Almanac Life: Elbow Dancing

Two soldiers shaking hands found on part of a 5th century BC funerary stele which is on display in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum



Last deployed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, do we know who actually invented the ‘elbow bump’?


I must say, this is an awkward dance.  For me, there is nothing more ridiculous looking than four middle-aged golfers waltzing around the 18th green trying to acknowledge four hours of comradeship, exhilaration, and frustration, with a tap of the funny bone.


As I sit patiently adjusting to each ‘new normal’, I have found myself contemplating many of the simple things that I have lost during this pandemic, even missing some that I used to find annoying.


One consequence of Covid that I am really struggling with, is the eradication of the simple handshake.  Three months in, and I am still not comfortable acknowledging a friend or business colleague without this ubiquitous ritual.


My father and grandfather instilled in me the importance of a firm handshake.  First impressions are important, so ‘Look them straight in the eye, and make sure your handshake is firm and confident’.  In turn, I have obediently passed this onto my son, whose school also took great stock in this ritual.  Much more than a simple greeting, it centres one in the moment, and says ‘I am here, right now, and we are about to invest (or have invested) some time in each other’.


For me, it can represent an acknowledgement of a shared humanity and values, a symbol of trustworthiness and respect, a ritual to signify agreement and unity. My word is my bond, affirmed with a handshake.  Mess it up, and a bad handshake as a first impression will haunt you.


Think of some of the monumental handshakes that have forged history.  Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the end of WWII; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985; Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993 (assisted by a beaming Bill Clinton), Queen Elizabeth II and Martin McGuiness in 2012.







It can also be used to send a message of power and dominance in a negotiation, where a simple tilt of the hand up or down can signal much.  A search of ‘power handshakes’ on the web will provide a quick education in its many uses and abuses.  I wonder if the ‘power elbow’ could become a thing? Imagine how the first Trump/Putin elbow-bump may go down.  The mind boggles.


More commonly attributed to the middle ages and medieval knights, the history of the handshake perhaps goes back to 800-900 B.C. with the ancient Greeks, where it was a critical symbol of peace to show that neither person was carrying a concealed weapon.  The Romans favoured the raising of the right hand in the Hail Caesar, which was also adopted by some rather infamous dictators.  I don’t think this is making a comeback, particularly if it includes a clicking of the heels!  Certainly, no greeting has endured in western culture like the simple handshake, and I confess that the Covid elbow dance leaves me wanting.


For me, it is sport where the handshake will be hugely missed as games begin again. Ideally pledging fair play, the handshake taken before the contest is often a tense affair, as parties size up each other in advance of the battle.  However, the final handshake that congratulates the winners and commiserates the losers is a critical moment.  There are even ‘how-to’ guides for sports people, just in case one is unsure on how to enact the perfect handshake for the moment.


Like many of you, I was ‘Covid obsessed’ with The Last Dance.   I am sure you recall the everlasting anger and indignation over the ‘no-handshake’ move by the Detroit Pistons when they were beaten by the Chicago Bulls in the 90-91 Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a failure to genuinely participate in the post-game handshake ranks among the most disrespectful acts that can occur in sport.


Win or lose, every player has been in each other’s shoes at one time or another, and the handshake is as much an acknowledgement of this as anything else.  Perhaps next time, the roles will be reversed, but the handshake settles the argument, leaving both sides to move on – at least for the time being.  A sincere post-battle handshake is the embodiment of that famous quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’:


‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…  Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it ..’


Immortalised above the players entry to centre court at Wimbledon.  How cool is that…


As we contemplate sporting competition in a post Covid world, I despair that perhaps the simple handshake may be lost forever, will it be replaced by something as enduring and powerful, and what else may be lost in the process?  My handshake reflex is still a long way from being forgotten. I do hope not forever, but I suppose this could be another new reality that I will need to face.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.


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About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as 'Jack of all trades - master of none'. Having safely made it to my mid 50's, I am still yet to have a real job - but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.


  1. A timely and thoughtful piece, Peter. Thanks for this.

    Some people (including my wife) might say they are first world problems, but during this pandemic, it is the small things I have missed, like going to the pub on a Friday evening for a few beers with mates. Not getting pissed, just catching up and unwinding with some banter. The handshake is definitely another small thing that I have missed.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for this enjoyable, relevant and suitably reflective piece, Peter.

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    I wonder if Putin, Trump and Johnson could replicate the first illustration. Would they want to? Would the world want them to? Really good read. The what are at the end of a round of golf nowadays is most unsatisfactory.

  4. The ‘charade’ at the end of a round of golf that should read. Elbow or putter touches just doesn’t do it.

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