How to create a belly dance choreography

How to create a belly dance choreography

In this article I would like to share with you my workflow for creating a belly dance choreography and demonstrate it on an Arabic flamenco fusion in the hope that it will encourage you to start creating your own masterpieces.

Over the past ten years, I created a fair number of belly dance choreographies for myself and my students, both children and adults. No matter how many times I’ve done it, the process has always been very painful for me.

How do I create something out of nothing if I’m not a choreographer? Strangely enough, it always seemed to turn out well in the end.

Become a choreographer

I always admired people who could create original art pieces and in the same time felt frustrated that I was just an ordinary untalented person who couldn’t come up with anything new anyway.

This is how I was brought up. Artists were born with a talent and then there was the rest of us. It took years of study and self-development to wipe this wrong belief out of my mind.

Nothing is truly original in this world

The truth is, there’s nothing truly original in this world. Even if a person suddenly has this seemingly absolutely original idea that no other human being ever thought of, it doesn’t mean that it’s an entirely new concept.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe and after him Rudolf Steiner see thinking as an organ of perception that perceives ideas from Akashic principle.

Thinking is no more and no less an organ of perception than the eye or ear. Just as the eye perceives colours and the ear sounds, so thinking perceives ideas.

— Rudolf Steiner

I read many books about creativity but still there was this fear that I can’t create anything original.

And then I came across a book Austin Kleon Steal like an Artist (Steal Like an Artist on Amazon.com, Steal Like an Artist on Amazon.co.uk). It changed my view of the whole creative process and persuaded me that it’s actually ok if you’re NOT entirely original! It made me realize that even the best artists always look for inspiration either in nature or in other people’s artwork.

Even though I was (and still am) stuggling with anxiety which puts me off my creative work, I never gave up, kept trying and looking back I can’t believe how much work I got done.

In the end, I came to the same conclusion as most creative people – anyone can be creative and creativity is a habit.

You need to do three things:

  • persuade yourself that you can be a choreographer
  • start working
  • keep working and don’t give up

Select the right music

When you take that big leap and decide that you can be a choreographer, the next step is to select the right music. Dancing to the right music is half of a success.

However, like with everything else, nobody can tell you what the right music is. It must be something that speaks to your heart and resonates with the feelings you are trying to express through dancing.

If you create a choreography for someone else than yourself, you also need to take into account the following:

  • age and skills of the dancers
  • other dancers taste
  • dance style
  • occasion (stage performance, hafla, restaurant, home)
  • any props

My dance students wanted to do something a bit different after a long period of technically challenging Egyptian style so we decided on Arabic Flamenco fusion choreography which I needed to create but wasn’t too familiar with.

Before I went any further, I did a long research on the best Arabic Flamenco fusion music and put together a list of possible options. In the end, I picked Alabina by Ishtar and Gipsy Kings. It’s a cheerful upbeat piece that both my dancers and the audience enjoy.

Before you make the final decision about your music, I recommend to make a list of possible options, listen to all of them a notice how you feel and which one speaks to your heart.

Final thought: Remember that you don’t always have to dance to the whole song. You can crop it or even combine two song together on your computer!

Analyze the music

Musical analysis is the single most helpful technique that can take you from putting random movements in a sequence to creating a highly structured dance.

All professional dancers will tell you that the key to choreography or improvisation is to know your music. The general advice you get is to listen to the song over and over. However, it’s not as easy as that.

If you just listen to the song in a passive way, you might remember the melody after a while but there’s no guarantee you really understand the structure of the song.

Here is what I do. I count through the whole song, divide it into themes and create a table where I recored the following:

  • time markers – in seconds from – to (0:59 – 1:08)
  • number of counts (16)
  • phrasing – how the counts are phrased (4 – 4 – 4 – 4)
  • theme – melody or rhythm patterns identified with uppercase alphabet letters (C), if there are variations of the same theme I call them B1, B2 etc.
  • additional notes – any notes related to the rhythm, accents, musical instruments…
Components of musical analysis for belly dancers

The whole process takes me from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the complexity of the song. I listen to the song repeatedly with the headphones on and rewind it bit by bit over and over on my laptop.

I’m using AKG Pro Audio K77 which are studio quality headphones for a reasonable price. The difference between middle easter rhythms are sometimes subtle, muffled by ornamentation and other instruments and my laptop speakers are too poor to provide sound clear enough for me to hear all the dums and teks.

If you stumble on a certain tricky part, don’t ponder on it for too long. Skip to the next part and then come back to the problematic bit later. Thanks to the time markers, it’s easy to work on any part of the song.

