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Does Your Brain Get it? Tips for Learning & Memorizing Belly Dance Choreography

Does Your Brain Get It- PIN

Does your brain get it?

Anyone who’s been in a class or workshop with me has probably heard me say this when checking in with students. Once I’ve presented and broken down a combo or section of choreography, I ask if their brain gets it before we move on. So what exactly do I mean by that?

In short, your body takes orders from your brain when dancing so if your brain doesn’t fully understand the instructions – what shape is your hip making, where is your arm and what foot are you supposed to be on – then the chances of getting an accurate result from your body are pretty slim. Of course, once your brain is clear on the instructions, the body does take some time to get it together and comply – that’s what drilling and practice repetition is for – but the brain has to get it first. This is an important step that I see dancers ignore. Being unclear, they fumble through an unclear movement or footsteps till they get to a part they are sure of. If you keep running through a combo with errors because you aren’t truly clear on what happens when, not only is it unlikely to resolve itself correctly, you may set and memorize patterns that are wrong. If it’s a group choreography, that is a real problem.

So how do you make sure your brain gets it?

In my experience, one of the best ways to thoroughly check your understanding of a movement sequence is to remove the pressure of the beat. Turn off the music and do a slow walk-through of the movements by yourself. Be patient. Don’t gloss over little ambiguities – those can get you in trouble. If you’re not sure why you wound up on your left foot when you’re supposed to be on your right foot for hip drops next, check it out. Did you take the right steps at the right time in the thing that came before it? Don’t just switch feet and move on. Track it back – was that supposed to be a 2 step pivot turn before the hip drops, but you took 3 steps? Well-written belly dance choreography is clear and uses logical and natural weight changes that set you up properly for the next movement. If a choreographer expects to keep dancers synchronized and looking clean together on stage, it’s a must.

Be proactive. Speak up.

If you find yourself with unclear gaps in your understanding of class material, ask specific questions. “I’m on the wrong foot for the hip drops and I can’t figure out why.” Sometimes I think students feel bad about asking questions. They apologize and for the life of me, I cannot understand why! When a student asks, I know they care about what they’re doing – they are really thinking about it. Almost always, the explanation benefits others in the class who just didn’t bother to ask.  I love questions. They also help me to improve as an instructor by pointing out where I could have explained something differently or more fully, or where students find something is trickier than I anticipated.

The bottom line is I am there to TEACH, not just to present something. Teaching is a two-way communication process and answering students’ questions effectively is an important part of the job.

The mental integration process.

Once you’ve done the tedious task of working through your understanding of the mechanics of assorted body parts, the next step is to get it organized in your brain for speedy recall. That’s the part we call “memorizing the dance”. It’s all in there, but can your brain access it at the pace of your music? You’ll need to be able to do that in order to build the muscle memory that will kick in later- brain before body, remember? Once muscle memory is in place, you can move on to beautifying your transitions and attending to the graceful details that will really polish your dance, but you have to bake the cake before you can decorate it!

Here are a few tools to help with belly dance memorization:

  • Train up. Make a reduced speed practice track using Audacity or other audio editing software. This is especially helpful if you’re working with fast music or choreography that has lots of quick, precise movement like in a drum solo. It’s your bridge between the take-your-time no music walk through I mentioned above and your final performance speed. Make a few speed versions if you need to take it in smaller steps. More on that here.
  • Let the music talk to you! There’s a reason we shimmy at certain times and travel in others. Yes, there’s lots of artistic license, but again – well-written choreography should reflect what the choreographer hears in the music. There’s usually more than one thing to choose from (I could go on for days on this point!) but there should be something musically that the movement relates to – the rhythm pattern, the melody line or texture of a sound. Find it and let the music remind you of why a movement is where it is.
  • Sing it! Although you may feel silly, singing cues to the steps is remarkably effective! The more senses we involve in the learning process, the better the results in my experience. Hum the melody line that hip circle reflects. Say “shimmmmmmmmmyyyy……pop! pop!”. Create cues that work for you.
  • Do the mental practice. When I need to memorize choreography (yes, the teacher still has to memorize what she’s written!) I run through it in my head when I lay down at night and upon waking up. Visualize the movement – you may even feel it in your body as you lay there. Hear the music in your brain. Note where the next step doesn’t come to mind right away.
  • Grease the groove. Do you have a stubborn spot where you repeatedly blank out about what comes next? Pinpoint it and take the last movement or two that you DO remember and the next one or two that you’re having trouble recalling reliably and drill that junction together over and over. Find a way to connect them – does the arm position or movement that came before create a frame for the next thing? Does it change direction? Find a way to relate your stubborn movement to the thing before it. Build the muscle memory for it with a targeted repeated drill of that specific spot.
  • Paint the big picture. Some dancers find creating a “story” out of the movements is useful as a memory device. Others find that having a spatial map helps them remember. For example, go forward, then back, then move in a circle. The description of the path can cue your brain to recall the steps for each section. “Big picture” constructs of that sort can help you organize the order of the movements.

