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Belly dance, What is Phrasing?

by A'isha Azar

In order to fully understand the answer to the question that titles this article, we must first answer another question: what is belly dancing? There are people who have been dancing for years who are not entirely sure what they are trying to accomplish when they are dancing. The question, in all its complexity, can basically be answered thus: belly dancing is the physical and emotional interpretation of a piece of music and how that music makes the individual dancer respond or feel. The answer to that question relates completely to the answer to the question concerning phrasing. Phrasing is the sentences and paragraphs, made up of body language, through which the dancer communicates her interpretation of the music. In the process she also expresses her/his own feelings.

Phrasing includes both the physical and emotional levels of the dance. Nothing, which does not encompass emotion, can rightly be called belly dance. (Contrary to the belief of some dancers, Egyptian belly dancers are very emotional, just less physically expansive and "westernly dramatic" than many of their American-styled sisters.

Individual movement, the music itself, the feelings evoked and transitional stances and movements are all elements the dancer uses in order to create phrasing and in fact all of these aspects must come together in order for the dancer to fulfill her/his mission. The dancer articulates these "words" physically and emotionally with body language in order to create a cohesive and comprehensive "phrase." In just the same way that we do not simply throw any words from our vocabulary together to form sentences, we also do not throw movements together in order to create phrasing, because just as with the spoken word, there would be no meaning. For some dancers, phrasing means choreography. For others it means fully hearing and understanding the deeper nuances of the music and responding to it, sometimes after years of familiarity, sometimes even instantly. It is very difficult to give suggestions for phrasing. First, phrasing in dance is every bit as individual as phrasing in speech. The dancer tells herself and her audience who she is. This is one of the more important reasons that I do not teach belly dance as choreography in spite of the fact that I will teach folkloric dance that way. (Folkloric dances are dances of the community and belly dance is the ultimate in individual feminine expression.) With this in mind, I offer the following suggestions for making phrasing meaningful in the context of belly dance.

First, if possible, try to fully hear what your music is saying. Listen to it and dance to it a million times. In this way you can begin to understand what it feels like for you. One way to deal with live music in this instance is to learn the names of a variety of songs that you like. Ask the band to play them for you when are dancing in a live music situation. (They will more than likely be happy for the input.) Be prepared to deal with differences in the pieces as they are orchestrated on your record or CD.

Become as fully articulate as you can in the sense of dance vocabulary. This means learn as much about movement within the context of belly dance, or your chosen fusion style, as you possibly can. Variations and layering, according to your goal, can give you many more means to fully express yourself. If you do not know the words, you cannot speak the language! Be a dancer who feels her/his own soul and allows others to see it also. It is my personal belief that this is a larger part of the appeal of the dance that we love. When we see a particularly wonderful dancer perform, we get to look momentarily into the soul of another human being.

If you are learning a specific style, such as Egyptian or Lebanese belly dance try to have contact with the natives of that country. They can teach you a lot about the style in that belly dance expresses culture as well. Watch videos of the native dancers in order to see not only movement, but also essence. If you are studying a style like Tribal, go back to the sources of these styles as well to see what the originators were trying to accomplish. Finally, be true to who you are. There is really no choice in this anyway since trying to mimic anyone else will only meet with failure. We dance who were are and we cannot help it. Listen to the music and interpret it from your own personal response. The authentic dances are about expressing feminine spirit and cultural essence through musical interpretation*. Fusion styles may have different missions. Whatever dance form speaks to your heart, be true to that in your dance expression.

*A note to male dancers: It is my belief that men who choose belly dance as a mode of personal expression are attempting to touch upon the more feminine aspect of their own natures. Belly dance as it comes from countries of origin is very much about the feminine spirit. Its originators developed the dance with the expression of this feminine essence in mind. This does not mean that only females can be wonderful; belly dancers, but that males must dance with a mindfulness about the purpose of the dance.