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Gilded Serpent presents...
Learning the Language of Belly Dance
by Shems

Learning to belly dance is like learning a new language. Just like a baby learns how to shape her mouth to create new words, a dance student learns how to shape her body to express herself through dance. A child masters language as she grows and as she matures to adulthood eventually uses language to communicate more fully and even inspire. 

A dancer’s path should be the same, moving from technique to refinement to pure inspiration.

In my struggle to progress as a dancer and instructor, I’ve sought to define the more abstract elements that move a dancer beyond the ordinary.  Some of these things can seem difficult to quantify, but they are essential for great dancing.  Below is my perspective on how we complete ourselves as performers and artists using language as a metaphor.

1) Learning Words = Movement and Technique
 A baby learns to form words before she can speak. A dancer learns to execute movements, to connect her mind and body, before she can put those movements in a dance. Each new step, movement, or isolation increases a dancer's vocabulary. Executing each movement properly is like pronouncing a word properly. Like some words are more difficult to pronounce than others, some movements in dance are more difficult to execute.

Often dancers who master some difficult movements begin to think of themselves as very advanced dancers, but like a child who has learned some complex adult words; these dancers may not yet understand how to use them properly in a dance sentence. Moreover, they are even further from creating a truly meaningful dialogue.

A strong technical foundation of movements builds a dancer’s vocabulary. This foundation is how a dancer begins to learn the language of dance.

2) Building Sentences and Beginning to Communicate = Musicality
Once a child knows a few key words she will start using them in phrases and full sentences. She will also begin to hold conversations.  Equate this to musicality.  When a dancer learns to have discourse with the music through movement, her story begins to unfold.

Musicality begins with dancing on beat. This beat is the rhythm of the language, its regular cadence.  A dancer wants to avoid stuttering stops and starts. She wants to emphasize the right syllables. She needs to learn how to place her words in the right order to create a complete sentence: capitalizing at the beginning and punctuating at the end.  She needs to understand where a musical phrase begins and ends.

As in language, listening and responding appropriately when spoken to are necessary for good communication.  Listening and responding appropriately to specific rhythms is a fundamental tool for a belly dancer.  But there is more to the music than the rhythm alone, a dancer learns when to travel, when to move in place, when to transition, when to accent and when to pause by listening to and understanding the full complexities of the music. These things indicate her awareness of sentence structure, grammar and punctuation.  She also needs to be noticing dynamics in pace and volume of the language.  When the music speaks loudly and quickly, the dancer responds with robustness and energy, when the music whispers the dancer responds with daintiness. 

As in any good conversation, the dancer must know who is talking to her, in this case what instrument.  She then customizes her response distinctly when she is spoken to by a qanun, a violin, an oud, or a clarinet, just as she would if spoken to by different people.  If she is sensitive to it, she will even hear the emotion in each instrument’s voice and reflect that in her response.  The emotion behind the music in Oriental dance is directly related to its maqam as well as the feeling that the musician pours into his work.

In addition, the dancer needs to understand the colloquialisms of the musical language being used and use colloquial expressions in response.  She does this by recognizing the cultural context of the music, its instruments and rhythms, in reference to particular regions, dances and rituals, and then selecting the appropriate steps and character. For example, a dancer may hear a Khaliji rhythm in the context of an Oriental piece.  If she knows the way Khaliji rhythms are danced to in the Khaliji region, she can make reference to that in her dancing to enrich her piece.  This awareness can become even more literally displayed when actual lyrics are involved.

Going beyond basic conversation, delivering polished and rehearsed speeches and being able to organize one's thoughts when speaking off the cuff are advanced skills in language, as are its partners in dance: choreography and improvisation.

Putting it all together, the dancer understands what is being said to her structurally, emotionally and culturally and she can articulately respond with intelligence and some feeling. However, putting together meaningful sentences and starting to communicate are still only intermediate steps to the final goal.

