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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…

Dance Homework #1

I’ve been talking to a lot of dancers recently that have hit a plateau: They know all the bellydance movements, have been drilling them for awhile, but don’t know how to take all that technique and translate it into a dance piece that represents them and their style.

Choreographing dance pieces and even improvising to a song and making your art your own are subjects that are often neglected in dance classes. It’s hard — everyone has a slightly different process for how they create. Even books designed to help figure OUT your process — The Artist’s Way, for example — are not a panacea for all artists. Moreover, I’ve noticed books like the Artist’s Way usually are geared toward those whose art involves written word.

Finding a particular style and practicing it is an issue that I have been working on myself. I’ve been spending the past few months training a lot on my own, which is new to me. Through taking workshops with people like Amy Sigil, who incorporated “dance games” to get people thinking outside the choreography dance box, I’ve noticed that I respond well to small challenges that I can surmount on a daily basis. Giving myself structure and small tasks to complete keeps me focused more than dragging my lazy but to the studio to drill.

There are some general guidelines that have helped me structure my practice, at least:

1) Get good music. Get a playlist started of songs that make you want to move, whether that be Middle Eastern Music, Ace of Base, Elvis, Snoop Dogg, whatever. Think outside the box — I recently have been dancing to a lot of banjo music, and it’s been quite interesting. Something as simple as putting on a playlist of four or five songs you love and dancing 15 minutes a day could turn into “oh my god, that combo was awesome…” And viola! You’re starting a choreography. It has for me, at least.

2) Use video to your advantage. A really useful tool I use in my training is a practice video log. I try to record one video a practice and study it when I go home to see what works and what doesn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a combination I love only to forget it hours later — please, just save yourself some grief and video tape it.

3) Listen to a song you’re interested in dancing to a billion times. Your body is telling a story. You are physically interpreting the drum beats, the melody, the bass — sometimes even a banjo. Make sure that you are well educated on the story your body’s going to tell — I have to listen to my songs on repeat at least 50 times before I dance to them.

With these ideas in mind, I give you: DANCE HOMEWORK!

Oh yes, ladies and gents… I’m that nerdy.

I thought I would post “assignments” that I have been working on in my own practice. If you would like to participate, film yourself and post a comment linking us to your own videos. Or if you’d like to keep your work private, just post your insights.

Or say, “Screw this!” and don’t post anything. Your choice 🙂

This assignment originated from a Strawfoot song. I love the song “Independence Day,” but the whole song has an underlying hella-fast banjo part. I was thinking about how I could move to the song, and I thought, “Man, I wonder if I could do an entire piece over a shimmy.” Now, this isn’t the most original concept in belly dance, but I’ve never tried to actually shimmy for an entire song and it not just be for drilling. I wanted the dance to highlight that two different parts of my body were translating two different sounds in the song.

I tried it, and here’s what I came up with:

Self-critiques:

— The arms still need work, as usual. One of my hands moves a lot more than the other. Straight arms seem to look more powerful on video.

— Shimmy got smaller the more I was focusing, and I could tell where I straightened my knees since they got smaller then, too.

— My face looks really, really bored. Way too bored.

ASSIGNMENT 1: Make a video in which you continue one movement throughout the entire video. Shimmies are easiest, but you can pick any movement. Journal about what you liked/didn’t like/observe. If you feel zealous, record a SECOND video that uses the same continuous move but with a different feel/emotion to it.

After recording this videos, I felt inspired to make another, with no theme or rules whatsoever.