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Sound-Byte Bellydance, Part Two

by Najia Marlyz
posted May 12, 2011
Part 1: here

In a previous article, I said I had come to the sad realization that “Sound-byte Bellydancing”, produced by the requirements of competitions and Bellydance festivals with their seemingly endless lists of dancers over a weekend (or just a long, long evening), have commanded a trend for change in the look of our entire Bellydance format. At least, here in America it has, but I am confident it is not irreversable. 

The apparent need for frenetic, foreshortened dancing has helped accomplish this odd phenomenon of change because of, and in response to, the demands of each event’s rules.

More insidiously, many of the winners of these proliferate contests have gone on to become dance teachers and, naturally, the winners share with their students the secrets of their success, namely, how to dance from the starting-gate at full speed and impress audiences within an abnormally (sometimes ridiculously) short time-span. Mini-sets are not the only cause of frantic dance being jammed into musical arrangements that have, themselves, been cruelly hacked to death, but I suspect them of eating away at the foundation of performance and stage technique for Bellydance that I believe must include communication of the sensual and emotional translation of the contents of musical arrangements.

Originally, we professional Bellydancers had longer sets in productions in which the use and intent of Bellydancing was different than it is now. 

We used to say, “There is no such thing as a ‘star’ in Bellydance” and we said it with resolve and conviction because, if you were dancing with a live Arabic orchestra or band, you were not a star but an integral part of the whole presentation; the music was the “star”.

You, as a Bellydancer, were an entertainer, part of a team, and were expected to portray the mood and intent of the music as well as its lyrics; you considered yourself a skilled accompanying artist who knew what was coming next (even if you had never heard it before) because you could feel or intuit where the music led.  You had stamina, and you had an innate love of the music that made your hearing exceptionally specific; you trained your body to respond to the sounds, themes, and rhythms in ways that expressed the dramatic message within the musical arrangements, each painstakingly created by the musicians/composers.

In another article of 2003 entitled Dancing Inside Out, I explained what I mean by the term “dancing from your inner core”: Beginning movement inside your spine, moving it seamlessly to your exterior and beyond.  Although many dancers responded that it resonated with them and that they understood and agreed with what I had written, it appears to me that some did not.  It would be much easier to show you what I mean if we were face-to-face, but since that is not possible in the written format, I will attempt to explain it in more detail, in hopes that you will try dancing its essence in your studio and begin to use directives of dancing from the core in your next performances.

Martha Graham in 1948 mod by GSYour Dance Core

The core of your dance, also called the “seat of the dance” by the pioneer modern creative dancer, Martha Graham, is the place where all dance movements ought to begin and end.  The location of this core is in the solar plexus, beneath your heart, en-caged by your ribs. Understanding this one point can lead to a vast difference in your dance eventually, if you remember to use it. Back in the day of the American hippies, instructors often claimed that the dance was more “laid-back and earthy” than other existing dance forms and that may have been true comparatively. However, instructors told us that the Bellydance was a dance of the hips and that the rhythm of the hips was paramount; in fact, many teachers said that the dance was rightly dedicated predominantly to the hips .  It wasn’t until I saw a live Egyptian Bellydancer perform in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel that I realized that the hips were only a small part of the dancer’s expressive tools of artistry.

Locating and Using Your Dance Core

Turn on your favorite slow taxim music, something that evokes emotion. Sit on a chair or on the floor cross-legged and close your eyes. Imagine you have no arms and no legs, but feel compelled to move and dance inside yourself in spite of your missing extremities.  In the section of your body above the waist, framed by your ribs, move with the music to the full extent of your spine’s reach. Pay attention to the prolonged sounds of some notes and the quickness of others. In response to the taxim, you can slide, hit, and shimmy your dance core to match the musical changes in rhythm and melody. You can rise and fall as the music rises and falls. You may find this harder to accomplish than you might imagine because the music will seem to force you to pick and choose between the percussive elements of the rhythms or its melodic content.

We’ve all heard dance teachers say that you have to become the music.  It is a poetic and mostly inspiration admonition, but in reality, you are not now, nor will you ever “be the music”! You can neither “do” nor “be” all of an abstract idea! As a dance artist (fannana), you have to make many decisions about what to interpret and how to accomplish your interpretation. You are a translator or conveyor of the meaning of the music.  Your intent will be to make your audience hear and feel what you can hear in the music, choosing what is most important to your mind and heart in order to give the people in the audience visual clues to new things happening in the music (that they might otherwise miss).  Among these often over-looked musical incidentals are rapid scale runs or cascades at the ends of the musical phrases and sentences, accents, grace notes, dialog-like commentary between instruments, etc. These details are the stuff of dancing, making it greater than simply applying combinations of steps, or following the relentless beat of the rhythms.

