The Gilded Serpent presents...
“Drumming for Dancers, and
Dancing for Drummers”

by Frank Lazzaro

Through my recent years of experience playing for middle eastern dancers, I have developed some observations and insights that I would like to share. My intention is to provide dancers and musicians (particularly drummers) some tips and recommendations in an attempt to improve relationships between the two, and facilitate dance performance to live music.

Long before there were CDs and cassettes, dancers danced to only live bands. This interaction between musicians and dancers is the true essence of belly dance.

Even today, in top nightclubs in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, it is common to find dancers backed by seven to ten piece bands. In the US this is not as prevalent, as live music venues have unfortunately become few and far between. However, seasoned professional dancers will attest to the excitement they have experienced in performing to live music, and newer dances are finding opportunities to do the same, due to the recent resurgence in popularity of belly dancing.

There are some basic concepts I would like to present, in order to make newer dancers feel more comfortable in dancing to live music.

The first key factor to consider is that dancers should acquire a basic understanding of Middle-Eastern music and rhythm, and how it is presented in relation to dance routines.

The Middle-Eastern Tabla drum, or Dumbek, as it is commonly referred to in the US, is at the heartbeat of belly dance music. One must learn and understand the essential drum rhythms to be able to appropriately dance to the music they underlie. It is the relationship between the drummer and dancer that is so important to making a successful performance.

While cabaret dance routines can take many forms, the most typical routines follow a familiar format, known as Fast-Slow-Fast. What this means is three songs or musical passages played in succession with varying tempos, as follows:

  1. Entrance Piece (Fast)- Usually employs rhythms Ayub, Mahlfuf, Baladi, Maqsoum.
  2. Middle Section (Slow)- rhythms Chiftetelli and Bolero are most common. This section may be preceded by a Taqsim, a non-rhythmical improvisation conducted by a lead player, such as oud, violin, or wind instrument. During this section, dancers will often use props such as veil, sword, etc. and/or perform floor work.
  3. Finale Piece (Fast)- Rhythms as above, additionally Saidi for cane dance. This last section also includes a drum solo (my favorite part), followed by an extended lively section, during which dancers will go out for tips if appropriate to the venue, and make their final exit.

There are many resources available to learn the rhythms of middle-eastern dance. The best for either drum or dance student is to take classes with a trained professional. Otherwise, there are numerous internet sites, instructional CDs and videos available from a variety of sources. In learning the drum rhythms and knowing them by name, dancers can better relate to the music they dance to, and it will also help them to be able to communicate with musicians as to their requests. A skilled dancer will adjust her dance steps to the changes in rhythms. It is also a great help when learning to play finger cymbals, as there are specific zill patterns that link up with particular rhythms. For drummers, it is imperative to learn the popular dance rhythms and their variation to be able to effectively accompany dancers, and compose drum solos.

Most people would agree that the most exciting part of the live performance is the drum solo. Here, the drummer and dancer have a chance to connect, shine, and show off each others’ best attributes. This interaction is marked by spontaneity, improvisation, and passion. This is where the magic happens. The best dancers can make an unrehearsed drum solo look totally choreographed. While this comes largely from experience, there are some pointers for drummers and dancers that can make this easier than believed.

The best drummers will play recognizable and repeating patterns that the dancer can relate to, and adjust her movements to. There is nothing worse than a hot-shot drummer playing in a blaze of fury, as fast and with as many chops as he can, only to leave the dancer bewildered! This will only make both look unprofessional.

There are certain key elements to playing and dancing to a drum solo that will make for a successful performance. The first and foremost is that the dancer should listen to the music and beats being played! I have seen many newer dancers make the mistake of coming out to a drum solo with a preconceived routine in mind, only to find herself out of synch with the rhythms. The good drummer will play steady, musical solos which build, ebb and flow, usually reaching a final crescendo. One of the things a professional drummer will do is play repeating 4 to 8 beat phrases that the dancer can recognize, usually up to four times. This will get the dancer’s attention, and give her a few tries to nail the beat before moving on to the next change. Likewise, the drummer should watch the dancer closely to be able to follow her moves, and pick up on changes and cues she is giving. I like to focus in the hips, as that is where the intense rhythms seem to manifest. To anticipate the dancers next moves takes practice, experience, and intuition. There is a certain drum vocabulary that seems to match up with the dancers’ moves, although this is only a theory: The bass beat, or Dum, is the pulse of the rhythm, which grounds and drives the beat. The bass beat is usually marked by strong hip movements or hip drops. The high pitched strokes and rolls, Tek-ka, tend to equate with fast movements or shimmies, and the accented slap or pop goes well with a lock or stop. Again, this is only based on my observation, and may be a gross generalization, as I have no direct experience as a dancer.

Once the drum solo starts, (usually evident as the rest of the musicians stop playing and the drummer gets a crazed look), it is time for the dancer to focus her attention to the drummer.This is her chance to connect with the soul of the music and make that connection evident to all onlookers.

The drummer is playing his little heart out for you, so show your interest by giving him back your energy and sharing the fire. It is good for the dancer and drummer to make eye contact, and for the dancer to move close to the drummer, (possibly onto the stage if present), so the two can showcase their talents. Some drummers I know will actually leave the bandstand and go down to the dancer’s floor, making for an interesting and colorful interplay. All eyes will be upon the two of you as the dancer shimmies, undulates and seduces the drummer into musical intercourse.

Please note, if you are in the middle of receiving tips when it is time for the drummer to start his solo, it is recommended that you shift your attention to the drummer, and resume your tipping during the exit piece. Certain drummers may otherwise take this as a personal insult. Also, it is not wise to go out into the audience, or solicit dance partners during this time, as the drum solo is truly for you only. Make the solo the highlight of your performance by respecting and connecting with your drummer.

Of course, all of this is easy for performers with years of experience. For newer dancers to learn to dance to drum solos, I would recommend first familiarizing yourself with the rhythms and their variations. The best way to learn to dance to drum solos, aside from having your own private drummer, is to listen and practice over and over again to recorded drum solos on popular belly dance CDs. Because there are sets of typical phrases or riffs that many drummers use, you will become familiar with these sounds and be able to recognize them in a live situation. Practice when you can to live musicians and drummers, at open dancing, drum circles or dance classes. For newer drummers, compose your drum solo by playing familiar rhythms that you can play strongly. Blend and alternate the rhythms in steady time and add variations. When possible, if a second drummer is available, have him hold a steady pattern (ie, Magsoum) as a foundation, allowing you to improvise or play variations and accents over the top directly to the dancer. This will give both you and the dancer something musical to work with and build upon. Usually the drum solo will build to a fast climax, a final rollout signaling to the dancer the eminent finale, concluding on a loud slap with the two of you poised like statues to the roar of the crowd……!

As in any relationship, communication is key between dancer and musician, and takes the form of both verbal and non-verbal. One of the ways dancers can communicate is to request their music to the band. A dancer that is familiar with the music and rhythms the band plays and can ask for them by name, may indeed receive a better performance by the band, whether intentional or not. A dancer can familiarize herself with a band or musician’s music by accessing their recordings, thereby being able to request specific songs or routines.

In addition to supporting the musicians, purchasing a CD will also give the dancer an opportunity to rehearse to the music she may very well be dancing to. Always a good idea, one would think.

In turn, the musician should ask the dancer of her musical requests, at least progression of tempos, and should always ask before playing odd rhythms such as 9/8, often present in Turkish music. While seasoned dancers may be proficient at uneven meters, newer dancers may find them awkward and overly challenging. Similarly, six beat rhythms (6/8) found in Persian and Moroccan music, should be approached with caution when working with newer dancers. Performers of middle-eastern music and dance should become familiar with all of the different rhythmic styles, as they are part of both folk and popular dance music. The idea is to offer music that is at the dancer’s level so that the musicians and dancers come together in harmony.

Non-verbal communication can also be helpful, and also works both ways. I have found the most effective way to do this is through covert hand signals, usually initiated by the dancer. Try to avoid mouthing requests, or vocalizing, as much gets lost in the translation. The most need signals are requests to change tempos, or end the routine. A request to speed up can be conveyed by motioning finger upward, and opposite direction to slow down. If a dancer wishes to end her routine for some reason, she can signal by waving her hand horizontally with flat palm down, or a time-out or “T” signal, or at last resort, the finger across the throat, if the situation becomes desperate. Again all of these hand signals should be done nonchalantly while facing the band, shielding them from the audience. It should be noted however, that since the song may have a course to run, it is important to respect that the tune may need to resolve before the dance is over.

In conclusion, I hope that these suggestions are helpful in making dancers feel more comfortable in dancing to live music, and in particular, drum solos. One final suggestion is for both dancers and musicians to go out and watch as many live shows as possible. One of the best ways to learn these skills is to watch other dancers and musicians, seeing what works and what does not. You may find out that you can pick up many ideas through emulation, as you go through the process of developing your own unique style. Music and dance are of course a form of creative expression and always open to personal interpretation.

Since ancient times, drummers and dancers have come together to celebrate, perform rituals, and participate in the most primal of forms of expression. Today, we are still blessed to be able to experience this primal magic, in a more refined style, which is middle-eastern music and dance. Which brings us to this age-old question: Do the Drummers make the Dancers Dance, or do the Dancers make the Drummers Drum?

And the answer is….. YES!!

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