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Method Behind the Madness!

Choreographed doll

by Najia Marlyz
posted August 14, 2009

One of the biggest mistakes we western Bellydancers have made is presuming that the dancing to which Arabs refer as the “Eastern Dance” is a theatrical dance that ought to be choreographed as if it were a ballet, or that its steps and movements are traditional like those of the Greek Hasapiko, an Arabic Depke, or a Hawaiian Hula.

Our Dirty Little Secret:

Our reason for treating Bellydance as if it were the same as a western experience is that it is expedient to teach dances that have been choreographed, and sometimes, choreographies can turn a tidy profit for the choreographer!  Dance instructors can easily shift into automatic pilot once their notations are set on paper.  Students become either right or wrong in their adherence to the notated work. It is usually unnecessary for an instructor to call on individual dancers to think creatively or to feel the emotions that are inherent in the music arrangements when they are designated by the notations.  However, this is not to say that mental choreographing is not happening during an improvisation! If she is skillful in her dance technique, and absorbing the intent and structure of the music, an improvisational dancer is creating a coherent choreography in her head and heart without making notations on paper or on a computer while her dance is taking place.

Got it in writing?

To my way of thinking, precisely written choreographies are only necessary when troupes need coordinate their presentations or for new dancers who are learning to perform solo. However, hard copy notations should not be necessary in most fine solo performances.  Western dancers can substitute the use of several forms of a gentle, less westernized, subtler form of choreography until they get the hang of improvising. “Loose”, “Bare-bones” or “Sign-post” choreography may be an inherent part of Oriental dance that is destined for public performance, but it is generally written down only on the mind of the dancer rather than laid out formally in a notebook or computer.

Is it Dance Imperialism or Fusion? 

Ever since Oriental dance was introduced in the West decades ago, we dancers have imposed upon it our penchant for cultural takeover.  Our habitual imperialistic attitude toward dance springs from the naturalness of earnest wishing to make the entire dance form understandable for our western audiences and ourselves.  Our resulting presentations of overly complex combinations of steps, strange transitions, and inappropriate, uncomfortable choices are encouraged and made possible by the use of choreography for solos.  The resulting notated dances dull the sensibilities of those audience members who more reasonably expect the relaxed subtleties inherent in Arabic dance when performed by Arabs with Arabic music. Although Oriental dance has been flexible enough to have taken many forms suitable for varied social and theatrical uses, it rarely does well being a "mix and match" product with a little Turkish step here, a little Depke style there, a little Saidi flavor and Saudi dance tradition (thrown in for good measure), and overall—too much speed and complexity!  All of this inclusion of too much content in a short performance has the effect of creating a hodgepodge dance of divergent Middle Eastern cultures rather than the real “Danse Orientale” that makes gentle references to its roots. “Tight” choreography makes all this rapid-fire dancing feasible, but it will never succeed in making it Oriental, sensual, exotic, or meaningful.

A Proper Role for Choreography:

Rampant overuse of fusion creates a dance built like a brick ranch house with flying buttresses, supporting a thatched roof situated on a pseudo cotton plantation in Nova Scotia; it makes no artistic sense whatsoever!  Certainly, it makes no sense to the Middle Easterner who politely, (while suppressing his true feelings) says, "How flattering that you love our dance so much!" However, choreographed dances make it possible (even if nonsensical) to create such fusions and dancers can get more “bang for the buck” out of each and every little “boink!” of her sound-byte music. 

The short performance time allowances alone have tended to skew our dance form into something akin to a leopard’s dash for an antelope kill on the Savanna — it is fast, amazing, and over in mercifully short time, leaving the viewer breathless!

Proper Uses for Choreography in Bellydancing:

  • There is a definite place for choreography in the classroom when it is used to present technique, transitions, or new concepts and ideas in dance to the students, which they can integrate into their own dance language.
  • Choreography is a necessity in the presentation of group or troupe performances. 
  • Partial choreography, too, has its special uses.  It may be somewhat spontaneous, or memory-driven rather than written, and is composed while it is being danced.  It may be a rough, or a "bare-bones" outline, or even a vague scenario like a cartoon sequence made before a movie is filmed.
  • The term “Spontaneous/ Improvisational Dance” might give one the wrong impression about its definition. An Improvisation is dance that is not formally choreographed—that is, not written, not codified; yet it has a plan and a reasonable portrayal of events and a logical sequence. (Therefore, if you want to think of that planning as a method of notation, the result might be thought of as a special form of choreographed dance.)

