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How To Start Improvising in Belly Dance

Tips and Tricks to Get You Started

(ZAGHAREET! "For Beginners", July/Aug 2007) by Anthea Kawakib Poole

So you want to “improvise”?

My Intermediate class is working on improvisational belly dance for a segment in their summer recital. Although they’ve been in class for an average of 4 years, they’re relatively new to improvisation so this segment only spotlights each dancer for a minute or two as they dance to simple rhythms provided by live percussionists. I tell you this to point out two things:

  1. improvisation is a subject in itself, one that can be taught in class–it doesn’t just  automatically spring forth from the artistic depths of the soul, and
  2. the “average” American belly dance student (if there is such a thing) isn’t ready to improvise onstage before an audience for quite a while (hence the added excitement of live percussion).
So where does that leave you, the “beginner”? Hmm.... dancing your heart out in front of the mirror at home, I hope! 

As the old saying goes, there’s a time and place for everything. WHEN, WHERE and WHY do make a difference. So if you’re itching to get up and “wing it”, let me make some recommendations to help you avoid any faux pas, and then give you some ideas for improvising too.

The two main categories of improvisation are:
These two situations call for different kinds of improvisation--two separate and unequal kinds of improvisation; they don’t “mix” and are not interchangeable (the exception will be explained in a moment). Often, a professional performer can improvise her entire full-length (10, 20, or 30 minute) show and still interpret the music so well that someone might think she’s following a choreography. Her improvisation (which falls in the “formal” category, above) is high-energy, complex, dynamic, includes a variety of advanced techniques and sometimes props.

The exception I mentioned is the folkloric or pop song segment of the full-length nightclub-style suite, when the performer can adjust her dancing to look like the informal style. (Even so, because of the venue and the context of the performance, it’s still “formal” and smacks of performance rather than “just for fun” dancing. In other words, the performer should not lose her clean technique and sense of being an entertainer who is separate from the audience; who is actually doing a job. Sorry to bring you back down to earth with such a jolt! Yes, we’re all artists, but we have to work for a living don’t we?)

Anyway, the style of improvising you (as beginners) will probably do is what’s often called “home style”, “beledi style” or raks shaabi. It’s simple, playful, repetitive, earthy, and very personal rather than audience-directed.

Since you’re incipient belly dancers you want a little more from your “home style” than the average Middle Easterner - they aren’t interested in being a performer, but you are. And since more is expected from performers, here are some ideas for you:

Introduction to Improvisation

Try this at home: pick your favorite music or rhythm and get on your feet. 
I hope you use an easy-to-hear and easy-to-count rhythm in 2's 4's or 8's like maqsun, masmoudi, chifti-telli, ayub, etc., we’ll just assume you are! Most pop songs are in these “even-tempo” rhythms.

Once you’re comfortably “on the beat”, you can begin to play with using your hip, head, arm, rib movements to hit the beat, or arc them through the melody. If you’re using your head or torso, frame yourself with your arms: place them in a position that’s graceful, and keep the energy flowing out of your fingers, don’t let them curl up like dead leaves. The most important part is to stay in touch with the beat; if you leave it during a melody phrase, find it again when you can, and the sooner the better. 

Did I mention staying on the beat is important? OK!

The method of “meta-listening” to music and then interpreting it via forms like Pattern/Change or Theme and Variation* that I wrote about (in this previous article: "Forms and concepts, part 2") are applicable in informal dancing as well. BUT–a most important “but”-- you should NOT look like you are performing when you’re in the “open dancing” situation.  That’s not only inappropriate; it’s ridiculous and can be funny to watch, in an unfortunate kind of way. So enjoy yourself, and any other dancers who are there with you, but let the audience take care of themselves.

If you’re absolutely new at improvising and want a little structure to follow, one of the easiest ways to start using concepts like those above is in simple sets of 8 counts. 

An example using Pattern/Change: start with a total segment of 16 counts, broken into two halves of 8 counts each, like this:

If you’re pretty good in the memory department, try Theme and Variation. For starters I like this 3-part plan (again, use 8 counts, that’s enough time to think on your feet but not long enough to get boring):

  1. 8 counts of a travel step (any one you want, just cover some ground)
  2. 8 counts of hip movement (hip circle, figure 8, drops, lifts, jiggles, you get the idea)
  3. 8 counts of a turn (full circle, 1/4-turn, chene, spins, pivoting, etc.)
The fun of Theme and Variation is that you could do it indefinitely without repeating yourself if that’s what you want to do! Or have fun with the same movements while changing their tempo, direction, size, etc. You’ll be using new moves while still having an idea of what’s coming next.

There’s more here than meets the eye... you could explore these two concepts for quite a while. Their value is that they give you both freedom and a path to follow at the same time.  Another huge benefit is that your “improvisation” will look better IMMEDIATELY.  Why? Because it won’t be chaotic and random–you’re not dancing to free-form jazz are you?  Listen to the music or rhythm, there’s a structure there and you’ll look better dancing with it.

Try those two concepts for your next improvisation practice at home, then break them out at the next party or open floor at the club.  Just keep your presentation casual and considerate of others on the floor too - don’t try to look like The Star - it’s not time for that (yet)!

live belly
          dance improvisation onstage

*Like these ideas? Read my booklet: Kawakib's Dance Tips

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