Photo of Shira



PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Beautiful Arms for

Belly Dancing

by Shira


Many belly dance teachers do their students a disservice by failing to teach how to use the arms gracefully. Here are some thoughts on how to add graceful arm moves to your dance.



The Foundation

First, it's helpful to consider a couple of concepts:

  1. At a very fundamental level, Western (European and North American) dance is what your limbs (arms and legs) do: traveling steps, high kicks, leaps, sweeping arm movements, etc.
  2. At a very fundamental level, Oriental dance (belly dance) is what your core muscles do, and the moving limbs are there to frame and support the core.



Avoiding the Western Accent

Here are some guidelines for making your arm movements fit the aesthetic of Oriental dance, to eliminate your Western accent:

  1. Arm movements should originate from the torso, usually the upper back.
  2. Avoid standing still and moving just the arms alone. For example, don't stand still and do 8 counts of snake arms.
  3. Use the arms to create frames that showcase what the torso is doing, particularly the hips.
  4. Learn to think of the music as containing "sentences" which consist of a noticeable beginning, middle, and end. Think of your arms as flowing with these sentences, with a movement beginning as the music begins a sentence, swelling to express energy as the phrase swells, and tapering off as the phrase reaches its end.
  5. Avoid holding the arms outstretched to each side at shoulder level in the "crucifix" position. This position will cause your dance to look very un-Middle Eastern.
  6. Avoid using "Pharonic" arms - the arm positions that have elbows and wrists bent at right angles. These too are a Western invention.
  7. Avoid letting the arms linger in the ballet arm positions of first through fifth. The arms may pass through these positions, but posing them in these positions for any length of time is very Western.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by André Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany, at one of Shira's performances in Egypt.




Role Models

One of the best learning tools is to study performances by dancers who have beautiful arm movements. Here are some suggestions for role models. Try to find videos of them on youtube or DVD and study how they use their arms:

  • Tahia Carioca. Her two performances in the movie Shatie el Gharam (Shore of Love) are particularly worth watching. This is available on DVD with English subtitles, and the dance scenes also appear on the DVD Legends of Belly Dance.
  • Naima Akef. Her first two performances in the movie Tamra Henna are particularly noteworthy - the performances in the folkloric costumes.
  • Fifi Abdo. Her style is more baladi (folk/traditional), and therefore her arm movements and positions are more casual, less polished than those of Tahia Carioca. Look for a video of her titled Concert at al Emailia. Her aesthetic is a bit more raw than that of Tahia Carioca, but it suits the dance style that she does.

Although Samia Gamal was known for her expressive arms as shown in the photo to the right, she isn't recommended here as a role model because many of her silver screen performances were intentionally Western in their aesthetic. Someone not familiar with her work may need assistance determining which clips are useful for studying Oriental technique versus which represent a more Western aesthetic.

PHOTO CREDIT: Samia Gamal in a scene from Sigarah wa Kass.

Samia Gamal



Suggested Drills

These drills can be used in home practice to incorporate beautiful arm movements into the dance. The key is to do these drills over and over, until the arm movements can occur automatically, without needing to think consciously about them.


Drill #1: Arm Arcs

  1. Pick a fluid move, such as hip circles, horizontal figure 8's, or vertical figure 8's.
  2. Put some music on your sound system that you think would be for drilling this move. Suggested song titles: "Bir Demet Yasemen", "Erev Shel Shoshanim", "Cleopatra", Warda's version of "Mihtagalak", John Bilezijian's version of "Salla Sana Mendillini", "Jemilleh", "Tien Afto".
  3. Begin drilling the chosen move.
  4. Place your hands attractively at either hip. (That is, don't let them just dangle. Keep the elbows softly rounded away from the body, pretending there is a baseball in each armpit that you want to drop.)
  5. While continuing to do the chosen hip move, slowly sweep both arms out away from the body in a huge arc, leading with the wrists, so that the arms trace a path from hip to above the head. Always keep the elbows soft while doing this.
  6. Cross the wrists high above the head, elbows still soft, as shown in the photo of Tahia Carioca to the right.
  7. Keeping wrists crossed, bring the hands slowly down in front of the body to hip level.

PHOTO CREDIT: Tahia Carioca in a scene from Shatie el Gharam.

Repeat steps 3 through 7 above many times, perhaps for the duration of a complete 3-4 minute song. The key here is to drill this so much that when doing a figure 8 or hip circle, it feels natural to accompany that move with this arm movement.

