A Kabylian Woman
by Bridgeman 1875
By Najia El-Mouzayen
life has always been filled with the color and mystic of paintings. The
walls of my home are covered with paintings, both real and
prints, some very old ones from the middle of the19th century
and into the 20th. I love the graphic arts and should
have been a painter, except that my parents and school counselors
always insisted that a girl of my era needed to be practical
and “always have a vocation to fall back on” in case the marriage
or just life itself didn’t quite work out the way it was hoped. Because
drawing and painting were among my earliest creative interests,
I often describe dance in terms of drawing, composition and
painting technique in my dance workshops.
have always believed in a profound similarity and congruity
between all the arts. I'd like dancers to understand how
the ideas of color, texture, tone, shading, etc. can also
apply to the art of speaking through movement.
sooner or later, all students in my dance clientele have been
introduced to my views about composition and choreography. (I
include here the spontaneous choreography that seemingly just
happens but is, in fact an abstract, intuitive, and quickly determined
set of movements.) If you have attended my classes or dance workshops,
the chances are that you may have saved your notes listing ideas
that more commonly are associated with painting and drawing compositions
on paper or canvas. You may have forgotten and now puzzle about
what the word “color” or “texture” could possible have to do
At the time
that I explain my logic and lay out my method in the lesson,
it all seems so clear and self-evident that often students are
extremely reluctant to “waste precious class time” to take notes
or to take them in enough detail. Sometimes however, the result
is that haste and insufficient note taking result in forgotten
or incorrect recall of important dance ideas. I insist that dance
students must stop the continual execution of movement during
a lesson long enough to process the dance concepts being discussed.
It is effective to put ideas into writing, and therefore, hopefully,
retain them and recall them when they are next needed. (I am
opposed to the practice of instructors simply handing out pre-fabricated
notes at seminars for this reason.) When students review hastily
scribbled notes months, or even years later, poor or hasty notes
don’t make any sense because the student did not really understand
what she/he had heard. For one glorious moment while the class
is still in session, they seem to believe that the concept was
insight on a self-evident level. However, encouraging note taking
is sometimes the only way a teacher has for evoking questions
My Dreadful Laundry List of Terms
Following is a list and basic explanation
of my terms. Check them over and see if you already understand performance
quality movement and determine whether or not you have used these
ideas to enhance your own dances. If not, I invite you to try them
and see if you can get new meaning and enjoyment into the details
of your solos.
When artists draw or sculpt, they do it in a real
space, and it is both positive and negative in nature. The negative
spaces where you do not draw are equally important as the lines (positive
spaces) you have drawn. The same is true in dance movement. It is
easy to understand positive space but art also has to treat negative
space as a reality. Negative space is as much an influence upon floor
plan and moving through actual space as it is to sculptural poses
of the body of the dancer. Perhaps you have already experienced this
effect in the study of Hatha Yoga, also a movement of the human body.
In Yoga movement, it is thought that the point of beginnings and
ends of movements are only as important as all the nearly infinite
points in between the beginning and the end. I see this as an integral
part of dance technique also. All movement points are to be approached
with equal value, pressure, and personal spirit, intent, and dedication.
from the graphic arts is that the dancer’s body is all one piece
and must proceed logically from one point to another while the
graphic artist’s hand can lift and return with a new application
tool and a new color or type of stroke. While the graphic artist
is free to skip about the composition making changes here and
there, the dancer is limited to a logical and natural time line
and is limited and guided by the musical composition. (…Or should
be guided by the music! I have noticed that many dancers seem
to need to do everything they ever learned in each and every
presentation, whether the music asks for it or not.)
a type of Negative Space
the places on the stage that you occupy are equally as important
to your composition as the areas in which you are not moving. The
spaces your body uses are no more important than the spaces
you have left unused.
The pauses in your
movements are also like negative spaces in a drawing.
dancers have to suspend movements for more dramatic impact. Pauses
provide a more restful quality or, sometimes, they introduce
an element for setting-up your audience’s expectations of what
dramatic content will occur next in the composition.
and/or pauses compliment the action and sculpted shapes by giving
the eye longer to take it all in. In a sense, sustained motion or
elongated movement can be a form of relative pause because the human
brain seems to connect the dots with after-images. The after-image
exists in the brain’s memory much like the taillights of a car photographed
at night by prolonged opening of the camera’s iris. If dancers made
better use of this phenomenon, they would not turn out the frantic,
frenetic, wild and meaningless performances seen so commonly today.
