Adventures in Choreographing: Selecting Your Music

I love to dance to non-Middle Eastern music. I would rather dance to Nine Inch Nails than Natacha Atlas, and I’m more likely to shimmy to a banjo than an oud.

I’m completely aware that this is exceptionally counter intuitive considering the fact that I label myself primarily as a belly dancer, but it’s just the truth.  I have seen beautiful belly dance pieces to live music and I find some songs absolutely gorgeous, but rarely do I feel the urge to get up and dance to it.

I have a fair amount of dancer’s guilt about this. I should WANT to dance to the music that is part of my art forms’ culture, right? And I AM a firm believer that belly dancers should know their roots, and while I do know a fair amount about the history of belly dance, it’s definitely an area that I feel is not my strongest. You have to learn the rules before you can break them, right?

So my grand idea was to start off this choreography experiment with a traditional Middle Eastern belly dance piece. A cool drum solo, or a Saidi, or maybe a veil piece (although a rebuttal to that could be that veils were introduced into belly dance in America, I suppose…). It would be a good “staple” for my dance repertoire, I told myself.  It would be a challenge for me, it would show that I can be versatile… on paper it was a great idea. I began combing my iTunes for a good song.

I found a few songs that are absolutely beautiful. I listened to them intently and tried to visualize myself dancing to them. I tried some experimental movements, and… nothing. Wasn’t clicking. The more I listened to the songs, the only thing that came into my mind was other dancers’ movements. “I should do that Sonia-esque move there…” “… I want to try that thing Sabah did in that show…” “Oooh, that Jillina thing could be cool…”

But then I realized: I’m not Sonia. Or Sabah. Not Jillina, either (although I did pick up a love of spins after learning her  Bellydance Evolution choreographies).

I’m Megan. And while I have studied all these dancers and picked up a few individual movements from them, I do not want to choreograph a piece that is just strings of other dancers’ movement. And as the Gospel of Ben Folds teaches us, “I do the best imitation of myself.”

True art is being honest, vulnerable, and presenting yourself and what you do best to an audience. This is not to say that I will never choreograph a Middle Eastern belly dance piece. But if right now my heart is leading me in a different direction, and I want to create art that is authentic to me.

The answers I received to my questions that I posed in my last post reinforced my conclusion, and brought up some other really good points about selecting music:

1) Get emotional about your music — pick a song you love.

“I don’t actually go look for [music] — It finds me. I hear it on someone’s iPod, on the radio, on Pandora, Youtube and I think, ‘Wow, that would be awesome to dance to.’ It has to speak to me and my emotions. It has to give me emotion. I don’t like dancing to something that I can’t connect with.” — Michele Caldwell

As a dancer that tends to learn toward more emotionally-charged pieces, I really agree with what Michele said here. When a dancer is emotionally invested in her performance, it immediately becomes ten times more powerful (check out Anasma’s Tribute to My Father if you don’t believe me). And if you can find the root emotion behind your music and use it as the basis for your piece, movement flows more naturally and organically, in my experience. During my improv, I often find that I cannot create movement I like if I am dancing to a song that expresses an emotion contrary to what I feel that day.

“Usually, a sure sign that a piece of music is a solid candidate for choreography is that when listening to it, my automatic response is to daydream…  if a song immediately causes me to do that, it enters into an intimate realm that I can connect with on a deep emotional level, where I can see a story or a character evolve and prance about.  That song will immediately be put onto one of my playlists.  This helps when I’m putting together music for a show, because then I will have a huge playlist to select a song from that I already know by heart and feel part of.  I listen to my lists almost everyday, even if just a few songs off of them.” — Erin Ryan

I thought Erin raised to really excellent points here… visualization is the unsung hero of dance creation, in my opinion. Every time I have choreographed, the majority of my choreography has been created while driving, strangely enough. I will listen to a song and all of the sudden “see” a movement or a concept pop into my head. I thought Erin raised an excellent point about playlists, as well. On my computer, I have several playlists categorized by different emotions: “Moody,” “Angry,” “Energy,” etc.

