Mashaal: A Dancer’s Choreography Journey

Once upon a time, a young dancer came to a Suhaila Format Level 3 weeklong.

Back then, the Level 3 workshops were legendary, maybe notorious, for being more technically, emotionally, and mentally challenging than any other belly dance workshop available.

For homework, she created a combination to a non-belly dance song. The combo began with chasses and turns in a large circle. An opening promenade. Suhaila saw through the music and recognized the composition for what it was: an entrance.

She said to the dancer, “This is belly dance music?” (Yeah, Secret Chiefs 3 isn’t really belly dance music.) “Set this combination to belly dance music. To an entrance piece. And do it again tomorrow to the belly dance music, with a veil.”

So, the dancer dug into her belly dance music collection and chose one of her favorite belly dance entrance pieces: “Mashaal,” from Jalilah’s Raks Sharki Vol. 1.

Belly Dance Choreography Journey

The dancer set her existing combination to the malfuf rhythm opening of Mashaal, complete with veil. After creating a short combo to the beginning of “Mashaal” as a homework assignment, Suhaila told the dancer, “You need to finish this. Choreograph the whole thing.”

But, the dancer had such a difficult time choreographing anything. She couldn’t remember her own work, and it gave her immense anxiety.

The dancer didn’t feel ready to set a 9-minute piece, so she waited.

And waited.

And waited.

But as she waited, she honed her technique, creativity, and composition skills.

Mashaal: Seven Years Later

Seven years later, the dancer had since moved to the SF Bay Area, and taken thousands of hours of classes at the Salimpour School. She learned how to set and create combinations for teaching. She choreographed shorter works for herself.

She returned to graduate school, earning an MA in Dance Studies, building her knowledge of choreography, composition, and dance-making.

She also earned the official teaching certification in both Salimpour School formats.

Finally, her schedule allowed her to finally attend a Choreography Development 5-day workshop at the Salimpour School. And when she did, she made a promise to herself:

If I can choreograph “Mashaal,” I can pretty much choreograph anything.

It was time.

So, she did. And with Suhaila’s guidance, she polished the dance, made it stronger, more dynamic, and way more fun.

You Can Overcome Choreography Anxiety

If you haven’t guessed already, that dancer is me. I used to have major choreography anxiety. I had a hard time setting anything and committing it to mental and muscle memory, including simple combinations.

When I started teaching weekly classes at the Salimpour School in 2014, I had to create at least one combination every week. By starting there, I was able to train my body and brain to remember short phrases. I let the music drive me, whether it was a combo for Level 1 or Level 3.

What’s the secret? The same secret as always: Doing the work.

Just as with any art, in order to get good at it, you have to be consistent. You have to make lots of art. If you’re a dancer, you have to make lots of dances. If you’re a painter, you need to cover a lot of canvasses. If you’re a musician, you need to compose a lot of songs.

A Sneak Preview

Here’s a little peek at the choreography, which will be available for you all to learn soon on the Salimpour School Online website. Big thanks to Parya and Patti for dancing it with me!

I hope that this story inspires you and helps you be a little kinder to yourself if you’re feeling any kind of creative block, or feeling overwhelmed by creative work. You can get through it, and sometimes it just takes time.


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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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique (It’s Not as Hard as You Think)

Dance sometimes feels like some sort of mysterious practice, full of magic in its impermanence, and yet real in its physicality. We practice our technique and choreographies again and again to make our movements clearer, stronger, cleaner, more refined, and more fully embodied. Ballet dancers never stop practicing their tendus or plies. Practitioners in the Salimpour School always work on their glute squeezes and Basic Egyptian.

But really, when you get down to it, the secret to good technique is knowing that it’s all just fancy habits.

Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique by Abigail Keyes

New Habits Are Not Always Easy

This is not to minimize technique, take it for granted, or imply that it’s easy. Indeed, maybe the opposite is true. How many times have you tried to change your habits in daily life, and how many times were you successful? Changing your habits and getting into new ones actually takes a great deal of mindfulness and work.

When we go to class, we’re integrating new movements and further integrating more familiar movements into our physical memories. Learning choreography is putting those habits into a longer practice.

We revisit the same steps and sequences of movements again and again so that they become habitual, unconscious, and physically available to us in times when we need them most, and when we might be under duress… such as in a recital, performance, or practical exam.

Habits Don’t Equal Mindlessness

And of course, habits can become mindless. I think of all the times I’ve locked the front door of my house out of habit but I can’t remember if I actually turned the key in the keyhole. We can “go through the motions” of our daily lives without thinking about what we do, and that is death for the dancer.

When we fail to continually refine our technique, phrases, and choreographies, we fail to improve our already embodied skills.

Habits Require Mindfulness

Every day we go to dance class, we are creating new habits and refining existing ones. It is also essential that we identify somatic habits that might be detrimental to our physical bodies, such as poor alignment, as well as psychological ones that might result in negative thoughts or feelings.

