Gilded Serpent presents...
Gift of the Muse:
Finding and Using “Dance Energy”
by Najia Marlyz
July 24, 2008

One by one, or trouping together on a festival stage, one can see them perform burning calories but not using real dance energy! So many of the Belly dancers of our Western countries are vibrant young women, whose dance, though polished and rehearsed, does not shine in memory. Why? What is dance energy? What can it do for your dance?

Few dancers come into their first Belly dance lessons knowing even the fundamentals of dance technique, and rather than learn the basic tenants that underlie all forms of dance and stagecraft, they often settle for what they are taught by dance instructors who, themselves, have no idea what is missing from their own dance performances.  Most audiences can detect the lack of a dancer’s connection with the music (even though she may pause at all musical stops) because she usually over-dances the repetitive accents, ignoring the tunes, lyricism, and themes that make up the heart of Middle-Eastern music.  Often, it is her choice of music that can first alert you to her missing ability to translate the music for her audience. 

A preponderance of modern Belly dance music, even though recorded with fine fidelity, is most often prepared with the percussion responding dancer in mind; it is lacking in subtlety and instead, relies heavily on a rib-rattling base in the percussion section of the arrangement that overpowers the various themes of the music. Yet, most new age dancers still dance with such amazing energy, speed, accuracy, and precision that the resulting dance becomes difficult and exhausting for an audience to watch. Just imagine what dancers could accomplish if they became familiar with the classical musical styles and knew how to slow down, listen and analyze classical music! 

Why then, do dancers often fail to capture the essence of the music, even though they believe they’ve got a handle on the perfect Oriental dance technique? The answer is, of course, that, their teachers have not taught them, for whatever reason, useful musical technique and the evasive concept of dance energy—nor how to use either of them in their performances.

Recently, a former long-time North Beach dancer of the San Francisco Bay area confided to me, with a laugh, that a newcomer to Belly dance—a teenager—told her that the difference between the older dancers of yesteryear and today’s dancers is that “We have technique!”  Only ignorant naïveté could forgive such a pompous attitude!
A dancer should not confuse physical triumph over small shards of movement (combined or executed rapidly) with the understanding of an entire dance technique or concept. 

I have seen very few dancers perform who knew how to perform literally and artistically to the actual content of the music (though they often believe that they do).  Unfortunately, even fewer have used it to improve the overall performance of Arabic style of Belly dance; instead new dancers veer off into tangents that seems to be a sub-category of tribal or fusion dancing of one sort or another. While the resulting dance is often compelling in its oddity, or simply dazzling in its excessive speed, fusion often lacks portrayal of the background of tradition from which the Belly dance sprang originally.  While I am far from being a Middle Eastern dance purist, still I think it would be a welcome event to watch someone dance and more carefully portray the story within the music itself. Instead, they often put the “cart before the donkey”, showing the movements of Oriental dance as if they were some sort of gateway into exhibitionism rather than using it as the Oriental dancers in the Middle East use it. There, the dancers use the performance to accompany the music and translate its meanings into moments of epiphany and illumination about life or, at least, commiseration of emotions. I fear that many of our western dancers conceive of their dance first and then try to locate music that seems to “fit” their pre-conceived freestanding dance.

Most of the meaningful and intended communication within dance relies upon the understanding and proper use of what is often referred to as “Dance Energy”.

Dance Energy: What is it and what can it do?

My main Belly dance teacher first introduced me to the subject of dance energy and defined it for me by showing me this vivid example:

“Do you remember how, when Dancer X enters the front door of the classroom, everyone’s hair seems to blow backwards and you have to hang onto your hat?” he asked me. Well, that’s what I mean by ‘energy’.  I don’t mean burning calories, sweating, and dancing fast and large; I mean that a dancer can have a viable inner life force that makes her affect you and your mood in various ways.  Most do not come on as strong as Dancer X does, but they make certain you know they are in the room and that it would be worth your while to pay them some close attention. Dancer X has to learn how to reign it in and control it!”