“I literally will not perform to a piece of music that I don’t feel strongly about… All in all, selecting music often remains a challenge for me, because if organic movement doesn’t come while I’m listening to a song, its a good indication that a solid choreography (one that I’m happy with) will be elusive.  Music that doesn’t speak to me makes for a choreographic nightmare.” — Gabrielle Bellini

I couldn’t have said it better myself — avoid choreographic quagmires and just pick a song that makes you wanna groove.

2) Keep your audience in mind.

I am creating a choreography for my personal enjoyment, so in my mind, the most important thing is just to pick a song you like, that you have emotional connection to, and go from there. But while reading responses, Erin Ryan brought up a good point:

“Keeping the audience in mind is a huge factor when choosing music.  Some people are put off by Middle Eastern music, partly because it is not part of the Western culture and therefore an acquired taste of sorts… If I know that I will be performing for a general audience that can wander in and out at will (such as at the Hookah bar, a Renn Faire, the park, etc.), I will try to choose music that might include Middle Eastern rhythms but is fused with other genres, such as electronica.  This allows the audience to naturally turn off any cultural censors they might have and just enjoy the dance for what it is.  It’s like the book Sneaky Chef, which has recipes for moms who want to hide nutritious foods into their children’s meals without them knowing.”

And,

“A piece WILL fall apart if you do not keep the audience perspective in mind.  Some performers would be up on a stage even if no one is watching, as they love their craft that much.  However, performing for solely for yourself and performing for an audience are two entirely separate things.  An audience might be coming to watch you in particular because they like your moves, or aesthetic, or message, but more than anything they are coming to be entertained or wowed on some mental level.  You have to learn to acknowledge and pander to that.”

Definitely. There is a time and place for everything. As strongly as I believe that artists should create something authentic to themselves, there is also a fine balancing act all artists learn to play between honest artistic expression and audience expectation.

2) Listen to your music. Now, listen to it again. … And give it another listen...

Congratulations, you picked a song! I hope you paid attention to number 1 and picked a song you like, because you are now going to be listening to said song approximately 100 billion times.

” Generally I’ll start by just listening intently to the song.  I often put it on repeat for long periods of time.  When I know it inside and out I start to move.” — Gabrielle

” I listen to the music over and over, then write the counts on paper to see how many I have to choreograph.” –Michele

How do you know when you have listened to your music enough? There are several ways to tell:

— Do you hate your music, wonder why you ever picked this song, and desperately want to listen to a new piece of music? Good. Listen to it some more.

— Are you starting to move unconsciously to the music? Are you starting to visualize little chunks of movement? Good. Give it another listen.

— Are you hearing it even when it’s not playing? Are you dancing to it in the shower? Are you starting to walk in time to the music playing in your head wherever you go? Good. Almost there. Put that sucker on repeat again.

I’m being  a little tongue-in-cheek here, but really, you will get to a point where you know every doum and tek of your music, you will hear it before you go to sleep, and it will haunt you (I have dreamed about my music before). And at that point, I feel ready to start tackling the piece.

What do YOU think? Do you have insights into music selection or any other part of the choreographic process? I sure would love to hear your answers.

What’s that, you say? Who are the ladies behind these wise responses? Why, I’m glad you asked:

Gabrielle Bellini Choreography
Erin Ryan Choreography
Michele Caldwell Choreography

My next post will be about creating a written road map for your choreography. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pop my headphones back on…

Calling all Choreographers/Artists/Dancers…

Before I get into my project idea, let me open with one simple, incontrovertible fact:

I am an editor.

I worked as an editor at the Writing Center at my college, I interned the campus book publisher, and when I left college, I got a job as a copy editor at the local newspaper. I have edited friends’ books, resumés, poetry, emails, dissertations, application essays. Hell, sometimes I edit people’s comments on Facebook. I can’t help it; it’s just in my blood.

(Side note: I will be looking over this blog post with a fine-toothed comb before I post it, having said all that. I can haz gud gramar).

