Gilded Serpent presents...

Sharpening Your Dancer’s Edge:

Performing Without Choreography

Bert & Dalilah- paint by number

by Najia Marlyz
Caravan Magazine 1990, volume 11, number 2—Theme rewritten for GS August 16, 2012
posted September 25, 2012

In the ‘50s, there was a hobby-craft oil painting craze that you may never have heard about called “Painting by the Numbers".  Fortunately, it died the anonymous death it so richly deserved, and the art world breathed a sigh of relief.  Now, however, we dancers appear to have invented a new threat to artistic expression, and concomitantly, a threat to female autonomy.

My late mentor, friend, and dance partner, Bert Balladine, once made the observation that a student could go to ballet class for 50 years, learning steps and technique, and never learn to dance a role in “Swan Lake” until the last days of rehearsal.   I opined to Bert that it is our specific desire and drive to upgrade the reputation of Oriental dance that is causing us to gravitate into the teaching and memorization of precise choreography; the idea of dance governed by choreography is more a western notion that was not inherent originally a part of the Middle Eastern dance solo.

The duplicity of the fail-safe mentality that demands choreography puzzles me: women are attracted to the beauty, freedom of expression, and spontaneity of Raqs Sharqi. Nevertheless, when they desire to excel in the form, they often choose to deal with it by mastering a choreographed set, replete with facial expressions and copying ethnic gestures, supposedly indicating depth of feeling and drama.  Worse yet, it comes to light often that these choreographies are created by someone else, and that someone else is usually a man rather than a woman.  What kind of satisfaction can that offer a creative woman?

Dancing choreography by someone else introduces an opportunity for the ultimate abdication in artistic, self-expression.

Nevertheless, the dancer or the printed program rarely credits where credit is due to her choreographer.  It is extremely rare to see a printed Belly dance program that credits the choreographer alongside the dancer.  Instead, the name of the choreographer usually goes unmentioned and the dancer takes all credit, collecting accolades for the performance as if it were her own work. Yet, in a whisper she says (or only thinks to herself), “I paid a lot of money for it; I hope nobody is videoing because I own it. It is mine!”

The art of choreography is acceptable, even welcome, when interacting with fellow dancers in a troupe performance, but personally, I fail to see the thrill or satisfaction of executing someone else’s creation for your solo.  This practice seems like resorting to painting “Bellydance by Numbers", if you will allow the metaphor, and although it could possibly be far more breathtaking than one’s own original efforts, it is a crutch that inhibits development of one’s own choreographic possibilities, self-expression and personal performance message.

I made allusion earlier in this article to choreography, threatening female autonomy through dance.  Lately, dancers have been flocking in droves to those few male dance teachers who are known to be capable of creating choreography for others and have been paying them sizable sums of money to produce choreographed dances that are supposedly reserved to the particular dancer for her use only.  Often these dances are quite good, but they lack a certain feminine understanding or message, and perhaps it is no accident that some women feel so inadequate that they would prefer to go to someone who could give them the "right dance” or "power in dance" through a “store-bought” choreography.  Who could do it better than those they personally believe to be more right and powerful than—a man?

A case may be made for the value of choreographies used in classroom situations as teaching tools and transitions between steps; however, teachers are increasingly using these stock routines as just so much busy-work to fill obligatory class time, without much on-going creative effort.  Pre-choreographed dance is a teacher’s friend: it wears out the students physically without wearing out the teacher mentally.  So students leave their lesson breathless, imagining they must have learned something for all their outpouring of energy.

Sadly, seldom does the teacher who is dependant upon choreography explain why she constructed the choreography as she did or discuss the artistic choices that may have been possible or even more effective—if the students of the class had been able to reproduce them. Sometimes choreography may be thought of as “the rising tide that raises all boats”; it is a failsafe for dancers that seem to have developed no performance “edge”. This concept of developing a performance edge always brings us to the discussion of music, musical content, dramatic content, and characterizations of instrumental voices within the arrangements. Identification of musical themes within a composition should evoke some esthetic response from a creative dancer that is far beyond a mere execution of technique conceived by another person as befitting a specific strain of music.

Another old adage I am sure you know says, "Give a man a fish and he will eat dinner, but teach him how to fish, and he will never go hungry."  I believe that teachers, without malevolent intent, often cheat their students, using a complex choreographed segment in class to show off their superior skills rather than teaching them to do it for themselves. In fact, I have heard them say so. However, all they are certain to accomplish with this ego driven tactic is an intimidated student.

Class time might be better spent making students aware of how to identify musical cues or dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of the individual dancers as well as the expressive quality of various types of body movement. A teacher should offer guidelines and explanations for why certain body movements produce coherent body language that works for the specific dancer.

I have been disappointed when observing potentially superior dancers varying their own dance personae beneath overly-technical dance debris that did not relate to her intent or to her dance message (the dancer’s own understanding of her music, and her own abilities to speak with her body).  My first rule of the Raqs Sharqi game is this: your job as a dancer is to translate the intent and spirit of the music to your audience.  You must long to make them "see the music" and feel it as you do—not to mime the lyrics or repeat what someone else has already done with it.  If you choose to dance the choreography of another, then you must also attune to the mentality of your choreographer in order to do justice to his or her artistic work, because it is his—you are no longer the artist.  You are a skilled technician, but surely, that is hardly why you began to Bellydance when you took your first lessons!  For many dancers, it seems their goal is merely to show off the classic and fit human form or the new costume; so, I guess, to those dancers, being an excellent technician or mimic should be enough wish fulfillment.

