the Language of Belly Dance
to belly dance is like learning a new language. Just like a
baby learns how to shape her mouth to create new words, a dance
student learns how to shape her body to express herself through
dance. A child masters language as she grows and as she matures
to adulthood eventually uses language to communicate more fully
and even inspire.
path should be the same, moving from technique to refinement
to pure inspiration.
In my struggle
to progress as a dancer and instructor, I’ve sought to define
the more abstract elements that move a dancer beyond the ordinary. Some
of these things can seem difficult to quantify, but they are
essential for great dancing. Below is my perspective
on how we complete ourselves as performers and artists using
language as a metaphor.
Learning Words = Movement and Technique
A baby learns to form words before she can speak. A dancer learns to execute
movements, to connect her mind and body, before she can put those movements in
a dance. Each new step, movement, or isolation increases a dancer's vocabulary.
Executing each movement properly is like pronouncing a word properly. Like some
words are more difficult to pronounce than others, some movements in dance are
more difficult to execute.
who master some difficult movements begin to think of themselves
as very advanced dancers, but like a child who has learned
some complex adult words; these dancers may not yet understand
how to use them properly in a dance sentence. Moreover, they
are even further from creating a truly meaningful dialogue.
technical foundation of movements builds a dancer’s vocabulary.
This foundation is how a dancer begins to learn the language
Building Sentences and Beginning to Communicate = Musicality
Once a child knows a few key words she will start using them in phrases and
full sentences. She will also begin to hold conversations. Equate this
to musicality. When a dancer learns to have discourse with the music
through movement, her story begins to unfold.
begins with dancing on beat. This beat is the rhythm of the
language, its regular cadence. A dancer wants to avoid
stuttering stops and starts. She wants to emphasize the right
syllables. She needs to learn how to place her words in the
right order to create a complete sentence: capitalizing at
the beginning and punctuating at the end. She needs to
understand where a musical phrase begins and ends.
As in language,
listening and responding appropriately when spoken to are necessary
for good communication. Listening and responding appropriately
to specific rhythms is a fundamental tool for a belly dancer. But
there is more to the music than the rhythm alone, a dancer
learns when to travel, when to move in place, when to transition,
when to accent and when to pause by listening to and understanding
the full complexities of the music. These things indicate her
awareness of sentence structure, grammar and punctuation. She
also needs to be noticing dynamics in pace and volume of the
language. When the music speaks loudly and quickly, the
dancer responds with robustness and energy, when the music
whispers the dancer responds with daintiness.
As in any
good conversation, the dancer must know who is talking to her,
in this case what instrument. She then customizes her
response distinctly when she is spoken to by a qanun, a violin,
an oud, or a clarinet, just as she would if spoken to by different
people. If she is sensitive to it, she will even hear
the emotion in each instrument’s voice and reflect that in
her response. The emotion behind the music in Oriental
dance is directly related to its maqam as well as the feeling
that the musician pours into his work.
the dancer needs to understand the colloquialisms of the musical
language being used and use colloquial expressions in response. She
does this by recognizing the cultural context of the music,
its instruments and rhythms, in reference to particular regions,
dances and rituals, and then selecting the appropriate steps
and character. For example, a dancer may hear a Khaliji rhythm
in the context of an Oriental piece. If she knows the
way Khaliji rhythms are danced to in the Khaliji region, she
can make reference to that in her dancing to enrich her piece. This
awareness can become even more literally displayed when actual
lyrics are involved.
basic conversation, delivering polished and rehearsed speeches
and being able to organize one's thoughts when speaking off
the cuff are advanced skills in language, as are its partners
in dance: choreography and improvisation.
all together, the dancer understands what is being said to
her structurally, emotionally and culturally and she can articulately
respond with intelligence and some feeling. However, putting
together meaningful sentences and starting to communicate are
still only intermediate steps to the final goal.
Proper Grammar and Diction = Polish
A child reaches a point where she knows several words, can build sentences,
and can communicate pretty well, but she makes some grammatical errors, mispronounces
certain words, or makes punctuation mistakes. Poor grammar in dance might mean
the dancer forgets to point her toes, or maintain energy in her arms and hands.
