Imagine, you’re dancing along and suddenly you have a better idea. So you go with it. Then you have another. But that one’s not so good, so you switch to something else. Then another, and… It’s like a bad dream. In a split second you are trapped in your head, worrying and thinking. How can we transition gracefully between moves during improv?
Structure, Timing, and Relaxation
Music has structure. Even a taqsim with no rhythm has structure. We make our transitions in accordance with this structure. We make them between the phrases. Between the measures. This is why we listen to so much music, so we can intuit the structure. This is why we want to know our songs, so we have an idea of when the changes come. It’s fun to dance blind to music we never heard before, but it’s all the listening we have done in the past allows us to do this.
Where is the most organic place to change? Every song, every section, every phrase, every beat has a beginning, middle, and end. There are verses and choruses, calls and repeats, rules of 4, etc. And there is almost always a change at every 4 measures. That is a great place to switch. (Some songs have 3 measure phrases, some two, and some have sections with longer phrases—it doesn’t matter.) The end of a phrase (or a measure) is the best place to switch. You will always look in synch.
Timing (a quick lesson on music).
So here comes the end of the phrase—what do you do? You switch on the and, usually between the 4 at the end of one measure and the 1 at the beginning of the next.
The rhythm can be broken down verbally to accommodate all these notes. For example, 1(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) 2(and 2 and 3 and 4 and) etc. In music, it’s often phrased thus: 1 a-and-a 2 a-and-a 3 a-and-a 4 a-and-a.
Music can have lots of notes per measure, but the base measure is usually 4 counts. (Most of our music is 4/4. There are many other time signatures—3/4 is waltz time, 9/8 is karsilama, etc, in which case the base count is different). Each count can also be divided up to fit many notes in the measure (see below for more).
Here’s the music for Ah Ya Zein. The horizontal lines show which note to play. The vertical lines show the demarcation between each measure.
And here’s Ah Ya Zein in person. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3tt_KvAz4o It’s being played as a 2/4. You can hear the ayyoub rhythm under the melody going dum, ka dum tek; dum, ka dum tek— 1, and2, and1, and2, and . You would change on the final and (after the 2), so you are ready to go on the 1.
Here’s a maksoum beat: dum tek, tekka tek, dum tekka tek, (tekka). This translates to 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. That last and is the place where you change.
A drummer will often play that last bit of the phrase differently. They may play more or fewer beats, speed up or slow down—for they are also signaling the change to the rest of the musicians. And if there is to be a change in rhythm, they will signal that quite vigorously, often with a series of dums, as he has to adapt as well. Understanding the rhythm helps us feel this most basic structure of the music (the melody brings us to the higher levels of structure).
While you wait for the moment, relax. Relaxation is the key to everything. The more we get chased by worry and stress, the harder everything gets. When we feel stressed in dance, it’s time to slow down and start Rhythmic Breath. Breathe with the music and slow down. Whatever you are doing, no matter how fast the music, intentionally relax. Remember to enjoy yourself. This alone is radical.
When we are relaxed, suddenly everything is possible. Everything is easier. Everything is more enjoyable. When we slow down before a change, we get to see the change coming. The space around the change between phases opens up like sunny day. It becomes easy to pass through the change, even gracious.
As you find the spaces in the rhythm, you can change even more frequently. Try changing with every measure, every beat even, as in stop motion. Tribal fusion does this a lot, and it can make for some nice accents. But remember the melody, too. The rhythm is the most basic part of the music. The melody is a heavenly palace of textures and warm breezes to waft you along.
Keep it relaxed! Too many changes wears everyone out, including the dancer. The music repeats—so can you. Take the time to explore and enjoy each section. People want to have a good time. When dancers relax and enjoys themselves, so do the people.
Take your time. Connect to the rhythm. Express the melody. Enjoy your dance.
Want a more structured approach? An actual class? I invite you to check out
This is one of the questions I hear most often, and with the most anguish.
One dancer struggles as another effortlessly repeats. Why?
I learned to dance through improvisation. In Bobby Farrah’s classes of the mid 70s, no matter how many times a week you went to class (and I often went three times a week for two hours at a time, 1973-1977), we did something completely different.
The format of each class was fairly consistent: there was usually an extended combination, moves across the floor, and often we followed him as he improvised. Cymbal class was much the same, with zils on.
However, the content varied widely–what we did was always new and different, class after class, week after week. I learned to dance, very quickly, and with a wide range of options. I learned how to use a stage, how to interpret music, and how to create on the spot.
