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

Belly Dance: Live Music Will Not Kill You


By Saqra


Table of Contents




Live music is the best! It is the magic that breathes life into our dance. It heightens your dance creativity through needing to immediately respond and interpret what you are hearing. It possesses the special quality of allowing for longer pieces while giving someone else to look at (the band) so you can build a full performance instead of just doing a dance of highlights.

Dancing to live music is different from dancing to recorded music in that it is a team effort instead of a solo performance. You share the attention of the audience. You share the pressure to entertain: if the audience gets bored with you, they can watch the band, and they don't even realize they got bored with you. And you share the credit from a good performance — or you really, really should.

In contrast, when you dance to pre-recorded music the only thing to look at is you.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Raqs Band plays for belly dancers at an event. From left to right: Jeff Raybuck, Saqra, David Metz.

Raqs Band




Go hear the band play in advance if you can. It isn't just a question of what the band plays, but also how they play it that matters.

Different instrumentation used by different bands will affect the way you should dance to the song. If the band has an overall acoustic sound (softer and with less sharp accents and hard dynamics), you would dance to that differently from a band that has a crisp keyboard, even if the keyboard is playing orchestral sounds. A more "tribal style" or folkloric band may have a lot earthier sound than a band featuring a natural flute or a kanoon. Hearing the band in advance can save you from needing to execute a heavy tribal or folkloric dance in a light Egyptian costume, and it can help you adjust in advance to the sound you will be dancing to.

If you are unable to go hear your band play live in advance, try to get a recording or find a video online of them playing. If you can't find a recording, arrive early at the event and listen closely to anything by the band that you can access, even if it is just their sound check.

If you are given the opportunity to request music, be aware that requesting a song does not give you what you expect every time. Different bands play songs at different speeds, with different accents, sometimes with sections in a completely different order. Do not expect the pieces to be played the exact same way live as they did on a recording unless the band actually tells you that is the case. Example: My band tends to play Miserlou upbeat. Many bands play it slowly. And Dick Dale....

Additionally, although a song may be on the band's complete playlist, you may want to be aware that not every band is brushed up on every song in their repertoire at all times. It is wise to ask whether they feel good about your request, or whether they would suggest something else.

-If you have been listening to the recordings of a band, do not request they reproduce taqsims or drum solos from the recording. Drum solos and taqsims are almost always improvised even for recording and the only way for a band to reproduce them is for them to actually learn them from their own CDs.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Members of Raqs Band. From left to right: Saqra, David Metz, and Jeff Raybuck.

Raqs Band



Before the Show

Talk to the band. You need to speak with the band if you can.

Talk to the Right Person

Make sure you talk to the right person. Usually, look for the woman. If there is a woman in the band, it's very likely that she was/is a dancer, and is most likely to have had the great idea of putting together a dance band.

The correct person to talk to is almost never the drummer, because drummers have a very special way of handling information. They have a special ability to process information without it going through their conscious brain. If you talk to the drummer, there is a good chance that whatever you requested will not occur, because it is unlikely the drummer is in charge. The drummer probably is the one who looks available, because drummers tend to stay on stage whacking on things when the band isn't actually playing.

So, do make certain that you are talking to the person that actually makes the decisions for the band and leads the band on the stage.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Saqra dances accompanied by Arabesque Band.

Selecting the Music

Discuss your song requests or what kind of music you usually prefer.

Talk to the band about set structure. You really need to know this, so you really must ask. One common set structure would be:

  • Fast
  • Slow
  • Drum solo
  • Finale

A common longer set structure would be:

  • Introduction
  • Fast
  • Taqsim
  • Fast
  • Slow
  • Drum solo
  • Tip music
  • Finale

Another band may simply play a classical Egyptian piece and be done.
Just ask what speed order the pieces are in.

Prop and Specialty Pieces

If you are planning to use a prop or do a specialty piece, tell the band. If the band knows that you are going to do a cane dance, they may decide to play a Saidi piece instead of what they were originally planning. If you are going to do a sword piece, the band may adjust your fast piece to be shorter and elongate a slow piece to give you more time for the sword and still keep within your time limit.

Keep It Simple

Avoid giving very precise directions if there will not be sufficient time to rehearse together. If you say, "I want one minute of fanfare, and then two minutes of a smoky tsiftelli, and then I want to sing, and then two minutes of drum solo but with a stop in the middle, and then it goes from slow to fast, and then I want a baladi for tips, and end that when I raise my arms, and then a finale 9/8 piece but only 30 seconds," your band will simply want to kill you. You will not get what you requested. In fact who knows what you will get... probably the old chestnut Aziza and a drum solo.


