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The Hold

The closed ballroom hold requires the maintenance of five points of contact between the partners while they are dancing. These consist of three hand contacts:

1. the man's left hand holding the lady's right hand,
2. the lady's left hand resting on the top of the man's right upper arm (behind the arm in the Tango),
3. the man's right hand placed on the left shoulder blade on the back of the lady.

In addition to these 3 hand contacts, there are two more areas of contact:

4. the lady's left elbow rests on the man's right elbow,
5. the right area of the chest of each partner touches that of the other.

Ideally, in this hold, the lady's upper arms are both held horizontal by a suitable placement of the man's arms and hands. This not only makes it comfortable for the lady to follow the man's lead, but also gives the couple a deportment of regal appearance. This deportment is a characteristic of dances coming from Western Europe, and is a heritage of the origin of ballroom dancing in the royal courts of Europe. The erect and fixed torso is even more evident in Classical Ballet, which had the same origins.

Louis XIV (1643-1715) at Versailles
Dancing the Minuet.

The peculiar ballroom dancing "Closed Hold" possibly had its origins in the time when men wore swords while dancing. This can be seen in the print by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), and in the illustrations in Fabrito Caroso's "Il Ballarino" of 1581 (Lindahl, 1996), although illustrations predating this time show men dancing without swords but with the ladies on their right nevertheless.

print by Hans Sebald Beham 1537
Peasant dancing in 1537 with both sword and partner.

print by Fabrito Caroso 1581
"Il Ballarino" : Gentleman dancing with both sword and partner.

As most men are right handed, it was conventional to wear the sword and scabbard on the left-hand side of the belt, so as to facilitate the drawing of the sword with the right hand. Thus if a man was to put his arm around a lady's back, she would have to be on his right, or she would keep tripping over the sword. Thus he could only put his right arm around her; and if she was receptive to this advance, she would place her left arm over the man's right. From here it is a simple matter for the man to offer his left hand for the lady to hold for additional balance while dancing. The resting of the lady's left elbow on the man's right elbow is probably a hangover from the days when lady's were socially restrained from ever making advances to a man: the man always had to take the initiative: he offered, and the lady either accepted or rejected. One aspect of this elbow contact is that the man must keep his right shoulder over his right hip, and the right elbow in front of the line of his shoulders if the lady is to feel comfortable.

The facing of the palm of the man's left hand and the lady's right hand has its origins in the same social gender constraints as described above: the man offers his hand (palm up), and the lady accepts by putting hers on the man's (palm down). This orientation of palms has the advantage of allowing each partner to keep their wrists straight, and the hand in line with the lower arm, giving aesthetically pleasing lines. This is hard for the man as he also has to keep his left elbow up at the same height as the shoulder, and the left shoulder down, and so it requires the maintenance of a 180 degree twist in the man's wrist. Thus many teachers advocate other easier but less elegant palm alignments.

The social expectation of male initiative is of course also the reason that conventionally in ballroom dancing, the man "leads", and the lady "follows": i.e. the man is basically responsible for the choregraphy and directions of travel.

By Don Herbison-Evans
Departmental Report TRS-96-008
Department of Mathematics and Computing,
Central Queensland University,
Bundaberg, Australia
(revised 21 January 2001)
References have been removed for easier reading.