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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance Classes:
Choreography or Improvisation

by Shira


Over the course of the past 30 years, I've taken local belly dancing classes from about 10 different teachers, plus seminars from many additional instructors. This exposure to a wide variety of teaching styles gave me an interesting perspective to draw from when I started teaching my own classes.

Of all the teachers I've taken weekly classes from, two have emphasized choreography, one has specifically used various exercises to teach improvisation, and the rest all taught assorted step combinations for us students to incorporate into our own dance style. I've enjoyed all of these teachers, and I've found something of value in each of their approaches.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Opinion Poll

As I talked to other students over the years, it was interesting to see that different people preferred different approaches. Which do you like best?

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Poll reflects votes since October 26, 2002.

Now that you've answered the poll, here's an interesting question for you to consider: why did you vote the way you did? Is it because you think you "can't" learn choreography, or you "can't" improvise? If so, maybe you just haven't found an instructor yet who can teach you how to do it!

Both memorizing choreography and improvisation are skills that can be learned. You may find that one comes easily to you, while you struggle with the other. Don't worry, you're normal! Sometimes, all it takes is forcing yourself to practice either memorization or improvisation, and you'll figure out for yourself how to do it. Other times, you may need to ask your teacher or classmates to suggest techniques, or try a different teacher.



The Good Things About Choreography

I've noticed that when beginners and intermediates are learning new combinations, they often like to learn a choreography that uses these moves. It's helpful for several reasons. Learning choreography can help you:

  • Remember the combinations that were taught in class
  • Show you how to put different moves together to make a complete dance
  • Provide a structure for practicing the combinations taught in class
  • Learn something you can perform for your friends and family without the terror of wondering what to do next
  • Understand what kind of music works well for various types of moves
  • Build a structure for a performance with a group of your classmates
  • Learn how your teacher interprets the music
  • Learn how to transition from one combination to another

The very first belly dancing class I ever took introduced a simple beginner choreography. Although it was a long time ago, I still remember and use a couple of the combinations it contained. I had great fun performing it for my friends at parties.



Improvisation: The Creative Spirit

The primary problem with performing choreography is that usually someone else created it. When you're a student, it's helpful to have your teacher's guidance in learning how to assemble different moves into a complete dance. Some professional dancers do create choreography for themselves, and often their performances are exciting to watch because they've taken the time to analyze the music and think about which moves would fit with each section.

But sometimes it can feel wonderful to unleash your creative spirit and respond to how the music feels at the moment. Improvisation can be very satisfying as a creative outlet. Even if you prefer to use choreography when performing in public, you may want to experiment at home with letting the music absorb you and transport you. For some dancers, it can be very spiritual to lose themselves in the music. Repetitive songs with strong drumbeats are particularly effective for this.

Improvisation is also a very helpful skill to have when performing with live music. Some dancers are lucky to be affiliated with bands who will play the same song the same way every time for them, and these dancers have the option to create choreography for live music if they wish. But for most of us, it's not always possible to rehearse with the musicians ahead of time. We must rely on requesting a specific song, and even then there's no guarantee that we'll be able to predict the specific interludes and embellishments that a given band might decide to add.

Under the Choreography section above, I mentioned that choreography can provide a useful structure for group performance. Actually, so can improvisation! Here are a couple of ways that some dance troupes use improvisation for their ensemble performances:

  • Group Solo. In a group solo, each individual interprets the music as she sees fit. Many people are dancing at once, but each is doing something different.
  • Group Improvisation. This is the core of the American Tribal Style that Carolena Nericchio pioneered with Fat Chance Belly Dance. One dancer acts as the leader who chooses from a series of step combinations that everyone in the group knows, and everyone else follows the leader's cues.
  • Mini-Solos. In a mini-solo, the entire group stands on stage together, often in a U-shape. Each dancer takes turns dancing in the center of the U for a brief section of a song while the rest of the group mark time behind her with little hip drops, clap along with the music for her, and encourage her. As one dancer finishes her mini-solo, the next takes her place dancing out in front.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.




In Conclusion

You probably have already decided which you prefer: choreography or improvisation. But I encourage you to keep an open mind and learn how to do both. Each can be a valuable learning tool, and each can be very rewarding. If you aspire to be a professional dancer someday, you'll be more versatile if you can do both.



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