How to Choreograph

April 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

I don’t usually choreograph my solos.  I “tried” many times over the years, but was unsuccessful.  I tried choreographing by dancing through a song, but couldn’t remember what I’d done. Or I came up with a set of moves for one phrase, but couldn’t come up with anything for the rest.  Or I listened to a song and imagined how I would dance, but these images didn’t translate easily to reality.

Honestly, I think I lacked patience and confidence in my choices.  I wasn’t ready to choreograph.  Creating something definite was too much pressure.  If I improvised, I didn’t have to worry about forgetting my choreography.  Sometimes I worried about not knowing what was next, but I had no choice but to commit and keep dancing.  It seemed less stressful.  I love the freedom of improvisation.  It’s so honest and genuine.  However, both improvisation and choreography are important skills and lend themselves well to different circumstances.

A couple months ago, I signed up for a 3-5 minute solo at Amaya’s Oriental Potpourri.  I wanted to challenge myself with an Oriental belly dance choreography.  I picked a piece of music that seemed like it would be challenging to improvise to.  After working on it obsessively, I am pleased with how it turned out.

Here is the process I went through:

1) I listened to the song over and over and over again.  I wrote notes about the sections.  How are they different?  What is their feel?  Should that section be fast? Staccato?  Melodic?  Traveling?  In place?

2) I broke down the song by section and count.  I wrote things like “Intro-32 counts” and “Call and Answer-16 counts.”  Then I wrote general notes about what I saw for each section, such as “traveling,” “undulations,” “layering,” “shimmies.”

3) I listened to one section at a time, and then one phrase at a time.  I visualized dancing.  I kept listening until I had an idea I really liked, then I wrote it down.  If I couldn’t get an idea for something, I skipped it and came back to it later with the question, “what does the dance still need?” As the dance developed, I made sure there was enough variation in floor patterns, traveling, staying still, leveling, etc.  I didn’t want my dance to look stagnant and I wanted it to reflect the changes in the music.  I also made sure there was some repetition so the dance was cohesive.

4) Once I had a combo written down, I tried it. I sang each part to myself as I slowly went through the moves.  Some things worked and some didn’t.  Some phrases needed a little refinement while some had to be entirely reworked.  It was a process.  Once I had something solid, I tried it with the music.

5) When I finished choreographing, it was time for memorization.  I kept my notes nearby and practiced transitioning from one section to the next.  This took awhile.  It was the same process as learning someone else’s choreography.

6) Once it was memorized, I focused on musical expression.  I listened to the music very closely and adjusted moves to reflect the sound.  I tried to really dance it.

7) Practice, practice, practice.

This is the process that worked for me.  I put together my 3-and-a -half minute solo in about a week and a half.  I worked on it everywhere I could; every free second I got.  At home, at school, at work, at the laundry mat…Once I started, it was hard to stop.  It was a labor of love.

Here is the finished product:

What is your choreography process?  Do you have any tips to share?

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A Film Project: A Dancer from New Mexico

December 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a project I worked on with my roommate, a film student, a couple months ago.  He was assigned to create short films in the styles of some of the first filmmakers. This project, he did in honor of Turkish Dance by Thomas Edison, shot in 1898.  I tried to keep my free-style dancing on the folkloric side and create a similar feel as the dancer in the original video.

Here is my roommate’s completed project:

Here is the original short:

If you’ve never checked it out before, there is a lot of vintage, belly dance footage on youtube.  It’s pretty interesting.

Belly Dance Solo: My Experience with Solo Dance Versus Group Dance

April 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have been thinking about how my transition into soloing has been gradual, but quite graceful.

I used to get bad stage fright when I first began dancing.  I had a hard time smiling, my chin and bottom lip used to shake, I would even feel a little dizzy.  Over time, I have come to love performing and enjoy being on stage.  After I adjusted to being on stage in a group setting, I would still get nervous about performing solos.  I didn’t do it very often.  I had some American Tribal Style solos here and there, which are not like traditional solos as there is usually a chorus of dancers on stage with the soloist put in a position of focus.  Even with a chorus behind me, it was a little nerve-racking.

I have very much enjoyed being a troupe dancer.  I like the bonding that goes on between dancers on stage together.  I like being able to feel supported by my troupe mates and supporting them in return. I like the dynamics that can happen in group dances. I like that there is a safety in numbers kind of feeling.