I bring this quality to my dancing as well, which I find to be an incredibly difficult trait to deal with. I am largely an improvisational dancer because when I sit down to choreograph, my inner commentary goes a little like this:

ME: “Okay, I’m going to start with a chest circle, then an undulation into an ommi. Oooh, and I can add some snake arms with the chest circle… hmmm, if I add those then maybe I should take out the undulation. Ok, chest circle, snake arms, ommi… Wait, that doesn’t flow well… maybe I’ll change the ommi into a figure 8… man, I should add some arms with that… crap, now I don’t like the snake arms…”

I could go on. Before I know it, it’s an hour later and I have an overly complex, stale bit of choreography I now loathe with a passion.

In true Megan form, my solution is just to procrastinate choreographing until I absolutely have to… or just not choreographing at all.

This needs to change. I have reached a point with my dancing where I feel like I cannot just sit back and wait for inspiration to hit. I’m no longer comfortable with just “winging it.” I like parts of my videos, seeing when I lock into the music and connect for a minute or two… but then I lose it. I want more control over my work.

Call me a nerd (it’s certainly appropriate), but I believe that we all need to approach our lives as scientists conducting our own experiments into self-discovery and art. With that being said, I am making myself a guinea pig, and I need your help. Remembering Austin Kleon’s wise post Stealing Like an Artist, I want to hear how you create, what techniques you employ, and give it a try myself. Then, I want to blog about it so that we all can see how other people do their thang and possibly take something that we can use in our own art. I would love to feature you and link to your website/material so we can all see the fruits of your creative process.

Choreographers, artists, and creative people:

1) How do you select your music?
2) How do you create your choreography? On paper, dancing it out, visualization?
3) How long does it take you to create a piece, on average?
4) How much does visualization play into your creative process?
5) What tools (music, books, websites) would you recommend to someone trying to improve their choreographing or creative skills?
6) Send me something you’ve choreographed so I can see you in your element.

Please email it to meganhartmann@yahoo.com. Thank you!

Soy Lo Que Bailo

Photo by Sharon Quinn

“Soy lo que bailo*” — I am what I dance.

I have danced in studios from coast to coast and country to country. I danced Saidi in Japan, I spun canes in Spain, I choreographed with girls in Canada. My body and mind broke down together in a studio in San Jose, I slept cheek to cheek with the studio floor in the heart of San Francisco, I became divinely inebriated in Sacramento.
Through the red, pulsating, intolerable haze of frustration, the true meaning of “patience” dawned on me in a New York studio; I saw the living embodiment of the word “dedication” as it related to training and persistence while watching my teacher in Vancouver.
I realized the inadequacy of the word “depression” in some and felt a sense of elation that defies description in many.

I have danced on stages. I have performed for audiences in the hundreds and sometimes for no one at all. One stage saw me become an alcoholic writer, another saw me wear masks — both literal and figurative — to play the Hindu goddess Kali. I have been a snake, a man, a flapper, a monster, a whore.

I have dragged my anger and my frustration onstage and subjugated it into my dance. I have let my energy, love, and excitement ooze out of my pores, feeling it multiply ten-fold the more of it I give in sacrifice to my audience. On other stages it took every wile and ounce of self-manipulation I possessed to convince myself that yes, Megan, you deserved this opportunity to dance, no, you didn’t have a choice in the matter, and now would you please take your damn place on the floor and wait for your music to start?

I have met someone’s eyes when I danced and realized that I was about to take my place in wonderful and terrible difficult love story, and that my part was already written. I have choreographed pieces about falling out of love before I realized my unconscious cast me in the lead role for a reason.

I took risks on some stages; some I played it safe. I have left everything I had on same stages and have taken regret with me off of others. I have sacrificed my blood, sweat, and tears; I’ve broken up with boyfriends and mentors before ending my love affair with dance. I’m a failure and a success story rolled into one slightly crazy, often too imaginative main character. Hi, I’m Megan, and I’m an addict… the problem is just that my addiction is also my salvation.

