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?

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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 Dance Instructors Can Keep a Beginner’s Mind

If you’ve been dancing a long time, do you remember what it was like when you were a beginner dancer?

The Joy and Frustration of Being a Beginner

One of the classes I teach at the Salimpour School of Dance is Level 1 technique. Our students often have no prior dance training or experience. They’re often looking for a new way to get exercise and have fun, and many of them are apprehensive… because trying something new as an adult can take a lot of courage. Especially in a room with a wall of mirrors at the front!

When I teach Level 1, I often think back to when I was first learning belly dance, particularly the Suhaila Format. I remember how hard it was for me to separate my hipwork from my footwork. I remember being frustrated with myself when I couldn’t do a drill right away. I remember how I sometimes struggled to learn a combination or a chunk of choreography. Of course, I became a beginner again when I started my Master’s degree in dance, where I was taking four modern dance classes a week.

Instructors Need to Reflect on Their Beginnings

It’s important for instructors who teach beginners to reflect on what it was like to be new to a dance form. This act of self-reflection helps us become more compassionate instructors, and also allows us to create more positive learning environments.

When we forget what it’s like to be new at something, it’s easy to get frustrated with those who are new. We let our egos interfere. We think we know something, so we use that knowledge to look down on those who don’t instead of allowing those who have less experience process and figure out how they need to approach the new information. There’s a phenomenon of human thought where we think that everyone thinks like us, but as an instructor, I need to be able to understand that everyone’s experience in the classroom is unique.

I Love Teaching New Students

Personally, I love teaching new students. I love the excitement I see on their faces when they start to assimilate a movement into their bodies. I love their questions about anatomy and the body. I love seeing those imaginary “thought bubbles” over their heads when they’re figuring out a drill or exercise. I love seeing the sense of satisfaction they exude after they’ve danced a combination several times. I love seeing our regular students progress and improve, even when that improvement might be small. New students are absorbing so much information, and as an instructor, I can so often see students integrate and physicalize that knowledge from week to week. It’s exciting, and it keeps me excited about my own practice. When I’m excited, they’re excited. And from a business standpoint: when students are excited to come to class, they’ll keep coming back.

When the teacher expresses enthusiasm, the students feel it, and it becomes a positive feedback loop of awesome.

We’re All Still Learning

And here’s the thing. We’re always beginning at something. No matter how long we have danced, there is always a new choreography to learn, a new stylization, an advancement of technique, the constant polishing and cleaning up of work that we think we know. There is always more, be it physical (such as layering or finger cymbals) or theoretical (such as learning to recognize different Arabic musical maqamat or historical/cultural context).

Even if you’re not an instructor, remembering your beginner’s mind and allowing yourself to be a beginner might help reinvigorate your practice and allow yourself to try something new.

How does approaching dance with a beginner’s mind help you as a student or instructor? Tell us in the comments!