Don’t worry if you mess up, ask lots of questions in class about how you know it’s safe to style and pay attention to what your partner is doing.

Couple does arm styling while dancing bachata

Credit: Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock.com

2. Know When to Tone Down Your Arm Styling

Arm styling can be flashy and dramatic. It captures viewers’ attention, and when done well, highlights the movement you’re doing. But it can also draw the eye away from what you’re doing with the rest of your body. So if you’re using lots of hip movement, you don’t necessarily want your arms to go all out with styling. Instead, keep those movements minimal, bring them closer to your hips or mimic your hips’ movement.

Remember that arm styling doesn’t have to involve extending your arm so that everyone in the room can see. Small movements can be powerful, especially when they’re used intentionally. Try using your fingers and wrists to create small flourishes, trailing a hand along your collarbone or framing your face.

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3. Know How to Connect Your Arms With Your Body

Arm styling often, but not always, looks best when it’s connected to your torso. This is especially true when you’re doing basic arm movements during fundamental steps. Practise moving just your torso to see how it naturally creates arm movement without any effort on your part. Then, try using this natural movement when styling to see how it simultaneously exaggerates your arm movement and makes it seem more natural.

4. Think About Lines of Movement

Your arms are rarely your only moving body part, which means you can pick styling that exaggerates the direction and energy of the rest of your body. Doing a wave or body roll? Arm movements that match your body movement can help make the wave seem more fluid and natural. Doing a travelling turn along a line? You could finish by using your arm to extend that line and make the movement seem even more dramatic.

That said, remember the first tip: know when it’s safe to style. You don’t want to fling your arm behind you without looking first.

5. Understand Your Joints

To co-opt a social media meme, arm styling is not about where you’re going. It’s about how you get there. The movements that take you from place A to place B are what make you look good—and your joints are what make that happen.

When it comes to arm styling, these joints are at the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers. Explore the rotation you have in these joints. Practise moving them in different ways. Remember that they are connected, too. Since we don’t have 360° rotation, we may need to use our elbow or shoulder joints to help our wrists and hands move in the way we want.

And if ever you’re not sure how to do a piece of styling, look at what the joints are doing and when. It will often hold the key.

Couple does arm styling in salsa dance

6. Smoothen Your Transitions

Most arm styling contains transitions: essential movements that are rarely the highlight of the styling, but can be the difference between it looking elegant or awkward. Your palm might go from facing down to facing up, or from in to facing out. Your fingers might extend then curl then extend again. Your hand might go from the left side of your face to the right.

Whatever it is, polishing the transition will make your styling more graceful and effective. So: pay attention to when and how these transitions happen. Ask questions about the technique. Rehearse the movements until they become natural.

7. Improve Your Flexibility

Flexibility isn’t essential for arm styling, but it will give you more movement to work with. You will find yourself styling more smoothly, especially in transitions, and being able to make greater use of space. Shoulder opening and wrist flexibility exercises will help. Don’t overwork yourself, though—shoulders are delicate and important.

8. Know if You Want Tension

Tension can add sharpness and drama to movements and, especially when it’s your fingers, create the impression of elegance and length. But it can also slow you down and add stiffness. Knowing where and when to use tension, and more importantly why, will help make movements more your precise, clean and visually compelling.

Man does arm styling in solo salsa dance

9. Get Creative

There’s nothing wrong with having a go-to piece of styling that you can do flawlessly, but don’t be afraid to experiment, try something new and trust your instincts. If you’ve always done the same movement when coming out of a turn, pick a couple of others and see how they change the look and feel of the move. Try them out with different songs, particularly ones with different styles and speeds, and at different moments in the songs. As you do this, you’ll start to get a feel for how you can use styling not just to decorate your movements but express yourself.

10. Control—And Play With—Your Speed

Do you want your styling to last one beat? A half-basic? Or highlight a certain instrument? Playing with the speed of your arm styling can create a completely different sensation, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

11. Know Your Personality

You might be able to execute flawless styling, but unless the movements match your personality, you’re not going to fully enjoy it. Instead, lean into who are you are and how you like to present yourself. Do you want to feel sensual? Fun? Flirty? Cute? Full of attitude? Playful? Dramatic? Elegant? No matter who you are, you can express that with dancing. So instead of trying to replicate someone else’s style and movements, pick and choose the styling moves that make you feel great.

Woman does arm styling while dancing salsa solo

12. Trial It in Front of a Mirror

The difference between elegant and awkward movements lies in the tiny details. Practising in front of a mirror or recording yourself will help you discover areas to improve, many of which will just require small tweaks. For example, you might discover that you’re blocking your face with your arm or holding your shoulder too stiffly. Once you’ve spotted these issues, the fixes are simple.

Dancing in front of a mirror will allow you to self-correct in real time, but recording yourself can also be motivating. When you come back to those videos after a few weeks or months, you’ll see how much you’ve improved.

13. Style With Confidence

Confidence can make even the simplest styling look good. Nervousness and timidity, on the other hand, will automatically make your movements smaller, more closed and more hesitant and awkward. So, pick something you can do with confidence and enjoy the moment. It will show.

However, don’t let a lack of confidence limit your styling. If you’re unsure about a move, practise it at home until you feel good about it. You can also test it out in a class environment before taking it onto the social dance floor.

14. Practise, Practise and Practise Some More

Perfection doesn’t exist, but practice will get you pretty close. Repeat the movements until they’re clean, fluid and natural. A few practice sessions and you’ll find you don’t even need to think about the movements: you’ll do them automatically.

Arm styling is a bold, fun way to express your personality and add polish and flair to your dance moves. And with these tips, you’ll be able to style with confidence. So, what are you waiting for? Get in front of your mirror, start experimenting and enjoy yourself.

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Ella Baila is the alias of a bachata teacher. She dabbles in most Afro-Latin dances and is blues-curious.