In no way does a spontaneous dancer merely run wild, willy-nilly!  The western dancer should accomplish some sort of analysis of her music in lieu of the reality that she has not "grown up with the quarter-tones of Middle Eastern music coursing through her veins."  Once she has absorbed the music in some personalized understanding, it becomes possible to create a spontaneous dance movement or what is termed generally, an "Improvised” dance.

A good "Improv" does not materialize from the mysterious ethers; rather, it has an indelible foundation in the music.


If a teacher is using choreographed material in order to teach, one should not assume that this diminishes the particular items or concepts of dance that she intends to teach. In fact, it makes each subject larger and more interesting to many students because it introduces the class to new ways of combining movements or introduces a new choice of movements that dancers may not have imagined would work well in characterizing the music.  In this case, the teacher has the additional responsibility of teaching musical analysis techniques as well as dance steps and movements as tools to be used in the so-called “improvisation”. Lastly, the teacher is obliged to brand the teaching choreography as “The Kiss of Death” to perform before an audience!


The instructor must also teach how to plan types of dance movements that most accurately communicate whatever the dancer hears in the music that is worth highlighting (a method of loose choreography that is called “Sign-posting”. One can look for the major signposts or signals in the music that give it character and pre-plan specific movements and gestures that fit and enhance these musical characteristics without having to pre-plan or choreograph the entire selection. 

The music, once analyzed and sign-posted, becomes a roadmap for the dance, giving the presentation a sense of journey and experience for those who are the observers.

Is it a Troupe Rehearsal or a Dance Lesson?

While many instructors teach no choreography at all and others teach only their own preconceived dances to their troupes and their classes, it is sometimes the case that the troupes are the students and learning and rehearsing the choreographies are their classes or lessons!  Teachers leave would-be dancers confused about the subject of choreography, unable to use the tools of dance to create their own dances when they become the sole choreographer for the troupe. (However, they make sure to collect the class fees none-the-less, because they have to eat and pay their studio rent.)

Ready-made, One-size-fits-all Dance:

Sometimes, prominent instructors have misused videos; we dancers have collected videos since the early ’70s as a way to learn our dance from its original countries and to learn from its most famous performers.  Subsequently, the videos have been used, not only as a source of inspiration and style, but as a storehouse of ready-made dances conveniently served up for dance plagiarism.  One cannot wonder why dancers are hesitant to be videoed anymore! 

Who would want to create a dance for someone who is too unsure or uncreative to conceive of her own dance?  Students can waste their class fees for several weeks in a row, if the instructor is ruthless enough, perfecting the copied choreography of some famous dancer, step for step, and gesture for gesture.  What tragic misplacement of energy, money, and time! What total abdication of the instructor’s responsibility to give the new dancer a sense of power and personal accomplishment! 

The Step Collector:

I remember a relatively famous instructor (during the mid-1970s) who came to my old dance studio one summer.  She said she wanted criticism but was unable to perform any demonstration dance for me to critique because I did not own the correct recording of her designated “musical arrangement" and she had forgotten to bring hers.  She was an example of a skilled " step collector" rather than a real dancer even though she owned a dance studio and authored several dance books.  She attended classes to learn steps everywhere she traveled, so she was industrious.  She went to a choreographer to purchase a dance and hired a coach to perfect its over-all effect, but apparently, what she wanted from me was new steps that she hadn’t seen before on the east coast.

Zoe has very useful wings!She reminded me of a chicken; she was all colorful feathers with no useful wings. Sure, this chicken was unable to sustain flying in her dance, but she had a precise beak that was great for rooting out new steps and ideas and gulping them down very quickly like delicious bugs and insects. She refused to perfect any of my steps and movements during the lesson, preferring to regurgitate them at some later time for processing and perfecting, I imagine.  When she left, I felt drained and dissatisfied that she had not demonstrated any understanding of the concepts I had presented. Even though she paid my fee,
I felt “ripped off”. That was not my finest hour as an instructor, but it was one in which I learned a great deal.

A Major Teaching Key:

A teacher must awaken the student to structure and complexity in the musical form on more than just the percussive level that most frequently appeals to beginners. The rhythmic construction and recognition of rhythmic content of a musical arrangement is important, of course.  However, to be an outstanding dancer, one must portray the melodic content also.  The teacher does not have to be a professor of music to accomplish this feat.  She needs only an understanding of the basic elements such as sound and the absence of sound, pattern, and variation. Once the student is able to discern patterns and their variations, she becomes free to search for:

  • Tonality,
  • Color (emotional content),
  • Shading (force and style behind the movement to match the loudness or soft quality of the music), and
  • Texture (smoothness of instrumentation or roughness of percussive content)
  • Patterns (musical themes and their repeats.) 

