Belly Dance Improvisation - Breaking Out of the Choreography Box
"What do you mean, just dance?"
For a dancer whose instruction has been predominantly choreography, the change to improvisational belly dancing can be daunting. After all, choreographed dance routines offer a comfort in counted beats and well-rehearsed movements. Improv offers the music only and relies on the dancer’s skill to bring that music to life with her movements. Paula Grace from Texas says, “I am at that point now in my study of belly dance. I am on my own right now because of my location and there are no teachers. Whenever I try to improv dance I find myself awkward and sometimes just 'blank'. Or sometimes I feel like I am very repetitious or choppy.”
Done right, improv dance provides a beautiful synergy between dancer and music that extends out to the audience. Done poorly, it might cause a patron or two to look away and return to their hummus.
What’s the trick to a successful improv performance? Well, there’s no trick, per se, and no magic wand, but there is a lot more to it than toss in a CD and dance. The first step is to have an expansive movement vocabulary. If you only know a handful of basic moves, you are probably not quite ready. A high level of music understanding is also extremely important. You don’t want to do Khaleegy hair tosses to a beledi, and you most definitely do not want to dance with a wide, happy grin on your face to a sad Om Kolthoum piece. And if you’re using music with lyrics, it’s always a good idea to find a trusted translation.
To make the transition to improvisational dancing easier, try making your own movement combinations to various music rhythms. Practice them until you can do them in your sleep, so that if you get nervous, your muscle memory will remember what to do. Listen to the music and note the rhythm changes, the pacing, and the pauses in between. A dramatic pause can be a powerful thing, but knowing when to pause is more important than the pause itself.
For Heather Fullen from Gainesville, Florida, her “first teacher was totally choreography focused, which made sense to me in a beginner's class. After a while, I got the itch to break out and use more of my own creativity and struggled with how to get over my anxiety about having that huge blank canvas in front of me.
“What helped me a lot was starting to take classes with a second teacher, in a tribal style group improvisational format. I found that helped me sort of ease into improvising, as I was able to follow the leader - it was still spontaneous, but I wasn't the one under pressure. As I felt more confident keeping up with the group, I was less nervous about improvising on my own.
“Eventually I got to a point where I drilled technique mostly on my own and stopped attending the beginner level choreography focused class, but it was a very productive/educational part of my early participation in the dance.”
After you’ve practiced and practiced and practiced some more, a great place to try out your newfound skill is a low-key hafla with lots of supportive dancers and friends in attendance. Don’t worry if it takes a while to get comfortable with improv dancing. Like any other aspect of the dance, it takes time and practice to get it right.