Finger Cymbals

Ask the band whether they are comfortable with you playing finger cymbals. (Even if they usually aren't, this usually disarms complaints.) Make sure you do not play the cymbals loudly over a vocalist, or at any time that you are actually blocking the audience from hearing another artist. Just rude.

Health Concerns

Tell the band about any serious injuries or health issues that may become a problem during your show. If a band sees you having an issue, they can adjust speed or style more easily if they know what is going on. For example, my band has had experiences with:

  • People who are recovering from knee or hip surgery
  • A dancer who was prone to asthma attacks if she encountered perfume or smoke
  • Numerous pregnant dancers who had issues with stamina and fast dancing

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Bonus Note

If you tell the band you like exotic rhythms (such as 9/8s 10/8s 7/8s, etc.), then there is a good chance that you will become a favorite with that band. Every band learns specialty exotic music and almost never gets to play it. If you are given seven minutes to dance, and the band knows you like a piece of exotic rhythm music, there is a good chance they will do your set plus play the entire song for you even if it goes over your assigned time limit... and that band will love you forever. And will remember you for future shows!




On Stage

Once the show starts....


When you are on the stage, do not be afraid to talk to the band if needed. The band is there and they are alive. But make sure you are very, very clear. Look directly at only the band leader. Use gestures instead of words when possible. If you just make funny faces and mouth long sentences at the band trying to tell them something, they will probably just be confused and distressed.

If at any time you are not certain what section you are in in the set, simply ASK the bandleader. Make eye contact, raise your eyebrows and touch your veil while mouthing "veil?"or "now?"

Making repeated gestures such as slashing motions across your neck to stop a song can also be a big mistake. Some songs can't just be stopped at random points and need to be allowed to come to a natural stopping point. Repeatedly indicating that you want a song to stop can be tremendously irritating, and it shows that you do not understand you are asking for the impossible.

If you need or want to tell the band that you would like to end a song or section, take your index finger, hold it up, and make small circles in the air while making eye contact and looking questioningly directly at the person who is leading the band. This is the gesture that is most commonly used to say, "Wrap it up please?" It's not unattractive or implying violence the way the throat slashing gesture does. If the band has actually seen you, they will stop as soon as they can, but repeating the gesture will not speed up getting to the stopping point. If the band leader misses your attempt to make eye contact, move directly in front of her/him and that will him/her look up.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Indelicate Moments

If you need to lick your teeth, adjust your bra, or need somewhere to aim your knees to do a backbend, aim it at the band. The band is your friend. They are used to seeing indelicate business on stage and will think nothing of it. In fact, since dancers are lit from the audience side, there is a pretty good chance the band may have been seeing through your costume for the entire performance.


Treating the Band as Your Partners

When dancing to taqasim and drum solos, do remember you are working to communicate the music of another live person. It isn't all about you. Move in towards the appropriate musician if at all possible, and make your stage picture include both of you. It is also polite to make a flourish with your hands to acknowledge the other artist at the end of their section, and to effectively present them to the audience for appreciation.

One thing that can really drive the band crazy is when you look at the band as if it is their fault when something goes wrong. If you don't like the speed or length of the music, or if the drummer makes a mistake during the drum solo, glaring at the band will not help (though communication might). It will probably make them remember you as a problem dancer. Definitely do not publicly blame the band for your own mistakes. They will not think that is cute.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Saqra dances with her partner, Kyra.

Collecting Tips

If you have tip music, do not stay out a long time. Staying out too long on tip music causes trouble because while you are out in the audience, the band is playing a song, and usually has to continue playing that same song until you come back. Additionally, the audience is looking directly at the band as they play the same song over and over, and it gets boring for everyone. When you step off the stage area and go out to get tips, effectively you are gone from your audience.

Finishing Your Set

When you reach the end of your performance, take a moment to acknowledge the band and present them to the audience for applause before you exit.




Surprises & Unintended Consequences

Sometimes the dancer surprises the band by something she does, and affects what they are playing for her. And, sometimes the band surprises the dancer!