If we habitually tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough and that we won’t ever remember that choreography, then we truly won’t remember that choreography. That is, of course, where a great instructor can guide our practice out of negative habits and into positive ones.

We practice our technique so that we can somehow transform mindlessness into mindfulness, and become better dancers every time we enter the studio or take the stage.

 




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Combinations, Choreography, and Beyond “Dance by Numbers”

Choreography is more than combinations…

Both Tempest and Princess Farhana have posted excellent blogs about learning, remembering, or eschewing choreography in belly dance.  We often use the word “choreography” in belly dance to mean “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music,” but I’m here to argue differently.  True choreography is much deeper, with greater gravity and meaning.  To me, “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music” means a combination or routine.  And there is nothing wrong with combinations or routines.  They are essential learning and teaching tools for all dancers, but they lack the emotional and artistic depth that true choreography contains.

Choreography exists on a richer artistic plane.

Within the world of belly dance, there are very few true choreographers.  I’d even venture to say that there are very few true choreographers in general.  You know… the Twyla Tharp or Alvin Ailey types who have that gift to push the creative boundaries of movement, emotion, and staging.  The ones that hear a piece of music and can somehow tease out the expressive nuances, challenging dancers’ bodies in ways we never thought possible.  These are the people who don’t “paint by numbers,” and not all of them are even very well-known.   (For the record, I am certainly not a gifted choreographer; I’m a natural improviser, and have one heck of a time remembering my own combinations and routines, and I must work very hard to create them.)

The prospects and perils of “dance by numbers”

Most belly dance routines, regardless of stylization, are like that childhood art project “Paint by Numbers.”  Use the brown paint to fill in all the areas labeled “1″, the red paint for “2″, the green for “3″ and so on… and when you’re done, you have a nice tidy image… that lacks creativity or personality. You wouldn’t call these pieces “art”, would you?

The same thing happens in belly dance.  If it’s an oriental or raqs sharqi routine, the promenade begins, and the dancer glides out with her veil, chasse-ing and turning her way around the stage until she takes center stage, flings her veil away, and boom-boom rakatak boom rakatak the baladi rhythm kicks in for some crowd-pleasing hip-drops.  Add in a melodic section, a folkloric section (Sa’idi kicks or a Khaliji-inspired hair tosses), and an exciting malfouf ending, and you have a typical oriental routine.  In Tribal Fusion, dancers use a different formula, but it’s still a formula (which I have greatly simplified here): slow, slinky melodic intro song to highlight a dancer’s backbends, muscular arm waves, and other slow fluid movements, and then an electronica song (dubstep has been popular lately, however, mash-ups of classical orchestral elements with electronic percussion have been quite favored, too) or a drum solo to show off locks, isolations, and hard-contraction movements.

There are certainly merits to the formulaic approach to dance composition, and, of course, not all dancers perform this way.  As students of the dance we must learn what the guidelines and rules are to creating dances so that we can then fashion performances that reach beyond them.  We spend much of our time learning how movements connect so that we can participate in festivals and recitals as part of our performance training.  I’ve started adding 30 minutes of combinations at the end of several of my own workshops so that dancers can have a more “hands-on” experience with how I approach different stylizations and concepts.

As we continue our studies, many of us learn or get the idea that these formulas are what define our dance, and that we must follow these “rules” in order to either be respectful of the dance itself (in the case of raqs sharqi) or to be considered relevant in the Tribal and Fusion scenes (ironic considering that Tribal Fusion has become as formulaic as the raqs sharqi it was rebelling against).  I’ve even heard Middle Eastern musicians tell dancers that they must “shimmy to the qanun” and perform “snake arms to the nay”, because that’s what’s expected of us.  (Because, apparently, the musicians know more about how to do our work than we do.)

Beyond the numbers

If you watch a performance by a great choreographer, (like Mia Michaels or Wade Robeson from the world of contemporary dance) these pieces are far from formulaic.  They blend familiar steps with strange, whimsical, challenging movements to convey the emotional and theatrical perspective of the piece.  The choreography itself might only be a minute and a half long, as is the case with “Fix You” by Travis Wall, and yet fills the stage with innovation, sentiment, and absolutely stunning dance technique on the part of the dancers themselves.  When you watch their compositions, you’re watching far more than combinations of movement set to music… you’re watching living, breathing, moving art.

What does that mean for those of us who just aren’t naturally gifted choreographers, relegated to creating decent combinations and routines for our students, never really breaking through that artistic wall?  We have to keep creating, regardless, and we have to be aware that there are formulas in our own dance world… formulas that must be broken responsibly.  The more routines we make, the more combinations the teach, and the more we improvise (yes), the greater our skill as creative dancers becomes.  And we must seek out those in our field (and outside our field) who create innovative work, learn from them, and then… make more dances of our own.

Source: Bellydance Paladin