Gilded Serpent presents...
How to Avoid the Executioner:
A Journey into Creative Listening
by Najia Marlyz
August 29, 2007

A good number of well thought-out letters from readers show up in my email box asking about various subjects that are so intriguing that a reply is usually immediate.  Many times, after hitting the “send command” to reply to one of the many email questions, the thought comes to my mind: “ Haven’t I written already about this particular phase of learning Belly dance?”  Of course, I usually have written it all before, somewhere, but perhaps my answers were so scattered throughout other themes that it might help if just one theme could bring them all together and I could share some of my techniques of teaching analytical listening.

I continued to develop teaching techniques more fully over the years of my career that my dance teacher and dance partner, Bert Balladine first introduced into Belly dance instruction during the ‘60s and early ‘70s: imagery and musical analysis. The only other “new person” on our dance scene, who uses a similar emphasis of instruction, is an Egyptian drummer who, alas, is caught up in his particular complex drum rhythms so completely that he has eclipsed the simplicity of learning to listen interactively and creatively dancing with the music. This is not rocket science!

Below is an excerpt and additional comments contained in one of my early morning letters:

Dear Reader,
Extremely few dance instructors, anywhere, teach from the guiding angle of musical analysis, imagery, and simplicity.  Innovating within these concepts to produce the effect that has individualized the dance styles of the Egyptian dance stars of the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s has become my pleasure. Therefore, in answer to your request, it will not be possible for me try to recommend to you any particular instructor “who would be interested in teaching you to listen to music analytically”, even though an outstanding dancer must learn how to do it.

Additionally, these specific techniques are not on anybody’s DVD to date. A DVD would be somewhat useless to produce, anyway, because it would become a lecture rather than standard dance instruction, and these days, dancers are not generally pleased to learn dance by talking about it to understand its foundational concepts.  It is so much easier and accessible to rely on usual instruction consisting of how to execute steps and movements!  The “how-to” method of teaching seems seductive for teachers who continuously work the workshop circuit and the parks and recreation departments. How-to is like working in “automatic pilot”—quick, clean and easy, and standardized—especially if teaching specific choreography is used as the basis of the lesson. 

Standardization can ruin an art form as it would the fashion industry—or any other endeavor based upon creative thinking

However, since you have asked to be “pointed in the right direction” so that you can learn how to listen to music in a new way, the information below should help you begin the process of teaching yourself:

Since you are not Egyptian, you will always dance with an accent; however, that is not a crime or even a fault!  The secret of exceptional and outstanding Belly dance does not lie within any rendition of certain steps, movements, or combination thereof, whether choreographed or not.  Rather, the essence of exquisite dance technique lies within portraying the meaning of musical scores and the musicians’ arrangements as they play in collaboration with a dancer who actively listens.

The key words here are “collaboration” and “active.”  The music can be your map.  It will take you on a journey.  Each twist or turn within the music that does not evoke a concurrent movement, gesture, or expression on your part is a part of the music that, most likely, the audience (especially non-middle eastern audiences) will not hear or mark with any importance. It will not impact their conscious thought or unconscious emotions.

Dancers who bill themselves as experts in the Egyptian style—and only teach by aping Egyptian steps, movements, gestures, and quirks—are only fooling themselves if they do not own up to the fact that old fashioned Belly dance is:

  • Spontaneous (also known as un-choreographed)
  • Highly individual and creative
  • An endeavor of collaboration between artists (i.e. dancers, musicians, composers, and costumers)

Therefore, you cannot learn in any group situation, or from any DVD, how to rend away from your dance all of those ubiquitous beginners' dance transition crutches that have made up your dance repertoire—until now!

You must rid yourself of their triteness and cliché and begin to reshape yourself into a unique and memorable dancer. I do not mean by this that you are going to invent new steps or movements; instead, you will learn how to improvise and dance within the moment rather than relying on a stock of choreographies you have practiced diligently or by pasting together a passel of transitions that you learned in tedious Belly dance classes and workshops over the years.

