Underarm Turns – the ABC’s and Essential Elements

Underarm turns are fun.  They’re fun to do as a leader or as a follower.  When done correctly, they look sharp and feel awesome.  That being the case, let’s take a few minutes to go over some basics.

First things first. When you think about it, a dancer can only turn two ways, to the right or the left.  However, there are lots of different twists that can be added to make these turns look and feel more exciting.  

Understanding the Basics…the ABC’s

Let’s begin with the follower’s underarm turns.

The leader uses his left hand while the follower uses her right.

A. Right Turn, aka Natural or outside turn

For a turn to her right, the follower goes under her own arm, beneath the crook of her elbow. To lead this, the leader raises his hand and indicates that she is to turn to her right. This is much more comfortable for her than having the leader reach out over her head and turn her with a stirring action.

underarm turn to the right
Ladie’s underarm turn to her right.

B. Left Turn, aka Reverse or inside turn

When doing an underarm turn to the left, the leader takes his partner’s arm across her face towards her left shoulder and over her head.

Another thing to look for in a reverse underarm turn is the window that’s created by the way the partners are holding their arms. For example, here are Fred and Ginger dancing an inside turn. Accordingly, you see her glancing at Fred through the window they formed with their arms.

underarm turn to the left
Fred and Ginger make it look elegant.

This GIF reminds me of the song, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead or Alive. OMG, I couldn’t stop watching the video. Shot in 1984 – what an era!

Continuous reverse underarm turns are a blast!

C. First step, then turn.

Whether spinning to the right or the left, it’s important that the follower steps forward into the turn. Avoid stepping backward while turning. That’s what happens when you turn the body before taking the step. It also can happen if the follower leads herself into the turn.

Leaders, don’t lean into that follower’s elbow as you’re turning her. It’s for sure that you’ll take a hard hit to the nose or teeth. I’ve seen it happen too often. It’s definitely a buzz kill.

Read this Dance Safari post, “Most Common Mistakes People Make in Ballroom Dancing” to catch up on other things to watch out for.

Essential Elements

Focus on the following elements when dancing underarm turns and spins.


There’s no way for the leader to indicate the direction he wants his follower to go without a good frame on his part and hers. With this in mind, spend time learning how to hold your arms with tone. Add to that a small amount of pressure into your partner’s frame.

Basically, we’re saying no noodle-arms. Loosey-goosey ain’t gonna cut it.


Although some turning steps can be led from the closed position, most underarm turns will be initiated from an open dance position. That would be facing each other with a one or two-hand hold. This makes the connection of the partner’s hands the primary point of contact.

When in an open dance position, the leader extends his arms towards his partner with his palms facing up. She will accept the connection by placing her hands in his with her palms facing down. The hands will be equidistant between the two partners. Elbows should never go past the sides of their body.

Poise and Balance

Maintain your good dance posture and poise when you’re in the open position. Your poise will be slightly forward which allows you to feel each other’s body weight. The leader can pinpoint where his partner is in relation to him, and the follower can use her split-second following skills to execute the step and return to the correct position.

As a final point, here is a routine for beginners:

  • Basic
  • Outside Turn
  • Inside Turn
  • Basic

Your instructor will show you how to make it fit any dance.

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