When you put all this effort into analysing your song, you will discover patterns, themes that repeat and will have a clear song structure in front of you before you start choreographing. This exercise is invaluable.

Excerpt from the musical analysis of Alabina:
Time: Counts: Phrasing: Theme: Notes:
0:22 – 0:42 32 16 – 16 A verse, regular beat
0:42 – 0:58 28 4 – 4 – 4 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 2 – 8 B1 hit accents on 2 – 2 – 2 – 2
0:59 – 1:08 16 4 – 4 – 4 – 4 C drums solo, very fast

Look for inspiration

Now we’re back to the step one. Nothing is really original in this world. Even the best ballet choreographers use basic steps and turns from ballet repertoire and also look for inspiration in the world around them and study other choreographers work in depth.

Thanks to guys who invented YouTube, you can get inspired from the comfort of your home. I always look for belly dance performances of the song I’m about to choreograph and other performances in the particular dance style.

This is helpful in many ways. You can see what works but also what doesn’t. I observe the moves, usage of the stage, group formations but also costumes and emotional expressions and overall impression of the performance.

If I particularly like something, I take a note of the move I’d like to use later. Remember, steal like an artist. You’re not copying someone else’s choreography. You’re getting ideas and will later use them in your own original way.

Steal like an artist!

— Austin Kleon

The less you are familiar with the dance style, the more useful watching performances is. Before I went ahead with creating my choreography, I made a list of The best Arabic Flamenco YouTube videos for inspiration, watched all of them many times and took various notes.

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Create a belly dance choreography

All the preparation done, time to stop procrastinating and start choreographing! This is the difficult part.

Find the optimal time to create

Your creative abilities change during your monthly cycle. Sometimes I can get 2 minutes of the choreography done in half an hour, sometimes I struggle with a few seconds for a long time and then give up.

It usually takes me several weeks to get the whole song done so that I’m happy with every single detail.

Try working on your choreography during different stages of your monthly cycle and you will find out when it’s your optimal time to create.

Start from the middle

Don’t know where to start? Start from the middle! We live in a masculine linear world and we seem to think that we need to work that way as well. We start at the beginning and work in a linear manner towards the end. Chances are, you’re get either overwhelmed or stuck.

I learnt to work from the middle. Because I have the musical analysis printed on a sheet of paper, I can choose any theme I like and just choreograph that one. It’s much less intimidating to choreograph 16 counts than a 4-minute song.

I pick one of the themes and start exploring options, dancing the same 16 counts over and over till I come up with a nice combination that mirrors either the rhythm or the melody.

The first idea is rarely the best one but if you don’t start, you will never get the second or third one. To start with, try some steps and big moves. You can layer flourishes, shimmies and arm positions later on.

When I explore different themes, I put them together. There are usually a few bits left but they are much easier to fill later when most of the song is already done. It’s like doing a Jigsaw puzzle.

Use a cheat sheet or memo cards

I find it helpful to have a list of moves and steps or even better little memo cards or post-it notes with movements in front of me so that I can refer to them whenever I need to think outside the box.

Let the choreography mature

When you’re done with the first draft of the choreography, put it aside for a few days. You subconsios will work in the background and next time you work on it, you will come up with fresh ideas. Don’t be afraid to change, replace or fine-tune different parts of your choreography till it feels just right.

Record your choreography

Take records of your choreographing efforts right from the start. Even if you only take a few notes on a random sheet of paper, it’s much better than forgetting the great idea you had yesterday but seemed to vanish from your head overnight.

I can’t even count how many times I thought, “Yeah, I will remember that…” and then only a few minutes later I couldn’t remember how I danced those few counts for the world!

Nowadays it’s quite easy to take a video on your camera or a mobile phone. Having a video record will help you both, memorize the choreography and evaluate it.

I deeply regret not having recordings of some old choregraphies which I loved but can’t remember anymore and can’t even reconstruct from my paper notes. Don’t make the same mistake a preserve your masterpieace digitally.

Conclusion

Choreographing your own dance is not an easy task but you can do it if you believe in yourself. Creativity is a habit. The more you do it, the more you create and your choreographing skills will develop.

It doesn’t mean that you will somehow miraculously be able to create without effort. You will still be staring at the same blank sheet of paper no matter how many times you’ve done it before. You will just not waste more time procrastinating and start working. Just start and do something. Anything. Create out of your soul and spirit and your choreography will become the expression of your true self.

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