Do this drill daily for a week, for 15 minutes per day or longer, before moving on to the next drill below.

Photo of Tahia Carioca


Drill #2: Synchronizing Drill #1 to Music

  1. Using one of the songs recommended for Drill #1, do figure 8's. These may be any of the horizontal or vertical figure 8 variations. Or, you may vary by doing one for a while, then switching to another.
  2. Pay attention to the beat in the music, and do half a figure 8 (one hip) on each beat. Don't proceed to step #3 below until you feel it's natural to synchronize your hips with the beat.
  3. Add the arm movement used in Drill #1. Synchronize it to the beat in the music and the movement of your hips, as follows:
    • On Count 1, hands should be in position near your hips.
    • On Counts 2, 3, and 4, sweep the arms upward in arcs on either side of your body until they are overhead.
    • On Count 5, cross the wrists in the position shown in the Tahia Carioca photo above.
    • On Counts 6 through 8, bring the arms back down to hip level.

Do this drill daily for a week, for 15 minutes per day or longer, before moving on to the next drill below.


Drill #3: Making It Graceful

Do Drill #2. However, by now you should be able to synchronize the arms with the musical phrasing, focus on making the arms feel soft and fluid while doing the hip movement. Keep the arm movement continuous. Don't pause at hip level, and don't pause at the top when crossing the wrists. Focus the attention on keeping the arms flowing continuously.

If possible, videotape yourself doing this drill and critique your arms. Do they flow continuously? Are they soft and fluid?

Practice this drill until your arms flow gracefully. This may take 2-3 days of daily practice or more to reach this stage.


Drill #4: Add Breathing

Here's where you begin to make the transition from merely exercising to dancing!

As you do Drill #2, breathe with your arms. As you raise them think about slowly taking a luscious deep breath. As you bring them down, think about exhaling slowly. At first, you might not be able to continue the inhale/exhale the full four counts, unless you're accustomed to a discipline such as yoga, singing, or playing trumpet where breath control is required. But keep doing the drill, and eventually you will reach a point where you can do this.

Practice this for a week, 15 minutes or more per day.


Drill #5: Energy

This is it. This is what all the previous drills have been working up to. This is the drill that will bring life and meaning to your arm movements.

Do Drill #2, as follows:

  1. As you raise your arms, visualize that you are bringing fiery, joyful energy up from the core of the earth with you.
  2. As your arms reach the point above your head, imagine releasing that joy to the universe and sharing it with all who may be watching you, even if it's just your cats.
  3. As you cross your wrists, imagine capturing some of that joy for yourself. As you bring your hands back down to your hips, visualize bringing that joyful energy into your heart.

You can experiment with different types of moods here: joy, love, peace, introspection, etc. Pick one, drill it a while, then try another. You might need different songs to help you feel the different moods.

If you are a spiritual person, here is an alternate way to visualize this:

  1. As you raise your arms, imagine that you are offering your own being to your God.
  2. As your arms reach the point above your head, say a prayer of praise as you release that energy.
  3. As you cross your wrists, imagine yourself gathering blessings and bringing them down to share with all who may be watching you.

This is the most important of all the drills you have done so far. This is what they were building up to. Allow yourself to savor it, for at least a week, 15 minutes a day or more. In this drill, your arms are not merely waving randomly around - they are managing energy, your own and that of anyone watching you. This will give meaning and power to your dance.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.



Drill #6: Vary the Arms

By now, you must be rather weary of Drill #2. Now it's time to try some variations. Spend a full week or more experimenting with these, a minimum of 15 minutes per day.

Variation A

  1. On Counts 1 & 2, bring the arms only as high as shoulder height. Imagine you are drawing fiery energy up from the earth.
  2. On Counts 3 & 4, bring the arms in toward your heart, so that you end with your wrists crossed over your heart. As you do this, imagine you are drawing that earth energy into yourself, to warm your heart.
  3. On Counts 5 & 6, keep your hands over your heart. Savor that fiery energy as it spreads throughout your core, bringing joy with it.
  4. On Counts 7 & 8, return your hands to hip level, and return the energy to the earth to ground it.

Inhale on Counts 1 through 4, exhale on Counts 5 through 8.

If you want to use a more faith-oriented way to visualize this, try this:

  1. As you raise your arms on Counts 1 & 2, imagine you are bringing them up to catch the blessings being showered down upon you from above.
  2. As you bring your arms in toward your heart on Counts 3 & 4, imagine bringing the blessings into your very being, accepting them with joy.
  3. On Counts 5 & 6, allow the blessings to spread throughout your very being as your crossed wrists continue to reside over your heart.
  4. On Counts 7 & 8, bring your hands down to hip level, allowing the blessings to take root.

