I have been a dancer all my life. Since I could walk, I danced. I was very fortunate to be raised in a loving family environment, and was encouraged to express myself through dance, song, music and acting. My family has always been loud and boisterous, has always expressed to the world their thoughts and feelings without inhibition. I believe this has given me a much better understanding of the art of expression than the average Western woman.
It is very sad to see how many people, through their need to fit into society’s strictures, develop an inability to express deep emotions. “Don't cry in public”, “Don't laugh too loudly”, “Don't bring attention to yourself”; This societal mindset has made it very difficult for many to be able to just let go, and dance with abandon.
I have seen many dancers who are so very talented, and can do wondrous things with their bodies, yet are absolutely terrified of Improvisational dance. The thought of movement without thought, without knowing what your music is going to do next, without thinking about what step to take, what emotion to act out.....it boggles the mind of some of the most gifted dancers I've ever met.
I can tell you from personal experience, there is nothing in dance that will take you to the heights of ecstasy, than to dance in the moment and move through the music as one.
For I say to you ladies and gentleman......
"The heart of Middle Eastern Dance lies in the heart of the Middle Eastern Dancer".
First and foremost, I'd like to draw your attention to the history of dance. Before it was a performance, show or presentation, it was simply a means for human expression. Since the beginning of time, revelations of joy, excitement, grief and pain have been dramatically communicated through dance. It has been used in celebrations as a hallmark for births, weddings and victories of battles won. As well, dance was frequently performed in ceremonies to cleanse oneself and others of grief, illness, and bad humors, not to mention the eclectic art of dance used in prayer and worship throughout the world.
Dance in its rawest form is human emotion, transformed into a human in motion.
Ultimately, I believe in order to truly appreciate Middle Eastern dance, it should be performed in its original state....in a form unspoiled by the constraints set forth through choreographed movement. You must learn to feel the music and understand the emotions portrayed in the songs you wish to dance to, and this is something that can only be achieved by dedicating years of study to dance and its basic movements, and by learning about the cultures whose music you wish to dance to. For some, this also means studying the languages of those same cultures.
Since belly dance has become so westernized, and dance schools have become the norm, the dance form itself has had to evolve to some degree to meet the needs of the students and beginner dancers. Where once it was simply learned from 'the cradle' so to speak, as part of the normal social lives of the people from these Middle Eastern countries, now there are many adults and teens who wish to learn 'Belly Dance', who know nothing about the cultures from whence they originated. Unfortunately, many Westerners have skewed ideas of these cultures and their dances due to Hollywood’s, often times, unfair and illusory portrayal of what they really are, so teachers of Middle Eastern dance are left with not only teaching the movements of the body, but are also saddled with the task of bringing to light some of the background of the countries of origin in order to keep the dance forms true to their nature.
Unfortunately, this type of dance education is unregulated, and there are many teachers out there who are unqualified to teach…some only taking classes for a year or two before going out and beginning to teach themselves, and others unable to impart even the most basic of knowledge in regards to the origin of the dances they are teaching.. This, I believe, is one of the reasons for many dancers being unable to improvise…for lack of the proper training and education of where and why the dance originated, and how the people of these countries used it to express themselves.
Another problem that Westerners learning Middle Eastern dance face is the huge difference in the type of body movements used. While belly dance is composed of movements that are natural and complimentary to the human anatomy, they are unlike anything that most westerners are used to doing. Beginner dancers need to spend a great deal of time just learning to control muscles they didn’t even know they had, and this is where choreography plays it’s important part. Teachers create dance arrangements, or ‘works’, with repetitive movements to help their students build 'muscle memory', and in the early days of a dancer’s education these choreographies are definitely an essential step in the growth and development of a dance student.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing trend in Modern Middle Eastern dancers (aka:Belly Dancers), that many have become dependent upon the choreography and have either lost touch with or never been taught the art form of improvisation.
I have seen many wonderfully talented performers who are obviously dancing a choreographed piece. Just like actors on a stage, they are quite capable of 'acting out' and showing the emotions of the song, but sadly they still do not have the quality of natural fluid grace and expression found in the performance of a dancer who is simply letting the music move them freely through heart and soul… to live in 'that moment' through the music. While choreographed dance itself can be a wonderful thing used for group dances, and theatrical pieces, it can never touch the dancer and audience as wholly or deeply, and certainly can’t emotionally move them as much as improvised dance does.
Once a student is comfortable with the basic movements and has built sufficient muscle memory to move comfortably through a choreographed dance, and then the student should be encouraged to experiment in self expression. This does not mean that these students should be pushed into performing an improvisational piece at this time. There are many ways to have group exercises and games that encourage movement through emotion, which can be handled in a classroom setting. Each person needs to move along at their own pace, and some will have no interest at all in learning improvisation.
I must stress that it is very important that a dancer already has a comfortable grasp of basic steps and movements, as well as an understanding of how to flow from one movement to the next before attempting to learn to 'free' dance, without pre-choreographed steps.
One of the exercises I use for my students that has worked really well....
1st. I will play a small piece of music that we will dance to.
2nd. I will ask for suggestions of some steps or movements my students think would go well with the music (example: one student might say a hip circle, another may say hip drops, another maybe step touch step)
3rd. I take these steps and put them together for 2/ 8 count sequences ( example: step together step to the right 4 cnts, left hip drop 2 x's 4 cnts, big hip circle to left ending facing another direction 8 cnts )
4th. We will repeat this sequence 4 times facing a different direction each time.
5th. Then I have students take turns sitting out and watching, so they can see the difference in how it looks when the dancers are facing different directions.
6th. We discuss how the movements flowed one into the other, the dynamics of directional changes, etc.
7th. Then we repeat the whole exercise, but use different steps.
(This exercise is great to help students learn to put steps together to form a flowing pattern, and what steps feel and look good with what music, it teaches about directional changes, and forming choreographies)