One of the most useful things you learn over years in dance is to learn how YOU learn best as a student, and how your students learn if you are an instructor. When you find the tools and methods that are effective for you, put them to work consistently. You’ll take some of the frustration out of learning and teaching choreography and move along more quickly to the more fun parts!

June 2, 2017 1 Comment
Rukshana

Quick Change Tips for Bellydance Costumes

I love getting questions from DBQ subscribers – especially great ones like this!

Recently I was in a bellydance show and performed 2 numbers close together and was a lot slower than some of the other dancers changing. I was wondering if you could offer some tips in a Friday DBQ on quick costume changes.

Been there – done that. It’s stressful – and stress is the last thing you need when you want to take the stage with calm, cool and collected confidence.  A dancer can use all the help she can get, so for this very critical question, I asked an expert – Rukshana, lovingly known to the DBQ community as “The Costume Fairy”. Not only is Rukshana a genius bellydance costume designer and seamstress, she has had a long career in professional theater costuming. In short, she knows all the backstage secrets and she’s sharing them with us here!

The Costume Fairy says….

Fast changes can be done super fast if you take the time to prepare a proper set up.  It’s even faster if you have a helper. Here are some tips to prepare for a smooth quick change.

  •  “Rig” your jewelry.  Use magnets or Velcro closures on necklaces. If you aren’t fast with pierced earrings, find clip-ons or convert the pierced earrings to clips.  Check the jewelry findings area in your local craft store or shop on line.  If you add a piece of double stick toupee or Hollywood tape to the clips they have added security.
  • Preset your costume on a chair in the reverse order you would put it on.  For example– bra on the bottom, then belt, skirt.  Put any shoes under the chair. Jewelry can go under the bra or next to your shoes, depending on the space and size of the accessories. I like to have a clean sheet under the chair so I can drop the costume I’m wearing without worrying about it getting dirty.
  • Rig closures for speed where applicable. You are not going to Velcro a bra or belt, but you can use a skirt with elastic or use a zipper instead of a row of hook and bar closures. Big hooks and bars on a bra or belt are better that multiple small ones as a closure. Size matters!
  • If you can attach the skirt and belt this also may increase speed.
  • If you are wearing a belly cover have your bra attached at the front to it so you have fewer attachment points to secure it to the bra or use clear elastic straps to hold it up.
  •  It’s faster to have a designated belly cover for each costume than to change them.  Sometimes you can even rig your skirt to the cover and bra with some stitching or snaps.
  • Practice the change!  Do a couple dry runs where you figure out what placement works best for you.  Then run it for speed.  You need to know how much time you have between songs. A minute is a long time if you have everything prepped and ready.
  • See if you can arrange to have a dresser back stage. Their job is to facilitate the change.  This person needs to be calm and cool under pressure.  You don’t need someone high strung rushing you.  A good dresser will help as needed and keep you moving and out of panic mode if something is not going as planned.
  • Set up your change as close to the stage as possible. Garment racks with sheets thrown over them can form a small quick change booth in a pinch.  Walled pop up tents work great too.
As a professional costumer I can tell you nudity is an occupational hazard I face daily. We have all seen it so when speed is important modesty goes out the window. As a dancer I will try to be sensitive to my surroundings but I will make my change.  I have mastered the art of changing costumes with out excess nudity (dance panties cover as much as a bikini if not more and if you practice it’s amazing how you can undo the neck strap on bra 1 and slip bra 2 over the top before releasing the back band to drop bra 1 and then position and secure bra 2.
Remember the clock is ticking!

Have another quick-change trick you’ve used? Share it in the comments below…

September 17, 2015 5 Comments

Thoughts on “Bad Musicality” in Belly Dance

At a bellydance event, I recently overheard one dancer remark to another that she thought that the performer they were watching had “bad musicality”. Putting aside questionable politeness, was does that mean  anyway?

Cairo Caravan 2012 - Performance Portraiture and Stage Photography by Lee Corkett

We have discussed musicality in the Daily Bellydance Quickies many times and in many ways. Loosely defined, it is the ability to illustrate the music with movement. It can include larger elements such as instrument sound textures down to the tiny details of accents and momentary pauses.

Ignoring everything else and going just with the beat could be considered the absence of musicality in dance. But at the other extreme, hitting every tiny thing with an almost literal conversion of music to movement can be, as Ranya Renee once said,  “too clever”. I agree entirely. I find that as unappealing as ignoring the musical features. I prefer to see discretion and artful choices.