However, I did not learn any choreography. Consequently, when I started attending workshops (Morocco’s was my first), and even Bobby’s later classes, I was at sea. I quickly developed a strategy of not giving a damn about the choreography, just cherry-picking steps, attitudes and some combinations, and I was happy with this. But I did feel stupid when I saw other people learn so fast. On the other hand, I usually didn’t like their dancing, so I just snobbed over this little problem.
Then my students wanted me to teach them choreographies. Okay. I had been exposed to enough of them. I started making dances for my students. I went to more workshops where there was nothing presented but choreographies. I watched movies such as A Chorus Line and saw that professional dancers could repeat complex combinations after seeing them ONCE. And I paid attention to the differences in values between oriental dance and western dance. And this is what I saw.
In traditional Oriental dance, the dancer creates the dance in the moment.Oriental dance values intuitive movement and expression of emotion. Technique is the servant of expression. The most important thing is the feeling. These are the values of the music as well.
Western dance, however, distinguishes between the dancer and the choreographer (even that word is hard to type!). Dancers are trained to remember and repeat. Movement is stylized, specific, and exact. So are movement strings. The dancer is the vessel for the vision of the choreographer. The dancer’s job is to manifest that vision physically. So how do these dancers remember all that choreography?
Dancers remember choreographies because they practice. It’s as simple as that. What do they practice? Remembering choreography. In the dance school setup, children as young as three begin this practice. They go to class and learn choreographies. Their parents buy the cute (expensive) little cossies and have pictures taken, while their babies go on stage at the annual recital and toddle charmingly through their steps.
By high school, these kids have practiced this at least 800 hours (an hour a week for 15 years), repeating precisely stylized movement, combinations, and choreography. If they are at all enthusiastic, they go more often than once a week, and they practice at home, too, running through their choreographies endless times, not only with their bodies, but in their heads. They have gone to dance camp, this camp, that festival, the other workshop, spending many, many hours a day honing their technique and learning to repeat. We could be talking thousands of hours of practice here.
How much time have the rest of us spent? Learning to remember choreography? Not dancing, not improvising, not creating dances. Remembering. Probably we looked that other dancer and just felt stupid. Then we gave up, and said, I’m not good at learning choreography. I’m stupid. I’m slow. At that point, Resistance’s work is done. We have given up. And even though we struggle, we know it’s no good, because we compare ourselves to the other.
But I bet you have spent quite a few hours practicing other aspects of your dance. And I bet there are even more things you never thought about practicing, things that would have a much bigger impact on the quality of your dance than remembering choreography. Like being in the moment. Loving the audience. Enjoying yourself onstage. Laughing at your mistakes. Developing your emotional response to the music.
We do much better at whatever we practice. So if we practice feeling sorry for ourselves because some little twerp has a better memory for choreo, we will get better at feeling sorry for ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Talent is Overrated by Shawn Colvin speaks to this.
Colvin’s premise is that much of what we think of as inborn talent is in fact the result of effort and practice. He tells the story of SF, an otherwise unremarkable guy, who learned through 250 hours of training to be able to repeat a string of 80+ numbers, no small feat. Prior to this, memorization and repetition of such long strings were thought to be outside the range of human ability. A pal of SF’s later went on to repeat a string of 102 numbers. The researchers concluded that there was no upward limit to the length of number strings that humans could remember. 250 hours is not a big investment to change the course of history.
Colvin mentions “retrieval structures,” one of the most important elements of memory development. These are the strategies we use to remember things. SF cast his numbers into groups that represented running times. We will create choreographies with rich structures so that we will have myriad retrieval strategies in place. And we know that intelligence is malleable and can be grown, that anyone can develop skills with practice. So we can use the techniques of deliberate practice to learn whatever we want more effectively.
We may never put in the hours to learn choreo in one click. But as Colvin reports, ability in one area has nothing to do with ability in others. Sf could only remember numbers. Chess masters could only remember games. So don’t waste time comparing yourself to others. You have much better uses for your time.
Ask yourself, what makes a great dancer? Is it remembering choreography? I didn’t think so. Make a list. Leverage the skills you have. Leverage your ability to learn new things.
A gal I knew was raised to believe that she mustn’t handle flowers when she had her period, because the flowers would die. I’m not kidding. People used to believe this.
I was shocked to meet someone for whom this had once been a truth. We met in the first belly dance class I ever took, so she had finally figured out there was something wrong with that picture (and it is an easy test, after all).
Sadly, many of us are raised with equally outdated beliefs and models
And we never even think to question them.
One of the more dysfunctional models with which I was raised was the dismissal of anything done well, and a focus on what was wrong. For example, growing up, I never heard, “Oh, honey, four As. Nice work!” Nope. All I got was, “What the hell is this B?” So this is how I talked to myself, too.
My self-critique was vicious. I couldn’t watch a video of my own dance without wanting to die. I never saw the good of what I did. I felt anxious and insecure.
I see that same focus on what’s wrong in many of my dance friends and students. We have been brainwashed into thinking that we have to be perfect or stay home. Women especially are tyrannized by the expectation of perfection. That’s just a myth designed to keep us powerless. When we focus our critique on what’s wrong, we rob ourselves of confidence and accomplishment. When we focus on what’s right, we win.
Switching to what’s right builds confidence
In child-rearing, the productive model is to tell the kids what to do. Instead of saying NO all the time, you can say YES. Instead of “Don’t touch that!” you redirect the kid to what is okay for them to play with. This was a big shift. When I started teaching writing at the college level, I educated myself about how to teach, how to do critique. Wow. I learned a LOT. It changed me as a teacher and as a human being.
Focus on student success
I have been a teacher at some level since the early 80s, working first for Headstart and later as a Speech Language Assistant in the public school system. I now teach English Composition at the college level (and have for over 20 years), so I have to do a lot of critique.
It was a hard job to change this in myself, but it mattered a lot. I was a LOT nicer to my students than to myself, but I still told them what was wrong with their work instead of what was right. It didn’t work very well–for me or them.
The main thing I learned is to emphasize everything students did right. I even developed rubrics with all the tasks so I could find more things to compliment. And I went one step further. When we discussed what needed improvement, I framed it as an action step—something to do, instead of taking them to task for mistakes.
For a dance example, to a student with good presence but sloppy, floppy hands, I’d say, “I love your shining presence. I’d love to see you bring that energy into your hands. What if you try this?” And I’d demonstrate. This worked. It worked with the writers and the dancers. It worked for me, too.
Yes, there is a lot of crappy dance out there
But is shaming dancers for their mistakes going to make it any better? What if we try another way? When dancers enjoy the pleasure of the movement and the moment, when they give themselves to the the dance, when they are relaxed enough to enjoy the process, they feel more confident–and their technique often improves organically.
Nothing is perfect. Everything has room to develop. This life is is about becoming, not being. We learn, we grow, we change. Otherwise, we are dead. We copy to learn, we take classes, study others, and practice. But there comes a time when we must hop out on the branch, flap our wings, launch ourselves, and fly. Taking such risks benefits us in so many ways, some understood and others yet to come.
Will our first efforts suck?
Of course they will! Growth and learning include failure and revision. That’s how we learn—through trial and error, persistence, feedback, and trying again. Embracing process, identifying and correcting errors, this is key to improvement. Shame is not.
Let’s all learn how to reinforce the good, critique wisely, and model Eastern dance principles.
For more on how to do this, please check out our upcoming course, Focus on the Feeling. Registration is open now. There are only 25 seats. The super early price is good for the first ten purchasers. Please take a look right away.
I teach writing part-time at a state university. I’ve done so for the last 20 years. When I started, I was frustrated when the only thing I could say to a student was, “This sentence isn’t right.” I could tell them how to fix it, but I couldn’t explain why. Back in grade school, I just ignored all the grammar stuff. I always knew which constructions were correct, and how to fix the the wrong ones. My family spoke standard English and I read incessantly, so that was easy for me. Grammar rules, however, were confusing and annoying. I blithely ignored them.
But now I needed to understand the damn things. I engaged in a pretty rigorous study of how to teach writing, how to critique effectively, grammar, structure, and so forth. I brought piles of books home from the school library, and any that were boring or badly written, I threw aside, then picked up a new one. I mean, it’s writing. If some expert can’t write a book about it that is interesting, well…
I learned a lot in my home-made study course, and not just about writing. I’ve found that strategies for writing well (and for critiquing writing) translate very nicely into dance. One of the reasons is that writing is very much an improvisational activity. Even if we know what we want to write to write about, our actual putting together of words is done off the cuff–we may stop once in a while to think of a word, and we may revise quite carefully, but the initial act of putting words on paper is a creative improvisation.
Over time, I have adapted many models of writing, revision, and critique to dance. One that I especially like is the quick assessment model, Fluency, Clarity, and Correctness–in that order. This means when we assess a dancer, we look first to fluency. If we don’t find it, if the dancer’s movement is awkward, hesitant, off-time, or whatever, we stop there and work on that.
Let’s look at these concepts one by one, and how they work in writing as well as dance. Today, we will look at…
In writing, fluency mean the ability to put words on paper with relative ease. You understand the language and can easily craft suitable sentences. Freewriting, for example, increases fluency, as we write fast without stopping or judgement. We learn to write without constantly stopping to think about what comes next–we get into a zone, and we trust our pen/keyboard/body to come up with what we need. We don’t think about each sentence we write. We just write–and if anything needs correcting or polishing, we do that later.
In dance, fluency means we can dance easily, respond to the music, and generally enjoy ourselves dancing as we improvise. It’s about being able to easily transition, to trust ourselves that what we need will come out, and to be able to be in a zone and enjoy the moment.
One Skill at a Time
In both writing and dance, we will not get very far if we can’t create with ease. I’m not saying we don’t ever struggle to make our work shine–of course we do! But we have internalized that skill of allowing the body to do its thing without lots of agony or second guessing. In writing we learn to disconnect the editor from the creator. We just let the words out, and we polish them later. In dance, we also learn to disconnect the editor from the creator. When we dance, we let go of thinking and just move with the music. Both embrace a flow state, full engagement with the present moment.
As a teacher (of both writing and dance), my first goal is that students can comfortably create. I assign freewriting to my college classes, and to my dance students, I assign freeform improvisation. I don’t worry in the beginning if their work makes sense, if their movement is pretty, or even if they are belly dancing. The first skill is letting go of thinking and judgement; it is letting the body move intuitively with the music.
In the idea we’ve been discussing, One Skill at a Time, fluency is one skill. It’s a big one, and there are smaller skills along the way, but they are all in the same club. So we don’t get all exercised about the other stuff. I’ve talked before about that little pipe in our head through which ideas flow. As we begin learning, there is a lot of rusty crud backed up in there. As with an unused faucet, it has to come out first so the clear water can flow. Worse, getting all knotted up with thinking (or freaking out about the rust) cuts off the flow entirely. So at first, we just let it all out. One skill at a time. If we have to worry about how we look, whether we are doing “allowable” movement, we will just freeze up entirely and that will be the end of us.
Once we have mastered basic fluency, when we can follow the music without getting in our own way, we can add in another skill, like incorporating our dance vocabulary, or expressing more complex music, or whatever. But still, one skill at a time. Even if that time is only 30 seconds, and then we switch to keeping our posture for a while, or our pretty hands, or feeling our feet interact with the earth–we keep it simple. Because when we try to do too much at once…
It’s a DISASTER.
We practice in the studio so when we go to dance, we can just let go and dance. And one of the most important things we practice–is letting go. So we can dance. Effortlessly. Ahhh! Love, Alia
PS If you would like to just let go and dance, you might like Effortless Improvisation! It’s a great six-week improv crash course suitable for home dancers and performers alike. Registration closes on Sunday, August 25th, so please have a look right away.
I’ll be performing September 14, 2019 at Belly Dance Nights at the Main St. Museum in White River Junction, VT. We start at 7PM, and it’s only $15 for advance sales. This is the funnest show and dance party going (and there’s plenty of parking). Please come join us!
There was this story of folks who imagined themselves playing darts, and their dart game improved. Then there was a lot of flak about what a fake load of crap that was. But the truth is out. It works.
Thebrain can’t tell the difference between the real and the imaginary.
There is AMPLE evidence to show that imagining something is almost as good as doing it.
Here are some of the results of one such study.
“Volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes each day for five consecutive days. Their brains were scanned each day in the region connected to the finger muscles. Another set of volunteers were asked to imagine playing the notes instead, also having their brains scanned each day.
“The top two rows in the image show the changes in the brain in those who played the notes. The middle two rows show the changes in those who simply imagined playing the notes. Compare this with the bottom two rows showing the brain regions of the control group, who didn’t play nor imagine playing, piano.”—David R. Hamilton PhD
It means we can visualize our choreography or a challenging transition as a means of practice. But it also means we can lie on the floor and visualize dancing when we are not able to dance physically. Listening to the music and letting our bodies respond, even when we do not move is remarkably powerful. Small impulses slip into our muscles, activating them, connecting them.
But it also means more than this. What we think is powerful. The stories we tell ourselves, the words we say to ourselves, they have bigger results than we may know.
We say things to ourselves, and we mean them—even when they are, well, sorta mean. I know, people laugh at affirmations. “It’s just a lie,” is the most common complaint. But I would submit that the self-hating acid drip in which we daily bathe is at least as much of a lie, and far more toxic.
What if we told ourselves better stories?
What if we visualized our own success? In detail. And stuck to that.
One of the things I do is what I call Mapping. I pay attention to my body in certain emotional states. The joy of connection in dance. Feeling successful. Happiness. Things like that. I map my body’s posture and physical sensations while I experience these positive feelings. So I can recreate that state later on. So when I am going to perform, I place myself in a body map created from a generous expressionof joy.
And, Lo, I let that feeling infuse my body. I “Just Say No” to toxic whispers of doubt. This didn’t come easily. It took practice and perseverance to notice these feelings and learn to create them. But it was worth the effort.
