Sharpening Your Dancer’s Edge:
Performing Without Choreography
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.
Ready for more?
- Improvisation: Method Behind the Madness
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.
- 9-11-07 How to Avoid the Executioner: A Journey into Creative Listening
Standardization can ruin an art form as it would the fashion industry—or any other endeavor based upon creative thinking.
- 9-15-06 The Taxim from a Dancer’s Perspective:Tarab or Tyranny?
Sometimes, these improvisations can be quite elaborate. The effect is somewhat like modern jazz and stays within the framework of the traditional maqam or maqamat.
- 1-11-03 Music to My Ears, How I Learned to Hear Like a Dancer
Musical interpretation is the single, most important skill that can elevate the Oriental dancer from the chorus line to the spotlight.
- 11-21-02 The Great American Belly Dance Veil Routine
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.
- 6-7-99 Becoming a Fanana of the Belly Dance–
Instead of a musical slave, I believe it is your calling as a dancer to interplay with the music.
- 6-15-04 Lace and My Muses Part 1: Egyptian Mummy Lace or “Assiute Cloth”
I fastened around my hips a white Assuite cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped designs.
- 6-3-12 Onstage In Search Of Our Dream: Historical American Dance Evolution
Nonetheless, sometimes, what gives me an inner pang of pain is our self-imposed “sin of omission” in honest reportage. Sometime what is not said is more important than what actually makes it into print or into the report.
- 4-30-12Teaching Down Under in 1988, A Bert Balladine Reminiscence: Australia & New Zealand
International seminars make you do more than you think you can when you see the dedication and sacrifices people make just to attend.
I left Cairo on September 9th, 2012, after a three-week visit to research the zar. I wrote the following article on my flight home – two days before the Libyan tragedy* and the violence outside Cairo’s US Embassy. As my plane circled the pyramids I had no idea Egypt would once again become the center of world attention.
- 9-18-12 The Glamorous Early Years of London Bellydancing:How Elaine Okba Became Fatin Shaukat in the 1960s!
Adel’s father was the person who modified the accordion by putting in quarter tones so that the instrument could play Oriental music, and he played in Nahit Sabri’s orchestra. When she came to London on a shopping spree she called us to have a meal with her.
- 9-18-12 Video sample #3 of Carolena! on the Community Kaleidoscope,
Carolena talks about coming up with the name of her troupe by talking with a clown. Her troupe members hated the name but the phone company loved it!
- 9-16-12 Gigbag Check #46 with Angelika on the CK
Angelika Nemeth lives and teaches in Southern California. She teaches at 3 colleges and also takes tours to Cairo, Turkey, and other countries. She mentions 2 costumes designers in Egypt who she buys her costumes from. This video was taken in February 2011 around the time of the revolution in Egypt and many of the tours sponsors were not sure if they were going to be able to go on their tours this year because of the unrest.
- 9-14-12 Video sample #2 of John Compton! on the Community Kaleidoscope,
John Compton talks about his introduction to Troupe Bal Anat at the Northern California Renn Faire in the early 1970s.
- 9-12-12 Gigbag Check #45 with Zahira
Conducted at IBCC in May 2012, Zahira is a scholar as well as a dancer who in this interview was fusing steampunk and pirate style with her bellydance.
- 9-10-12 From the Big Apple to the Peach State
In Augusta, options are much more limited, and dancers are more influenced by the Bellydance Superstars. My teaching experience at Serena Studios opened doors for me in Manhattan, but people in this area had never heard of Serena. I was trained to present a five-part cabaret show with live music, but here tribal improv prevailed.
- 9-7-12 Attending Workshops, 7 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Them
Sure, it was worth it to just soak in the presence of a Belly dance master for a few hours, get a good workout, and network with your Belly dance friends, but how can you make that time and money spent upon a workshop with a master teacher benefit you in the long run?
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