Learning to Release Your Movements

“All dance movements should begin and end in your spinal column.”
Bert Balladine, c.1970

Next in your studio practice, you can re-apply your hands and arms, but take care not to dance only with your extremities just because you now have freed them to move once again! (Do not forget that your fingers are hanging out there, decorating your hands; however, a pretty hand confirmation is not enough, while making relentless, even though graceful, hand motions result in distracting, detracting impact.)  Make each movement originate in your core, and let it find an exit in a path along your spine to your shoulder, down your arm to your wrist. Move your wrist, and let the movement slip on out the ends of your fingertips like small tingles, or sometimes, unforgettable bolts of lightening into your audience, letting go of the energy at the last moment possible before the music resumes.  “Letting go” is a release of the energy, much like flicking drops of water off your fingertips. It is subtle and is a completion of the movement; however, don’t forget that you have to return your attention back to your core.  The effect is like a gentle, “Oh!” or sigh. (It is apparent to me that few dancers have a clear sense of when a movement is complete or when, instead, it just seems to trail off into a waffling mess of extraneous movements.) Without being mindful of your core, movements look “empty” or fake.

Layering Smooth & Percussive Movements

There you are with your arm fully extended and you have “reached back inside yourself” both mentally and somewhat physically. Now you can continue to make either a percussive or smooth movements, originating, once again, from your spinal column.

Some dancers are skilled enough to layer a percussive movement over the top of a non-percussive movement (or vice-versa), and it can be quite impressive, providing they don’t make a habit of it, thereby infusing their dance with a strange affectation. It is important not to get carried away with the concept and make your movements overly complex because the invariable result is confusing to watch–like a three ring circus.

releasing the ballLearning to Project and Collect Energy

Create antennae with your extremities; regard your extremities as antennae that transmit and gather energy from you to your audience and vice-versa. Using them with variable strengths and uneven strokes, you can begin to push and pull your energy core out to your audience or even, in some instances, into the past or the future if you have a lot of imagination! This is all part of your energy projection and it operates somewhat like the ocean waves on the shore; it is not all one size, nor all one speed.  Now, if you decide to move forward or backward (any direction) you need to push or pull that movement traveling from your spinal column in your dance core, not from your arms or feet!

At this point, when teaching in my dance studio, I usually ask my dance client to get up from the floor exercise and perform with a taxim for me, being acutely aware of her dance core.  Each taxim should begin with a tension-rich posture or pose; then, the hands and arms begin the dance, setting (or creating) the mood of the sensual movements.  However, it should be clear to you by now that these movements actually begin in the core even though you are making your fingers and hands, the palms and wrists, elbows and shoulders carry the music to the audience. Likewise, you must give and take in life and also in dance.  As much as you perfect your ability to project energy outward to your audiences, dancers must learn to gather energy from their audiences as well.  Simply projecting energy outward is often perceived as the dancer being overly aggressive and at the same time, feels closed and impersonal.

You can expect to feel thwarted in your ability to dance while you are seated, but did you know that in the tradition of the Bellydance there were dancers who actually performed at least part of their dance while seated in a chair?  My dance partner, Bert Balladine, told me about this tradition of chair dancing and showed me some dancers who were dancing while seated on fancy gilt chairs in some old Egyptian black and white films.  I thought I would probably never see such a performance outside of the movies, but in fact, I did see a seated-in-a-chair dance by a dancer named “Boosie” one year in the eighties when I was in Cairo. It was impressive!

A Word about Isolations

Rigid isolations, as they were taught back in the ’60s, would be counter-productive when one is performing to an astounding taxim. Sometimes, teachers take things out of the equation when trying to limit or simplify their instructions to dancers; it is a method for breaking down the movements to ease learning. Back in the sixties and seventies, there was a mistaken impression that all our Bellydance movements always had to be “isolated” from all other parts of the body to be correct technique, when in fact, isolation of the body parts was a teaching mechanism through which dance instructors (usually working with student dancers unfamiliar to classical dance concepts) attempted to show the student how to move specific sets of muscles to obtain an effect or improved quality of movement.

Isolation was not necessarily meant to be the end product; it was a means to clarify movements that were meaningful or useful.