(However, I have to admit that there are some dancers in America and Europe who have discovered and have achieved active listening in spite of their instructors and their concomitant instruction formats. I am convinced that artistry is just born into some souls.) 

Here is my proposed plan of action for your new destination in dance:

  • Analyze good acting and see if you can discern what quality makes it good in your eyes. List some of the attributes and see if you can apply them to your dance.  How do you relate to the instruments that the musicians have chosen in your arrangement?  How do you relate to the lyrics? How do you portray the characteristics of the instruments and the apparent mood of the musical score?  Have you begun to realize that in dance an artist must be an actress in order to dance the music with conviction and meaning?
  • Read poetry, even if it doesn't rhyme, and look for its "beat".  Even modern poetry that does not have lines predicated upon numbers of syllables will have, when read with understanding, an underlying beat or pulse of the words as they fall from your lips when read aloud or congeal in phrases of meaning when read silently.  In the taxim (improvisational solo) that has no drum beating out a standard rhythm, still there will be a discernable lilt or breath that demands to be recognized within your choice or the strength and depth of your movements.
  • Analyze a painting to see what it tells your heart—and why. Dance, if it is to be done artistically, has a close association to the graphic arts in which it is easy to see texture, positive and negative spaces, line, color and shading, stroke, and other attributes that cause one artist’s composition to be better than another’s, even though they are rendering the exact same subject from their own separate perspectives.
  • Listen to music with new ears, and welcome the thought that it is a road map to a place that only you happen to know about. Subsequently, you will relax and not become anxious about how long or short your dance will be. Instead, you will live in the moment and enjoy being busy with the business at hand. Rather than incorporating abstract thoughts of counting the measures of music, accomplishing a difficult movement, or a step combination, you will have focus and purpose.  You will eliminate whatever does not actually belong or portray accurately how you feel (or perceive) the sounds that are filling the room. Dancing a long set will become a “doing” or a “being” rather than an ordeal of time, effort, and memorization.
  • Approach dance with a dramatic message of hope, joy, tragedy, and life to be delivered through you from your music to your audience.  Why do you dance?  Do you have something to give to an audience or do you expect that their admiration and applause will feed your needy ego?  Do you dance because you want and need to give and share your understandings, or are you dancing for a paycheck and the adulation of audiences? If it is the later, perhaps you should confine your dance to your mirror!
  • Know Middle Eastern music: not just the rhythms, not just the tune, not just the lyric translations. I do not mean that you have to become a musician! One must listen for music's colors, textures, moods, qualities akin to tides and breath, themes and logic. Those ideas will substitute for so much we do not understand about the foreign culture belonging to Egyptians as well as those of people from other parts of the Middle East.  The most obvious lack on our (western) part might be the language of the lyrics, but my concern extends beyond that point.  You need to listen to Middle Eastern music enough so that when you hear a new piece of music (or at least, new to you) you could almost predict whether the next note you hear will be an embellishment, high or low, soft or loud, grating or sweet, starting a new theme or continuing with the old theme, returning to a former theme or re-instrumentation of the one just completed. (Learn to recognize what constitutes a theme in music.)
  • Think about whether you are socially oriented enough to care whether you touch individual’s latent emotions--or not.  Have you ever judged the quality of your performance by the length of the applause, the length of the drum solo your musicians have awarded to you, or the amount of tips you have received? If all a dancer expects of herself is that musicians love her because she is no trouble for them (and perhaps, smokes pot backstage with them between sets) or all she expects of her audience is to give her money and make her feel good about her technique of execution and her good looks, what kind of an artist is she? Right! She is not a dance artist at all; I think of her as just one more dance executioner!

I honor your new dance journey.  Your wishing to accomplish more than a mindless execution of your dance, becoming better than just good enough, will help you make it happen!

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