In the city where I started belly dancing, performing to live music was regarded as the ultimate experience and demonstration of skill. It was largely improvised and the dancers seemed to be more vibrant when dancing with a band. I remember going to Cosmic Pizza on Belmont to watch the dancers and I was always amazed and dumbfounded by this act. When I moved to Japan in 2006 and started dancing professionally, I knew I wanted to conquer the live music beast. I felt like I could not be considered professional if I couldn’t dance confidently to live music. And so, the journey began.
My dance partner and I decided to put on a live music show once a season. We called it “Cafe Cairo” because we were both in love with Egyptian music and we almost always put the show on in small restaurants or other intimate settings. With this deadline every few months, I was able to choose and learn music, work with musicians (mostly the band, Alladeen in Tokyo) and understand what puts the “life” in live performance.
Here’s what I realized were the absolute essentials for dancing to live music.
Know your music. Maybe this goes without saying, but I used to think that maybe the dancers didn’t know the music that well. Maybe they didn’t know what the band was going to play. Heck, did these songs even have names? The answer is yes! Sometimes the songs have different names in different places, but if you can sing the tune, the musicians can probably recognize it. There are specific parts that are completely improvised, called “taksim” (tahk-seem), but the main melody will always come back in. For the parts that are actual compositions, it’s to your benefit to know the song inside and out. If you are searching for bellydance music online, you might see the same songs come up over and over. You can bet these are the popular ones and it’s wise to start there if you aren’t familiar with Middle Eastern music. The more versions of a song you can find, the better. You might even be able to find the original on YouTube, being sung or played by famous singers and musicians from the Golden Era in Egypt. My advice is to find the original recording, a popular recording, an acoustic recording, and a more modern one. Practice dancing to all of these to prepare your ear to hear the same tune different ways. When I first started dancing with a band I often couldn’t recognize the song because the instrumentation was different in certain parts, or they would repeat a section that my recording didn’t. The more versions of the classic songs you have, the better.
Communicate with the band. If you are scheduled to dance with a band you have never worked with before, reach out to them and ask for a song list. Ask them what songs they are most comfortable with and choose one of those. You and your audience will have the most fun if the band is playing their best. If they do not have a song list, ask them if they have a standard set that they do with bellydancers. How long will you get to perform with them? This is a good time to ask about the taksim and drum solo sections. Which leads us to:
Improvise. Unless the band plays the song you’ve chosen the exact same way each time (and they have a recording of it that you can practice to) choreographing is going to be a disappointment. I personally feel that choreographing a solo performance with a live band takes the LIVE aspect out of it. That is not to say that you don’t know your music, and maybe know what you’ll do in certain parts of the song (travel, sassy pose, big accents, gooey level change thing, etc.), but to trying to choreograph every little nuance is probably going to come up short. The band may not even play those nuances and you’ll be dancing to something that just isn’t there in the music. Unless you can roll with the punches while performing a choreography, I’d say to just practice by improvising to the song. There are a LOT of notes in Middle Eastern music and even the best musicians rarely play it the same way twice. Then there are the improvised parts of the routine. Most Arabic songs have a taksim section, which is when one instrument takes a solo. Sometimes there is a backing rhythm like slow chiftitelli, wahda wa nous, or bolero. Sometimes there is a drone in the key of the maqam (scale) that is being played by the soloist. Sometimes there is just the instrument and no other backing instruments. In a drum solo, it’s best to talk to the drummer before the show to discuss rhythms and how you’ll cue each other to end the solo.
Let go. Now that you’ve practiced, chosen a song that you love and are confident that the band is going to play awesomely, have communicated with the band so they know you are professional and excited to work with them, you can just dance your heart out! You have laid the foundation for a successful performance, and have prepared as much as possible. This means that even if the band decides to play that one section AGAIN, or skip an entire section, you know the music so well and are ready for it. Really, dancing to live music is so powerful and fun – let your audience see that and give in to it. This is what we come to see live performance for. THE LIFE!
Take a bow and thank the band. While I stress NOT choreographing your live music routine, I do think that planning and practicing how you take a bow is important. Like a lot of things, professionalism is often in the details. Here’s what I do that feels good to me, and seems to work with any audience. First, I hold my ending pose for a few extra counts. If the music has stopped completely, I hold it in the silence, if it continues into a finale type of song or riff, I still hold it while the music starts up again. This shows the audience that the performance part is finished and they can just soak it in with you for a few beats. Then I square up to the audience, sweep both arms overhead and do a deep curtsy, bringing my hands to my heart, head bowed. I like to end on a cute/funny/casual note and blow a kiss with both hands simultaneously. I then move out of the middle of the stage, sweep my hand across to present the musicians and make eye contact with them. Depending on the stage, I may curtsy deeply to them (I’m not a fan of showing my backside to the audience in this case), or just nod and clap. I encourage the audience to applaud the band. If the band begins to play a finale or a reprise of one of the songs you danced to, use this time to exit. Find something that works for you, and practice it. This is the last time your audience will see you, and the final impression is often the longest lasting one.
Here’s a video of me dancing with Ritim Egzotik on acoustic instruments at my student hafla in 2011. Please note that dancing accordionists are not the norm 😉
Feel free to leave questions or comments below!
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