The soul of Oriental and belly dance is improvisation—completely losing oneself to the music and dancing without choreography. But how do you do it without stage fright or worrying about what comes next? A few tips to make improvisation come a little more easily to you:
1. Listen to Arabic rhythms, rinse and repeat. The more Arabic and Middle Eastern music you listen to, the more familiar the instruments, familiar melodies, and drum rhythms will become. The reason that a belly dancer can so artfully dance to improvised music, often performed by a live band, is because she can identify the rhythm being used and take cues from the music that will help her choose movements that fit the music and most importantly, knowing what comes next. Listen to different kinds of music, such as drum solos, which focus on percussive sounds that go great with hipwork, and taxims, improvised musical stylings often played by wind or string instruments that often call for elegant and delicate small movements. A few ideas to get you started:
2. Practice improvising everywhere. In the shower, at the kitchen sink, in front of your pet cat, practice improvising movements to your favorite music, whether Middle Eastern or not. Find music that moves you, whether that is Metallica or Nourhanne or Mozart, and practice stringing movements together, flowing without thought between combinations. Practice makes perfect.
- Tip: If you freeze up and don’t know what to do next, start with circles—hip circles, chest circles, shoulder rolls, wrist circles, and imagine the energy and music playing through your body from hip to fingertip and back again. For faster music or with drums, practice your shimmies, layering arm and torso movements on top once you have built up a steady shimmy. There is no such thing as a wrong movement in improvisation!
3. Riff off of choreography. If you are the type of dancer who vastly prefers choreography to improvisation, you can use your choreographed routine as training wheels to improvise off of. Start with your choreography, and when you are feeling confident, throw in some new moves. If you get stuck or run out of ideas, you can revert back to your choreography and no one will be the wiser!
4. Slow down, waaaay down. The temptation to speed up your dancing when improvising is strong. Challenge yourself to try dancing to different musical tempos and slowing down movements and allow for moment of breath in between. You are the embodiment of the music—when the music calls for smooth, even shimmies or for big turns or slow-as-honey ooey gooey undulations, do it! Some slow songs to inspire you:
5. Build up a bag of tricks. Take inspiration from your favorite belly dancers and dance videos for “tricks” that you can throw into your improvised dancing when you run out of moves or need something unexpected. For example, look at how you can use your hair or even eyebrows as props and extensions of movements or emphasis, such as a hair whip for a drum’s dum or to interact with the audience with a facial expression that gives meaning to the lyrics of the song. Other tricks include theatrical twists to add to the song’s content (kicking your foot up when the singer goes on about brushing her old love like dirt off her shoe) or have a lighthearted moment with an audience member (like dancing exaggeratedly after a waiter or wrapping a veil like a turban around a man’s head). You are not just improvising dance moves, but with the song’s meaning, the space you are dancing in, and your audience. A few of my favorites: