Belly Dance Improvisation: Dude, just dance!

One night at a party, your big mouth friend announces that you are a belly dancer to everyone in the room. The host happens to have a random Middle Eastern pop song on her iPod and puts it on so everyone can see you dance.  Even though you’ve taken months or years of belly dance lessons, you freeze and don’t know what to do. Now what!

Do you:
A: Pretend to have an injury
B: Try to dance a troupe choreography even though the song is wrong
C: Do a couple hip drops and shimmy even though the music doesn’t call for it
D: Joke that you get paid big money to dance and you don’t give out freebies

Sacramento belly dance show

Sacramento belly dancer with live music

Is this the song we rehearsed?

In this case, you can easily avoid the peer pressure, but what happens when you are a professional belly dancer and the band plays a song you requested differently or a different song altogether? Or if your music gets messed up and you have to dance to something you weren’t planning on performing to? Or if the restaurant where you are dancing decides they don’t like your music and changes the song in the middle of your show? Or if you just plain forget your choreography or something distracts you and you lose your place? The show must go on and learning how to do belly dance improvisation is an important skill to learn for belly dancers of all levels.

The best way to learn improvisation is with a belly dance coach who can give you tips and tricks from his or her own experience working with live music or improvisation. With improv, you not only have to know belly dance moves, you have to understand Middle Eastern music, the drum rhythms, how to anticipate what might come next, and how to catch a repeat if you miss the first one.

Another way to learn improvisation is to buy a bunch of Middle Eastern CDs or mp3s and dance to them without listening to the tracks first. Video tape yourself and watch it to see what worked and what didn’t work. Do one song at a time so you can remember what was going through your mind. This method will take much, much longer than working with an instructor, but is possible. Supplement this type of learning with books, blogs or classes about Middle Eastern music theory.

If you don’t have access to a improv belly dance coach, here are some general tips to think about:

  • Start thinking about the individual instruments. Think about what moves go well with each sound and then the different movements that match how the instrument is played. A big slow hip circle can look great with a sustained note from an accordion, but if the accordion starts to hit staccato notes, a hip circle will not fit the sound anymore and you might opt for some hip drops.
  • Follow one instrument or sound at a time. To avoid looking like you are being electrocuted, don’t try to dance to every sound, rhythm or melody at the same time. Follow the drum rhythm for a bit, switch to the melody, dance to a prominent flute or follow a violin. Connect with what you hear in the music and dance it.
  • Do something. Improvisational belly dancing is a mental workout. You are constantly thinking on your feet. Sometimes you will lose your train of thought. Don’t panic. The audience is as in the moment as you are with the performance. Never stop dancing (unless it is a purposeful stop, of course).

Belly dance in its traditional form is improvisational. Choreographies can look stunning and have their time and place, but it is important to be able to master both improvisational and choreographed belly dancing. Once you start to “just dance”, you will feel a special freedom and connection with the music that is in the moment, personal and exciting.

• Meet the Author • Nyla Crystal

Sacramento belly dancer

24 comments… add one

  • This is great and I know I have blogged on this too. Improvisation, for any level of dancer, requires a certain amount of self-trust.Many dancers who are very regimented in their practice of choreography as a habit, tend to have a lack of that self trust, that they have been doing this long enough, that the body knows what to do when the music is playing.There is also a fear of letting go, because they don't want to be viewed as a rookie or worse, in their mind, be seen as a fool dancing.It's a scary thing to improvise. But, once a dancer does it, they find a huge sense of satisfaction.I would love to see more and more dancers push the creative envelope and allow themselves to really let go and move naturally.By the way– it was awesome to see you on Sunday!

  • Well said Fajera! The even scarier thing is that many belly dancers don't realize how important it is to know how to improvise until they are faced with some show disaster where they are forced to improvise. It is much better to learn before something like that happens!

  • Absolutely! I am starting up my classes now and have decided to build in a small amount of improvisation time into the class.I want to find a way to help students develop that self-trust.Improvisation was something I had to learn on the fly, during a show and it was a devastating experience for me… Granted, the audience loved it, but I was HORRIFIED!I've decided that after a few weeks of class, I am going to give them about 5 minutes worth of music and encourage them to move on their own.. No coaching, no instruction. Just move as they find natural.I already expect that some will truly wallflower themselves out of fear as well as "but, you are the teacher"The way I see it.. I am the teacher, 90% of the time… The other 10% the music is your teacher.

  • I loved these tips. I think we must "train" improvisation because it's the essence of belly dance!

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  • That is a funny story, because I had something somewhat similar too! I love dancing as a workout alternative, and have always been fond of belly dancing technique (I had a friend who would belly dance all the time). However since I am not a female, I instead prefer to do different dance styles myself. But these tips will be very useful to give to another one of my belly dancing friends, thank you!
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