I have felt the music pull me onto me feet, my toes in the grass under a patchwork tent; I have danced lit only by the dim glow of the stars. I have felt tears run down my face and bump into my smile, I danced with the divine.  I have danced in hallways, on rooftops, in kitchens, in hotel rooms, on beds. I have danced in on a bus, in a car, standing up and sitting down. I dance in my seat, I dance in my head…

My life is continuous movement, perpetual growth, and pursuing expansion.

“Soy lo que bailo*” — I am what I dance.

*Quote from Maria Pages

No Words Art: Loss

I remember seeing this with my marching band in high school and bawling my eyes out in the audience. In my mind, there is no better musical interpretation of what it feels like to lose something. This is raw, powerful, and terribly beautiful loss.

I read somewhere that to get into character, the trumpet player would imagine that this was the last time he could ever play the trumpet in his life.

Gypsy Life: ¡Viva España!

Fiona Apple once sang, “But I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time.”

A few weeks ago, I decided to leave St. Louis, put in my two weeks, move out of my apartment overnight, couch surf through mover’s limbo with all my shit and Little Orange Cat (creativity abound in that name, I know…), drive home to Illinois, and it’s finally starting to hit me that I’m leaving for Spain TOMORROW.

Life has been so insane the past few weeks that I haven’t really had time to just sit down and even think about moving… again. I just moved to St. Louis this past August, and now I’m moving to Spain for three months with a rusty grasp of Spanish, no real thought of how I’m going to make money, and not knowing anyone but my sister.

Still, it’s the right move for me. It really is. Fiona hit the nail on the head, and I am a full-blown change addict. It didn’t help that to me, living in St. Louis was like being being at dinner with someone that you really WANTED to like, but couldn’t help noticing their little dealbreakers the whole damn date (“Jesus, how many times is this guy going to use the word ‘literally’ incorrectly…?”).

I tend to assign colors mentally to towns I’ve spent any real time in — maybe just because I would have loved to have been a painter in some other life. For example, South Carolina was green — everything was new, thriving, and just so alive. I remember my first night outside in Natalie’s backyard, barefoot in the dirt as music cut through the muggy air, fire blazing, people dancing, and I would swear that the air around me was vibrating, ripples of pure energy coursing through me. And it was smacked me in the face — that gratefulness of being exactly where you want to be and knowing that something incredible was just beginning. Something, some seed of a thought, some grain of an idea of what I might really want in my life was planted in me that trip, surrounded by that crazy circus.

Green.

St. Louis was gunmetal grey and brick red. Hard and toughened. People carried that hardness with them in a sense. I remember one time when picking up my friend Sierra downtown when she came into town from Columbia. I watched her run across the sidewalk, in a classic Sierra outfit (a hot pink jacket and pink boots), she sat down in my car and immediately said, “Wow, I wore the wrong thing for St. Louis.”

St. Louis just isn’t pink.

I’m not knocking St. Louis. From what I saw in my brief time there, St. Louis is filled with really good people who work hard and stay grounded. I appreciate that there are people pushing to expand the art scene on several different fronts. I met some people there that have had such a profound impact on me and how I’m moving forward in my life… I Don’t Know if they realize how much they’ve changed me.

But the longer I lived there, I noticed that while St. Louis is a city with lots of potential, but many people I met described landing here by chance and getting stuck in a sense. A lot of people affectionately joked with me that St. Louis was a bit of a black hole for travelers. It’s uncomplicated to live there — good people, cheap expenses, etc. It’s an easy city that is hard to leave.

It was easy for me to live there, but not good for me. I didn’t have to work hard, so I didn’t. I didn’t want to make decisions about my life, so I didn’t. I look back on my time in St. Louis and have regrets.

I feel like I have learned all that I can from living in places and waiting for life to happen to me. When I go to Spain, I’m going to study flamenco. I’m going to figure out how to live there comfortably. I’m going to absorb the culture and every experience I can squeeze out of this. I’m going to surrender to the fact that while I might hate structure and loathe routine, it really could advance me.

I cannot wait to go to Spain and refocus on what I love to do, my passion, my art… dance. I cannot wait to feel alive again, I’ve been hibernating far too long and I’m ready to thrive.

Here goes…