Create “Breath” Within Your Movements

Since you are not a machine, when you take a deep breath, air is sucked into your lungs with force and then slows; it does not have just one speed.  As you dance, your must allow your movements to breathe, too, in order to give it a quality of life.  This means that small parts of the movements may be more forceful and quick (often at the inception of the movement) and slower, prolonged and gentle at the end.  For example, if something in the music says, “Oh!” then you will want to punctuate your movements accordingly to convey that interjection, whether it is an expansion or a contraction.

Observe Movements in Nature

Think about the push or pull of a wave; it is not one speed, and it has an almost visible resistance, as well as an irresistible urge to gather force and move again. Many dancers forget to use resistance in their movements to give a sense of tension and drama; without these important moments of tension, once again, dance movements seem to be devoid of meaning and the dancer appears to be making a poor copy of something that once impressed her in another dancer’s performance. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen dancers wagging their derrières in the air, a la Dina, after Dina recorded that movement on a video! Please excuse me for noticing that what was cute on Dina doesn’t necessarily rest well in the costumed derrière of Salome from Iowa…

An Exercise for Continuity-Imagining A Ball of Energy

Make me (or yourself) “see” an imaginary ball in your two hands; dance with it, and roll it along one arm, across your shoulders to the other arm and back up again.  Next, imagine it lodged inside your torso, sitting in your dance core.  As if you were a brightly lit, finely balanced, and noisy pin-ball machine, give the ball a little shove and let it reverberate off of your heart, lungs, bones, and pelvis, finding its way to your toes. Balance and bounce it lightly there, then gently, kick it away. 

Your imaginary ball will be rolling and hitting, creating movements that are alternately smooth and percussive. When you dance, you need to move as if you had this ball of dance energy working inside your body constantly; each part of you activates in turn, and your dance will look smoother in transitions and sharper in accents, making sense in a way that making random movements (and choosing random locations for them) cannot.  Using randomness in Bellydance causes the performance to become annoying to witness because it is hard to read. When no pattern emerges from repeated movements, the dance seems to work against the patterning (or themes) inherent in the music, and apparently, the dancer can bore even herself! 

Resistance and Believability

Imagine yourself dancing inside of a huge plastic jug full of gel or detergent.  Pull and push your movements through the viscosity with conviction! It is like pretending to be Marcel Marceau, the famous mime, in his imaginary glass box, but in this case, you must have strong imagery and make your audience believe that the air around you is actually thick and resistant with sensuality emanating from your core.  When you push your hand forward, place your strength through the heel of your palm rather than poking the air with your fingertips. When you get to the end of your reach, you can give the ball of energy that rolled up your arm a final shove with the joints of your middle finger. These details in quality of movements are noticeable from a distance and give your movements believability and life.

Najia collects her ball of energyPatterning & Repetition

To give your dance the flavor of its Middle Eastern origins, you can use this simple image: if you were designing your dance in the same way that a carpet artisan might design a beautiful and intricate Middle Eastern carpet, you would chose a limited color pallet. Likewise, while dancing, you need to limit your movements to those that fit, enhance, and communicate the colorful content of the music and dramatic content you have chosen.  When designing a carpet, the artisan would use the chosen colors repeatedly in order to reveal the pattern, and as an artisan of the colorful Bellydance, you must repeat your steps and movements enough times so that your patterning emerges in the same way that a musician uses musical themes to present his ideas using the language of music. Pattern counts, and you cannot create a pattern without using repetition consistently.

A Few Words of Caution

  1. It is sometimes better to fore-go the Western style of two-on-the-right and two-on-the-left mentality or making one-of-these and one-of-those movements; this attempt to balance sides with symmetry does not result necessarily in balance for your dance composition. Bellydance allows for, and thrives on, asymmetry.
  2. Additionally, a Bellydancer who is in charge of her own composition needs to be cautious about displaying the entire contents of her dance repertoire in every single dance. The dance takes time to develop; like a Bach Fugue; it repeats and changes bit-by-bit as it builds to another theme, repeats themes, and finally comes to a point at which its tensions resolve.  If you can hear this happening in the music, it makes sense that your dance movements would follow the musical content, letting content take precedence over your pride in your fascinating prowess as a skilled dancer and the owner of a great, big, heavy bag of fancy dance shtick.
  3. Extemporaneous composition in dance does not mean that it is random in nature. If you are dancing extemporaneously, then you must have an intense focus on your music and a good memory for the movement combinations you have used when the similar musical themes first emerged in the score.
  4. Drama and emotion in dance is not dependent upon miming the lyrics although it helps to know what the (foreign) lyrics are actually saying so that you do not embarrass yourself.  You do not have to stick doggedly to a coherent plot; you need only to create a mood and limit the gestures to those that make sense to you and your audiences. Do not rely on the cloning of coy Egyptian (or other) gestures that may have little or no meaning to your mostly non-Arabic audiences. 
  5. As long as you rely on your own observations and your own interpretations of dramatic musical content, nobody will groan with embarrassment over your cute, little cheer-leader-like kicks and leaps or your too-large-for-the-room incomprehensible gestures, nor will they think that you have momentarily come down with a pain in the head or stomach or that your pet has died because your face has turned to sadness for no apparent reason.

