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Handholds - Why and How

by Orlo Hoadley

Many of the country's best callers teach their dancers how important it is for dancers to maintain contact with one another. Ed Foote and Lee Kopman both insist that dancers should take hands as soon as possible after any movement that separates them. Ed says that, when he calls for a club that he is not familiar with, he always watches carefully during his first tip to see what the dancers do with their hands. If they are making maximum use of their hands, he knows that he can call things to them that they couldn't handle if they didn't.

Some of the good things that keeping contact can do for the dancers are:

  • Help them to find their proper position in the set's formation,
  • Help them keep track of what the set as a whole is doing (formation awareness, and it is very important that new dancers learn it early in their class),
  • Help keep them together time-wise,
  • Make it easier for the more experienced dancers to assist or cue the others (guiding but not pushing or yanking, of course),
  • Encourage the dancers to keep the set neat and compact.
One more benefit of the use of proper handholds, and an important one, is to give the dancers the feeling of dancing with each other instead of around each other. They get this feeling from a certain amount of pressure in the hold, which means that the dancers are helping each other control their momentum. If they have to do it entirely by themselves, it can only be done through the contact of the dancer's feet with the floor. But the pressure in a handhold is applied to the shoulder, so just a little pressure can make a real difference in the amount of energy the dancers expend. The lack of this pressure is what people mean when they talk about a "dead-fish" handhold, or the lack of "resistance".

Another unpleasant feature of handholds is roughness, which means that a man (It's usually the man, but not always) applies awkward or painful forces to a lady. In most cases he can't do it unless his hold is really a strong grip. And he can't take a strong grip except by clenching something between his fingers and opposed thumb. So, the way to prevent roughness is to teach the dancers, particularly the men, to keep their thumbs out of the action when they take handholds (most of the time).

With these ideas in mind, we might define a proper handhold as one that (a) allows dancers to share a pressure in the direction that helps them to control their body movement but does not allow either dancer to exert pressure in any other direction, (b) allows either dancer to release a hold that might become uncomfortable or painful, and (c) discourages the dancers from making a hold into a hard grip.

Proper handholds should be taught to new dancers from the very beginning of the class. Some callers say they can teach the traffic patterns for the calls without bothering with "unimportant" details, and they can correct the handholds later on. Unfortunately, by the time later-on comes around the dancers have acquired habits that will be difficult or impossible to change. Besides, if he doesn't have time at the beginning, he is likely to be even busier later on, and never will find any time at all for something that would take a lot more time and effort than if he had done it right in the beginning.

When dancers square up and learn Mainstream Call Number 1, namely Circle Left, they should also learn the first principle of handholds: "Men's palms up, ladies palms down."

MEN'S PALMS UP, LADIES' PALMS DOWN

The major use for this rule is when two or four normal couples are circling. When circling, it is permissable and advisable for both men and ladies to use their thumbs to help keep their handholds...gently. The same rule applies to the normal Promenade handhold. If a man wants to twirl the lady at the end of a Promenade, he should just lift his left hand, gently, to invite the lady to twirl. If she doesn't want to, for whatever reason, he should not grab her hand and try to force her to twirl.

When standing in the squared set or moving as a couple in such calls as Wheel & Deal, Couples Circulate, Lines Go Forward & Back, etc., the elbows should be close to the body and bent sharply, so that the hands are almost at the level of the shoulders. The men's palms should be vertical with the thumb on top, and the thumbs held loose, with the ladies' fingers hooked over the edge of his palm. This falls naturally into the crossed-palms hold when they spread out a little to make a circle.

When two men or two ladies are moving together as a couple, a good rule to follow is Right Palm Up, Left Palm Down. However, when two men or two ladies do a Single Circle, even this rule calls for an awkward hold. It is suggested that the hold for a Single Circle should always be a pull-by hold with crossed hands: right hands joined above the left hands. This also provides that the right hands are already together, conveniently for any following call except Star Thru. When corners are facing, they can do a Single Circle 3/4 and then blend into a Promenade without shifting the handholds at all.

The Man's-Palm-Up rule also applies to the dancers' left hands when going into a Courtesy Turn, particularly at the end of a Right & Left Thru. There seem to be several schools of thought about this movement, and it's most disconcerting if the man and the lady are not of the same school, and have to fumble for an agreement at each Turn.

The left-hand hold for a Courtesy Turn is started with the forearms about level, which puts the hands about waist-high. If they are left there during the turn, the hands stick out in front of the dancers considerably. If the dancers will bend their elbows to bring the joined hands near the gent's right shoulder, it will make movement easier in a tight spot, such as a RLT done from a box. It will also allow the man to apply pressure to the lady's hand, near their pivot point, to help her get around in the high-speed turn used in Eight Chain Thru.

