Creating Belly Dance Warm-Up Playlists that Work

You’re in belly dance class, and the instructor starts to lead the warm-up. The song they play helps you feel energized and more connected to your body after a long day at work.

But the next song in the playlist is way faster than the last one. Whoa. And once you’ve caught up with that song the next song screeches nearly to a halt and just plods along. How are you supposed to get into your body if you’re constantly being pushed around by the instructor’s playlist?

Belly Dance Warm Up PlaylistsThis post contains some affiliate links.

Why Your Warm-Up Playlist Matters

As you know, a great warm-up is essential for a safe dance class experience. And the music you use can make or break how engaged your students are with your warm-up exercises.

A lot of people ask me about the music I use in class, particularly the warm-ups. Warm-up music isn’t an afterthought for me; it’s the first thing my new students hear.

Personally, I like warm-up music with a steady beat, Arabic or other MENAT instrumentation, and an even 4/4 meter. It should be both melodic and heavy on percussion, because it’s in the warm-up that my students first learn how to hear and count music. It should also be engaging enough to be fun, but not distracting for the students. It should also avoid being too dramatic or intense.

I also prefer to not have a lot of vocals or mizmar, because both compete with my teaching voice. And while I love to listen to and dance to complex and intricate music, I find that music that is too interesting can distract both me and my students.

A Great Playlist Has Flow

I’m really into a playlist that flows. Personally, I like to arrange the songs from slowest to fastest. Typical tempos range from 90 beats per minute (bpm) to 130 bpm, but usually I’ll select music between 100 and 120 bpm. How do I figure that out? By using this handy-dandy tempo calculator. Just tap along with the song that you’re measuring and the website does the rest of the work for you.

I also like to arrange my warm-up playlists by musical and regional theme. I have playlists organized by Turkish, Balkan, Arabic classic remix (oh, the blasphemy!), and more. This helps ease the ear and help it settle on a particular sound, even if the music is not necessarily “traditional” (like, say, songs by Balkan Beat Box).

For my beginners, I have a “Basic” warm-up playlist. In total, it runs for over an hour. Obviously, my warm-ups are not an hour long, but it gives me flexibility in where I can start the playlist. If I feel that students need a slower pace, then I’ll start the music at the beginning. If it’s a more advanced class, I can start later in the playlist where the faster songs are.

Warm-Up Music Can Be the “Gateway Drug”

For many non-Arab or non-MENAT dance students, your warm-up music is their first encounter with Middle Eastern instruments. Personally, I like music that uses samples of Middle Eastern songs and motifs but blends them with music that my new students might be more familiar with, like electronic drums and programming.

This kind of music can help get your students used to hearing Middle Eastern instruments, but not all remix music is the same. When listening to fusion or remix-style music, it’s also important that you can identify the different instruments, song samples, and other musical references in the songs that you’re using. Is that a doumbek or a zarb or an Indian tabla? Just because it’s remix music that doesn’t absolve you of knowing the difference.

Some of My Faves

I’m really digging The Spy From Cairo lately. This New York-based ‘ud player and electronic music producer integrates “traditional” instruments with old school dub, trip hop, and other electronic music genres. Visit him on Bandcamp, and get his most recent album, Nothing New Under the Sun, which features a rockin’ Gnawa Shaabi number. He also releases under the name Zeb.

Despite the cover image being of questionable taste, my students love a lot of the songs from Harem: Club & Chillout Remixes. My favorites include a beat box remix of “Ya Ain Moulayatin” and a trip hop-inspired take on “Set El Hosen.”

And even though the first volume is a bit old, I keep coming back to Electric Oasis and Electric Oasis 2: Desert Chill – Desert Dance. Each features a wide range of tempos, from slow and slinky to upbeat, great for stamina-building. “Baghdad Groove” from Volume 2 mashes up “El Samer” and the nay taqsim from Princess of Cairo.

Why Not the Classics?

There’s no reason that you couldn’t have classic songs on your warm-up playlists. However, I tend to save original and classic pieces for combinations and choreography. Why?

Classic songs often have a lot of changes, both in rhythm, tempo, and meter. This can be difficult to navigate during a warm-up, and can throw students (and less-experienced instructors) off-beat.

They also tend to be really engaging and ear-catching—that’s why they’re classics. Some of them, as you know, are very emotional and moving. When I’m warming up my students, I need them to be focused on my vocal cues as well as their own bodies. They can be swept away by the velvety voice of Abdel Halim Hafez in the combination that we do at the end of the class.

I also feel like classic songs require a bit more contextualization, which we just don’t have time for in a warm-up. The warm-up should get dancers into their bodies, wake up their muscles, and work on physical technique. I don’t want to stop dancers in the midst of movement to explain a song’s origin or meaning. That kind of training can happen at the end of class when teaching the combination; the movements in the combination will embody these extra elements.

