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  • Lisa Lumina

Improvised Does NOT mean Unprepared

Updated: Jun 6

If you've taken my classes, you've heard me talk about how raqs is traditionally improvised, about the cultural value of the feeling in the moment, and probably about how impossible it is to do choreography in a restaurant or birthday party-type gig.

Many westerners come to raqs with an artistic ideal we never knew we had learned called the

"Platonic ideal", which is the idea of doing something the same each time, perfecting it. In ballet, there is a single correct angle for a movement, and it ceases to be that movement when the angle of the dancer's leg is changed, for example. But in raqs, a single root movement can be varied in an infinite number of ways, and all are valid movements, provided they express the music and convey feeling.

When rejecting the Platonic ideal, it can be hard for someone raised in a western artistic mindset to know what sort of standards to replace it with. If, as a performer, I don't need to have prepared a predetermined choreography that has been perfected down to each smirk and hair flick, how will I know that what I am about to perform will be any good?

The answer is twofold: trust your body, and trust your music. Both of these require an immense amount of preparation!

Let's start with the idea of trusting the music. Traditionally, raqs was often done to folk songs, or to improvised forms with a specific structure. In Am-Cab settings, the set itself has a specific structure, so even if the dancer cannot make arrangements or rehearse with the band ahead of time, they know their set will be "fast entrance, slowish veil, pickup the tempo for a bit, very slow floorwork, very fast drum solo and finale", or a variation to that effect. If a beledi progression is being performed, the dancer won't know how exactly it will go, but they know a taxeem will be followed by the rhythm percolating in, then a call and response, and then specific rhythms that build into either a drum solo or what I like to call the "jack-in-the-box" finale.

This is similar to western partner dancing, in that there is a lead and a follow, and one takes their cues from the other. In a good raqs show with a live band, you'll see both cuing each other.

You can see dancers cuing their musicians in the videos in this playlist:

For example the musicians watch the dancer and might add a flourish of cymbals when the dancer hits a spectacular move on one accent, but leave that off when the dancer does something less showy on another accent. Those musicians have learned to recognize the dancer's body language and see them preparing for a move, and ready the cymbal in anticipation. The dancer, likewise, has learned to recognize subtle cues in the music that indicate a transition from one section to another, one rhythm to another, and so on. Over years of really listening to the music, the dancer picks up on patterns and develops the ability to anticipate, often subconsciously, where the music is going.

Performing dancers also learn the songs that are popular, so whether it is a band or a DJ, the dancer knows the catalog of songs that might be played, and once the song starts, they know how the rest will go. If a live band is performing, they might rearrange some things, but that is where recognizing those cues comes in, and a dancer can always center themselves and wait when an ambiguous transition is coming.

For professional dancers, they will be dancing to the same song or set of songs, sometimes 7 nights a week. No matter how improvised you are, and no matter how much you allow your feeling in the moment to come through, some things sort of settle into a habit as you dance a song over and over. For those of us not performing for a night club 6 nights a week, or even monthly, we rehearse until we know the song inside and out, something music mapping can help with.

When preparing for a show with a live band, if you can't rehearse with them, that includes rehearsing to many versions of the song/s we want to perform, so we can adapt to changes as they come. If the dancer employs the band, which is the case for many of Egyptian stars we know, then she will tell them how to play the songs, which parts to repeat or leave out, what to emphasize, and so on, during rehearsals.

This is where training the body comes in. Although performing bellydancers often look relaxed and as if the movements are effortless, a lot of balance and control goes into being able to adjust each move on the fly to respond to the subtle timbres of the music and the audience.

Drills like practicing isolations with your feet in different positions, so that you can easily smooth things out when your weight doesn't wind up where you expected, or practicing variations, so that you can change the boisterous, heel bouncing hip circle you were about to start to a subtle one with a delicate shimmy on top when the tabla player unexpectedly switches to riq, or the verse you expected to be repeated moves on to the chorus, allow you to have the technical skill to respond whatever comes your way.

Training yourself to manage the larger textures and energy flow of your performance is also a key to having a high quality improvisation. My favorite tool for this is music mapping and forming a sort of "categorography", where I plan something like "traveling moves for this section, shimmies for that section, use heavy moves with stillness around them for those accents" etc. For pre-structured things like Am-Cab sets or beledi progressions, there is a pre-filled out map for how the energy level will change, but if you are dancing a single song at a gala show, you will look to the song's dynamics and find ways to highlight contrast to create interest. The playlist below has examples of full sets.

Ideally, an audience member should not be able to tell whether a performance is choreographed or improvised. A choreographed performance should not get ahead of the music, and should still be responsive to the vibe of the audience and, if we're lucky enough to have a band, the subtleties of their rendition of a song. An improvised performance should include dynamics and contrast and avoid over-dancing or seeming either frantic or like you froze up.

In my opinion, it actually takes more preparation to deliver an improvised performance, since you have to practice a myriad of options and bring them all to a level of finesse, rather than focusing on just one set of choices. The upside is that it means your practice is more generalized, by polishing one performance, your skills are generalizable to many, which cannot also be said of the narrowly applicable combinations tailored to a specific choreography. To fall back on my favorite analogy, it is the difference between learning to recite a speech in a new language, and learning to have a conversation in it.

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