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!
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
|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.