For a long time, I was not very interested in doing true solos.  When I started performing them it was only when it was necessary to fill a time slot in a show. Back then, I did other people’s choreography, never my own, and certainly never improvisation.  I wanted to feel confident that my solo was going to be “good.”

It was a bit of an adjustment to go from group dances to performing solos.  My two biggest challenges were learning to use the stage differently and getting used to having Every. Eye. On. Me.  Sure, I know people are watching me in group dances, but they are also looking at the other dancers.  It is much more intense when they all focus on me at once.  I have found myself on stage thinking, “oh my god, why are they looking at me like that????….oh yeah, because I’m doing a solo…”  Haha. I think I have finally gotten used to it.  It only took doing a few solos over a few months.

As far as using the stage goes, with group dances, it’s easy to use the space.  The stage is filled just because there are multiple people on it.  Groups can create dynamics with static formations, moving formations such as lines of dancers moving through each other, shapes such as circles, entire group level changes, scaled level changes, some dancers facing different directions…there are many possibilities.  With a solo, there are similar options, but they are executed differently.  A soloist cannot create a formation, but can be static or in motion.  They can only create shapes across the floor by drawing them with their dance path.  When a soloist changes levels, it can only be interesting because of the contrast between the level they are on and the level they were on.  They can make directional changes, but can only face one direction at a time.  They are solely responsible for taking center stage, covering the whole stage, creating interesting lines, and creating variety in their movement, all while still dancing to the music.  It’s a bit a more pressure.

Another thing that is different between solos and group dances is the energy dynamic.  With group dances, you can play off the energy of your fellow dancers and project to them as well as the audience.  There is a collective energy on stage that infects you while you are contributing to it.  In a solo, it’s all you, baby!  You must commit, you must project.  I feel like I am exploding with energy when I am doing a solo.  I am also more aware of the music.  I am the only one expressing the music, so it is my dance partner when I am on stage alone.  I internalize the music and externalize the movement and energy.

When I first started performing solos, it was to fill show needs.  Then, I started doing them because I felt like I had reached a point in my dance journey where it was necessary for my continued growth as a dancer.  Now, finally, I perform them because I like to.

I did an improvisational veil solo at a performance over the weekend.  I also performed a couple solos at a birthday party gig last weekend.  I discovered I am not scared of all the eyes on me anymore.  I am no longer terrified by the pressure of keeping the audience’s attention all by myself.  I finally feel like I am using the stage properly and creating some variation in my movement that reflects the music and creates dynamic.

There is actually a wonderful sense of freedom in performing solos because I can just go with what the music is telling me to do.  I don’t have to worry about whether or not I am doing the “correct” thing.  I am not necessarily limited by the confines of a strict choreography.  I can just dance.

Veil Solo

October 18, 2010 § 1 Comment

I did my very first completely improvised veil solo the other day.  I performed it at a diversity convention for realtors.  It was in a large conference room with tables set up with food and goods from various cultures, free henna hand painting, and diverse door prizes that were donated from shops around town.

A few of us dancers were going to perform.  We were doing American Tribal Style, a couple drum solos, a sword piece and a skirt dance.  My troupe director asked if I wanted to do a solo, and I said sure!  I looked at the set list and thought a veil dance would round out the lineup nicely.

I have had some veil experience.  I have performed veil a few times with a choreographed group of dancers.  I have taken multiple veil workshops and classes and I have played around with veils a bit.  This was my first time performing a veil solo.  More importantly, it was my first time performing an improvised veil solo to live music.  I watched some youtube videos the night before to get some ideas and get a refresher on veil options.  I didn’t know what song I would be dancing to until I showed up to the run-through, so I couldn’t do a lot of practicing.

I knew I wanted to dance with the veil wrapped around the arms some to add variety and keep the veil out of the way for part of the dance.  I decided to start the dance that way so I wouldn’t forget to do it.  I also planned to use the veil from the end for some long veil work.  But that was as much planning as I did.  I danced through the song once during our run-through.  Before I started, my troupe director said, “you don’t have to do all classic veil.”  I said, “I don’t know what I’ll do, I have no idea what my veil style is.”

I think the piece turned out well.  I love the song the musician played on the accordion, Imate Li Vino.  The version he played is slow, pretty and expressive.  It’s one of my favorites, even though I’ve only heard it a few times before, but that really helped.  I was “in the zone.”

My entrance felt a little rough.  I wasn’t flowing with the music yet, but after the first half a minute or so, I was only really aware of the veil and the music.  Total flow.  Especially after I completely unraveled the veil and went into full veil work.  I twirled and spun and tossed and moved the veil with the rises and falls in the melody.  I was just feeling the music and danced until I felt done.  I’m not sure what all I did, I just danced.

After, I asked my fellow dancers how long I had danced for and they said about 3 minutes which is, in my opinion, a perfect length for a solo. I was lucky that the song is very cyclical  so the musician could add however many verses I needed him to.  I entered after the song started and left before it finished.  I had pictured myself as a figment of the imagination, as if the musician dreamed me. An apparition.  A consequence of the melody.

Hoop Dancing, Belly Dancing and Public Perception

September 26, 2010 § 1 Comment

I have been getting a little more into hoop dancing lately. I have taken a workshop and now own a hula hoop. It is so much fun!

I was talking with a fellow belly dancer who is now also hooping about hooping vs. belly dancing the other day. We have both been belly dancing about the same amount of time (her ten years, me nine). We were discussing how one of the great things about hooping is that you don’t have to worry about having to explain it to people, having to educate people, or having people get the wrong idea.

With belly dance, you have to be careful about how it’s presented and in what venue. There are so many incorrect or negative preconceived notions about what belly dancing is about and what the intentions of the dancers are. It is often stereotyped as a dance of morally loose women or a dance of seduction and sexuality akin to stripping.  Belly dancers often struggle with the way the general public perceives them and the art form. Sadly, many belly dancers don’t share the fact that they belly dance with people in other parts of their lives because they fear the reaction.

With hula hooping, everyone knows what it is. No one will see a hula hooper and react with “what the heck are they doing? They are amazingly keeping this big, circular thing rotating around their body!  How crazy!”  Everyone knows what a hula hoop is, what it’s used for and there aren’t general negative ideas about it. It would be gladly accepted at any venue. Someone could even do a provocative dance with a hoop, and it won’t make anyone think all hoop dancers are loose, because the hula hoop image is already established in our culture.

It presents a very nice sense of freedom that is not always there with belly dance. I can feel more relaxed about it. And never worry about what someone might think.

A Sword Short

January 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Late last year, my troupe performed at the Alabama Renaissance Faire. One of our pieces was a choreographed sword dance.

Many people in our troupe have the same Turkish scimitar style dance swords. They are purchased from the same distributor and therefore balance the same and have the same weight. Some people even have two so they can do double sword. We like to have matching swords for performances so we share the surplus within the troupe when we do a group piece. The sword I own is a different style, so I’m one of the dancers who borrows.

Before the Renaissance Faire, we did not communicate well enough about who was bringing whose sword for the first, less formal day of performing, and we ended up a sword short. In retrospect, we should have talked our way through a reset of the choreography and just did the piece with one fewer dancer. Instead, we borrowed a sword from another dance troupe. It was a little larger, but had a similar shape and the look we wanted. I was going to use that sword. This was only minutes before we went on. I put the sword on my head to make sure I could find the balancing point, took it off again and went to the stage area.

The performance started off really well. When it was time for our sword piece, we began with the swords in our hands and did some lyrical work, creating interesting shapes and lines. I was a little worried because the borrowed sword felt strange. Even just moving it around with my hands, it felt…different.

About a third of the way into the dance, we balance the swords on our heads. As we find the balancing points, we do some hip work and undulation type moves so we continue dancing even as we are placing the swords. Then we all remove our hands at once for dramatic effect.

Up until this point, everything had gone really smoothly. No forgotten choreography. No spacing issues. No costume malfunctions. No wind blowing (wind makes balancing harder because it can actually blow the sword around on your head). All swords were in place.

Then we began moving. First the back line, then the front. After just a couple seconds, my sword slipped. I calmly put it back in place. Within 30 seconds, it slipped again. I replaced it once more. When it slipped a third time, I started to get frustrated.

I have dealt with having to reposition a sword before. It’s usually no big deal, it’s just part of dancing with a sword. But I had never dealt with a sword that I couldn’t get to balance at all. This was quite embarrassing. Part of what is impressive about sword is that a dancer can seem to move effortlessly with this dangerous object on her head. If a dancer can’t get it to stay, it ruins the effect.