Prop Changes

The dancer may be surprised when the band changes songs when she sets down a prop. When you set down a prop, it makes your band think you're done with that segment of your dance, so they are likely to change the music. When you drop your veil it is the same thing: the band thinks you're done doing that slow stuff, so they move to end the song. So, if you want the band to continue playing that song after you make some sort of prop change, you need to tell them in advance about what you want to happen.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Returning to the Stage

Another way a dancer can surprise a band is returning to the stage. If you have been out doing an audience participation bit, then come back to the stage, the band is probably going to progress on to the next song. Once again, they think you are done with that segment. So, if you want the band to keep playing the same song when you return to the stage, you'll need to tell them in advance.

Calling Your Name

One more big surprise cue, this time from the band, is when the band says your name. If the band says your name when you are dancing out in the audience area, there is a good chance they are ready to progress to the finale, and they're tired of you being out. This can also mean that they are ready to start playing your finale, and they are going to end your piece no matter where you are. So, you want to pay attention and return to the stage area if you hear your name, or get ready to end your set. Think of it as someone directly calling you to get your attention.




Pesky Live Drum Solos

Drum solos are a special issue.

Most good drummers will give you predictable phrasing when playing for you in a live show. However, some drummers have learned from videos and CD's, and don't understand that phrasing needs to be repeated for someone to improvise to it. If that is the case with your drummer, good luck with that.

A good drummer for live sets will most likely give you sets of four repeats. In other words, that drummer will play the same phrase four times with very little variation so that you can guess what is going on. Occasionally a drummer will play a longer phrase twice, but the idea is to be predictable and give the dancer cues.

This portion of the dance is not about you, it is about you together.

One of the smartest things you can do is pay attention to your drummer. Look directly at the drummer frequently. You can see a cue only if you are looking. Besides, this section is about the interaction between you. This is actually true when you are dancing to a taqsim as well. The musician and you are interacting. I can't stress enough that this portion of the dance is not about you, it is about you together. So pay attention, and try to see notice the musician is trying to communicate. S/he is alive.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Saqra performs with David Metz on drum.

Some drummers are just plain insane. They will think it is funny to try to trick you. Or, they will not have no idea how to play for a dancer and will prefer to show off with whatever they want.

When this happens, your best resort is to have good strong finger cymbal skills so that you can play your own drum solo. Simply move away from the drummer to another area of the stage and play your own drum solo accents. There is a good chance that the drummer will be angry with you later, but that is how it goes.

If you do not have strong finger cymbal skills (or you do not have your finger cymbals with you), then your best resort is to work with the underlying count of the drumming. No matter what accents are being put on top of the rhythm, there is still rhythm there and you can dance to that instead of the accents. Dance to that. I have an article about how to do Drum Solo Builds elsewhere on this web site.

Saqra with David




Closing Thoughts

Remember that you never need to start dancing the instant a piece of music starts. If you wait a moment before you move into the music, you will have a chance to hear what the band is playing before you dance to it, so do not rush to start each section.

Remember that you are never stuck on stage just because there is a live band. If you need to leave at any time or want to leave all you ever need to do is spin, smile, wave and leave.

  • Spinning: breaks the energy
  • Smiling: tells your audience all is well
  • Waving: indicates you are leaving
  • Leaving: also indicates you are leaving

The band may be confused, but they figure out that you are gone and wrap up what they are playing.

Your mileage may vary, but the road is lighter with your friends, the band.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.




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About the Author

Saqra (Seattle, Washington, USA) is a powerful dance artist and a master instructor. Her fluidity, grace, and technical skill is highlighted by her friendly demeanor and clear joy of the dance. She did not inherit the diva gene.

Saqra won titles in Belly Dance USA (Oregon), Belly Dancer of the Year (California), Belly Dancer of the Universe (California), Wiggles of the West (Nevada), and many other competitions. She was voted "Best Kept Secret of 2005" and "Instructor of the Year 2008" by readers of Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra's journey in this dance form began in 1977 and has led her to study with many of the best dancers in the world, including in America, Canada, Turkey and Egypt. Saqra continues to travel and study both in the USA and abroad and prides herself on proper research for anything she teaches. Folklore, fakelore, and stage creativity: all three are valuable, and Saqra clearly presents for each what they actually are. Saqra is constantly expanding her expertise in the traditional ethnic forms of the dance, the modern stage variants, and the continuing evolving fusion techniques, all these areas combined keep her material fresh and current.

Saqra is widely known as an event promoter, musician, music and instructional video producer, and a registered hypnotherapist in the state of Washington. That is enough stuff to start explaining what she has been doing in belly dance since 1977. Visit her at

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California. In the photo, Saqra is holding her Teacher of the Year 2008 Award from Zaghareet Magazine.

Saqra with Award



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