In fact, when dancers are first taught to do Eight Chain Thru they should learn to use this shoulder-high left-hand hold only, and the men to concentrate on getting their right hands under their left arms and out in front for the next Pull By. After they are well-practiced in the steps and the rhythm, the men can give the ladies a quick boost with the right hand to her waist and still get it out in front, in good time.

When the call is Right & Left Through + Ladies Rollaway, still another benefit of this high-handed maneuver is that, if the man will keep his hand high but shift it so it's centered with his body as the lady finishes the turn, it gives her a dandy post to hang onto while she does the Rollaway.

STAR THRU

When dancers learn to do a Star Thru, they just naturally use a crossed-fingers hold, which is maintained throughout the movement. There's no need for the dancers' hands to twist while the lady goes under the man's arm, but the hold becomes reversed, with the lady's palm up and the man's down. They can just as well dance this way for a few beats of music, and change it back when they next have to release their hold, or at some other convenient time.

PULL-BY HOLD

As the name suggests, the pressure in this hold is a pull, by each dancer on the other, to help them move past each other. It is used in a number of calls: Right & Left Thru, Right & Left Grand, Square Thru, Eight Chain Thru, and to begin Dixie movements.

The hold here is made with crossed fingers, pointed diagonally downward. The thumbs are held alongside the palms, away from the other dancer's hand. However, if a dancer meets a "dead fish", he or she is permitted to use a thumb, just hard enough to maintain contact. And of course the hold must be released just as the bodies start to pass each other.

One thing we've hinted at: if both dancers are to benefit by a hold and still be able to drop it, both have to contribute to the pressure. Teach the dancers, especially the ladies, not to have limp hands.

FOREARM HOLD

The forearm hold is made by two dancers laying their palms against the insides of each others' forearms. It is used for an Allemande and other Turn Thrus, and when making a Thar star. Here's where it's most important to keep the thumbs tight close to the palm, and not hooked over the top of the opposite's arm, which makes it entirely too easy to take a hard, painful grip. The hold is designed to resist the centrifugal force of a fast turn; and the force can be made greater, making the turn feel more like an elbow swing, if the dancers will lift their joined arms a little and lean away from each other. Of course, in a Thar star most of the centrifugal force involved comes when turning into the star and when Shooting it. While the star is rotating, the only function for the hold is to keep the man and the lady close and moving together.

SWING

Here's one case where holding the partners together against the centrifugal force of the turn is entirely the man's responsibility, with his right hand on her waist. His left hand has nothing to do but help the lady support the weight of her right arm, and it's not likely that there'll be any roughness involved. The only thing he might do is try to swing so fast that the lady can't keep her feet on the floor,and he can't do that if he is carefully taught to do the Swing at the prescribed speed, namely 4 steps for one full turn.

Here again the centrifugal force can be increased if the partners will lean away from each other. This is done by the man extending his right arm, to hold the lady a little farther away from him.

STARS

The Callerlab-recommended practice here is that, for any star in which the starring dancers are moving forward -- Star Promenade, Four Ladies Chain, four dancers star -- the center hands are all held with fingers together and pointing to the ceiling, touching but not grasping each other. The packsaddle grip, with each dancer grasping the wrist of the one ahead of him, is used when the starring dancers are backing up, which means a Thar star. The grip is of course held while doing Slip the Clutch or Throw Out the Clutch.

When learning the packsaddle grip, the men should be taught to concentrate on getting to the right place at the right time and taking hold of the wrist in front of him, and not worry about what the gent behind is doing. Same applies to the ladies, of course, when you get to the point of putting them on the inside of a Thar star.

STAR PROMENADE

The usual way to hold onto each other in a Star Promenade is for the man to put his right arm around the lady's waist, and the lady to hook her left hand either around his waist or over his far shoulder. It's easy for the two arms to get so interlocked that if either dancer tries to turn away from each other, the lady's arm won't come free and gets severely hurt, even broken -- it has been known to happen.

The problem can easily be avoided if the lady will lift her left elbow over the man's arm and then hook her hand over his near shoulder, not the far one. There are a few ladies of long experience still around that know this little trick, but it seems that the teaching of it has been sadly neglected in favor of teaching the dancers where to go to get through a lot of calls. It seems, though, that once a lady has this arm position shown to her, she finds it very comfortable and has no trouble remembering it from then on.

OCEAN WAVE OR ALAMO RING

Twenty years ago Vaughn Parrish, a well-known and well-regarded caller from Colorado, was saying that "Make an Ocean Wave" is not just the process of moving into a formation, but the act of doing a Balance. The Wave Balance, done in parallel Ocean Waves or in the circular wave that's called an Alamo ring, is still a part of the Callerlab-recognized Mainstream vocabulary, although you'd never know it by the use it gets. That's a pity, because the Balance is a pleasant movement and a nice variation from the always-walk-forward kind of dancing.