I do a lot of little things. At night before I go to sleep, I relax my jaw. I make sure none of my teeth are touching. I relax my eyes, my mouth, my face. Habitually holding tension in various body areas doesn’t go away by itself. We have to take action. And we are in good company.
Olympic athletes visualize their success.
They visualize their whole event—their technique, strategy, competitors, the whole thing. They see it in their heads, their most perfect performance—and it’s serious business. They mean it.
If it’s good enough for Olympic athletes, it’s good enough for us.
Next time you have a moment of joy, I invite you to notice what you feel, physically, in your body. What sensations do you notice? What is the shape of that joy? How does your body hold itself when it is happy? What is on your face? Map that. Go there.
Practice feeling joy.
Smiling brings joy. Smiling at ourselves in the mirror, a real smile, makes a difference. Let’s make that difference.
PS Local VT/NH/MA folks, spots have opened up at at Raq-on.net. I will be teaching creative expression with a strong dose of improv!
Mondays 5:45 to 745 p.m: August 12th-September 23rd. Intermediate/Advanced class with Alia (2 spots left)
This class is for the serious student who has achieved a level II status. You must be willing to take constructive criticism from your instructor work as a team player with your peers. This is a 2 hr. class and is $150 for the 7 week session. By permission only. Please email me if you are interested in this class.
And now for something completely different! Astor Piazzola, a playlist. Tangueros have told me you can’t really dance tango to this music as it’s so complex, so feel free to let your imagination soar (or your body move as it wishes 😉 and have super-dramatic blast!
Stuck in choreography? Wish your students could improvise? Wish you could improvise?
Dancers are often afraid to improvise, preferring the safety of choreography. Yet improv is a core skill for belly dance!
So how do we teach this? Can improv even be taught? Is there no hope?
Yes, there’s hope!
Alia Thabit is a specialist in improvisation and improv-based composition, and the coming months are a celebration of improvisation! From local classes and workshops to an online webinar and forum-based course, the time has come to open ourselves up to the music and see what comes out!
Here are our upcoming events:
Cairo Cabaret, July 14. 2019
Workshops in Northampton MA:
Effortless Improv + Micro-Movement 11 am-12:15 pm Improvisation is a core skill for belly dance, but so many folks just learn choreography–which makes it even harder to learn improvisation! Through tested strategies such as Micro-Movement, Rhythmic Breath, Slow Movement, and Creative Limitation, students will learn how to access limitless movement options, turn off anxiety and self-judgement, and turn on their intuitive response to the music.
Spontaneous Construction—complex, exciting easy-to-remember group dances–in about an hour. 1-2:15 pm In this class, we will learn how to build fast, fun, group dances–in about an hour. Dances that are complex, interactive, and easy to remember; dances that leave room for each dancer’s personal expression, with every cue drenched in feeling and meaning so dancers are free to embody the music in a more organic way. Full process notes will be included.
Full day- $70; Single Workshop $40 Bonus– all workshop attendees are invited to participate in an online book club discussion her book Midnight at the Crossroads. Still a few spaces left. Join here: https://www.sahinabellydance.com/workshops-with-alia.html/
Cairo Cabaret Show 5-8 pm at American Legion Post 275 in Chicopee (see map below) The show is hosted by Troupe Hazine and is open to the public. Cover is $8.
Webinar: How to Teach Improvisation for Oriental Dance
August 4th at 2PM Eastern. $15 includes includes notes and follow-up. I will be teaching a few classes for the Belly Dance Business Academy, starting with this webinar. It’s pointed at teachers, but students will also get a lot out of it. Signup coming soon. Info is here.
Raq-On Studio Classes
Aug-September, White River Junction, VT. Focus on improv. Sold out, sorry.
Effortless Improv: a 6-week online improvisation crash course
Sunday, August 25 through Friday October 4th, 2019
Effortless Improv explores improvisation including Dancing to Live Music. You can learn to improvise. You can learn to feel the music. It’s a skill, and you can learn it. Designed for those who want to learn or teach improvisation. Check it out here! Still a few early-bird seats left… https://aliathabit.com/classes/effortless/
I saw a Frank Zappa piece back in the 70s in which the musicians’ scores were comic books. Zappa conducted, and the musicians played the comic books (I think they had the same comic, but I can’t swear to it). The audience had a part as well—he gave hand signs for specific responses—we shouted sound effects like RUNCH! It was a wonderful concert.
It took those musicians a long time to get the chops to do that—not just to play their instruments—but to play a comic book. And it was the goofy intention to play a comic book that came first.
It has been suggested that one needs 10,000 hours of effort to master a skill.
Even the Sufis say one needs 1,001 days (or nights) of training. If you figure 10-hour days, there you have it. For many things, including dance, I am sure this is true. But it is also true that you can get a handle on something in as little as twenty hours. You won’t be a master, but you will begin to develop competence.
Twenty hours is what we get in my Community College classes. We have 15 weeks, and we dance for up to 1.5 hours each week (the rest goes to lecture and discussion). By the end of the semester, the students–who range from young gals who have taken part in their High School dance program to folks with nary a moment of dance experience—all somehow manage to miss the fact that they signed up for a dance class.
By the end of the semester, they have danced for a little over twenty hours—and they can dance. They can improvise. The whole class develops a group dance, and can solo briefly on their own—and look good doing it—happy and free. They each have their own unique style. In 20 hours.
We can do that, too. In the 90 Days, we dance 20 minutes a day for 90 days. It adds up.
Developing one’s own style is often portrayed as an enormous undertaking.
One must study like a dog for years, copy slavishly, and then, maybe, if the moon’s phase is just right, they may begin the arduous, perilous quest for their own style.
My opinion, if they hadn’t spent all the time slavishly copying, but instead worked on expression and allowing their body to discover its own response to the music (along with technique), they would have their own style, and long before anyone who spends their time executing other people’s choreography.
To have our own style, we have to practice it.
I know one of the things that makes people nervous about this practice is that they might start whiffing and snorting and stamping and shaking on stage.At which point the belly dance police will cart them off to prison.
People also wonder why we bother dancing to all the alternative music, since they want to be able to improv to belly dance music.
Improvisation is its own separate skill.
It can be applied to any genre.
And: often folks’ relationship with belly dance music is kind of stiff, hampered by the conditioning of copying and choreography, of Lego block dance, and fear of making mistakes.
So we use a lot of different music to break up that pattern. And we practice all this weird stuff like Slow Movement and Rhythmic Breath to help us respond to the music intuitively.
Bottom line, the music has a lot to do with what we do.
I know I dance differently to different music. I bet you do, too. But belly dance music inspires belly dance movement. And Turkish music brings out different movement from Egyptian music. And classic Tarab songs bring different music, and moods, the, for example, the Anghami Modern Dabke playlist. Make sense?
Moreover, the venue affects our dance as well. If I am dancing for myself, my eyes closed, I dance differently than when I perform for my guests. The focus of the show affects what I choose as well. Even the lights and the size of the stage affect what I do.
Then there are various intentions, which may show over the course of a song or a show—joyous here, nostalgic there, mysterious, whimsical, whatever. These all color the dance in different ways.
As we learn to respond in the moment, we organically develop our own style.
The beauty of all the improv practice, the beauty of learning to allow your body to respond to the music in the moment, is that all of this becomes easier the more we practice it. Because it is your body, your interpretation, it will perforce be unique and special.
Of course we need technique—we need it so we dance safely, have nice lines, and can execute our movement vocabulary. But improv dance is like slam poetry. You just let things come out of your mouth. You have to practice letting things come out as poetry, and that takes skill, but so does everything. Well. Most things worth doing well. Letting dance come out of your body takes skill, too. It’s all about TRUST.
So I invite you to cross train your improvisation.
Freewriting is good. I’ll talk more about that later.
I’m a largely improvisational cook—I’ll combine whatever I have with basmati rice and cook it for half an hour—voila, dinner.
I sing goofy little songs about what I am doing.
I’ve danced television shows for my practice time.
Try ours! We’ll be having weekly FunClasses over the summer. These live classes are via Zoom. They last about an hour and include follow-me, features, and Dancemeditation. Sign ups open next week; classes start in June.
Over $1300 worth of belly dance resources. Over 25 contributors. Over 85% off. The bellydance bundle is available for for one week only.
All the courses have been revealed.
It’s a wonderful collection! I’m VERY excited about Embodiment, the six-week musicality for belly dance class I made for the Bundle. It’s great for dancers and it’s great for teachers–you can use these methods in your own classes. Embodiment has a value of $95 all by itself–half the cost of the entire Bundle. http://aliathabit.com/bundle
You can see all the yummy goodness on the bundle website. I hope that you will consider buying the Bundle. It is an excellent resource, with top-notch contributors.
PS yes, you will get a lot of emails for the Bundle. Pick your preferred provider, open an Incognito window in your browser, and use their link. I invite you to use mine ; ) http://aliathabit.com/bundle
Back when I was a kid, you wanted coffee, that’s what you got. There wasn’t much choice. The only decaf was Sanka, and instant coffee was pretty much undrinkable. Now you go into a nice café, or even a small grocery store, and the assortment is dizzying. Coffee from Sumatra, Brazil, Columbia, East Timor, Bali, even Hawaii. There’s Fair Trade, Shade-Grown, Organic, light, dark, and medium roast—a stunning level of diversity.
Just like belly dance, right? Egyptian, American, Russian, Tribal, Fusion and on and on.
We asked about the state of belly dance. “Is bad,” she said. “Every country takes belly dance for her own. Spanish belly dance, Russian belly dance. Is bad.”
“Is there Russian samba?” she asked. “No. Samba is samba. Why isn’t belly dance belly dance?”
“Samba is samba. Why isn’t belly dance belly dance?”
I had never really thought about this in such a way, but it makes sense. I’ve spent my time internalizing the big picture elements of belly dance—celebrating the feeling in the moment, incorporating the infinite variation of micromovement, and bringing joy. Everything else is window dressing– regional accent or personal style.
In addition, Dina’s point reminded of what Mo Geddawi had said at the same festival the previous year, when asked about a suitable name for belly dance. Egyptian dance, he said promptly. It comes from Egypt. Historically, when other Arab-speaking countries dance this dance, he explained, they call it raqs Masri—Masri being Arabic for Egyptian.
Dina (and Dr. Mo) want Egypt to get credit for this monumental addition to world culture. Even if Egypt herself is not willing to take the credit, even if, as she maintains, that raqs sharqi will never be the national dance of Egypt (Dina dismissed that hope with one word—Dream). Still, it’s from Egypt and that’s that. I can relate to that. So then we asked her,
What is the number one foreign dancers mistake?
Dina said it’s that they don’t follow belly dancing. It’s not a style to mix, for example, Russian style. She said “Dancers go to Dubai and see hair dance, or erotic steps and mix that with belly dance. They call it belly dance. It’s not. Golden age dancers never used their hair like this. I’m different–but I do the same steps [as the golden age dancers]. To be different, you have to BE different, be you,” but the steps are the same. The dance is the dance.
“To learn belly dance for real is difficult,” she said, “but
you have to do it, because you love this art and you have to do it real… Easy to
dance and get money. To love this art, is not about money. It’s about the
future of your art, where it’s going.”
What should beginners do?
Beginners should “learn technique first—torso (the hips and
upper body), then take hands. Hands important, showing the step or moving the
step. Don’t touch choreography before two
Dina’s ideas about teaching and learning really resonated for me. How many beginner classes start out with choreography? Most of them, right?
Mine don’t. When I teach beginners, we learn technique and
improv and transitions. My Community College students can dance in 15 weeks. Yes, this dance takes your whole life, but they
dance with more grace and confidence than lots of folks I see who’ve been
dancing for years.
What is our
responsibility as pro dancers?
“The new generation,” she said, “to teach them the truth of belly dance. This is Egyptian, this is the rules, 1 2 3 4, Oriental belly dance–and this–this is other thing. If you mix, it’s fusion. Call it fusion.”
And what do we call all our merging of belly dance with
ballet, hip hop, kathak, and god knows what? What do we call that?
“Fusion,” she said. “Is a good word. Fusion.”
Okay. But where does this leave Turkish belly dance?
Also Greek, Lebanese, and any other Near Eastern regional style?
When Dr. Mo suggested Egyptian dance as a name, Yasmina Ramzy said, no, we can’t have that because we have Turkish etc.
Turkish stye is a fusion. But I believe it is also authentic. Here are three reasons off the top of my head.
Turkish music is somewhat different–clarinet, influences, etc–so some of the dance differences are from representing the music, plus it’s regional accent, see below.
The dancers there have a regional “accent” related to the local folklore and culture. I think that’s authentic, as everyone has that, no matter where they dance.
The inclusion of Romani steps (and music). Here is where it’s mixing and now it’s fusion. And it is–though it is a venerable established thing. To me, it’s still belly dance.
Why? Leila Farid once told me that in Cairo, audiences expect a dancer to mix in some of the folklore from her native village. This is what the Romani dancers have done. So that’s authentic.
How is it different from us dancing the cancan to Peter Gunn in bellydance costumes? To me, that’s too many things that don’t go together. That’s clearly fusion (not to mention some hints of appropriation, depending on who what when where why).
Now, Dina or Dr. Mo might not agree with me.
They may well think that Turkish style is an abomination. The Ottomans did, after all, control Egypt for almost 300 years, and they are roundly disliked for it (which is why you don’t see much 9/8 in Egyptian music). And Egypt and Turkey have blamed each other for belly dance, neither willing to accept the blame (or credit) for being the originator of the dance.
But the Romani people are not Turkish. They are a separate ethnic group, an oppressed people who take on the styles of their oppressors to make a living from them. So they get special dispensation.