Unfortunately, in the past decade, the term “Dance Energy” has been misunderstood.  It appears to have evolved in meaning, implying a highly athletic form of speed in motion and rapid-fire performance of one movement isolation after another.  Seeing the result performed can be amazing. It is somewhat like the rattle of an old-time Gatling gun, but remember that dancing in overdrive never amounts to much in the way of recreating ethnic meaning or even emotional, present day, here-and-now impact.  High use of rapid-fire movement seems to be more like pointless athletics and might just as well be a figure skater’s Triple Lutz applied to the Belly dance.

Finding Your Dance Energy:
It is so easy and rewarding to demonstrate to a dancer how to accomplish a change in his/her dance, but it is so much more difficult to put it into written words! I cannot crosscheck to see whether what I have written has been understood—or not. Recently, I watched some of a television fitness program series called “Shimmy” that is funded by the Canadian government; the series is based on typical Oriental dance movements.  The voice-over kept repeating in a kindergarten teacher style, “Good job!” as if the at-home-viewer had actually been observed having done something correctly—or at all!  Since I cannot work personally with each of you who are interested in learning about utilizing dance energy, I must rely on only my written word to do a good job here.

The Gift of Your Muse
To begin learning to use one’s dance energy, I think it might be better if we could call it something less confusing than “Dance Energy”.  I prefer to think of this invisible force as the spirit of one’s inner muse or artistic guide.  No, not a Greek dance goddess like Terpsichore, but the individual and unique spirit that moves the dancer from the inside toward his/her extremities—from the actual dance core which resides, as Martha Graham put it, in the solar plexus (not the pelvis/uterus/hips as the feminists of the ‘60s would like us to believe), dedicating that one point of the dancer’s body to be the beginning and end of each and every dance movement; following that point at each moment would be somewhat like the practice of Hatha Yoga.  Employing this technique alone gives a fuller sense of completion to the viewer—and to the performer, as well.

For example: to raise one’s arm, movement should begin within the solar plexus, visibly travel up the spine to the shoulder, traverse the arm and exit the fingertips.  This might happen slowly or quickly but it always follows that same path in order to carry the strength and meaning of the chosen movement. There is one more requirement that makes this action work; that is the counter-relaxation of each body part as the “point of energy” traverses into the next. Without that relaxation, the movement looses its sensual and logical essence. Yes, that is correct: to move upward in a sensual way, one must keep track of one’s point of movement tension, relaxing muscles downward—rather than tensing or pressing them downward—along the path it traveled upward. (Got that? As I heard on fitness television, “Oh, good job”!)

Additionally, one more often sees dance turns executed with an empty motivation—emanating from a rounded ballet-like arm confirmation (the beach ball) that throws forward or a leg that kicks forward in a rounded motion, causing the dancer to turn from the outside toward the inside of his/her body.  The turn, while fast and efficient, still lacks the power of conviction for Belly dance. The resulting turn, reach, or veil movement remains unconvincing in Oriental dance, and therefore, ineffectual, as a movement that portrays anything that carries substance, meaning, sensuality, or emotionality.

One true giveaway of an empty turn is the confirmation of a “slapping hand” that figuratively slaps the face of each person in the audience as the dancer spins.  Most new dancers are guilty of the offence, but quickly learn to correct it, once it is pointed out to them. A common variation is the “Back Slap” followed by the other hand in a slap position.

If the technique of movement begins at the dance center and pulls one’s hand in the wake afterward, it is less likely that the non-aerodynamic “slapping palm” will happen.  Instead, the dancer’s lead hand will naturally take a more efficient and dynamic confirmation—whether palm up or palm down, slicing the air current—but never, never, slapping—either forward or backward!  All the rest of the typical Oriental dance movements should be accomplished in this simple core-related fashion—from the figure eight undulation of the hips to all the others you learned in your beginning Belly dance lessons. Try them!

Underlying Power
The concept of “Dance Energy” carries with it a power that appears to compel the dancer to move without conscious thought or excessive effort. 

