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…

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Artistry 101: Nurturing Creativity

If you are a creative person, you really owe it to yourself to take twenty minutes to watch this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity.

Elizabeth Gilbert — the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” who I have had an intellectual crush on for awhile now — discusses the tendency for very creative people to get consumed or psychologically overwhelmed by the very act of doing what they feel they were put on this Earth to do — create art. Her solution? We should consider the notion that instead of people BEING geniuses, perhaps we are just here to provide a channel for genius to flow through. She says:

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

This talk blew my mind.

I completely agree. Completely. We have a hard enough time as a species with all of the problems and worry that we try to reassign to ourselves from others, and that alone is psychologically crippling. In this culture, we’re supposed to navigate through our own worry, doubt, and insecurity while also juggling our kids’, parents’, coworkers’, and others’ feelings and issues. Now think about if, on top of all that, that the thing that owned a large portion of your mind and soul — your art — if that thing you felt called to do above all others suddenly became a giant litmus test to judge your self-worth against. “I created genius once, so I can do it again — but better.”

It’s a lot of pressure.

One of my recent posts dealt with this same issue. I had written,

God, after getting so excited about this new piece, I suffered the most severe bout of ego-death I’ve ever experienced. For the first time EVER in my life, I questioned whether I was meant to be a dancer. What purpose does it serve? I had a moment where I thought, ‘Maybe I’m never going to get to the point where I can create something significant, no matter how hard I try.’

It’s a pretty shitty feeling. It’s a big, big responsibility feeling like you have the ability to connect with something profound, and wondering why you can’t always access it. Gilbert said it best:

In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, “Allah, ole, ole, Allah, magnificent, bravo,” incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that. But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

I have never been a religious person. I was raised without any real mention of if there was a God or some greater being. And honestly, I’m not really sure I buy into the whole “supreme being” thing. In my later years, though, I have begun to sense some sort of underlying current or energy in how life marches forward, and I have absolutely no idea how to characterize it, identify it, or even talk about it.

But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Maybe this is just something outside my realm of comprehension. But what I DO understand, what I am familiar and acquainted with, is the feeling of connection something greater than myself through those rare moments of true surrender to dance. And in those moments, I feel something flow out of me that I simply can’t identify and, as a result, can’t take credit for.

When Gilbert shared Ruth Stone’s and Tom Waits’ stories on how art came to them, I felt an eerie connection.Yes, I have left a meal before to visit the restroom because I HAD to try to dance out a combination before the knowledge of it left me. Yes, when driving on long trips, portions of choreography will drift past me as I hear the music, and if you were to pass me on the highway, I would be frantically dancing in my seat.

Every artist has a very unique relationship with their art. I’m not going to assume I know how any other artist relates to his or her work, but I can tell you what it is like when I create. This talk inspired me to go through some old journals and things I’ve written. I stumbled across this journal from April that I wrote right after coming home from the dance studio:

“When I drove up, the doors to the building were wide open. It felt like a sign. It felt like a hug.

I walked into the studio. I opened my computer, didn’t bother to set up my camera like I usually do; I just put on my dance playlist and closed my eyes.

I felt the music in the very center of my bones. It curled through my toes and it prickled my scalp. I began to stretch.

And as I stretched every muscle, tendon, and ligament in my body, I loosened up. I let go. I gave my body completely to the music and just stretched. The stretching began to morph into movement, and then it melted into dance. There was no thought.

It felt so good. It felt intimate. I felt vulnerable. I felt like I was with a partner that knew every single way to make my body feel good…”

In that moment, I felt a connection and I felt like a channel for something slightly greater than myself. I go so far as to compare it to another PERSON that I’m dancing with. You can go ahead and think what I wrote was weird and creepy, but honestly, that’s what I felt. (And it’s my blog, dammit. I’ll write about what I want.)

Now, was what I danced that day pure, raw, genius that was the best thing belly dancing has ever seen and will ever hope to see? Oh, hell no. I am still training my body to be capable of expressing what I need to say. I have a lot of work to do. But Gilbert reminds me that moments like are to remind me that if I continue to work hard, if I continue to train, if I continue to put MY contribution into creating art — training and maintaining my instrument, my body — then maybe someday genius will visit me and I can really make something to share.

I’ll end with Elizabeth Gilbert again, since I’m not a writer, I’m a dancer.

And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Ole!” And if not, do your dance anyhow. And “Ole!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Ole!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.

Existential Art Crisis…

I had an existential artist moment.

I had all these great insights into how I’m going to approach this new choreography I’m working on in a really multi-layered approach — journaling, researching old videos to drill moves and combinations I thought were interesting, recording multiple improvisational videos to the same song to start establishing patterns, designing my practice to train for this specific piece.

Then I went through my practice video log.

When I started really critically studying my videos, I saw myself in a completely different light than I have in the past. I have always been horribly self-critical and have never fully liked any video of myself I have made, but this was different. I could not get past the fact that… I look amateurish. I’m not graceful. My arms are a wreck. What’s most important, almost all my pieces are completely emotionally vacant. God, after getting so excited about this new piece, I suffered the most severe bout of ego-death I’ve ever experienced.

For the first time EVER in my life, I questioned whether I was meant to be a dancer. What purpose does it serve?

I had a moment where I thought, “Maybe I’m never going to get to the point where I can create something significant, no matter how hard I try.”

I know, this sounds completely overdramatic. But you know what, it WAS pretty darn dramatic to me. I felt rattled in a sense that I haven’t felt in a long, long time. The phrase “shaken to the core” had new meaning.

I don’t know what it means.

I hope it means that I am about to move forward significantly as an artist. I think it means that if I want to create something really meaningful, I need to start choreographing pieces as opposed to just improvising. I need to work harder. I can’t give up.

This week is devoted to relearning how I approach dance. It’s time for a complete overhaul. Stay tuned.