How to choreograph Oriental dance (and stay true to the dance’s soul)

Symbiosis is the name for a collaboration the benefits both partners. Bees and flowers, for example. Bees pollinate flowers by feeding on their nectar. Pollen sticks to the bees’ legs and gets deposited in other flowers. Pollination means the flowers can set set seeds and reproduce themselves, while the flowers’ nectar feeds the bees and allows them to make honey. Sharks and those sucker fish that clean their skins are another symbiotic collaboration (btw, what do you call a shark that has lost all those fish? Completely without remoras! But I digress…).

Recently I had the pleasure of a symbiotic collaboration with the Raksultana Bellydancers of MI. We made  a dance for the Bellydance Blossom Festival in Toronto, ON, We collaborated via live video over several weeks to make our dance. I say we because that’s the important part.

Most of the choreographers who spoke at the festival made a dance and then taught it to their dancers. Our process was radically different.

In our dance, everything came from the dancers–the feelings, imagery, movement, even the floor patterns. What I did, what I do, is weave it all together. I am a synthesist. I compose ideas and inspiration from varied places to create a new thing.

Why did we do it that way? What did we do? How did it turn out? Ah, read on!

Why did we do it that way?
Since traditional Oriental dance is largely abstract, improvised, and celebrates the dancer’s agency in the moment, how to we nail it down into any kind of group choreography? I prefer to create loose frameworks, and I prefer that the material come from the group’s interpretation of the music.

When the RakSultana gals told me what they wanted from the collaboration, a new group creation process and emotional expression were high on their lists. I also saw that they were great with blocking and stage pictures, so I knew we were a good fit for the project.

What we did
Our first meeting, I was staying in a youth hostel in New Zealand. I was out on the sunny porch, chatting away, while an international assortment of young folks ate their lunch all around me. It was pretty cool. 

The first thing we did was pick a song. They chose the National Arab Orchestra‘s lovely version of Alf Leila wa Leila. I contacted Michael Ibrahim, the Orchestra’s director, for permission to use the song, and a high-rez copy, both of which he graciously provided. In the meantime, the dancers were to listen to the song and record any visual impressions, wisps of emotions, or stories that they felt from the music.

They really went into this with gusto. One gal took the song to work and played it for everyone there, recording all their impressions. Another conceived of a complete story, with each bit of the music tied to each bit of action. The dancers were surprised to find that they had such strong reactions, and in how many places they had the same reactions, yet how other reactions were different, sometimes the opposite.

From there, we began to weave everyone’s impressions into a conceptual framework. It was important to me that everyone’s voice be heard. I showed them how even when two dancers are doing the same thing, they can be expressing two different emotions, and how that creates drama and suspense.

We didn’t need a cohesive story or for the audience to know any parts of the story, because the dance is abstract in and of itself, and because the audience will create their own story out of the emotional arc. So we could create a fever dream that shifted and changed and it would still work.

As the arc of the piece evolved, relationships between the dancers’ characters became clearer. We began to highlight certain elements as the piece took on its own energy. The dancers were surprised that it started to hang together–there is always a point in this process where it seems all is lost–and then the sun comes out and everything comes clear.

My job is Artistic Director and dramaturge. I see what’s evolving and ask for clarification. I tweak the stage pictures to highlight interactions, direct the dancer’s energy, and pull out the nascent threads of drama and suspense. I look for resolution and closure. And I help it all to be born from the dancers’ imaginations, feelings, and desires (our process is all part of the course

As clarity evolved out of chaos, we designed stage pictures and travel patterns based on character interactions. Suddenly things became exciting! And, just in time, we had a dance–one where almost no one was doing the same thing as anyone else, and yet the whole thing hung together and clicked.

What happened?
It was a challenging process. Working via distance took a lot longer than working in person. There were weeks we couldn’t meet, weeks I forgot to meet, and weeks most of us met from different places. But with the magic of video conferencing, we got it all done. 

Distance also made more chances for things to go off the rails. The dancers spent hours one night developing stage patterns on their own, then struggled trying to remember them. Once we started determining why each dancer was in a certain position, what was happening at that time in that place, and with whom, it all unrolled into simplicity.

Everyone pulled together. I hadn’t done this via distance before, and struggled sometimes to make it work. The dancers were patient and enthusiastic, even though the process was new to them and the learning curve was steep. 

In the end, it all came right. The dancers brought their A-game, and they rocked it. I was sitting with my friend Rahma Haddad, a Lebanese dancer and choreographer from Vancouver (who had also presented a beautiful piece). “This is fantastic,” she kept saying. “How did you get them to do this?!” The fact is, I didn’t. They did it themselves.

We got a ton of compliments.

I love doing this stuff. Everybody wins.

This is what I did with the book, too. 
I took the time to let it evolve, found the vital elements, and highlighted them. After three and a half long years, the book is finally oozing its way to completion. The text is done. The designer has started work. It will still be a while before we have books in our hands, but I feel comfortable offering preorders at this time. Check it out here:

Thank you for all your care and love!

Big hugs,



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