Choices – yes – there are many to be made. You make them in slow deliberate decisions when you write choreography and in the flash of a instant in improvisation. What are you reacting to in your music? The rhythm, the phrasing, the sharp accent, the lilting melody line or the tension of a violin note – they are all valid possibilities.  The choosing of one over the other in any given point in a performance is like a painter choosing red paint or blue for the flowers that are about to bloom on the canvas.

We all hear a piece differently, despite the fact that the same sounds come rushing at us from the band or through our earbuds. I even find I hear different things in the same familiar piece of music at different times. I call this my “coffee pot theory“. So what makes for “bad musicality”? Is it that a dancer completely ignored something you consider top priority and un-ignorable and opted for a different musical element to grab on to and dance? That just means two dancers have different artistic sensibilities – and thank goodness that is so. Otherwise, we would all dance the same and bellydance would be filled with “rights” and “wrongs” – another idea that could take a step back, in my opinion.

When I look at a performance and consider the musicality, what’s the bottom line for me?

Can you show me how you’re hearing the music?
Show me how to listen through your ears.

If I can, then I’m happy – even if it’s not the same choice I would have made. I like surprises and seeing different points of musical view.

What do you look for? Share in the comments below…

April 13, 2015 3 Comments

Must-Know Song for Belly Dance: “Taht Il Shibbak”

We are moving on to #10 from the “Must Know Songs for Bellydancers” list with “Taht Il Shibbak” – a real favorite of mine!

Who, What and When?

This song first appeared in the Egyptian movie “Laabet el Sitt” (The Lady’s Puppet) in 1946.  The music was composed by Asis Osman and they lyrics were written by Badeh Khairy.  Taheya Karioca dances to “Taht Il Shibbak” in the movie, accompanied by an ensemble that includes Osman singing and playing the oud. You can watch this performance in the video at the end of this post.

What is “Taht Il Shibbak” about?

“Taht Il Shibbak” means “Below My Window.” This song is from the point of view of a girl looking out her window, seeing a gorgeous man walking on the street. She is flirting with him – either in her imagination or in reality . Here’s a little taste of the lyrics from a very cheeky translation. You can find more of the lyrics here. Being a folksy song with a long history, different versions have different verses – some may not have even been in the original.

Below my window I caught sight of you, you (stud).
What’s up with you? Talk to me (hot stuff)

Your eyelashes kill me
Protect me from yourself (sweetcheeks)

About dancing to “Taht Il Shibbak”…

This is such a fun song to dance to! Now that you know what it’s about, you can really get your innocently flirty attitude on when you perform to it. An Arab audience would definitely enjoy and appreciate that! “Taht Il Shibbak” is one of Dina’s signature songs. This song is in a beladi style, meaning it has a laid back, casual feel, but is not strictly in the “beladi progression” musically in many recorded versions.

The recording is my favorite for performance.

The Original Version

Tahia Carioca in the 1946 movie, “Labaat el Sitt”

But this is my favorite performance ever to this great song!

Do you perform to this song? Do you love it? Do you think it’s overdone?  Tell us in the comments below…

February 15, 2015 4 Comments

Interview with “Improv Roulette” Founder, Elizabeth Joy

One of the most fun, creative and inspiring things I did in 2014 was to participate in an Improv Roulette event. It really was unlike any other dance experience I’d ever had. You can read all about it here, including my combat veil to “Living Dead Girl”!  Yes, I know you’re shocked!!

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the person who brought this concept to the bellydance community – so I tracked her down for you.

Improv RouletteMahin: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into dance and what you’re doing now?

Elizabeth Joy: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Joy. I live in Providence, RI. I’m an active member in the Providence and Boston performance communities. I’ve been studying various facets of belly dance since 2007. I am currently primarily studying with Neylan of Providence and Aurel of Boston.

M: What styles) of bellydance do you primarily perform and study?

EJ: My mother is Lebanese and my father is a jazz musician. Music and the arts were always important in my family. Because of my mother’s heritage, I was introduced to the sounds of Middle Eastern music at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally signed up for a class.

I would consider myself a lifelong student. Every year, I can feel myself progressing as a dancer… and realizing how much more I have to learn. I am currently studying Gypsy Caravan style Tribal with Neylan as well as a myriad of Middle Eastern studies with Aurel, although her current focus is modern Egyptian with an emphasis on how it was influenced by classical dance training.

M: As some DBQ readers may recall, I came across your “Imrov Roulette ” after reading about it on Sophia Ravenna’s blog.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to actually attend one in Tucson.  For our readers who aren’t familiar with Improv Roulette, can you describe the experience for us?

