The Art of Improvisation
Guest Author – Alisa Greer (USA)
Today many belly dancers in the US learn our beautiful art exclusively through choreography. Choreography and drilling can be great tools for performing, learning, refining and polishing movements and establishing muscle memory. But choreography can also lead to a focus on perfectionism that doesn’t always serve us well, especially when we become professional dancers. And if you only learn through choreography, you are missing a really important aspect of belly dance: the ability to improvise.
Why Is Improvisation Important?
Most experienced dancers know that belly dance is traditionally a solo, improvisational art form. But in today’s landscape of competitions, belly dance festivals and recorded/online performances, how useful a skill is improvisation? Why bother learning to improvise if you aren’t going to be dancing with a live band?
My personal feeling is that it’s important to learn because it’s the traditional way our dance was performed and taught. It is integral to the dance. Even today, it matters. Improvisation is essential to belly dance and we lose the breathtaking ability to express our emotions from the music in the moment which is the heart of belly dance when we don’t know how to improvise.
But if that doesn’t move you, there are a number of super practical reasons for any pre-professional or professional dancer to learn to improvise.
Expect The Unexpected
You might have your set for a gig perfectly planned out, but fate can sometimes intervene! If you perform regularly, you are going to encounter hiccups. It’s just going to happen. Even at a restaurant where you work regularly and know the procedure by heart, events can transpire that put your preferred setlists out of reach. The ownership might get a new sound system without letting you know ahead of time, or a cord might go missing and all the sudden your iPod with your treasured, lovingly crafted setlists is no longer available to you. Gulp.
Or maybe a customer requests a song and your wonderfully hospitable boss says sure! You haven’t heard it before. Or you get to a party and the person who hired you asks if you can dance to their playlist or their favorite songs. Or the band you are dancing with accidentally switches your song and the one they are playing doesn’t even sound familiar to you. At all. And there you are onstage.
It sounds unreal to students who don’t have experience improvising, but you can handle all of these scenarios and many, many more of the wacky situations of performing life with confidence and still put on a great show. You truly, absolutely can. And there is a good chance it’s going to be even better than something you could have choreographed, because the energy will be so vibrant and alive.
That brings us right to the next reason for learning to improvise. It allows you to truly connect with your audience right as you are performing, because you are in the moment and not in your head trying to remember steps and what comes next. Dancing at festivals and competitions is one thing, but here’s a truth: for many belly dance jobs- paying gigs, or what I call dancing for “civilians” (rather than other dancers)- we really don’t need to overwhelm our audience with a jam-packed technique explosion. Of course it’s great to have a fiery entrance and some exciting, show-stopping moves. But it’s also great to have space and breathing room, to make eye contact and share a laugh. People want to relax and have fun and feel happy and enjoy the music. They’re enjoying a leisurely meal of wonderful food. They want to celebrate a happy event in their lives or a guest of honor. It really isn’t about us at all, if you think about it. We are a vehicle for joy. And you can be really in tune with how to make magical moments for your clients when you are improvising.
Improvising also changes your connection to the music, and this can in turn inform your choreography. Dancers who improvise, or who can improvise even if they aren’t in every performance, always look more connected to the music simply because they are more connected to the music. You have to know how to connect to it in order to improvise, and that knowledge never leaves you.
The last reason I will use to try to persuade you to take up improvisation is confidence. There is a real, unshakable security in knowing that you can truly handle absolutely anything that happens when you are performing. That confidence radiates through your performance and it is magnetic. We can all think of those dancers who are just such awesome badasses you can’t take your eyes off of them for a second. You know nothing can shake them, and that you are going to have fun and be thrilled and feel a range of emotions watching them no matter what song they are dancing to or what happens around them. You almost want something unexpected to happen to see how they handle it. I stress to my students that everything going on in the room can become part of the show when you are improvising. You as the dancer maintain the control, but you can embrace the whole room and every playful child, bustling waiter and spilled water glass with your encompassing energy because you are right there with them in the moment.
Have I convinced you? If so, how about a few tips to get you started with improvisation. These techniques do not originate with me so you have probably heard some of them before. They are passed down like the steps themselves. But I’ll share why I like them and a few of the ways I use them.
Improvising requires a completely different mindset than choreography. We have to let go of perfectionism and be open to anything happening. We aren’t going to hit every beat. We aren’t always going to know what’s coming. We just aren’t. We can’t. We’re going to have to wait and listen and see. Yikes, right? I’m dancing in front of people, I want to be perfect! But the beauty of it is that you don’t have to be perfect. No one is requiring that of you.
Over the pandemic anxiety drove me to study mindfulness and learn to meditate, something I never ever thought I would do because I don’t like to sit still (I’m sure other dancers can relate!). And I found that so much of mindfulness training echoes what I knew from improvisation, because we want to get out of anticipating, thinking, counting, and just quiet the critiquing part of us as much as we can so we can simply be. Of course we are performing and we aren’t being paid to zone out, but it’s this mindset of not trying to control things and not worrying that’s important. This allows us to put the other techniques into practice.
Okay, this one might sound obvious but it has to be said. To improvise, you need to be listening to your music. We have to let the music tell us what to do, and this requires truly listening in the moment to what is happening in the song, and how it is making you feel. How it sounds to you right now while you’re dancing, not what you heard in it last week or yesterday.
Don’t Do So Much
I think when we’re choreographing we try to put in as much in as possible and to hit every accent. We have to throw this kind of thinking out the window to improvise. Allow yourself to slow down and dance to what you hear in your own time. You aren’t going to hit everything, you are going to listen and pick and choose, and in doing that, you are going to tell your own story to the music. This is always beautiful!
One of my favorite tips or exercises for teaching improv is the classic “stick to one or two moves for a section” exercise. I find this one works really well because it stops students from thinking about what movement they are going to do next. That choice is off the table so it frees up a lot of mental space that you can use to practice actively listening and exploring the movement you are currently doing. I find we are always thinking “I’m boring, I need to change” when we’re dancing and then thinking ahead to what move we can do next, but this isn’t how it looks to the audience at all. The audience needs to see the moves repeated more than we think so they can grasp them and enjoy them. Think of how much our music uses repetition and slight variations and allow that to guide your explorations in this exercise.
Understand Rhythm and Instrumentation
Being able to recognize what’s playing can be a huge help when you get a song you’ve never heard before. Maybe you have no idea what your customer has just asked you to dance to, but if you can recognize that the underlying rhythm is say, maksoum, or that the instrument soloing sounds like the violin, it can really ground you in something familiar and give you something comfortable to go on. The more music you listen to, the more you get a feel for the structures. This is obviously a lifelong learning process but it’s not all or nothing- it starts benefiting you the minute you start learning about music and it builds and grows.
Find An Experienced Coach or Teacher to Help You
It can feel daunting, but it really is useful to get some help and feedback on the improvisation process when you are starting out. Look for someone who has experience performing in a wide variety of settings and, most importantly, who is committed to creating a safe and supportive learning environment because you have to feel comfortable dancing in front of them and listening to their feedback. Doing this can help enormously with building confidence and ease with improv. If you are just starting out with belly dance, you may be able to find a teacher who teaches mostly through improvisation, or you can find someone experienced who can help coach you with it.
Thank you so much for reading if you’ve made it this far! I hope I’ve convinced you to try improvising and given you a few tools to get started. In addition to everything above, learning to improvise prepares you to dance to live music when the opportunity presents itself. My most favorite times performing have all been to live music. There is something extra special about it that I’m very grateful I’ve been able to experience. There’s more to learn when it comes to live music and improvisation but I hope this is a good starting point and I am very happy to answer any questions you may have. Please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch with me.
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