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Gilded Serpent presents...
The Taxim from
a Dancer's Perspective:

Tarab or Tyranny?
August 27, 2006
by Najia Marlyz

Taxim” or “Taqaseem” (however you prefer to transliterate the word into your own language) is an Arabic musical term that refers to a special section of a musical arrangement in which a musician displays his mastery of the technique of playing his instrument.  Flexible in length, and primarily featuring one instrument more prominently, the taxim is improvised.  Far from being random in structure, Arabic taxims are comprised of one or more basic structures, each called a “maqam”, which acts something similar to a scale within a key of music. Each maqam has its own name and general tone or mood.  As the musician plays a maqam as part of a taxim, it is his option to improvise around the part of the form he has reached, the process is much like taking little side tours to museums, historical sites, and shopping on a vacation trip.  Inevitably, he must get on with his progress along the set itinerary.

Though it would be nice if every dancer knew exactly what maqam she is hearing, it is not essential to recognize it specifically or even know its name; that is the business of the musician.  The dancer has only to feel the impetus of the music to anticipate when the music will pause, when it will resume, and with what strength. The process similar to reliance on the gut-level instinct one develops that enables one to hum along with a tune one has never experienced before.

It helps to consider the instrument that one is hearing.  If it is a wind instrument, for instance, the dancer knows that the musician activates it with a breath and that the exhalation can only be sustained for a finite period.  In other words, the musician is going to have to stop blowing if he is to take another breath.

Some musicians who have played a wind instrument for many years have unbelievable capacity to take in air and to budget its release beyond what would seem normal for an ordinary person.

The dancer, then, must be aware of her musician’s ability in this regard. Musicians do not merely stop for another breath however!  They pause after each section much like placing a period at the end of a musical sentence; in a sense, they create punctuation and organization to music much like one does in speech.

In general, knowledgeable dancers expect most maqamat (plural of maqam) to proceed with a particular ascent along a sort of “scale” and resolve with a decent.  Most accomplished dancers are intuitive about music; it should not be a mystery to the dancer where this musical meander is heading or where it will resolve ultimately.

The dancer has to be familiar enough with the different forms of taxim not to step out of taxim’s flight without her parachute, ending her dance before the musical passage has landed!

A major concern for a dancer will be the length of time of any taxim lasts. This is a matter that is dependant upon the virtuosity of the musician as well as the dancer’s ability to match it. In some cases, a dancer is able to add fuel to the fire of the musician’s presentation. The advent of electronically produced music has muddled the historical clarity of interpreting music for the modern day dancer in this regard! 

Although (in some ways) electronically produced music has expanded possibilities for some musicians, it has changed the traditional relationship between dancer and musician. The dancer’s ability to easily anticipate pauses in the taxim played on a wind instrument is somewhat compromised: nowadays, your “wind instrument” may be, in reality, a keyboard synthesizing the sound of a nai, zourna, clarinet, or other wind instrument.  If this is the case, the musician playing the keyboard does not need to stop for breath and you, as a dancer, must accustom yourself to this musician’s tuneful whims along the road he travels to the destination of his taxim!

Therefore, because the instrument and its player is controlling the actual musical taxim, the dancer is obliged to improvise her dance as the musician improvises around the traditional form.  Many, perhaps even most of the time, there is no percussion in use behind, or accompanying, a taxim.

Nonetheless, the dancer should not assume that there is no rhythm in a taxim.

A skilled musician has an innate sense of rhythm that emerges subtly within his taxim much as the “beat” emerges within captivating poetry. 

It stands to reason that the more dancers are familiar with the various Arabic maqamat, the easier it will be for her to anticipate the musical progression and dance accordingly.  A skilled dancer will suspend movement when sound is suspended, sustain it when sounds elongate, increase intensity as sounds become louder, or more rapid as the musician increases speed. “Where is the artistry in that?” you might ask. My answer is:

A dancer is artistic in her choice of her repertoire of movements that give life, breath, force, and special meaning to the particular sounds she perceives and the images they create within her mind!  

My mentor, Bert Balladine always had a favorite saying:  “You have nothing to dance about until you are at least 30 years old!”  That statement always irritated the younger dancers because, usually, they had no idea what the years between 20 and 30 could do toward accumulating memories and experiences that add passion and conviction to one’s dance.  Those memories and experiences form a wellspring of mind images that emerge from musical moods and the strains of a heartfelt taxim. In turn, the images compel or ease the appropriate choice of movements a dancer might fit to the improvisation.

Nowadays, few Oriental dancers excel in the art of imagery—and therefore, improvisation.  One apparent cause of this lack in performing artistry lies in the attitude that choreographed dance is superior and more respectable than extemporaneous dance.