I think it is well past time for Bellydancers to mature as dancers—at least in making an effort to learn the artistic skill of choreographing for oneself, and then, taking it a step farther to making it spontaneous. Even though the word “choreography” originally meant writing (graphing) our dance (choreo), it needs to evolve in Bellydance as a mental note-taking rather than a formally written notation.  Once you have made a series of movements to express the content and intent of a particular musical theme, you must remember and repeat the same with the same, perhaps with subtle variations when the identical musical theme returns within the composition.  I have often quoted Bert Balladine as saying (because he was correct), “You have four roles as a Belly dancer—dancer, musician, actress, and choreographer—not necessarily in that order.”

He was exactly right when he impressed upon his dancers that Raqs Sharqi was at its strongest point when it was a spontaneous, impassioned expression of a personal attitude toward life, and I would add that each dancer should have one that is unique unto her alone.

If you wish to cling to the moth-eaten but proven ways of the western stage dance, the thrill and adrenalin-rush of spontaneous choreography will be missing for the most part. Perhaps it will be replaced in your dance life by a new thrill. That replacement thrill: the “flop-sweat” (fear of failure in a performance) and unnecessary anxiety generated when you hear your music fired up for another dancer appearing on the same program with you, who also learned the same choreography from your “personal choreographer”. What will you do then? If you have perfected the technique of spontaneous dance, you will reinvent what you were planning to do into a breathtaking, one-of-a kind for your audience—as well as yourself.


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  1. Shelley Muzzy (Yasmela)

    Sep 25, 2012 - 12:09:15

    Oh My God!  BRAVO, Najia!  On evey level, so well stated, so thorough.  You have captured the essence of what our dance is about and beautifully stated why choreography is a stale crutch for a vibrant, individual art form.  Thank you so much.  This should be a must-read for every dance student.

  2. Leyla Lanty

    Sep 25, 2012 - 02:09:47

    Bravo and Hear, Hear!!!  This should be required reading for all belly dance students/performers/professionals/teachers!

  3. Zumarrad

    Sep 25, 2012 - 04:09:00

    To be fair, many of the choreographers out there are by women; most of the belly dance choreographies I have learned certainly are. I am a sucker for choreography because it teaches me new “dance words” and “dance sentences”, but I agree – being able to improvise is the ultimate art for us and it’s important that teachers push dancers out of that choreography box.

    I wonder if the rise in choreo is in part due to the lesser involvement of bands, and the fact that most bellydancers are not working dancers learning their trade night after night to ever-changing live music? Easier to learn a choreo in class and have it looking OK with a lesson or two a week, or to practice a choreo lots of times at home to a CD…

  4. Sierra

    Sep 25, 2012 - 06:09:37

    THANK YOU!  I started dancing during the time when there were no choreographed dances; except if for a dance routine with others in a troupe.  And the choreography was made by the teacher on her interpretation of the music and the story she wanted to portray.

      We were taught steps, the different rhythyms, transitions, movements etc. but as a young dancer of only 4 months, my teacher threw me into the middle of the studio dance floor and told me to JUST DANCE…to whatever she had put on.  That was my main style forever.  This is what truly makes a dancer…just as you say….if you are faced with live musicians, you better know your stuff and how to respond to what at that moment is being played for you!

    Bravo for putting into excellent words…the difference between dancing from feeling and solo vs. choreographed wannabe’s who as they perform in mass dance shows begin to draw a yawn and disinterest in watching everyone look alike, just different costumes.    

  5. Baraka

    Sep 26, 2012 - 10:09:00

    Excellent points made, Najia.  As a fellow “old-timer” I know well how it was to perform to whatever was being played rather than doing choreo.  And it challenged us, made us learn good technique and expressiveness.  

    When I was still able to teach, one of the workshops I got the best feedback on was one on HOW to choreograph.  Yes, I would pick a piece of music to start with, but I would then divide the group into smaller working groups and challenge them to make their own dance.  They would learn how to listen and “map” what they heard, they could visualize the shape of the piece and find ways to interpret that shape, and they could identify highs and lows, transitions and “meat” and select from their movement repertoire the ways to best express that.

    Boy, I loved teaching that workshop and seeing all the completely individual ways things would turn out, and students loved to stretch their minds as much as their bodies.  It wasn’t a workshop that left everyone dripping sweat with a memorized dance, but it got them directly involved in the process of making dances.  Somewhere in a box there are all the teaching materials for that workshop – wish I had video of some of them!

    If it’s not YOUR dance, you’re shorting yourself as an artist and as an intelligent and feeling person. 

  6. Anthea Kawakib

    Sep 28, 2012 - 07:09:23

    I agree, technical dancing is usually dead dancing. I’d only point out that any teacher who doesn’t know how to relate her choreography to students’ needs in terms of concepts and techniques is missing the point of teaching in the first place. After all, students go to workshops (we hope) to LEARN about dance from another individual’s perspective. Or, to socialize and network with other students, or even just bask in the near proximity of a dance idol, which is fine too.

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