I've been often asked how I figure out how to perform a piece of music. I admit that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I want to interpret music and how I want to incorporate various moves into my shows for Al Masri (and what I perform in other places) The process I use is convoluted and not entirely straightforward. I do incorporate certain thought processes in no defined order. It really is a journey - a journey that always has a base in understanding the music.
First, I figure out what is the music saying
I always research the lyrics and the background of the music. And I don't just read one translation - I read multiple translations to be sure I understand the full meaning of what is being said. I will explore Youtube and find people dancing to the same music - especially Egyptians. I'll also ask my teacher, Sausan, about the music to get additional direction and insight into what it's about, the history at the time, what movie it is from (if that applies) and other questions so that I can understand the context of the song.
I also listen to the music hundreds of times before performing it. I find that I have to be able to understand the nuances that are in the composition so I can bring that to life. All the better if I can listen to multiple versions of the song so I know if the nuances are unique to my song or the version of it.
I have learned through performing and from instruction from Sausan that you have to know all about the music you are dancing to so you can include little "easter eggs" that make your performance memorable. This is why I am now at the point I need to learn Arabic - I want to make things pop and I can't if I don't know whats going on when.
My performances are about my interpretation of the music. The core of the dance IS the music - I know I have to know and understand everything about what it is I am performing to.
What makes sense to do where
Belly dance has a very technical aspect to it. I've been immersed in Sausan's Egyptian Dance Code, so from my perspective there are some areas where it makes more sense to do certain steps than others. However, with that said, there are some movements that better reflect the "intention" of the music and what it is expressing than others. This is more of the personal/intuitive side of the dance.
I hear from people all the time how someone needs to "feel" the music and I never really understood what that meant before. Now I see it as being about what you think the music is trying to express as an emotion and using your body to express that. So for example, I listen to a piece of music and I hear a part of it that for me sounds delicate and happy. I then try to think about how to express that emotion in the dance. I'll research videos and music and try to understand how Egyptians interpret delicate (Egyptian belly dance isn't "delicate" but they do have ways to complement that part of the music - it's just that I have to learn how to think that way.). I'll then start experimenting to see which movements are delicate to Egyptians AND to the Americans (because at the end of the day, I perform for them). It takes a while to figure this out. And sometimes I'll figure out a few movements that fit in that area of the song and mix and match per show to keep it interesting.
Gotta have glitz - and the costume alone isn't enough
People come to a restaurant mainly to eat some really good food and be entertained. Nine times out of ten they aren't coming specifically to see a particular belly dancer; they are coming to get the experience at the restaurat and to have some good memories. If you do happen to have fans who came to see you specifically, then you are blessed and you owe them a rockin' show. Otherwise, it is your job to make fans out of the people who come and the only way to do that is to be memorable. A great costume makes you memorable for a few days. Having some cute moves and showing off your personality will make you memorable for years.
There are three indicators I use to confirm that I was entertaining and hopefully, memorable in some way:
- The diners (or people at a private party) are louder and more animated when I leave the room than when I entered and started my show
- The entertainees remember my "easter eggs" and make comments on them
- Couples are cuddling, children think I'm Jasmine, and people are generally in a good mood
And yes, it's all about the "easter eggs". I know that I can't have a show full of them, but it helps to have a few in a show to keep the audience focused. People are there to eat and socialize - and they need a reason to watch the show.
When I work on a song/show, I try to keep a few things in mind:
- Most people seeing me dance don't know about the nuances of Arabic music - nor do they care
- For the people who do care - I need to be on it and do something different to keep them entertained
- Most people seeing me perform don't know anything about belly dancing except that it's fun to watch
By keeping this in mind, I'm able to create a show that the audience will understand on a variety of levels - entertainment, art, and cultural expression. That's my goal. However, I always remember that the base level is to be entertaining. To do that, I have found that I should work to capture the audience with crazy movements, that of course complement the music. I want to get them to wonder what I will do next.
And I don't always need a prop to achieve this. Sometimes, the music calls for a prop and it makes sense to use it. But many times, I fous on doing something different and creative - something different that most likely the audience didn't see before (or the audience did see before, but a long time ago or maybe only once or twice).
Gotta make them laugh
This is belly dancing, and as I stated earlier - at one level this is entertainment and people like to have fun. I don't see this dance as being dead-on-serious at all times. For some songs, yes, it makes sense to be more serious and cultural. But at times even the Egyptian music isn't 100% serious. For example, there is a version of Lissa Fakir by the Cairo Orchestra that has these little trills going from high to low. It's a little "easter egg" in the piece of music itself. I love to interpret that with a shoulder shimmy to a hip shimmy to a full body shimmy. It is a whimsical part of the song. By interpreting it that way with the shimmies, it gets people to giggle and have fun. It just adds some comic life to the show.
Egyptian music is quite whimsical at times. The musicians are having fun - just as the dancer should. I love picking up those aspects of the music and making them come alive. It just adds to make the show memorable and keeps it all entertaining.
I've gotta feel it
Going back to the beginning - if I don't feel the music speaking to my soul, I don't dance to it. Anyone watching one of my shows will see how I'll lip synch to the lyrics or get lost in the music. If I'm not doing this while practicing, I'll abandon working on a song and work on something else that "speaks to me." If that happens, I figure that for whatever reason, I'm not ready to work on that particular song - I need a break - and I'll come back to it later. Lately, I've been returning to pieces and finishing them for this reason. And that's ok - it's part of the journey. I'm just not ready.
I always want to feel what I'm dancing to so I can better express those emotions. That's what this is all about.
And when I work on a piece of music, I always have fun with it. I don't choreograph music right away. I have fun with it, play with it, see what makes sense and what works. I'll go thru dozens of ways to interpret the music before I come up with the way I really like. And again, I don't rush it. If nothing comes to me, I'll take a break and work on it later. Or I'll suddenly make a breakthru while being on BART or doing something else. It's all part of the creative process - you just never know when you will get inspiration.
When I finally get up on stage to perform a new piece of music, I honestly have taken a journey with that song and its presentation to an audience is the final stop. Well, kind of...I still make adjustments after an audience sees a show. The journey I took to get to performance is educational, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Yes, that's a lot of work just for a 10-15 minute performacne. But I stay with the dancing because most of all, the journey is fun.