How Structure Empowers Personal Belly Dance Stylization

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.

belly dance stylization codification standardization structure music writing creativity

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.

dance belly dance style genre map music rock 20th century
A map of 20th-century musical style and influences, illustrated in the style of a subway map. Click to zoom.

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
  • Post-Punk
  • Be-Bop Jazz (with, of course, core roots in African diasporic musical traditions)
  • Disco

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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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


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One Response

  1. I have seen the arguments that “we” don’t have the right to impose our strategies of standardization on it but it makes more sense to make it make more sense! It makes sense to have a strategy for a better quality practice in dance as with art, or music. People thrive and learn best with structure. I have always felt the most comfortable with teachers of anything that have put in the effort to do a lesson with structure that makes sense.

    I suppose along with creating structure in “belly dance” we could say that having names for the movements that everyone would use would help create better structure. And again there is the argument and yes, bickering, that we don’t have the right. But frankly it is a little frustrating when a teacher will yank names from other dance forms such as latin dance and put it on a belly dance step when the two moves are actually quite different.

    Over the years I have thought a lot about cultural appropriation, structure and names and the bickering has made it hard for me to hold on to me in this dance. To what I felt in the beginning in the early 2000s. Because I enjoy structure and enjoy exploring the movements deeper with structure it doesn’t make me or anyone a hater of where the dance came from. Because I enjoy doing these kinds of dance movements to music where I come from does not mean that I believe in anyway that “west is best” at all. I love dancing to all kinds of music. I love the old and the new. Preserving the past and exploring. But the endless shaming within the dance community takes a lot of work to let slide off the shoulders. I have felt for a long time that I should have been focusing on art and music, perhaps things like hoop instead when originality in belly dance and teaching it is only allowed under certain terms.

    I even tried to change my way of thinking and be an absolute purist but if I was then I would have to believe that no white person including me has the right to “belly dance” at all. I would have to believe that my wanting structure and further exploration would mean an act of racism. I don’t believe that anyone is trying to say the “west is best” but is looking to play with the dance moves and sounds. In that way to be oneself and express oneself rather than to be exactly like who and what has come before.

    As a guitar player and artist I also want my own voice and expression that is completely my own. It isn’t any different with dance. In music and art a person can say “these are my influences” as an artist statement and so people can get to know them. It is generally accepted that a musician and artist will draw from many influences and create their own style. Why can a dancer not also have an artists statement that expresses what their influences are and not just their teachers? Why is a dancer not able to create her own style of teaching even with structure? Why in every learning tradition is that applauded and not in “belly dance”? Why can’t a dancer say what their own personal artistic philosophy is with dance? Is the bickering and hatred really helping anyone? Is it actually causing more cultural appropriation? Is it stopping it? Why the ” we are the good white guys and you are the bad white guys!” approach? Does creating structure and personalized styles actually destroy other styles? Might there not be other reasons for why a style might suffer in a particular place and time? Wouldn’t structure help to preserve not just newer and contemporary styles but older ones that are suffering under the effects of politics, belief systems, hate and war?

    I have been using the term “belly dance” because to me it is an umbrella term. I can’t use the term Oriental Dance or Raqs Sharki for Contemporary styles made here and done to different music. There are just many styles under the umbrella term belly dance just as there are many styles of Jazz, Metal, Rock, Pop etc. The term Abstract Art is also an umbrella term. Why is it so horrible to use an umbrella term for many kinds of “belly dance” and give each style a name so that people can know what they are talking about to understand?

    I don’t for see a lowered standard of teaching and I don’t for see people beginning to believe that they don’t have the right to dance that they want to dance to, to music that they want to dance to. Granted many dancers will do things that don’t make sense just as many artists and musicians do because artists of all kinds make mistakes and make work that isn’t their best. Dancers too will throw their creativity around like any musician or artist in the hopes of discovering something their own and throw it out their into the world without editing. It happens. But people learn or they continue with their style of doing things. I would rather a person to keep dancing and holding their head high rather than fall under the hate of critics.

    There is constructive criticism and there is criticism. As long as points trying to be made are full of hate and venom, shaming then the point will not get across. There is bickering in many artistic communities but I truly believe the “belly dance” world would get further if less bickering was done. Very often it is not a respectful discussion, it is bickering.

    I truly want to know how my creating structure and wanting structure destroys and causes harm to people. I want the evidence. Not word by second mouth. Music is beautiful when technique is studied but the heart and soul is listened to, embodied and expressed. It is no different in art or dance. There will always be people who focus only on the technique in any discipline. We can’t stop that. It is a degrading of an art form because art is about expression and survival of the soul. But there will always be people no matter the art form, no matter the style in any discipline that do art for the sake of art and study technique for the sake of their heart and souls expression.

    Anyone can hate me if they will. But it isn’t anything I or others have not experienced at length in this world. Hate can cause damage but it can never completely destroy the heart and soul without our permission. Hate causes more damage to an art form such as belly dance than structure, creative voice and solid identity does.

    My head is shaven? Am I not allowed to dance any style of Oriental Dance because I don’t fit within that particular structure? Like it or not, folkloric or not, there is structure in all styles. To explore is to discover that structure more fully. Abstract Expressionism by Jackson Pollack had a method if it is looked at closer. It is easy to say that looser styles do not have a structure but they do. Everything that exists anywhere has a structure. The best teachers look deeply within it and expose that structure to students in a clear way so that they can learn easier, safer and faster. Structure means that the students experience of learning as well as health and safety is respected and valuable.

    I’m venting because I have felt to have no one to vent with about this subject!

    Thank you!

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