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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

How Can I Learn to Improvise?



The Question

Dear Shira:

I have been a belly dancer for about a year now. I know how to dance very well, the only thing I am not too good at yet is improvising with various moves. When we go into a circle and it is my turn, I seem to hit a blank and end up not doing as many moves as I would have liked. My first performance my teacher wanted me to do a solo and she told me to improvise if anything.

I tried at home and found I couldn't do various moves, and only when the music stopped do I realize what other moves I could have done.

Could you please give me any advice on how would a person improvise on the spur of the moment and be able to use various moves so that the audience will not think you do not know what you are doing, or are very poor at what you are doing?

--Caught In Choreography



Shira Responds

Dear Caught:

Improvisation is a skill that comes naturally to some people, while others must learn how to do it. The good news is that it can be learned.

Start by choosing a song that you absolutely enjoy dancing to. It's easier to improvise when you love the music you are using.

Before you put the music on, take a moment to think about the moves you like to do. Pick two moves that you especially enjoy doing, that you think you can do very well. Call these your "Now What?" moves. Put the music on and begin improvising, trying to avoid those two "Now What?" moves. If you suddenly find yourself unable to think of a move to do next, do one of your "Now What?" moves. This will buy you time to think about what to do next. The next time you're stuck, use your other "Now What?" move.

Remember the "rule of 4's", which applies to most music, including Arabic. This means that frequently the same musical pattern is repeated 4 times before the song goes on to something else. As a dancer, you can repeat the same move 4 times with it before changing to something else. As you become more experienced, you can end the fourth repetition with something different from how you ended the earlier three, to show you've completed that musical "thought" and you're moving on to something else. The first time you do a move, the audience will miss what you did. The second time, they'll be with you and catch it. The third time they'll appreciate your mastery over it, and the fourth when you add the slight modification it will offer a sense of closure, like the period at the end of a sentence.

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

Practice many times using the two "Now What?" moves as I described above, and remembering the rule of 4's. After you feel like you really understand the first song, move to a different one and try it all again. Practice until use of the "Now What?" moves feels automatic and comfortable to you with several different songs. Once you reach this point, you're ready for the next exercise.


Pick two more moves that really interest you. They don't need to be ones you have completely mastered just yet, they might be ones you enjoy which you hope to master in the near future. Think of these as your "Required" moves. This time, when you put on your music to practice improvising, "require" yourself to insert the "Required" moves periodically throughout the dance. Of course, you can continue using the "Now What?" moves for their intended purpose. Don't forget the rule of 4's. Practice many times, until it becomes natural to you to incorporate the "Required" moves into your improvised dance. After sufficient practice, these moves will become a natural part of your improvisation and you will no longer need to think about intentionally using them.

Continue using the "Required" moves methodology to add one or two more moves at a time into your dance. After adding each pair of moves, practice frequently until they come into your dance naturally without your needing to think about them. Allow yourself to continue using moves that were "Required" in the past that now naturally enter into your dance as you improvise. Over time, you'll reach the point where a variety of moves find their way into your dance as you practice.

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

The above might work for you, or it might not. So here is an alternate way to approach improvising: while you are dancing, let your brain wander to various choreographed dances you have learned in the past, and slip combinations from those other dances into your improvisation while you're performing.

But really, the most important thing you can do to develop this skill is to practice, practice, practice improvising itself. The more you practice it, the more easily it will come to you.






About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.



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