How to Avoid the Executioner:
A Journey into Creative Listening
August 29, 2007
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
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!
is an excerpt and additional comments contained in one of
my early morning letters:
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.
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.
can ruin an art form as it would the fashion industry—or
any other endeavor based upon creative thinking.
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
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.
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:
(also known as un-choreographed)
individual and creative
- An endeavor
of collaboration between artists (i.e. dancers, musicians,
composers, and costumers)
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!
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.
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
is my proposed plan of action for your new destination in
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
a comment? Send us a
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