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Belly dance and Improvisation

by Princess Farhana

In the world of belly dance, perhaps more than any other dance genre, improvisation is important. Most Western dances rely on choreography, or some sort of choreographed structure, and this can be seen in every type of dance, from a staged classical ballet performance to the configuration of social partnered dances, such as square dancing or ballroom dancing. Belly dancing, whether performed for social or theatrical reasons, until pretty recently, was typically a spontaneous, improvised collaboration between the dancer and the music.

During the last century, as belly dance and folkloric shows in nightclubs and theaters became popular, the idea of implementing structure and choreography-especially in group numbers- became more commonplace in oriental dance. Dances morphed from their traditional forms and became more stylized as well as completely choreographed due to theatrical- as opposed to social- presentation of belly dance itself. Undoubtedly, this phenomenon also grew with the popularity of belly dancing classes in the west. In order to enable students to understand the complex and varied structure of Arabic music, many teachers would present short choreographies in their class curriculum. While this allowed students to feel accomplished - they had learned a dance! - It didn't really teach them about the dance itself, or the richly varied emotional textures and diverse rhythms of the music that was being danced to. If left to their own devices, standing in front of a live band, or even in a party situation when confronted with an unfamiliar piece of music, a student or even a professional dancer with an extensive repertoire of choreographies wouldn't have the foggiest notion of what to do, how to move to the music on their own or how to put together a string of moves in a flowing manner that matched up with the music being played.

Belly dancing is often referred to as being "sensual", and though many might attribute this moniker to the sexy appearance of a dancer in a two-piece costume, I believe that the description sensual in conjunction with belly dancing means using one's senses to relate to the music itself. It is the dancer's job to "illustrate" the music to the audience through movement, both physically and with emotional intent, and to do this, one must experience the music fully and yes, sensually. It implies being led by emotions, not structures; it requires spontaneous creation on the dancer's part, and allows each dancer to interpret the music in a truly unique fashion.

In the Oriental Dance community, for decades, there has always been the debate: choreography or improvisation? Of course, there are things to be said for and against both sides: choreographed dances are polished and precise, while improvised dances are generally more organic, genuine and "in the moment". Improv can sometimes look sloppy or repetitive, but choreographed pieces can look soulless and robotic, with more emphasis being put on the counts than on the feeling of the music.

Not so very long ago, groups doing oriental dances were routinely choreographed, just the way any western-style group number would be. It made sense performance-wise in terms of uniform movement and spatial design...but then ATS blew that concept totally out of the water, and successfully.

Many people believe that choreography in belly dancing exists solely for the reason that when practiced, the dancer appears to be doing a seamless improvisation! The problem is, many dancers do not know how to apply their dance technique vocabulary in an improv situation.

This cannot be taught per se, because everyone's feeling interpretation of the music is different, however, the following exercises will get your creative juices flowing and help develop your improvisational skills.

There is no better way to learn song structure, especially for music which comes from the countries that spawned the dance itself. If you want to dance to this music, it is imperative that you learn about the structure of the music, which is very different from western style song structure. You must immerse yourself in the music you want to dance to. Learn every little nuance and phrase. This way, it will become ingrained in your psyche, and you will feel more confident in your own personal interpretation. If you are not dancing to ethnic music, the same thing goes: listen to your music constantly, until you know it inside out, until every cell of your being is familiar with it.

Sometimes we get rooted to a spot onstage, because it feels like a comfortable place. Think of the stage as your own personal territory, you're world- and then give yourself free reign to use your performance area fully. Think in spatial terms- moving across the stage circumference, as well as going backwards and forwards, on diagonals, and in circles. Level changes in your movement count as well- letting your body go from high to low or vice-versa.

Sometimes during improvisation, we might tend to jump from step to step, never repeating any movement out of fear we will bore the audience... but nothing says "nervous dancer" like a series of frantically paced, jumbled steps. Try to relax into the music. Repetition can be a way of unifying what you are doing technique-wise.

I know that when you are onstage, time will pass differently for you than it does for the audience. You may think you are appearing repetitive, or just doing "the same old thing", but you should realize that it takes at least eight counts for the audience's eye to fully absorb almost any movement you are performing. You can stay on the same movement, but vary its appearance by turning slowly, or traveling with it, or layering a shimmy on top of it. Even different arm positions or a slight tilt of the head can add variety to your movements. Your body looks different from every angle and sight line, so your movements will, too.

Make good use of the combinations that you have drilled extensively in class or put together yourself. Using combinations makes a dance look polished and adds flow through fluid transitions. You may want to use a combination for a chorus or certain musical phrase and then use spontaneous moves for the rest of your piece.

To allow room for improv, "mark" your song instead of choreographing the entire piece. Decide when and how you will do certain movements or combinations, and then "wing" the rest. For example, you may have a series of movements you like to do for the opening of your piece, or during a bridge or the chorus. Keep these "locked in", but experiment with what you will do with the rest of the song.

Above all- have fun when you are dancing, and the audience will, too!

Bio: Princess Farhana has taught, performed and written about Oriental Dance for nineteen years. For more information on her world-wide events, or her line of instructional/performance dvd's, please visit her website