Improvised dance accompanying improvised music does not lend itself to rehearsals and preset staging for purposes of lighting for theatricals and moviemaking.

Additionally, the skill of improvisation in dance is deceptively difficult to perform with polished movement; thus, many dancers shy away (whenever possible) from placing themselves in the position of dancing with even a short taxim. 

In many aspects, dancers have reduced the art of Oriental dancing to the same sort of “sound-bite” pace political campaigns, and news-media reportage have become.

A contributing factor in the apparent overlooking, avoidance and fear of performing the taxim is that dancers, these days, try to launch their careers in Oriental dance by winning series of competitions that have neither time nor atmosphere for the patience and serenity of the subtle art of the taxim. In order to win, dancers begin with high-energy music that builds in intensity from that high point to a more raucous and climactic end. However, it is sad to note that some musicians have limited skill with their instruments, and the need for a taxim disappears in the slap-dash playing of whatever tunes he seems to have mastered currently.

True collaboration between the dancer and the musician playing the taxim creates a superior performance.  Similar to the dance that emerges along with the drum solo, the dancer expresses what she hears and the feeling (tarab) it produces.  Her skill at doing so may cause a musician (who is open for such repartee) to sustain portions of his taxim through improvisational playing. 

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.

In some cases, more than one maqam blends into one taxim. The resulting give-and-take produces Oriental music and dance at its best and can be breathtakingly captivating. 

The dancers’ movements with taxim are not necessarily all slow—they can become dynamic and fast paced if that is where the particular maqam leads. She will, through intimate association with this sort of improvisation, dance within a set framework that has become familiar to her with much experience in listening.  Her gut-level instinct for the resolution of the journey of a typical taxim through a maqam will guide every move; the more experience she has, the more competently she will dance, displaying polish and certainty.  With just a few instances of success at this type of dance improvisation, often a dancer will become enamored by its seductive adrenalin and feeling of inspiration. Few who achieve dance success in this fashion continue enslavement to choreographed performances.

Often these days, a current dancer ignores the short taxim passage that begins many arrangements, preferring to make her grand entrance with her sagat ringing out and her veil ablaze with movement.  Most likely, dancers who include the taxim in a set will request that one or more of them are included after each popular song or medley of familiar tunes.  In that case, the taxim becomes a sort of mood change or buffer zone between musical arrangements of traditional or modern tunes.  However, we might also recognize its contribution to an audience’s relaxation and its retreat from bombardment by constant, irritating high-energy musical sound and dance movement.  Audiences thrive and respond positively to variety and contrast. As much as in any other part of a dancer’s artistry in storytelling and drama, a taxim provides excellent opportunities for both.

All stories, plays, poems, songs, and dances need discernable beginnings, middles and ends; the taxim can become sensuous veil dancing, dramatic and fascinating floor-level dance, or simply mesmerizing movement patterns demonstrating a sort of unearthly, unreal, soiree with whatever persona a dancer has created for stage her presentations. 

At this level of performance, one can readily see that a recorded taxim is not in its proper element when used for a troupe dance or as a mere background noise for a preset choreography.

Some suggestions for dance improvisation with either a live or recorded taxim:

  • Learn to connect with the source of all dance movement generated from your solar plexus along your spine  (the site of the core of your dance).
  • Learn to discern between movements generated by your intellect and movements that start and end in your dance core.
  • Learn how to listen to all genre of music analytically and to transfer your understanding of the form and resulting imagery to your dance core so that the music becomes a guide and your inspiration without causing you to become its mind-numbed slave.
  • Strive to become an entity involving and interpreting, but not “becoming” the music. You, the musician, and the music he creates, have the potential become greater than the sum of all these parts—without either of you becoming the dominant entity.
  • Stay focused on the instrument, and do not wander thoughtlessly into any accompanying percussive sounds or intermittent companion instruments.
  • Be cognizant that the solo improvisation is the musician’s moment of stardom—his time to bask in the spotlights and be recognized—while you have the floor (mostly alone and non-stop) for your entire performance.  Your use of proper stage manners will cause your audience to admire your dance persona with more conviction, especially when some musicians are overcome, momentarily, by the searing heat of the spotlight and your amazing virtuosity expressing the music you have created together!
  • Never let your audiences forget that you are aware of their presence and that your dance is for them; they are not there to become voyeurs to your inner prattling.  Though you do not have to look into their eyes directly, you can acknowledge them in your gestures and observe them in your peripheral vision.  If you cannot see them because of the lights, pretend that you can!  After all, remember that one important element of dancing is being a competent and believable actress! 


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