There are several things a dancer can do to create this look of underlying power: he/she can use various forms of imagery to create the movement as if he were imitating things in nature or in common occurrences that allow movement with difficulty through their inherent viscosity (such as a pearl rising slowly, steadily, but not in a straight line, through oil or detergent). Other forces of nature can also influence additional images such as the elliptical motion of the planets around the sun; the variations of speed as the planet approaches the highest point of gravitational influence give a distinct sort of rhythm (or beat) that makes it appear to have been compelled. Such imagery can motivate dance movement better than reliance on geometrical precision or symmetrical repetitions.  It is often too much precision that belies the innate character of typical Belly dance movement—in the Middle Eastern mind it is the imperfect that carries human beauty while perfection belongs only to God.  Bye-the-way, this same idea exists and guides all the Middle Eastern crafts, including dance.

Even though your dance teacher may often give the command, “Relax your muscles!” or “Posture, dear, mind your posture!” Some muscles must tense in order to give the illusion of resistance as your point of energy moves from one part of your body to the next.  Much of dance is the creation of illusion: you give the air the power to resist your movements by imagery, creating the illusion of the resistance.  Dance Energy does not come from a perfectly straight spine or awareness of line per se, but is more ethereal than that.  (For example: one can portray downtrodden humanity while employing a stooped stance, curved spine and still employ Dance Energy.) The speed of the movement is up to you and the requirements of your music. However, you have only the amount of time given by the music to accomplish the task or it ought not to be used if the total effect is only frenzy when the music itself is not frenzied.  This leads one to the strange notion that not all dance movement is equal—especially when it comes to appropriate choice of what exact movement or gesture should be called upon from one’s repertoire to portray the intent of the music.  Learning when to use resistance would fall under the heading: Musical Interpretation.

Stamina, Focus, and Intent
Once a dancer or dance instructor begins to comment that one must develop greater stamina in order to improve the grasp of dance energy, you know she has no idea what dance energy is and that she is, instead, referring to use of physical energy rather than performance spirit or motivation. While conserving and expanding one’s judicious use of physical energy (stamina) is necessary in dance and athletics, still, it is not the same entity as employing the inner muse to focus upon the origin, path, and method of travel for our so-called dance energy. Focus, too, is a dancer’s term that is understandably confused with the overall use of one’s energy.  Focus is the craft of pin pointing one’s eyes (or focusing) on the point into which one intends to move.  Hence, we also get into the concept of “intent” of the movement (an indication from the dancer through her focus and palpable commitment to a movement’s ultimate destination). While these are wonderful tools, or concepts of dance, they are no substitute for the enlightenment one carries inside, constituting “Dance Energy”.

In your next practice session, dance to a short piece of music for one imaginary person.  It must be done subtly: is that not true? If you sense that you are possibly embarrassing your one-person-audience, then, your projection of energy is too large.  If you dance the same way every time before all sizes and types of audiences, you are not using your dance tool of projection appropriately.  My point here is: do not confuse energy in dance with projection; they are quite different tools of performance.  Projecting energy (or spirit) is not the same thing as understanding where it comes from and feeling what it does.

Finding Your Muse
Each dancer must learn how to relate to her guiding muse by finding where it is that she feels most centered.  Start by focusing your mind on your spinal column in an area nestled next to your heart. Breathe in deeply as if you were practicing Hatha Yoga and exhale fully.  Try to feel the calmness within and ask your Muse to inspire your movement and imbue it with the essence of life—its ranges of positive and negative, tension and relaxation, as well as underlying pulses and rhythms of breathing.

Dancing in the Moment
Performers who are amazing have learned to dance for the actual audience that they have—In the moment that they dance—not in rehearsal and not in choreography. The most difficult part of the performing arts, artists generally agree, is in spontaneous performance.

One of the inherent beauties of the Oriental dance is its quality of “flying by the seat of one’s pants”. 

By this, I mean that one must learn the technique of dancing in the moment with a keen awareness and reliance on the muse she carries within; indeed, you never really dance solo once you develop the ability to respond to the elements of the music rather than its basic outline of speed, volume, and rhythm. You dance in partnership with the composers, arrangers, and musicians. However, above all, listening to the emotional response of one’s inner muse will open the door to so many ways to affect an audience beyond what is usual. The muse will connect one to a pipeline containing personal experiences, moving one to remember and to re-experience emotion that resides within.  It can be felt as well as seen, but it will not cause your audiences to have to hold onto their hats from your overly large projection!

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