Observe Rests Written into the Music

“Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.”
–Jackie Chan, The Karate Kid, 2010

I was astonished to hear this bit of wisdom in the latest Karate Kid movie! Yet, there it was: written into a film script! It is a law of movement in dance that few dancers appear to value or recognize anymore.  In order to observe it, you must force yourself to come to a complete halt and finish your gesture or line of movement when the music rests (without dropping your dance posture or intent). You cannot allow even your hand to waver! In fact, you need to hold a small amount of tension in your musculature in order to make your dance remain alive when it is at rest, and you are remaining still. Therefore, wax on, wax off, Grasshopper! Practice stopping, without allowing death of movement to overcome your energy. When dancers stop moving, the energy should remain alive.

Recognize The End

“One of the most difficult things to determine is when a piece of art is finished.”
–Felix Ruvolo, UC Berkeley Art Professor, c.1959

Just because Oum Kalthoum sang for two or three hours and her Arabic audiences loved her for it, does not mean that a dancer should plan the neverending set that allows her to remain on stage, dancing until her repertoire bag is empty of all her favorite moves.  Be a benevolent queen or goddess of dance and leave while you are still welcome! Even the most fabulous dance has to end; so, if you continue dancing for ten or fifteen minutes more, doing “just one more song”, a second drum solo, or just another cruise around of the stage, muddies the water rather than enhancing your dance. There is such a thing as saturation in a dance presentation.

“Once you get enough of somethin’, kain’t nobody put no more on you, no matter how good it is!”

–Prince, Berkeley, 1956

It is possible to overstay your welcome and ruin your presentation. Force yourself to finish and leave the stage before your audience overdoses on the drug of your charisma! Consider yourself warned that ending is hard to do when applause and audible gasps that the audience gives you are so addictive.

Najia Marlyz

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  1. surreyya

    May 12, 2011 - 11:05:17

    Again – wonderful insight, common sense and brilliance.  I wish more dancers would follow these words.  Another hit Najia!

  2. miss willow

    May 13, 2011 - 06:05:07

    hamduallah! thank you and thank you for having the insight, discipline and desire to share these meaningful and timely observations about what ‘ails’ the dance and offering some genuine solutions to find our core…i certainly hope many will find the meaning in the journey of becoming the music, not fearing the experience of being expressive and remembering that our dance is both an act of sharing and of humility! aloha!

  3. Ariadne

    May 14, 2011 - 12:05:18

    I am a student dancer and I have felt that something was seriously missing from what I have been seeing and learning and you just illuminated what it was perfectly.
    Thank you.

  4. Sadira

    May 14, 2011 - 07:05:37

    Beautifully written.  Exquisitely pieced together Najia!!!!

  5. Barbara Grant

    May 16, 2011 - 04:05:38

    “Isolation was not necessarily meant to be the end product; it was a means to clarify movements that were meaningful or useful.”
    This is such an important point that I’m glad it was bolded in the article. How many times have I heard belly dance described as “the art of isolation?” Too many to count ! The biggest problem I had as a student dancer was trying to put “isolations” together into some form that might resemble “a dance,” because I was proceeding under a false assumption. Sadly, there are still many teachers today who make the same statement I heard many years ago. Hopefully with this article, some of the misperception will be corrected.

  6. Shelley Muzzy (Yasmela)

    May 17, 2011 - 09:05:54

    As always, well done!  Thank you for giving us some concrete adivce on how to avoid the “I can hit every drum beat in the entire 20 minute drum solo I am going to subject you to” and “look at how amazing I am who cares about the music” attitudes that prevail in today’s dance scene.  You are sensitive, firm and well spoken (or written), an important contribution to our sometimes chaotic art.

  7. Nepenthe

    May 26, 2011 - 06:05:31

    I love each one of Najla’s articles and think she should write a book!  This particular article is so full of things to think about.

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