Use of colored
pigments, when applied to a painting, carries indications of mood or
intent; color (hue) excites the senses. Though the use of the word “color”
cannot be literal when applied to dance, it can be figuratively applied. A
dancer/choreographer uses the medium of movement qualities just as a
graphic artist mixes and applies color for sensual and visual effect
upon the human emotion.
Those dancers who
are intuitive often have an insight into human emotion that is similar
to that of the painter who attempts to say something in his painting
beyond the recording of a moment in time as would a camera.
colors evoke emotions that flood the viewer with memories from
his own past that parallel those experienced by other people. By
using movements that evoke emotions, it is quite possible for
the dancer to cause an audience to understand a message conveyed
by our dance movements.
Audiences can be
manipulated into an emotional uproar like unexpected tears or gripped
fists and grinding teeth. Once a dancer has experienced the power
of this type of emotion-evoking movement, it is impossible for her
to sit patiently through empty performances by fellow dancers who
haven’t a clue about use of abstract color/emotion in movement. I
have just one cautionary word about using dramatic content, though:
a dancer has to be quite careful not to confuse the use of melodrama
and mugging with the artful pause or the emotionally pointed gaze
of focus. Overt mugging and the frozen smile are bizarre and false.
Texture as applied to artistic movement
is much more understandable to most dancers than the subject of color. It
is somehow easier to relate to the idea that a person can use smooth
or sustained movement for highlighting sustained musical notes, while
using finely divided movements to portray the staccato or percussive
sounds in movement. “Hold on tight; I think it’s going to be a bumpy
night,” said Bette Davis, but dancers can do more than talk about it;
they can create its presence; they can literally bump across the dance
area in a variety of ways!
In regards to choreography, ascending and descending
tones of melody relate to types of gestures and choices of movements
that portray the upward or downward trend of the tunes. When using
the color red for instance, a painter would mix in darkness or lightness
apply a variety of value to this hue to give depth and beauty to
his painting; likewise, a dancer would have to mix a variety of variations
in his movements to give them vibrancy. This is subjective in nature. How
much is enough? The dancer must know. Just like the leaves of a tree
can have a vast variation in color, still we identify the tree as
musical tone upwards and downwards with body parts is a starting
point or guideline only.
It makes visual
sense to an audience and is emotionally satisfying to viewers for
whatever reason. It makes no sense, however, for one to become a
slave to the tonal meanderings of music. If music drifts relentlessly
up the scale, a tonal slave can soon find herself on tiptoes, arms
skyward, stretched to the limits! One has to know when to bail out
and start over. One has to “know when to hold and know when to fold”
as the Johnnie Cash song says—and so also, does the dancer.
Brush strokes are clear. A swipe with the airbrush
is also clear, but how could the term “stroke” relate to dance? I believe
a dancer must pay close attention to the cadence of the music, matching
its short repetitions, wobbles and quavers as well as sustained or staccato
and grace notes. Student dancers often ignore this matching element
because they have not trained their ears to hear the number of oscillations
a sound makes repeatedly, and sometimes, rapidly. Mostly, I notice that
they boil a quavering sound down to a simplified accent movement, if
they acknowledge it at all. It might be that the sound (in all its true
auditory glory) is a quaver of five or more trilling or up-and-down,
hard-and-soft, or busy-then-rest passages in the music. The dance should
strive to match appropriately what the audience sees with what it hears
(or vice versa). Experienced dancers accomplish this without thinking
while inexperienced dancers struggle to hear it at all. Of course, as
in anything artistic, it is open to personal interpretation, variation,
and is very subjective in quality.
The idea of shading is what I relate to the force
one chooses to put into the movement (deep or shallow, hard or soft
force behind each movement) or the amount of personal style one superimposes
upon ordinary dance movements. In the graphic arts, shading produces
perspective and a sense of reality. Shading of areas in a painting
can transport the viewer into the painting. Shading in dance gives
an emotional perspective and can transport the viewer into an emotional
realm that is not real to anything he is personally experiencing at
hard the dancer executes a movement, timed with and appropriate
to the music, gives the audience a sense of how important the
message or intent of the movement is to the dancer and his/her
interpretation of the musical composition. This is why we claim
that dancing can be an art, but only when it is left open to
the dancer’s imprint of artistic judgment.
