If you’ve been involved in belly dance for even a few months, you’ve heard the arguments about style and stylization.
The first divide being between “tribal” and “cabaret.” Then within “cabaret” there’s Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, and more. Within Egyptian, say, then there’s Golden Era, 70s style, 90s style, and contemporary. Within Golden Era, there’s… well, the individual dancers themselves. Samia Gamal dances quite differently from Tahia Karioka, and they both dance differently from Naima Akef.
So, when we get down to it, stylization is how a dancer uses certain set movements and makes them their own. It’s their sequencing. It’s how they hear music. The tilt of their head, the framing of their arms, and the attack and release of their hipwork. It even comes to which movements they favor.
And you might have heard the argument that standardized or codified technique hampers or inhibits a personal style.
I’m here to argue that standardization allows style to flourish.
Let’s look at two other creative forms that have hardly suffered under the “iron hand” of structure and standardization: Writing and Music
Choreographing is like writing a novel
Style is how a dancer uses movement vocabulary. Although the comparison is rife with perils, if we compare dance to language, we can say that language is codified. We spell things in a particular way (and of course this can change organically as needed by different communities and cultures). But we spell things generally the same way. We place nouns before verbs. We capitalize the first letters of sentences and end them with periods or question marks, and if it’s really exciting, an exclamation point. This is an agreed-upon codification. We even agree that OMG means “Oh My God” and not “Overt Miscellaneous Gravel.” We also know that we use OMG in certain contexts, say, texting or in a Facebook comment… but not, say, in a college essay.
So, say we’re choreographing with words, i.e., writing a novel. How I write a novel will be very different from how you write a novel, and this is our personal style. How we use POV, our characters’ personalities, our very stories themselves… that’s our style. That’s our personalization.
To say that codification excises style is like saying that learning the rules of grammar stifles literary creativity…. whereas, I would argue the opposite. e e cummings certainly understood how to use capital letters, and yet he deliberately chose not to; it wasn’t because he didn’t know the basic rules of grammar. And that’s what made his style his style. He even stylized his own name.
To have structure helps us understand more deeply the movements available to us, in addition to how our own unique body responds to music, so that we can develop our own personal styles.
Composing music is both codified and creative
Arabic music is also codified in its own way, and that has not inhibited creativity or experimentation within the maqam system at all, but let’s look at something that my readers might be a little more familiar with: Western music theory and its notation.
Western music is codified. And down to its very vibrational frequency. The note of A has been set for Western classical music at 440hz. Now, it hasn’t always been that way. A has been at 415hz during the Baroque period, and other frequencies, but orchestras today pitch their A at 440hz, and that’s that. (Adam Neely lays out a pretty good history of how A was standardized to 440. His stuff is awesome. You should check it out.)
And when we learn how to play music, say it’s piano lessons as a child, or joining the school band with a squeaky clarinet, what do we learn first? Not the notes. Not a song. And certainly not stylization. We learn how to place our fingers on the keys, how to press them, how to sit at the bench. For the clarinet, you learn how to blow into the instrument, keep the reed moist, and fingering technique.
Once we have a basic idea of how to hold our instrument, then we can learn where the notes are. On a piano, it’s easy. They go up in pitch going to the right of Middle C, and they descend in pitch going to the left of Middle C. Instruments like the clarinet or trumpet are more difficult, so each have their own technique, that is, how we get our bodies to play the notes we want to play. Then as we solidify our basic technique, we start learning music theory. Learning the difference between major key and minor key? Then we get deeper, learning about inversions, diminished 7ths, and augmented 5ths. Then we learn about how melodies are structured. Sonatas. Fugues. Concertos. And we learn different song forms, like strophic, binary, and rondo. (It’s all right if you don’t know what these are, because frankly, I’m still learning them myself. But there are links to YouTube tutorials for those of you who are nerdy and want to know more.)
And as we go, we learn how to play songs that use this new theoretical knowledge to put it into physical practice.
So, if we were to choreograph notes, that would be writing music. We write music in ways that appeal to our personal preferences as well as our technical abilities. If we only understand major and minor key, we might not be writing music that uses jazz’s blue notes or odd meters. Of course there are those proteges who can (Tori Amos comes to mind), but the rest of us…. we have to hunker down and practice.
All of this technical and theoretical—and codified—knowledge hasn’t inhibited the creativity and development of musical styles over time. Look at all of the styles of music that use Western codification in some way:
- Contemporary pop music
- Rock and Roll
- Big Band
- Symphonic Progressive Rock
- Thrash Metal
- New Wave
- Be-Bop Jazz (with, of course, core roots in African diasporic musical traditions)
And within each of these styles, musicians can explore their own preferences, tendencies, and arrangements… that is, their style.
Structure allows creativity to flourish
When we understand the structure behind the creative form that we are learning, we are better able to embody it, experiment with it, understand its history and context and… create our own work within that mode of expression. Otherwise, we’re just haphazardly trying to copy the work of those we admire. We’re unmoored, floating about, when we could be anchored to a system of conceptualizing the work that goes into creating anything… whether it’s a painting (yes, you have to learn how to hold the brush), playing the piano, writing a novel, or learning and creating dances.
So, it makes sense that if we are to develop our own personal style, it is imperative that we invest time and energy into exploring and understanding this dance form that we love so much. And arguments that it is a folk dance, that it has to be handed down without terminology or technique, or that standardization inhibits personal expression are completely moot when we look at other art forms. Once we put a dance on a stage, it’s no longer a folk dance; it goes from participatory to performative. Any time a dancer explains how they do a movement, they are explaining their technique in their own terminology. And standardization hasn’t inhibited the myriad other dance forms that have agreed-upon language.
Can you imagine if every musician had to begin from scratch, just imitating what they heard without knowing how to hear it? Or if every writer had to make up their own words and letters in order to write their novel, or just copied clauses and chunks of sentences that they liked and pasted into their own manuscript? So why are so many belly dancers insistent that we must do so with our own movement modality?
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