Perhaps she talks in sentence fragments, leaving a movement or a musical phrase
unfinished. Her posture may be slightly off, her body angle may be awkward,
or she may transition poorly between movements. Perhaps she doesn't dare make
eye contact as she speaks to you, or her facial expressions reveal mistakes
or conflict with the emotion of her dance. She might jump from idea to idea
so quickly, she loses all continuity. Or maybe she repeats to the point of
things often go unnoticed by a dancer and are sometimes forgotten
in training. But from the audience’s perspective, they set
one dancer distinctly apart from another.
begins to move beyond just an intermediate level of understanding
of the language when she begins to use the language properly
Pure Poetry = Emotional Connection
When a dancer creates poetry, she beings to own the dance. The dancer and the
movement and the music become one. The dancer isn't thinking about the movement
anymore. The movement has become a part of her own language and it rolls naturally
from her tongue.
movement to express her inner feelings—joy, love, pain—these
emotions become real before the viewer's eyes. This requires
a decent degree of technical ability, musicality, and polish
to pull off well, because the dancer needs to know the words
and how to form the sentences before she can make their expression
fully understood. Without them, a dance is like child's talk—speech
that can only be somewhat understood and that can be moving
on some level, but lacks the fullness and power that can come
from someone who has mastered the language and has a great
story to tell.
who can express emotion through her dance, who can find the
hidden nuances of a song and express her ideas with a fluid
vocabulary, has reached a level of advanced expression.
New Topics of Conversation = Expanding Repertoire
When a dancer expands her repertoire she has new ideas to talk about. Whether
the dancer learns a new ethnic form, experiments with a dynamic fusion, or
adds interesting dance props, she increases her comprehensive understanding
of the language of dance and all its dialects. By adding new repertoire to
a performance, a dancer can keep the audience continually interested in the
a dancer has learned how to talk gracefully, and how to turn
her speech into poetry, she still has to create interesting
conversation. A dancer who increases her repertoire creates
exciting stories for her audience.
Getting Published = Becoming a Professional
Once a dancer knows the language of dance fairly well, she must learn all the
technical ins and outs of working as a professional dancer. These things include:
how to costume appropriately.
how to put performance sets together.
with and entertaining an audience.
with restaurant and club owners.
with live music.
with live musicians.
setbacks and dance disasters with grace and a good sense
with other dancers.
others with respect.
reliable, punctual and responsible.
- And so
who has mastered all of these skills in addition to having
attained a high level of mastery in the language of dance,
deserves to call herself a true professional.
a dancer rarely ascends through each of these steps chronologically.
Even though some vocabulary is necessary before a person can
speak in sentences, no one learns all the words in a language
before learning simple conversation. And no one becomes fluent
in a language before they begin to emote and find inflection
in speech. Each aspect of learning to dance is approached simultaneously.
I apply these concepts to my own dancing, I can better
judge my own
level of mastery. I see where I need to put in more
effort, if I’m getting ahead of myself, and where I’m gaining
in areas I didn't previously appreciate. I also learn to
recognize, admire, and respect these qualities in other
I find the
metaphor of language very applicable to dance. Many of the
same rules that apply to a strong narrative in poetry or prose
apply to a strong narrative in dance. Sometimes, I like
to consider what the dance equivalent might be for a Shakespearian
soliloquy, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, a
poem by E. E. Cummings, a breaking news story, a nursery rhyme,
or a conversation filled with street slang and cursing. Thinking
of dance this way helps me to examine the range of cultures,
styles, and creative ideas currently out there. I begin
to see how many words I don’t yet know or utilize, and I contemplate
how vast an array of expression exists.
has her story to tell, may she tell it eloquently and expressively.
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Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals, Part
1- Booking a Party by Yasmin
a dancer looks good, she, or another, will get called back
to perform again. When she looks bad, customers might be
turned off to our lovely art form forever. Therefore, a
bad dancer not only ruins things for herself, but for all
to Charge What You Are Worth by MIchelle Joyce
step to becoming an effective negotiator is to emotionally detach
yourself from the outcome. If you can’t walk away from the
deal, you have already lost.
of Power by Kathreen Saab
The sensual is from the realm of the magical, the psyche, rather than the physical.
the Veil by Yasmina Ramzy
I excused myself first and then asked her “why on
earth would someone obviously not of Middle Eastern heritage actually
choose to wear the veil?”She smiled knowingly and gave me
an answer that still keeps me thinking today.
Teacher, Fahtiem by Lucia
As performers, we tend to often dance improvisation
with moves that are ‘safe’and comfortable. It is
often difficult to step out of the box.