EJ: Yes. Improv Roulette is a multidisciplinary collaborative performance experiment. Performers of any type get together quarterly to create spur-of-the-moment reactive performances. They use the environment, as well as other performers to create these pieces. Improv Roulette sets up a safe, casual setting that allows performers to creatively explore, without the pressure of performing a polished piece.

Improv Roulette is for any type of performer. Belly dancers, singers, guitarists, bagpipe players, puppeteers, acrobats, etc are all welcome. It is for the seasoned performer as well as the budding student.

M: One of the things I really enjoyed about the experience was there was no way to prepare. You had to just let go and approach it as play – which is something we often lose sight of when we train as dancers, in my opinion.

EJ: Exactly. I know that I am very much a person that wants to feel prepared…. but I feel a great sense of freedom in letting go and just experiencing and reacting to the music and the “audience” and my performance partner.

It lets in a sense of freedom and honesty and as you said, play. I once took a choreography workshop (ironically) with Cera Byer and she made a great comment about how we don’t play enough. We jump right into choreographing without giving ourselves and chance to explore first.

It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it.

M: In your experience what has been dancers’ first reactions to the idea of participating in Improv Roulette?

EJ: It depends on the dancer! Some dancers jump at the opportunity to meet and collaborate with performers that they’ve never worked with before. Other dancers are understandably timid with the idea of getting up and performing without the ability to prepare. I acknowledge the act of courage that it takes to participate in this experiment, even with it being a safe and welcoming environment. It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it. I would be willing to bet that the once hesitant participants would agree with my statement.

M: I think one of the really important factors in the event’s structure is that everyone who comes in dances. There is no audience other than fellow participants, so we all walk the same tightrope in turn.

EJ: Yes. That is a very important element. I like to joke, “No spectators, only victims.” Everyone, regardless of their improv experience, will being trying something new at Improv Roulette. Everyone will be challenged and everyone will be supported by the performance community in attendance.

M: The online comments preceding our Improv Roulette event were full of “I have to get better at improv first” kind of statements. I agree, just showing up is an act of bravery to some degree. When it comes to creative endeavors, I think it it scares you a little (and you can’t foresee any serious harm) you should definitely do it. This was such a great way to push personal boundaries artistically – and really liberating.

EJ: Well the best way to get better at something is to do it! Because Improv Roulette is not a formal performance, it really is a good place to get improv practice in. I agree that if something pushes you out of your comfort level, it’s probably worth trying. I am primarily an improv performer in my solo work, and yet I still feel a great sense of freedom in the Improv Roulette experiment. It takes me out of my general process of working on a piece and allows my body and mind to just react.

M: Agreed!  How did the idea for Improv Roulette come to you?

EJ: Well it really came out of me experimenting by myself in my living room. I enjoyed exploring my movement to unexpected songs. But I was missing the element of interacting with others. This is, I think, and important skill that performers need to practice. Knowing how to instinctively play off of the audience or interact with a collaborator really brings a technically accomplished performer into the realm of entertainer.

M: Bellydance is definitely a style where being able to “entertain” as well as perform is so important!

EJ: I agree. I think it’s Nadira Jamal who wrote a wonderful article about having both hard skills and soft skills.

M: It seems that Improv Roulette has escaped your living room and is spreading! Where has this concept gone so far and where do you see it headed in the future?

EJ: Yes! I wanted it to be as inclusive as it could be so that very first Improv Roulette was not in my living room! I rented out a beautiful yoga studio just north of Providence and invited all of the performers in every discipline that I knew. And only six people showed up. Just as you experienced, people were a little intimidated by the idea. But as the participants shared their experiences, interest grew. And it’s still growing. In 2014 I began working with other community builders to start regional Improv Roulette chapters across the country. Right now we have three official chapters with a few more in the works. I am specifically working with organizers that are active members of their current performance communities and really believe in the concepts of collaboration, community, and creative spontaneity. I

M: Do you have any non-dance practices that you routinely use to feed your creativity?

EJ: I do! I have a career in textile design and a background in fiber arts. I am often creating sewing/dyeing/fabric manipulation projects both for dance costuming as well as other end uses. I also have a love for gardening and when I’m not in rehearsal, I’m usually digging in the dirt… that is when it’s not covered in two feet of snow.

M: Did you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

EJ: Well first and foremost, that you for the opportunity to be interviewed. Your blog and DBQ are always informative and enjoyable. I also appreciate the chance to tell more people about Improv Roulette. I really believe in the power of collaborative experimentation and the power in taking creative risks. I believe that Improv Roulette gives performers the opportunity to discover something about themselves and their work. It really is work, constantly growing, so we’d might as well feel the elation that comes with taking risks and discovering something about ourselves in the process.

For  more information on Improv Roulette please visit here.

 

What do you think? Does the idea thrill you? Scare you? Would you do it? Tell us in the comments below…

January 29, 2015 4 Comments
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