What’s the answer? Yes, you can certainly say it’s fusion, however it’s A. Very old, and B. the unique creation of an entire ethnic group. So I think we can still say Turkish style, just like we always have ; ).
And there you are.
Dina’s points make sense to me, especially having explored the differences between Eastern and Western values though writing Midnight at the Crossroads. Belly dance is a uniquely magical, healing, creative, expressive dance form–it deserves to be valued for itself.
Wikipedia says, “The native (undomesticated) origin of coffee is thought to have been Ethiopia, with several mythical accounts but no solid evidence. The earliest substantiated evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree is from the early 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen, spreading soon to Mecca and Cairo.”
So coffee is another thing, like belly dance, that comes to us from Africa. Clearly, there are some similarities. But everyone seems to be happy to let coffee become nativised in country after country. The thing with coffee, though, is that it’s still coffee, no matter where it’s grown. The species doesn’t change. It has regional differences due to terroir, but it’s the same plant. It’s the same stuff.
Belly dance hasn’t always fared so well. When we see our dance through Western eyes instead of an Eastern perspective, we start to lose its most important attributes–feeling, improvisation, and joy. And then belly dance becomes something very different–stylized, externally focused, competitive, and performative. Yet, in its home environment it is internal, joyous, social, healing, and free. So in this way, it is unlike coffee.
Both coffee and belly dance are are delicious and addictive. But if I drink too much coffee, I get a headache and my armpits stink. Too much Western culture does this, too. Belly dance never does that to me. So there’s that ; )
Over the years, I’ve developed classes that teach technique, improvisation, musicality, and composition from a clear Eastern perspective. Some of them are coming up (details are below), but whatever classes you take, or styles you dance, these are things to think about. So let me know what you think ; )
PS I’m on Instagram!
@BellyDanceSoul, or instagram.com/BellyDanceSoul Come say hi!
Sept 23-Nov 3 Effortless Improv, a Six-week Online Improvisation Crash Course Want to improvise with joy and ease? You can! Effortless is a forum-based course with daily exercises and accountability. More at aliathabit.com/effortless
Oct 1 The Belly Dance Bundle Returns! Over $1000 worth of belly dance madness. 27 contributors. Over 80% off! I’m making a class on Musicality. See more at https://aliathabit.com/bundle
Nov 4-Dec 8 Glorious: A Five-Week Course about the Five-Part Routine Each week we will: Highlight one part of the routine. Dance through an entire routine (different every time). Each class will be recorded. Each recording will be available for one week. There will also be a Q&A video/phone conference each week. Students will learn structure, moods, and technique, as well as practice improvising through the routine. This is so fresh it doesn’t even have a sales page. Trust the Chef Premium Earlybird Pricing (until Oct 8): $69 (full price $99). Link goes straight to Paypal. Please copy and paste if the link is not clickable. https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=WGXCTY2AW22LW
27 contributors. $1000 worth of belly dance madness. Over 80% off!
This innovative package of wonderful dance classes, tutorials, and so forth, got a lot of attention last year with good reason. It is well-designed and a great value.
This year Bundle purchases will be giving back directly to the dance community and will also be supporting the SEEDS program run by Myra Krien with each sale! At least $5 of every sale will go to helping dancers in need, and to help support young women through the ATS dance community.
I love the Bundle because Tiffany does such a great job. I’m happy to be part of it. It helps me reach new folks and helps me make some money while I do it.
How does the Bundle work?
We contributors donate our courses to the Bundle. Each of us is also a partner is the program. We provide the Bundle to you, and we get a commission on each sale we make. This is the way we get paid.
You’ll probably get Bundle offers from several dancers you know and love. We apologize for the repeats, but it will only be for a short time. And you can choose whose link you use.
My contribution to the Bundle
This year, I’m making a whole new course for the Bundle. Here’s a sneak peek:
Belly dance is all about expressing the music–but how do you do that when it doesn’t even make sense? Wouldn’t you love to feel confident and sure of yourself—and your dance?
Embodiment: Musicality for Oriental Dance
A six-week self-paced course by Alia Thabit
In this course, students will learn musical structure; explore rhythm, melody, and phrasing; and practice improvisational templates so they can bask in joyous expression.
Week 1: Demystifying the Music
Week 2. Understanding Rhythmic Structure
Week 3. Dancing on the Melody
Week 4. Interpretation and Texture
Week 5. Using Combo Templates
Week 6. How to Float–and Land
Each week includes conceptual breakdowns, musical assignments and a dance études, along with video examples, handouts, and song suggestions.
Included FREE with the Belly Dance Bundle!
Pretty cool, huh?
Links go live September 1. That’s when the site gets updated.
Here are my links for the NEW Bundle offers and some nice free gifts!