Keep Them Moving and Make It Fun

A great warm-up playlist should have momentum, and ultimately, it should be fun. Let your warm-up music be inspiring, energetic, and educational. And sometimes you’ll try a song that just doesn’t work. You’ll never know until it’s on your playlists.

And because I know you’ll ask, here’s a playlist for you:

If you want to see my warm-ups in action, head on over to the Salimpour School Online Class website.

Do you have warm-up music that just works? What are you and your students really grooving to right now? Let us know in the comments!





How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Many of you have asked, “How can I learn choreography faster?”

Believe me, I’ve had my own struggles with learning sequencing, movement details, and full choreographies.

I have always been a musically-driven performer, whether it be in ice dance, in competitive figure skating, and now, in belly dance. But that really became clear to me when I was earning my MA and taking several modern dance classes a week. In those classes, the music often just acted as a backbeat, a time keeper, and didn’t inspire the movement. No, the live musician would watch the dancers and riff off of them, rather than the other way around.

In those classes, I had a harder time remembering combinations because I had no music to guide me. I had to find the movement in accompaniment, even if it was a struggle.

Thankfully, my main dance genre is intimately tied to music, and chances are that yours is too.

So, what’s the one thing I would tell someone who asks me how to learn choreography faster?

How to Learn Choreography Like a Pro

Learn. The. Music.

Of all the dance forms in the world, belly dance is one of the most intimately tied to melody and percussion. Our job as dancers is to interpret and transmit the music to the audience through our movements, expression, and sentiment. This requires refined technique, yes, but it also requires a sharp and perceptive ear.

Of course, learning the feet first will help you, but if the instructor is connecting the footwork of a dance to the music, then you must also be familiar with the music.

A recent study showed that people who were perceived to be “better dancers” were better able to predict where a rhythm or melody would fall. That is, they had a better musical sense. So, it follows that if you know your music, that is, you can predict what sections are next, then you will be better able to dance, and execute set choreography… and improvise. (Unfortunately, that study also revealed that some people are “beat deaf,” and unable to stay within the auditory rhythmic groove of a song.)

Following Along Isn’t Enough

Sometimes it’s easy to let the energy of the room and the other dancers sweep you away that you aren’t truly internalizing the movements and the music. We look at our colleagues and follow them, letting our mirror neurons do the work that our ears could be doing. Instead of listening to the music and letting that guide our movements, we rely on our fellow dancers.

And while we must be able to flock and follow, without intimate understanding of the songs to which we perform, we’re literally lost.

If you’re not inherently musical, this just means that you’ll need to listen to the music more often, without dancing to it. The more you know a song, can hum the melody or beat, or playback the song in your head, the better you’re going to remember a choreography to that song.

Let’s Map Out a Song

Often music is described as having sections to which we assign a letter. Section A, B, C, and so on. Whether we’re learning someone else’s choreography or creating our own, we must know the underlying architecture of the song to which we’re dancing.

We can easily hear the different sections of a familiar pop song. Let’s look at “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga.

  1. We have an intro of 5 counts of 8. 5 is actually an unusual number of 8 counts to introduce a song, so that adds some interest.
  2. Then we have the first section, which we’ll call Verse A, which lasts for 4 counts of 8.
  3. Then we have a pre-chorus, section B, for 4 counts of 8.
  4. After that, it’s the actual chorus—”just dance”—section C, for 4 counts of 8.
  5. A little 4-for-nothing follows before we revisit A again, but this time with different lyrics.
  6. We get another pre-chorus B, and then the chorus again.
  7. Then the song changes it up with a new section, which is the guest singer, Colby O’Donis, with his rapid-fire rap-like singing for 4 counts of 8.
  8. O’Donis sings a melodic variation of part B for 4 counts of 8, so I call this B var.
  9. Then we get a stripped down version of the chorus, C, for 2 counts of 8 (C var.), then the chorus resumes as per usual for the next four counts of 8.
  10. Instrumental time! 2 counts of 8.
  11. New section: E, which acts as a bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  12. And another section, F, another kind of bridge, for 4 counts of 8.
  13. We return to C var., then the chorus, as in number 8, above.
  14. The song gives us the satisfaction of hearing the chorus C one more time for 2 more counts of 8, before ending on count 1.

Even a “simple” pop song like “Just Dance” makes more sense when we break it down. But now, if we were to learn a choreography to it, we have a skeleton and framework with which to work. These chunks will help us remember the dance, because now we have a better understanding of the musical structure.

A song might have lots of different melodic and rhythmic sections.  The original cinematic version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song “Gana El Hawa” has many different sections, with only one repeat of the chorus at the very end.

And note that you don’t have to read music, understand notation, chords, or any additional music theory to get started… although I recommend that you have at least a basic understanding of rhythmic notation if you’re considering yourself intermediate-level or above.

Great Choreography Will Echo the Musical Structure

Even the most complex choreography can be learned in small chunks. In fact, cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Guitar Zero, found that adult brains need new information to be presented in smaller chunks than children do. Adults have less time and less brain “real estate” to assimilate new information. (The good news is that there’s no “magic window” during which we have to learn new skills; we can learn at any age.)

When we approach choreography as smaller sections, we do our brains a favor and making the learning process easier.

A great choreography, in belly dance at least, follows the structure of the song to which it is set. This doesn’t mean always repeating the exact same movement every time a melodic phrase repeats, but it does mean that the movement isn’t random.

Let’s look at Suhaila Salimpour’s “Yanna Yanna.” The same melody repeats quite frequently, but the movement phrases themselves don’t always repeat. The orchestration changes, with different instruments taking the lead and being highlighted as the song progresses. But then, at the end, the dancers return to the counterclockwise turns with rib cage circles that they did at the very beginning of the piece. This section acts as a book end and reflects the arrangement of the song.

Choreography: Now In Extra Chunky

The next time you are learning a new choreography, don’t look at the dance as a whole. Look at it as little bits that make a whole. Map out the music yourself in sections, as I did with “Just Dance.” Listen to the music at home, in the car, or at work, so you can have a deeper understanding of its sequencing.

Even if you’re learning a short combination, approach it in parts. Chances are that the instructor will teach it to you in sections, so use those sections to your advantage. As you’re learning the dance, give each section a name. I like to think of each section by the step by which it starts, such as “Rib slides, rib circle” or “Circle-2-3-4.”

Map it out, work it out, and you’ll nail that new choreography in no time!

What tips and tricks do you have for learning choreography or dissecting a new piece of music? How do you like to organize your creative process into a dance?

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Exporiental Podcast: Volume 1

Over the years, I’ve collected quite a lot of music that crosses the lines between traditional and electronica. I first heard Arabic music when I was in high school (maybe earlier), and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for cultural mashups. As a dancer who straddles the space between North American and Middle Eastern, it’s only fitting that I would have a music collection that reflects the same. Although, I was building my music collection with artists such as Aisha Kandisha’s Jarring Effects, Loop Guru, and Banco De Gaia long before I took my first belly dance class.

So, I’ve decided to craft some mixes for you, sharing some deep cuts from my music collection. These mixes feature artists from the Middle East as well as those who aren’t, but who have used Middle Eastern instrumentation in their work. Some of these artists work in this hybrid space regularly, such as Filastine or Smadj, while others might only use a doumbek (or nay, mizmar, or ‘ud) in one track, such as Hecq or Hal. Some works are controversial, and some have been removed from re-releases. I feature Middle Eastern artists back to back with European and North American ones, highlighting our sonic similarities as well as our aesthetic and experiential differences.

I must also say that these songs are not necessarily ones I would dance to, although some I have. Some have lyrics that I have yet to find translations for, and others contain samples that some might find offensive. I’ve curated these mixes as aural collections, blending textures together to create soundscapes that flow from one to the next. You might find a track or two in here that makes you want to move, but tread lightly and be conscientious about your performance choices.

I hope that these mixes are a launching point for investigation, appreciation, and discovery.

Exporiental :: Vol 1 by Prog Raqs on Mixcloud


Are you truly listening? Musicality and movement.

Musicality has been on my mind lately.  I have been told by many people, including some who I admire more than I can say, that my dancing in incredibly musical.  Even my improvisations to live drum solos and taqasim, when I don’t know the music or what the musicians will play next.  My ice dancing coaches also remarked on my ability to connect with the music, and they would fiddle with the tempo knob on the tape deck (remember those?) to see if I could keep up or slow down with the song… and I always could, if I didn’t break into laughter first (because, really, who wants to do a reeeaaally sssssssllllooooooowwwwww foxtrot?).  Whether or not you think I’m musical, I do feel that musicality is an essential skill for any belly dancer, regardless of style.

When I watch a dancer, I watch for a few key elements: technique/posture, emotional expression, and musicality.  If a dancer naturally has great expression and musicality, her (or his, of course) teachers have an easy job; teaching technique is the easy part.  Teaching expression is a little more difficult, but through creativity and acting exercises, a dancer can make great progress.  Musicality, however, I think is one of the most difficult concepts not just to teach but to convey in a practical manner.  musicality is funny thing… the concept is a bit like a wriggly eel.  You know it exists, but it’s difficult to pin down.  How one dancer hears the music isn’t how another dancer will hear the music.  I don’t believe that a dancer must be a master at reading music on a staff or know how to play a melodic instrument to have a strong musical sense.  I tried to learn guitar and piano and never succeeded. However, here are some tips.