I hate watching other dancers struggle with things on stage and I’m sure it was painful to watch me fight with that sword. What I wanted to do was stab the sword into the ground, declare that it was not mine and stomp off the stage. I didn’t, of course.

I managed to finish the rest of the choreography as gracefully as possible while mostly holding the sword in place. In retrospect, I could have removed the sword and improvised around the dancers who were still doing the choreography. This option did occur to me during the mishap, but I was afraid it might throw off another dancer, so I just finished the piece the best I could.

One thing I learned is that it is best to be responsible for your own prop. In the future, if I’m borrowing something I will try to borrow it beforehand so I can personally bring it to the performance space. It is a lot easier for each individual dancer to keep track only of what they will need for the show.

After this rather embarrassing performance, I went home and played with my own sword, which has a thinner blade and is much more light weight. I could not do the troupe choreography with this sword either. The choreography is at a medium tempo. With my own sword, I dance at very slow tempos. This got me thinking about how one sword may lend itself to different styles of dancing better than others.

The heavier, scimitar swords we use in the troupe stay on the head more securely during turns and faster moving steps. You can move more suddenly and the weight and shape help keep the sword from responding as much. When you finish a turn, the sword tends to slow down and stop just after. Its own weight seems to have more influence on it than the momentum of dancing.

With lighter swords, you have to move slower. For turns, you have to start out slow and build speed so you don’t leave the sword behind, and you usually need some way to stop it at the end so it does not keep going without you. For example, you can artistically put your arm up in the path of the sword.

While this does not mean one sword is better than another, it does mean that you should be cautious if borrowing a sword that you’ve never danced with at the last minute pre-perfomance, especially if you plan on adhering to a strict choreography that may or may not work with that particular sword. I know, this should probably be sword-balancing common sense, but sometimes you need to make last minute decisions to fix a problem. Sometimes they work well and sometimes they don’t. This time, it didn’t work out so well for me. It’s okay, though. It’s all part of that live-in-the-moment performance experience.

Improvements in Improv

December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

I used to be so incredibly afraid of performing improvisational belly dance that I would all but refuse to do it. If there was a way to get out of it, I would.

In the past couple years, with much pushing from my dance troupe director, I’ve started doing it much more. At first, I was nervous and self-conscious and wondered if I was doing the correct thing to the music. Was I being impressive enough? Did I look like a good dancer?

My comfort level started to improve with open dances after hafla performances. Dancing improvisationally with a bunch of other dancers in an informal setting mixed with post-performance adrenaline helped me feel less self-conscious and be able to just have fun and dance.

At a benefit show we did a couple months ago, one of our musicians was unexpectedly unable to make it. This meant we couldn’t do each choreographed dance we had planned since she played a major role in the melody of certain pieces. To fill in the space, we, with members from our student troupe, took turns improvising to some music that we all knew well. It was in a Mexican restaurant, Banditos, at a benefit show for the local no-kill animal shelter. It was a laid back atmosphere with an energetic audience. As I danced, I really felt like I was able to get into the music. I felt confident. I lost myself in the music and the dance moves just developed in my body according to what I heard. I was a slave to the moment.

Since, I’ve realized the incredible joy that exists in improvisational belly dance and the abandon of letting the music take you. Now I can really appreciate the differences between improv and choreography.

When performing choreography, my mind is clear and focused (hopefully) and all that’s in my head is the move that’s coming next, listening for the music that coincides, and what I want to be projecting. When I dance improvisationally, all that’s in my head is the music, and the moves become the melody and the drum beat. They are no longer two things that exist next to each other. They are the same.

In the past, I have had a hard time producing solos because I always tried to choreograph them. Creating my own choreography is not the easiest thing. I can pick a piece of music, listen and visualize, but once I try to actually put a solidified order of moves together, I get stuck. It’s like I feel too much pressure to “make it good.” I have finally concluded that it would be less stressful to just pick a piece of music, get comfortable with it and then dance to it on stage, sans strict planning. I think this would relieve some of the pressure.

Recently, we had another benefit show, this time for Toys for Tots. We had special guests, Onca and August of the Mezmer Society, and some other incredible southeastern dancers, come into town for the show. At the end of the show, August played some lovely Balkan music with our in-house musicians and we had some open dancing. This was the most lost I have become in the music in front of an audience. Ever. I was an expression of the music. I felt free and euphoric. That was the moment I knew my love affair with improvisational belly dance had begun.

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