If the adjacent dancers are facing in opposite directions—as they are in waves and Alamo rings—and they all balance forward at the same time and back at the same time, then the pressure on the handholds is a push, that helps the feet to stop and reverse the forward motion of the body. If you take forearm holds in an Ocean Wave, the only way you can exert a push on a neighbor is to get a strong grip on his/her forearm. And we have just been saying that is a naughty thing to do. I have talked with a number of callers who teach the forearm grip for a wave, and it seems that they think of an Ocean Wave as a formation from which a Swing Thru is done, but never a Balance.

The best handhold for a wave is a fingers-up hold, with the hands approximately at shoulder level. Adjacent dancers should be just far enough apart so that, if they drop their handhold, they can step straight forward without bumping shoulders. This brings the joined hands close to both shoulders, where they can apply the forward pressure with minimum effort (You don't push a refrigerator by standing two feet to one side of it and reaching out to touch it; you "put your shoulder into it").

If you are standing close to each other and make contact by crossing fingers, it has two undesirable features: first, it requires the hand to be angled outward at the wrist, which is not a movement suited to the wrist, and second, any pressure applied to the fingers tends to bend the wrist backwards, and that isn't very comfortable either. The best place to take the pressure is at the base of the palm, which means that it is in direct line with the forearm bones, and the push is exerted by the big muscles in the upper arm.

So, the preferred hold is made by laying the thumbs together. Then, the hold can be made into a grip only by curling the fingers around behind the neighbor's palm, so the fingers should be curled loosely, with little or no contact with the back of the neighbor's hand. The fingers don't play any part in this handhold, but if the fingers are extended you can see why the hold used to be called a Pigeon-wing.

The hold is also fine for turning: if each dancer tries to move straight forward, the resistance of the handhold on one side of the body changes the forward motion into a turn. Besides, if it should happen that the neighbors want to turn fast enough to generate a substantial amount of centrifugal force, it's very easy to rotate the joined hands by 180 degrees, so the push becomes a pull.

The printed descriptions of a Scoot Back can be interpreted to mean that the Turn Thru done by the in-facers should be done with a forearm hold. But it seems rather awkward to start out with the hand at shoulder height, lower it to make the turn in the center, and then raise it again to reform the wave. It's much easier and more natural to keep the hands at shoulder height to do the Turn Thru, at least when done from parallel Ocean Waves. If you want to call a Scoot Back from a Thar star, the easy way is to keep the hands at waist height throughout the movement.

BOX THE GNAT

Box the Gnat is a case by itself when it comes to the hand pressures involved. It starts with a pull, as does any Pull By. Then, both dancers change their facing direction, but this does not affect their major momentum, which is now backwards and away from each other. So, the pressure that will help them stop their backward momentum (and move toward each other, which is most often required by the next call to be done) is still a pull.

If the movement is started with a Pull By as described earlier, the dancers' hands must twist relative to each other, which means that the original hold must be released and a new hold fumbled for in the fraction of a second while the dancers are twirling. It is better to start out with a hold that can be maintained during the turn. An early answer was for the dancers to hook their curled fingertips together. This has two disadvantages: long fingernails for either dancer are a no-no, and the hold ends up with both dancers' hands turned so that their thumbs are pointing straight down. This is not the most comfortable position in the world.

The suggested hold is started with the fingers crossed but pointing up. This keeps the fingernails out of harm's way, and requires 45 degrees less wrist-twisting, as it ends up with the fingers pointing diagonally to the right and down. Either the man or the lady can initiate this handhold just by offering his/her hand in the proper position; the opposite will respond in kind unless she/he is woefully inexperienced.

I have been shown another way of starting Box the Gnat: The lady holds up her hand with the palm facing her and the fingers slightly bent. The man then cups his hand over her knuckles. This is very comfortable. It allows the hands to twist relative to each other while maintaining close contact, and the fingers slide easily into a crossed-fingers Pull-By hold at the end of the turn.

The one undesirable feature of this method is that the hold doesn't allow the man to pull the lady into the movement. She can only push, and so has to do all the work, while the only thing the man can do at the beginning of the movement is to supply enough resistance to keep the hands in good contact during the turns.

Swat the Flea (not Box the Flea, please, for reasons explained in the Music & Timing book) is just a left-handed, mirror-image version of Box the Gnat. It is rejected by many callers, although sometimes the left-handed movement can be very useful. It can be learned quickly and easily, by dancers who are well-practiced in Box the Gnat.


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