  • Understand the tempo, rhythm, meter, and pulse of your music.  Tempo is the speed of the basic beat; we measure this in “Beats Per Minute” (BPM).  (Don’t know what BPM your song is in? Check out this awesome website).  Think of a metronome: the continuous, steady TICK tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick (this example is for a song in 4/4).  Rhythm is the underlying percussion (drums and similar instruments); in Middle Eastern music we must learn and recognize dozens of rhythms from the ubiquitous Saidi (in 4/4) to the flowing Samai (in 10/8) and to the tricky Sama Zarafat (in 13/8).  Time signature is how many beats per measure; basically this is how much you keep counting before you start over.  As dancers, we often count in 8, but some songs are counted in 9 (like in a lot of Turkish folk and Roman music) or, like the Samai and Sama Zarafat in 10 or in 13.  A song counted in 9 will, in its most basic form be counted like this: TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.  9 “ticks” with an emphasis on the first one, the “1″.  The pulse is a bit less technical; it is the “feel” of the song.  Saidi music with its heavy drums and wailing mizmars feels heavier than a delicate nay taqsim.
  • Listen to the melody.  The melody, in its most basic sense is a combination of rhythm and pitch. Higher pitch notes have a higher vibrational frequency; lower pitch notes have a lower vibrational frequency.  In general, we interpret higher pitch sounds higher in the body, and lower pitch sounds lower in the body; this is a great guide for beginners, however skilled dancers can break these rules by keeping the quality of the sound in their movement, regardless of what body parts they move.  Many songs have a structure, meaning that they have different repeating melodic sections.  We often refer to these by letters: the first section being “A”, the second “B”, the third as “C” and so on.  Basic songs will have A through C or A through D.  The melody is played by different instruments (naturally), and these instruments have different tonal qualities (known as timbre, pronounced “tahmber”).  A violin is continuous, yet has a tension (produced by the drawing of the horse hair bow over metal strings), the nay is also continuous, but has a more hollow, open feel.  An acoustic guitar has more attack, meaning that the sound made as the pick plucks the strings happens almost immediately, and drops off quickly; it is more percussive than the violin or nay.  The qanun and oud are similar, as they are plucked, however, the oud, with its pear-like shape, creates a slightly rounder sound than the qanun.  Different movements have different qualities as well: locks and isolations are hard-contraction movements that work better for sharper sounds, and soft-contraction movements such as figure 8s and circles are better for interpreting continuous sounds.  Don’t be afraid to play, but never stop listening.
  • When the music stops, you stop.  When the music goes, you go.  It’s the dance equivalent of Red Light / Green Light.  I have seen countless taqasim performed by fantastic and even famous dancers who keep moving when the musician takes a pause or a breath.  If the sound stops, your movement should stop.  When the musician continues, then you continue.  If you keep dancing, it shows that you’re not really listening to your music, and if you’re not really listening, then what are you dancing to?  Of course, a dancer can choose to dance over the sound for theatrical purposes; however, I feel that a dancer must be quite skilled to pull this off.  It takes more skill and presence to be in the music than it does to dance over it.
  • Listen to a lot of music. If you’re a belly dancer, you really should be listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music.  Arabic and Turkish music operates under different rules and (generally) evolved from different traditions than European music.  The tuning systems are sometimes unfamiliar (maqamat, singular maqam), containing microtones (think of a key between the white and black keys of the piano) and embellishments not found in most Western music traditions.  American jazz, however, comes close at times, with its long improvised sections and complex syncopations.  And speaking of jazz, a dancer should listen to lots of other music, preferably music that challenges your ear.  That pop station on the radio just isn’t going to do it.
  • Most importantly: the music should inform your dance; not the other way around.  What do I mean by this?  Your movements should be a reaction to the sounds, not a reaction to your internal dialog.  If you’re thinking “Am I doing enough?”, “Oh no! I forgot everything I know!”, “I feel like my movements are so boring!”, “What if the audience thinks I look dumb?”, “What should I do next?”…. then you’re not listening to the music, are you?  You’re listening to the voice in your head.  We all have it, but we must learn to ignore it.  (Not that ignoring that voice is easy; it’s a process that takes a lifetime.)

Of course, developing a sense of musical timing and interpretation takes longer for some dancers than for others, but I do think that with some true listening, a dancer can learn to be more musical.  And of course, there isn’t always one correct way to interpret a sound; if we all interpret an oud taqsim in the same manner, then we would be robbing ourselves of the creative experience.  Belly dance is unique in the realm of movement arts in that it is characterized by the dancer aiming to “become” a physical representation of the music.  With our sophisticated torso and hip isolations, combined with artful layers, one dancer can interpret an entire orchestra with her body.  Why dance over the music when you can become the music?

 

Source: Bellydance Paladin