Making the Leap to Live Music!

September 10, 2012 3 Comments

Performing at Tagine in New York City with Rachid Halihal and Majdi Kurd. A dancer’s first solo is an exciting and scary experience, but  the first live music performance can induce a whole new level of stage fright – even in dancers with plenty of performance experience under their belt. Dancing to live music can – and should –  be a thrilling experience for both the audience and the dancer, but as with most worthwhile things, there’s a hurdle to jump or a challenge to face first before you can claim the thrill.  Spontaneous creative collaboration is the height of performance to me – I’ll take live music over recorded any night! When I think back over the “golden moments” I’ve had so far, they have all been live music situations. There is an undeniable magic that can happen when you open yourself up to this possibility.

Preparing Yourself for Live Music PerformanceYou spent weeks, maybe months, rehearsing for your first solo performance. Stepping up to dancing with live music takes a broader preparation approach, because you don’t always know exactly what’s coming. There are things you can do to get yourself ready, however. Here are a few:

  • Know the standards and classics of Arabic, Turkish and Greek music. It will give you some peace of mind. It will also increase the odds that the band will play something that you are familiar with. Even if they don’t play a standard, by being acquainted with well-known and popular songs from these genres, you will get comfortable with the common features of belly dance music from different regions.
  • Work on your improvisational dance skills with an emphasis on channeling the melody and rhythm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…”in the ears, out the hips!” Practice staying “present” in the music and dancing to the elements that come forward and to your attention. Part of the artistry in improvisational dance is that each dancers hears and feels the music a little differently. You may even hear and feel the same piece differently on different days. Today the deep underlying rhythm may draw you, tomorrow the flute melody may be calling your name. Practice following your intuition; this is not a right or wrong scenario.
  • Learn your rhythms so you can navigate your way through unfamiliar songs. Face it – you can ask for “Miserlou”, “Alf Leyla” and “Sawah” and the band leader may nod and smile, but don’t be surprised if they play whatever the #>%$ they want! Sorry to burst your bubble. In the case of long Egyptian belly dance classics like “Enta Omri”, they will likely play a few selected sections. They may not be the same sections in the 6 minute version you have on your CD! I’m not saying this to scare you, but rather to point out how important it is to be able to find your way through unknown music using skills and strategies. There are some bands that will give you exactly what you request and that’s fabulous – but hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Here’s an exercise to help prepare you for the “live” experience…

Ask a dancer friend to make you a CD of 10 danceable songs that are not “classics”  or things she knows you are familiar with. Do the same for her and trade CDs.
When you’re practicing, play 1 or 2 of those songs and dance through whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not – no excuses. Dance on the rhythm. Dance to reflect the melody lines of each instrument. Try to catch the accents and changes as they occur. Your instincts and reflexes will get sharper with practice – I promise!

When you’re on with a live band, you have to keep the show going no matter what so learn to dig deep and push yourself – it’s far better to get used to it in your living room than in front of an audience!

Let me tell you about the wedding gig where I had to dance to an Afghani accordion… really!
Once upon a time, before I learned the lesson of avoiding a “middle man” when booking a gig, I arrived at an Afghani wedding only to find that they had no CD player (this was before the dawn of the  iPod). They only had a cassette deck and I had already abandoned those. “That’s ok”, the host cheerfully told me, “Uncle Mo has his drum and Uncle Ali has his accordion. They’ll play for you!” And so I proceeded to do a 45 minute show(they wouldn’t stop!)  to Afghani accordion and drum music. I knew nothing about Afghani music, but I grooved into the drum line and opened myself up to playing off the accordion melody. Even though Uncle Ali didn’t speak a lick of English, we communicated plenty and it turned out to be a great show for an ecstatic audience.

Tell us about your first live music performance or your most “surprising” one in the comments below…

Mahin (121 Posts)

Professional instructor and performer of Middle Eastern belly dance, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and author or the “Daily Bellydance Quickies”. Belly Dance Artrepreneur, Workshop instructor, performer, event producer, and bellydance writer.

  1. Nadira Jamal
    September 10, 2012 at 8:18 am

    The other thing I would add is: collect as many versions of the standards as you can get your hands on.

    This helps you let go of your expectations about what the songs “should” sound like. So you’ll be prepared when the band plays it completely differently.

  2. AJ
    September 10, 2012 at 9:49 am

    My first live music performance was last year at a holiday party for the local belly dance community. I was performing with my teacher and some of my fellow students, and we were going to do a slow ITS sword piece to “Revival” by Beats Antique. The day of the show, we discovered that a group of professional fusion dancers were also performing to “Revival”! Luckily our teacher is friends with an awesome drummer who had already come to class a couple of times to give us the chance to dance to live drumming, and teach us about some basic rhythms, and he and another drummer or two were already there with their drums because they were going to play live music for the open dance afterwards. So we asked them to play us a little slow number and we did improv to live music and the audience was spared seeing two groups do the same song 🙂

    My first solo to live music is this weekend at Fully Fusion V! (Shameless plug, tee hee!)

  3. Wallace-Ruby
    September 10, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    My first live performance was during a conference with over eight hundred attendants, including the Lieutenant Governor. The morning “warm up” during breakfast was a drummer, of one of the southern Americas. He asked us all to stand and move while he drummed. The entire room stood. I began to shimmy away, feeling for the tempo, accents, and phrasing. He stopped drumming and pointed to me and called out, “you, come up on stage!” “Only if I’m not filmed,” I answered. (I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee as of yet.) I went up on the stage and danced a drum solo that went on for over five minutes. I focused on both the foreign rhythms as well trying to do something that everyone could follow along to (quarter turns and a clap, anyone?) while I embellished. Later in the day, the drummer found me and gave me a huge hug, and told me with the biggest smile, “you got everybody, and I mean everybody, in that room dancing! Do you realize that?” Still makes me smile.


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