Belly dance is, at its heart, a solo, improvised dance form.
Of course, in the past few decades, professional dancers have been choreographing their shows or hiring choreographers to compose dances for them. Nadia Gamal famously choreographed her shows from beginning to end, including the taqasim.
Choreography lends a structure and grounded quality to a dancer who might otherwise feel adrift without anchors to guide them. It also allows a professional to really sink into the movement, allowing their “muscle memory” to take over so that they can feel confident and expressive without having to “think” about what to do next.
Improvisation Is The Pinnacle of Performance
Improvisation, though… it is the most difficult expression of belly dance.
It requires a meta-mindfulness, particularly when working with a live band.
We must have part of our attention on the music. Part of it on the musicians themselves, on which instrument is at the forefront, and any musical cues signaling a shift to the next musical phrase or ending of the song itself.
We must also be present with the audience, expressing the musical sentiment through our bodies for them. We can’t be distracted by grimacing faces, people getting up or shifting in their seats, or worse, using their smartphones. (Seriously, unless the dancer has asked you to film them, put that ish away!)
We also need to be clear with our body angles, line, and technique.
We cannot rest on a choreography to guide us through the set.
And we cannot, for whatever reason, mentally or emotionally just check out.
But if improvisation is the ultimate goal, how do we build that skill?
Start In the Classroom
At the end of my classes, I teach a short combination. Beginner dancers, particularly adults, often feel paralyzed when we split up the class, having one group perform the combination for the other.
They are afraid of “messing up.”
But I tell my students that the first rule of belly dance (other than staying in Home Position—our proper body alignment) is:
Fake it ’til you make it!
That means if you forget a phrase, travel in a different direction, blank out, or have any other blips while dancing… KEEP GOING. Make it look like you did it all on purpose.
Because belly dance is a performing art, I introduce this essential performance skill at the very beginning. If you forget a step or phrase, you can take that moment to do a step you do know. Do a sassy walk. Hit a pose. Do some arm waves. Keep going.
It’s not just advice for dance class. It’s advice for life.
Improvisation Isn’t Easy
I think some dancers feel that improvisation is easier than performing choreography. I used to think this as well.
What I realized is that I was being, well, lazy.
As I learn more about this rich and deep dance genre, I feel like dancers who rely solely on improvisation without performing or creating choreography don’t realize the depth and skill required to be a competent and master improviser. I know that I didn’t.
Improvisation is a huge responsibility. We can’t just go on stage and flail about to the music. We must know the music intimately. So well that—no matter if we’re dancing to a recording or a live band—we can catch every accent, change, counterpart, and quirk, all with impeccable technique, embodied sentiment, and cultural etiquette.
And everything we do should look like we’ve done it on purpose. But it still must have a fresh spontaneity, that ephemeral essence of a moment that will never happen again.
Improvisation should look like choreography…
…while choreography should look like improvisation.
So how do we get to be impeccable improvisers?
- Learn a lot of different choreography and combinations.
In modern and contemporary classes, they call this “phrasework.” Basically, you’re learning how other dancers put together steps and movements to make them flow together. When you learn other dancers’ phrases, your filling your personal repertoire with a wide range of movement from which to pull any time you’re composing.
- Continually challenge and refine your physical dance technique.
This goes without saying. Your body must be fine-tuned so that it can respond to music in the moment. Consistent training will build your movement vocabulary, empowering you to put elements together in a way that is uniquely you. But if your technique is weak, your dancing will be too. There’s no away around it.
- Listen to a lot of music, particularly Arabic music.
When you listen to a lot of Arabic music, you’ll start to recognize how musicians cue each other to change into different rhythms and sections of familiar songs. Hopefully, you’ll also begin to identify elements of songs from different eras, including musical progression, instrumentation, and sentiment. Other musical forms can also inform your ear. Many jazz subgenres have similarities to Arabic music. Personally, I credit my intense consumption of prog rock in my teen years for my ability to rock out in any time signature.
- Dance doodle in the safety of your own practice space.
Doodling is when you improv to music without any end in mind. You’re just experimenting, playing, and letting your body move. Doodling can lead to set phrases or not. When you physically move your body to music, you’re allowing your body to find pathways that work for you, your sense of musicality, and your current skill level. Use the Salimpour School performance sets (scroll down), and you’ll be well on your way.
Improvisation, like any skill, will only improve with mindful practice. Only then we can shift from “fake it” to “make it.”
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