3) Proper Grammar and Diction = Polish
A child reaches a point where she knows several words, can build sentences, and can communicate pretty well, but she makes some grammatical errors, mispronounces certain words, or makes punctuation mistakes. Poor grammar in dance might mean the dancer forgets to point her toes, or maintain energy in her arms and hands. Perhaps she talks in sentence fragments, leaving a movement or a musical phrase unfinished. Her posture may be slightly off, her body angle may be awkward, or she may transition poorly between movements. Perhaps she doesn't dare make eye contact as she speaks to you, or her facial expressions reveal mistakes or conflict with the emotion of her dance. She might jump from idea to idea so quickly, she loses all continuity. Or maybe she repeats to the point of painful monotony.

These little things often go unnoticed by a dancer and are sometimes forgotten in training. But from the audience’s perspective, they set one dancer distinctly apart from another.

A dancer begins to move beyond just an intermediate level of understanding of the language when she begins to use the language properly and elegantly.

4) Pure Poetry = Emotional Connection
When a dancer creates poetry, she beings to own the dance. The dancer and the movement and the music become one. The dancer isn't thinking about the movement anymore. The movement has become a part of her own language and it rolls naturally from her tongue.

She uses movement to express her inner feelings—joy, love, pain—these emotions become real before the viewer's eyes. This requires a decent degree of technical ability, musicality, and polish to pull off well, because the dancer needs to know the words and how to form the sentences before she can make their expression fully understood. Without them, a dance is like child's talk—speech that can only be somewhat understood and that can be moving on some level, but lacks the fullness and power that can come from someone who has mastered the language and has a great story to tell.

A dancer who can express emotion through her dance, who can find the hidden nuances of a song and express her ideas with a fluid vocabulary, has reached a level of advanced expression.

5) New Topics of Conversation = Expanding Repertoire
When a dancer expands her repertoire she has new ideas to talk about.  Whether the dancer learns a new ethnic form, experiments with a dynamic fusion, or adds interesting dance props, she increases her comprehensive understanding of the language of dance and all its dialects. By adding new repertoire to a performance, a dancer can keep the audience continually interested in the conversation.

Even after a dancer has learned how to talk gracefully, and how to turn her speech into poetry, she still has to create interesting conversation. A dancer who increases her repertoire creates exciting stories for her audience.


6) Getting Published = Becoming a Professional
Once a dancer knows the language of dance fairly well, she must learn all the technical ins and outs of working as a professional dancer. These things include:

  • Knowing how to costume appropriately.
  • Knowing how to put performance sets together.
  • Interacting with and entertaining an audience.
  • Dealing with clients.
  • Being culturally aware.
  • Protecting herself.
  • Promoting herself.
  • Dealing with restaurant and club owners.
  • Working with live music.
  • Working with live musicians.
  • Handling setbacks and dance disasters with grace and a good sense of humor.
  • Dodging obstacles.
  • Schlepping well.
  • Working with other dancers.
  • Treating others with respect.
  • Setting fair prices.
  • Having good ethics.
  • Being reliable, punctual and responsible.
  • And so on…

The dancer who has mastered all of these skills in addition to having attained a high level of mastery in the language of dance, deserves to call herself a true professional.

However, a dancer rarely ascends through each of these steps chronologically. Even though some vocabulary is necessary before a person can speak in sentences, no one learns all the words in a language before learning simple conversation. And no one becomes fluent in a language before they begin to emote and find inflection in speech. Each aspect of learning to dance is approached simultaneously.

When I apply these concepts to my own dancing, I can better judge my own level of mastery.  I see where I need to put in more effort, if I’m getting ahead of myself, and where I’m gaining skills in areas I didn't previously appreciate. I also learn to recognize, admire, and respect these qualities in other dancers.

I find the metaphor of language very applicable to dance. Many of the same rules that apply to a strong narrative in poetry or prose apply to a strong narrative in dance.  Sometimes, I like to consider what the dance equivalent might be for a Shakespearian soliloquy, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, a poem by E. E. Cummings, a breaking news story, a nursery rhyme, or a conversation filled with street slang and cursing. Thinking of dance this way helps me to examine the range of cultures, styles, and creative ideas currently out there.  I begin to see how many words I don’t yet know or utilize, and I contemplate how vast an array of expression exists.

Each dancer has her story to tell, may she tell it eloquently and expressively.

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