Drill the above until you can do it naturally. Then, alternate it with the original arm move. Do one set of 8 counts with Drill #2, then do another set of 8 counts with this drill.

Variation B

  1. Use Counts 1 & 2 to raise your arms more quickly than before to rise above your head. Imagine you are bringing fiery, joyful energy up from the earth as your arms rise.
  2. On Counts 3 & 4 bring your crossed wrists down to your heart. Bring that energy into yourself, and feel the joy and vitality it brings with it.
  3. On Counts 5 & 6, angle your arms so that your palms face the ceiling and press your arms forward at waist level in a giving motion. Share that joy and vitality with those around you by offering it to them with your arm gesture.
  4. Count 7, open your arms up to either side. Release the energy, giving of it freely to those around you.
  5. Count 8, arms back to hip level, grounding the energy that remains inside you.

Inhale on Counts 1 through 4, exhale on Counts 5 through 8.

Repeat this variation until it becomes automatic, then alternate with the original Drill #2 and Variation A.

Variation C

Reverse Drill #2. In other words:

  1. On Count 1, cross the wrists down at hip level.
  2. Use Counts 1 through 4 to raise the arms up through the center of the body until they are above the head.
  3. On Counts 5 through 8, bring the arms back down with large arcs on either side of the body until they reach hip level.

Repeat this variation enough times until it becomes automatic. Then add it to your practice, alternating with Drill #2, Variation A, and Variation B.


Just dance. Alternate your hips between hip circles, horizontal figure 8's, vertical figure 8's, and shimmies as you see fit. Experiment with different ways of expressing arm movements. Experiment with the ones in the exercises above and make up your own variations. Immerse yourself in the music and allow your arms to express what the music is doing.

Remember to incorporate breathing. Remember to think about how you are managing energy.



Match Arms to Step Combinations

Select a step combination that you know how to do, and then create an arm move that works with it. Remember to choose an arm move that serve as a frame to the hip work, and remember to think in terms of how that arm movement will function as a tool for bringing energy into yourself and releasing that energy to others.

Here is an example:

First, the Footwork

Do a grapevine to the left, with 3 steps, and then place the left toe on the ball on Count 4. If you don't know how to do a grapevine, it is:

  • Start with your feet parallel, toes pointed directly forward.
  • Count 1: Pick up your right foot and cross it in front of your left foot. Put your weight on the right foot.
  • Count 2: Pick up the left foot and take a small step to the left, to untangle it from the crossed position.
  • Count 3: Cross your right foot behind the left.
  • Count 4: Keep your weight on the right foot, and place the left foot near it, up on the ball.

While standing in the above position, do 4 hip drops on the left hip.

Now, do a grapevine & point traveling toward the right, and end with your weight on the left foot, the right foot on the ball, and do 4 hip drops on the right hip.

Practice the above a few times to medium-speed music. The song "Tahtill Shibbak" is well suited to this.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.


Add the Arms

For the grapevine:

  • Count 1: As your right foot crosses in front, place your arms in an upside-down V so that your arms are mostly straight but not locked, your hands out away from your hips on each side around hip or waist level.
  • Count 2: Bring your hands in toward your chest, so that your wrists cross over your heart. Gather in energy as you do, bringing it into your core.
  • Count 3: Begin to raise your right arm upward, and begin to lower your left hand downward. As you raise the right arm, think about beginning to release the energy you had gathered in.
  • Count 4: End in a pose with your left hand near your left hip, elbow soft, with the hand near the hip serving as a frame for the hip. Your right hand should be high above your head - that elbow should be soft, but not bent much.

For the hip drops:

Hold the arms in this pose.

Plan Others

Think about other step combinations that you know. Perhaps you have been taught arm movements that are designed to work with them. Using what you learned from the above drills, think about how you would add breathing and energy management to the arm moves.



Other Tips to Try

  • As you practice arm moves that you have been taught, imagine dragging your arm through deep water, feeling the resistance.
  • Learn how to do hand ripples.
  • Always caress your aura, not your physical body.
  • Listen to the phrasing in the music. As the music swells to a climax, allow your arms to float upward. As the music comes down from that climax, bring your arms physically down.



Did You Enjoy This Lesson?

If you enjoyed this lesson in dance technique, please consider asking dancers in your city who sponsor events to bring me to your town for a full-length dance workshop!




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