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Improvisation, Taqsim, & Teaching

Things I Love

by Rahma Haddad
posted 1-27-09

The essence of Belly dance has traditionally been improvisation. To tap into this primary source, first the dancer must train the body in the techniques and styles of the form. One must also become accustomed to and knowledgeable about the music, its rhythms, melody patterns and subtle nuances. Then It will be possible to “attach an ear to the music”, allowing the music to flow directly into one’s body, seeming to bypass the mind—in the moment and in a transcendent space. This means one can perform to the same piece of music 100 times and dance 100 totally unique shows. Even if only one move is accomplished, it will take form differently to each bar of music—according to the dancer’s response in the moment: sometimes moving to the melody, sometimes to the rhythm, interpreting the feeling of the piece, hitting different accents each time, spontaneously adding textures both big and small, high and low, fast and slow, traveling or posing.

Because improvisation is so instantaneous, the performer doesn’t know what he is going to do until he does it. Likewise, the dancer may not remember what was done when the dance is finished. This is why creating improvisational dance is rarely boring.

The drawback of improvisational dance is that if one is not feeling exactly “on”—if he or she is tired, stressed, and having a bad day—the resulting performance can fall flat and colorless. That is one of the reasons why choreography for Belly dance, a Western influence, started to become popular among Western Belly dancers in the latter part of the 20th century. Dancers who danced night after night realized that even if they were feeling “off”, the choreography gave them something on which to fall back. Of course, feeling “off” still shows, but at least there is some possibility that the dancer may perform an interesting sequence of movements that expresses the music.

Nagua Fouad used choreography to create character vignettes (such as the Mohammed Ali St. dancer) that would be difficult to accomplish by improvisation when the character should be consistent for each show.

Choreography is also a teaching tool, to show the unaccustomed dance student how to use the music and to teach unfamiliar techniques and how movements might possibly flow together.

Personally, I feel overly restricted when confined to choreography (except for group dances where it is necessary). I love the feeling of being on the edge—and sometimes, flying off the edge!

Taxim, Taksim, Taqsim
When literally translated, the word taqsim means “division”. (I prefer this spelling because it can be pronounced colloquially as “ta’sim”.) As a musical form, taqsim refers to the (often slow) solo improvisation of individual instruments within the appropriate maqaams (musical patterns). In an orchestra, Oriental instruments may take turns playing, similar to the way Jazz is played. There are different kinds of taqsim, some with and some without rhythm. The most common rhythm used is the slow taqsim rhythm called Chifte Telli, although Wahde Kibir and Masmoudi are frequently used while other rhythms appear less frequently.

Most of the older music produced for Belly dancing had at least one lovely taqsim section, sometimes more. This is the time in the dance when the dancer can turn inward and dance as much for herself as for the audience. She must be able to slow down (which is difficult for many dancers) and feel the sensuality of the melody, producing an emotional response to the music.

An experienced dancer can move between melody and rhythm, sometimes within the same bar of music, with complete ease.

Taqsim has always been my favorite part of the music, and I love teaching how to dance to it in order to “turn the students on” to this exquisite form. Unfortunately, with the advent and popularity of “pop” music for Belly dance, a beautiful taqsim is getting hard to find in new music. However, there were so many beautiful recordings produced in the 20thcentury; it just takes a little extra searching.

The first thing is to remember always that when you are teaching Belly dance, you are representing a culture, or in fact, several cultures which may not be your own; so it is not only important to have a good feeling about them, but also, to have the facts. It is essential to not pass on misinformation about those cultures—be it positive or negative—as is so often done by teachers who have not done their homework! Attending cultural events locally, some of the many cultural films, and of course, good old-fashioned reading, on the Internet or in books and magazines are obvious ways to experience the cultures without traveling.

You need to really know which music is Turkish, Greek, or various kinds of Arabic and North African, classic Egyptian, balady, etc. It is imperative to be well versed about the specifically Oriental instruments and the individual Oriental rhythms.

None of us knows everything, but when you are in doubt about something that you feel you should know, always take the time to find out!

Even though you may be teaching proper dance technique and giving correct information, the reason you are doing this is to let individuals fly with it. They frequently need permission, and additionally, encouragement, to listen analytically to the music and give freedom to the form.

Although most students will never perform, they all come because they love to dance.

Having just come back from teaching at the conference (2007), I realized after the great feedback on my workshop (on improvising to individual instruments and dancing to both rhythm and melody) that these things I have mentioned are frequently not taught well enough. People in my workshop were amazed at small considerations that I take for granted!

A prudent instructor must make sure that individuals are not moving in a way in which they might injure themselves. Imparting good body awareness, good posture, etc., involves knowing something about the way one’s body works.

The prerequisite of a good teacher is that one must love to teach!

I have learned that it always works the same in each field: You give people the tools so that they can express themselves in that form.


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