Last, but perhaps most simply, the student may express the tonality of the melody.

  • Is the sound highly pitched?  Make a high gesture or projection. 
  • Does it cascade upward or downward?  Start low and rise up or vice versa. 
  • Does the sound wobble or vibrate quickly?  Match it with a shimmy or another movement that works by characterizing it! 

There are themes and variations, as well as layers of content in all music—Western or Middle Eastern.  Response to the percussive layer is only the beginning of the dance and though it is satisfying, it is never the whole story.

Relationship to the Instruments:

Response to tone and mood as well (as the characteristic voices of the instruments) is equally, if not more, important.  Each instrument has its own voice!  For instance, the characteristic voice of the oud is mellow. Yet, the dancer might shimmy with the vibration of its strings as well as match the musician’s strum with a strident gesture.  A violin has a voice that is more likely to sustain some notes, which calls for a sustained or elongated dance move.  The nai is breathy, which might indicate movement of the dancer’s upper torso, while the mizmar may cause one to move in a more intense full bodied and folksy manner.  Or not! 

The dancer transforms into artist and decides what means what in the music.  Teachers and professional dancers should be actively exploring music as the main content of advanced lessons and coaching sessions.

Advanced students should no longer expect their teachers to be teaching new dance steps at each lesson, and they certainly do not need a teacher to assemble little combinations or choreograph for them if they have been taught how to listen to the music, analyze it, and create for themselves.

Free dance time in class can allow the teacher to watch, comment, and troubleshoot; these moments can be the culmination and apex of the advanced dance lesson.

Author performs on cable tv showConveyance of Meaning:

One component of the dancer’s job is to make the message and intent of the music visual, but moreover, to translate that music into movement, to highlight and interpret it for the audience.  The artistic dancer causes the audience members see and feel whatever she chooses for them to experience in the music, much like a guided tour of an art gallery.  This is what clearly separates the riff from the raff in dancing. 

When a dancer becomes discerning about her music and can guide the audience to hear, through her dance movement alone, what otherwise they may have missed, she has created a powerful dance without relying on the help of program notes! 

She can consider herself a fananna (an artist, a star)!

Use of Ethnic Gestures:

A good coach and teacher will not instruct a dancer to make gestures in the dance that she does not fully understand.  Therefore, copying gestures from a foreign video or live workshop teacher can be a real hazard to believability.  If a famous foreign teacher comes to town to teach, lucky you, but beware!  His/her dance will be made charming and cute, captivating and enchanting, humorous and not altogether right for your personality by employing little gestures which are so easy to imitate and so difficult to "own"!  You will appear heavy-handed and false while he or she charms your socks off.  You will want to "do it too" (just like he did) but resist temptation and be yourself.  As hard as you may try, you will never become Egyptian or Turkish unless you go live there for twenty years, (but then you will not want to perform in public anymore).  Those little gestures are details that are not usually planned as part of a presentation but just happen because of feeling response to the music and the moment. Mimicry is not necessarily artistry.

Phony is as Phony Does!

When, for whatever reason, Middle Eastern dance soloists do need to choreograph a dance, it is rarely done in the minute detail of the Western tradition.  There is usually extra space left in to accommodate a bit of spontaneous expression.  In a quest for authenticity and correctness, we teachers have found accepted ways of shirking our obligation to actually reach out to the students and teach them the concepts of dance, preferring instead, to concentrate on trite combinations of steps and specific preplanned gestures just for the sake of expediency.  Sometimes we have acted like a governmental bureaucracy gone out of control, teaching patterns on finger cymbals that are rhythmic without being musical, steps that are irrelevant to our music, gestures we do not understand, and worst of all, we argue what to call each and every little movement.  (However, we advertise well and can produce a great resume!) 

Perhaps we need to return to Oriental basics, reviving our love and respect for the music and our belief in our own inner message.  Teachers must help students to revitalize that inspiration that compels us all to partner musical content rather than showcasing our latest dance bedla or our unbelievably disciplined technique. When all the dust settles, nobody comes to see a pretty girl do Bellydance steps; they come to see her have a good time, fusing her personality with the language of ethnic music.

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  1. Vilia (Atlanta)

    Jan 19, 2010 - 02:01:22

    Thank you, Najia, for this wonderful, common sense article.  I couldn’t agree more!

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