If the dancer
is executing someone else’s choreography however, all bets are off.
A committee cannot accomplish artistry; someone gets to be the artist
and someone else has to be the skilled technician. It is wise to
know which you would like to be.
enough, you will probably not have complete control over the sense of
style you give to your movements, simply because a great deal of whatever
produces style has much to do with the size and shape of your body (your
tool for dance) as it makes a movement. One has to understand his tool.
You cannot paint fine detail with a trowel. That is precisely why a
student is unwise to expect to copy exactly the dance of another dancer.
dance teacher who encourages cookie-cutter dancing in groups
all alike in precision lock step, is absolutely wrong if students
want to learn to be fine solo dancers.
are nothing more than a clever rouse to rally students around their
“star” teacher or to appear professionally without having to take
complete responsibility for a performance. Troupe work is not a step
along the way in becoming a professional dancer; it is a separate
path that requires a technician rather than an artist.
concept of line as it applies to Oriental dance is twofold. It mostly
refers to the postural lines a dancer makes that is pleasing. Often
these are lines that lead the eye from one point to another. In paintings,
line is accomplished by placement of items and their edges or colors
that somehow relate to each other. In the dancer, this sense of line
can be as simple as drawing the energy from fingertip to toe in an
unbroken sweep across the torso.
dancers frequently break their line without awareness because
they forget to involve the shoulders in the line of the arms.
feel more comfortable and solidly balanced when their spines are
erect and square as opposed to being pulled away from the true dance
center, stretching into arm alignment.
Of course, I have
actually put the cart before the horse by using this description
since it is more rightly stated that the arms should create a line
built upon the slope or tilt of the upper torso, the container of
the core or heart of the dance. (This is sometimes referred to as
“the seat of the dance” which resides in the solar plexus rather
than the pelvis, groin, or even, uterus, as romantic feminists used
to claim in the 1960s Think about it: if the movements properly began
in the uterus, men would be incapable of dance).
The second way
that a dancer can relate a sense of line is in movement through space
to which I referred when I was discussing the concept of positive
and negative spaces. Perhaps you will recall it as the “tail-lights
in the photo phenomenon”. Since the human mind sees in this fashion,
the dancer must be very careful to complete all movements and to
make each shape in space have its fullest execution, starting from
the solar plexus and ending there also.
movement has a point before its execution that comes from the
Like a swing
of a golf club, baseball bat, or tennis racquet, it moves (at times
nearly imperceptibly) in the opposite direction of the swing and
has no power whatsoever if it does not emanate from the central core
or “heart of the movement”.
by Alexander John White
Interest is created by contrasts of all types. All
of the forgoing dance concepts are enhanced by the use of contrast just
as real life does also. It is the spice. It is the re-enforcer. It
highlights and exaggerates. How would we know we were happy if we had
never been sad? How would we know we were moving if we had never been
would we ever develop artistic judgment if we never suffered
through beginner’s recitals?
The road without
any potholes and nothing noteworthy to view is the road to drowsiness
Our Artistic Family
All of the arts have elements of presentation,
organization, and expression that call forth the elemental concepts that
I have mentioned here. Perhaps there are others that you can add. Consider
creative and artistic realms with which you are familiar outside of your
dance. Think of dance in terms usually applied elsewhere.
I believe in the universality of the arts. That is why, for me, music
is the mother of dance while the dance itself is a sister to poetry,
writing, storytelling, acting, painting, and teaching. …Just one big,
complex, squabbling, ever changing, vivacious family!
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More by Najia
to My Ears, How I Learned to Hear Like a Dancer
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the Oriental dancer from the chorus line to the spotlight.
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After having said all that, I must add that American style Oriental/Belly dance
is a distinctive style composed of creative elements that are simply outstanding.
Story Written with Arabic Idioms; Why it is Difficult to
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and interpretations by Rima El-Mouzayen, Introduction by Najia
to read it in English and at the same time, think in Lebanese Arabic…if
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Workshop by Latifa
Floor Work is a moving Yoga, and as in Yoga, one must let
his/her body grow into more flexibility which develops with practice.
Belly Danced: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dancing in the Ancient
Near East, Part 1 of 3, By Qan-Tuppim
While Yahweh is not female, the man may have given Chavah a name similar to
Yahweh because the woman and Yahweh had something vital in common.