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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13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips You Should Know

Today’s post is brought to you by Angelique Hanesworth, dance instructor and photographer based in New York State. Originally posted to her Facebook page, I thought it could use a little extra visibility and love. 


Following proper dance class etiquette is essential for dance students at all levels. Some of you might know these tips, but we can always use a little reminder.

General rule of thumb: Be aware, be respectful, be kind (to others as well as yourself) and have fun!

13 Dance Class Etiquette Tips guest post by Angelique Hanesworth

Essential Dance Class Etiquette

1. Arrive on time. Arriving late to class is disruptive to the other students, the teacher, and can set up the potential for injury if you do not have enough time to properly warm up. If for some reason you must be late, contact the instructor beforehand to get approval.

Most dance classes, regardless of where they are or what style of dance they teach won’t allow you into class if you’re more than 10 minutes late.

2. Have a good attitude. Energy begets energy, and for a lot of students, this is their one hour a week that they get to leave the house and do something fun for themselves. It can be frustrating when we don’t get something on which we’ve been working, but remember, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
We all have our own challenges—every last one of us—and learning how to manage them properly will help you on the dance floor, as well as in life.

3. Turn off your cell phones. ‘Nuff said.

4. Try not to leave the dance floor for the duration of class. If an emergency arises, leave discretely.

5. Do not talk when the teacher is speaking. You might think you are being quiet, but if you’re talking, you’re likely not as quiet as you think you are. If you have a question for the teacher, wait for the right moment, and raise your hand. Make sure it is a question that you cannot figure out on your own.

6. Do not correct other students. That is the teacher’s responsibility.

7. Do not correct the teacher. If the teacher has made a mistake (which is bound to happen) and it is causing confusion in the class, it is fine to politely ask for clarification. If you have a difference of opinion or philosophical perspective, it is best to save it for after class. Give the teacher the courtesy of judging for themselves whether it is something that should be shared with everyone else.

8. Take correction well. If a teacher corrects you, congratulations! That means they are invested in your development. Perfection is a myth, so don’t let your ego get in the way of your progress. If you hear a correction being given to another student, pay attention! There is a good chance it applies to you as well!

9. Practice. You go to dance class to learn, but you’ll make your progress when you practice outside of class. Make sure to do all homework, and work on any combinations/choreography, so that upon returning to class, you can spend the majority of your time learning new material instead of spending that time on review.

10. Wear appropriate attire and mind your hygiene. Proper attire will vary from class to class, but as a general rule, you are training, not performing. Wear something you can get sweaty in and move comfortably in. Keep your jewelry to a minimum; it can be noisy and catch on clothing. Please wear deodorant to class. And many people are sensitive to scents, so please avoid perfume.

11. Keep it clean! No food or gum on the dance floor. A water bottle is fine. As a general rule, if you brought it in, take it out.

12. Use common sense. There is no way I can list every etiquette rule for every situation. Being respectful of the other students, the teacher, and being a hard worker will cover many of the bases.

13. Have FUN! Ultimately, this is YOUR class too, and you should be having a good time. Every teacher feels good when their students leave the room happy, so enjoy the process. Dance is an enriching experience, so be proud of your hard work, celebrate your accomplishments, and keep your eye on the continuing journey ahead.

Dance teachers: What etiquette tips would you like new students to know? What would you like to remind your current students? Share yours in the comments!


Angelique HanesworthAbout the Author

Angelique Hanesworth began belly dancing in 1997, training with top talent from all over the world. Specializing in a Salimpour interpretation of Modern Oriental dance, she holds her Level 5 certification in the Suhaila Salimpour Format and Level 4 in the Jamila Salimpour Format. She is a highly sought after performer, with experience in theater productions, festivals, weddings, restaurants, and more. Between regular classes and workshops, she has taught hundreds of students and is known for her clear direction and creative insight. Angelique can also be seen on her acclaimed instructional DVD, Advanced Layering Drills. Angelique holds a degree in Computer Science, and black belts in Wing-Chun Kung Fu and Ishin-Ryu Karate. She is an accomplished portrait photographer, as well as Mom to two feisty and wonderful girls. Visit her website at angeliquebellydance.com





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