How to Begin a Music Breakdown

Diagram Your Music for Better Interpretation

"For Beginners" (reprinted from ZAGHAREET! Sept/Oct. 2001)
by Anthea Kawakib Poole

(Expanded from a previously published article "Keeping Track of Dance Music", in Veil & Drum newsletter, 1992)

Last issue we talked about starting a music collection, always an ongoing process for dancers. Once you have some music, listen to it A LOT - just let it sink into the deepest recesses of your mind. This is how it'll get "into your bones".

One or two tracks may interest you enough to put them onto a tape by themselves so you can listen to them specifically and maybe start dancing to them; or you may even arrange several pieces into a "show routine" that evokes mood changes or to incorporate props like veil or sword, or climaxes with a drum solo, etc.

Let's go behind the scenes and see how a dancer's desire to perform becomes reality.

When I'm planning music for a show I often refer to a notebook where I"ve listed the length of each piece of music on a CD - this helps when I'm looking for, say, a 2-minute taqsim, or 3-minute drum solo to round out a show. Why is this important? In many seminar shows, you'll get a specific length of time for your performance, and it's not very professional to "slop over" your time limit. Also, some clubs or private parties may want a 20 minute show, others are happy with 15 - be adaptable with your "repertoire of shows".

You can do that part on a PC if you like, but for the next part you'll need a real notebook, the kind with paper that you write on with a pen! You COULD use your PC for this, but I think the textile feel of pen pressure on paper can translate down to your feet later - which will be of utmost importance in dancing - so...

In this notebook you'll create a measure-by-measure breakdown of the piece you're planning to work with; adding notations that show the rhythm, main instruments, melody changes, musical patterns, etc. This info is ESSENTIAL when designing choreography, and also helps organize improvisation if that's what you'd rather do. My method is to use one line (|) for each measure, and group them into sections that reflect different parts of the music. You can see an example here: "Zeina" music breakdown diagram

Another consideration, when mixing and matching pieces of music for a "routine" is that the pieces should match not only in culture of origin (American, Greek, Egyptian, etc.), unless you're intentionally demonstrating a variety of belly dance styles; but also should match in key or modality. That's a little harder and will really narrow your choices down. It's best to use music from one album if you're not sure. AND beware of dancing to folk music (Oulid Nail, Saudi, etc.) if you don't know that style (that's why I normally use American music for Improv Tribal Style). So it's safest, at least when you're starting out, to use music that's specifically marketed for Oriental Dance. And I suggest that, unless you know the language or get the song translated, only dance to instrumental numbers.

Next: How to REALLY connect with your music.

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