Levels of Musicality
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
Now, I don't mean levels in terms of how skilled a dancer is, this post is about how zoomed in, or out, on the music you are. Each level of musicality corresponds to different skills you can practice. You've probably taken classes or workshops around these levels. Maybe you're about to sign up for workshops at a festival and are trying to pick from different topics, or maybe you are looking back a smattering of learning and wondering how it all fits together. Hopefully (and if you're in my class, I've sent this to you as part of your level 2 information) you're reading this ahead of time, so you can see how the things we're doing in class build into a whole.
Let's start with the most zoomed in level. It's the notes, instruments, and the rhythms. So we have three parts to this level.
When you listen to music, you can hone the melodic side by paying attention to the qualities of the melody and by learning to recognize the patterns of rhythms. Taxeem (aka takasim, taqsim, etc) is an excellent way to practice with this level on the melodic side, because it isolates the instrument and notes. At this stage, you want to learn to identify the instruments by sound and develop associated textures. That is to say, when you hear the accordion, for example, what sort of moves does it make you want to do?
In addition to the texture of each instrument, listen for the notes: are they played loudly or softly? Fast or stretched out? Do they follow one right after another or is there space between? Is the pitch rising or falling? (BTW, the pitch is determined by how the sound wave vibrates, a high frequency sound wave has a high pitch, and each note vibrates at a certain frequency. That is what makes an A different from a D-half-sharp, for example).
For rhythms, there are a ton of CDs, DVDs, and other programs aimed at teaching them. For beginners (my level 2 students) especially if your focus is Egyptian style, I suggest learning to recognize: malfoof, masqoom, beledi/masmoudi saghir, saidi, masmoudi/masmoudi kabir, wahida, fellahi, ayoub, karshlimah, chiftitelli, and valse. These are just for starters! And you'll keep adding to your rhythm bank as you progress, including rhythms like semai, "khalegy", nawari, dabke 6’s, rhumba, bolero, zeffa, bambi, darig and lots more. Each rhythm has it's own flavor and groove to it. When you're learning, remember they are cycles (I find the medieval circular notation method very helpful, here) and that the rests are just as important as the hits. Just as with instruments, you'll want to develop associations with each rhythm. That is, when you hear it, it will make you want to move in a certain way. Practicing this way will let you bypass the "ok, this rythm goes DUMM, ta, DUMM...tak. that...... that is.... that's ayoub. Let's see.... what do I know that goes with Ayoub.... hmmm..." and go straight to the movements based on your feeling. When we study the rhythms, learning their names is helpful so you can communicate with a band, learning their patterns helps you to play with them and break out of those expected associations when it comes time for the drum solo, too. Each person learns a little differently. You might develop a feeling for a rhythm before being able to speak its pattern, or you might be able to count it out before you can move to it, or you might learn the name before you can hear it under the melody of a song. There is no right order to learn in, but know that each piece of that puzzle is bringing you towards understanding the others.
If we switch from our musical microscope to a simple magnifying glass, we come to the level of
musical phrasing. To use another analogy, this level is like sentences in an essay. Try humming along with a song and feel for where you naturally want to fit the breaths in, most likely that is the end of a musical sentence. If you get midway into a sentence and take a breath it feels like "oh no, I ran out of breath too soon". There's not really such a thing as run-on sentences in music, so this might very well happen!
In class, I like to use call and response to practice finding the sentences, because I think switching between different parts of the band/orchestra makes the end of one sentence and the start of the next stand out. A call and response can, of course, have multiple sentences in it, but it will not happen in the middle of a sentence (unless the response slightly overlaps the end of the call, which does sometimes happen). Call and responses take place between two solo instruments (could be between a melodic instrument and percussion, two melodic instruments, instrument and singer, two percussion instruments, etc), between a solo instrument and the orchestra/whole band, or between a singer and the chorus. Either could be the caller and either could be the responder, but what differentiates a call and response from simply a series of sentences is that there is usually something different about the caller from the responder.
I group call and responses into three types: call and repeat, where an instrument or singer performs a phrase or two, and the same phrase or two is repeated back by another part of the ensemble; call and counter, where a phrase is performed and then a different phrase answers back; and call with lezma. The first two are, to my knowledge, not technical musical divisions, but the last is the Arabic term for when there is a short accent of some sort as the response. These often, but not always, occur in groups (say, 4 calls with a lezma as part of an over all chunk of the music) and can be (but aren't always) an exception to the guideline that a different instrument/part of the orchestra/group of singers will do the response part.
To put it in conversational terms, think of the call and repeat like a therapist who is repeating what you said back for your reflection, call and counter like a discussion where each participant adds to the conversation, and call with lezma like one person telling a story and the other interjecting little "uh-huh" "really?" "go on" "no!?" "yeah?!"s into it to show they are listening. Again, call and response is not the only kind of phrase, but it is a handy one for learning to find a song's punctuation.
It can be fun to play with call and responses, using your variations to express the same idea in a different way for a call and repeat, letting the lezma pass without a movement/comment, or bouncing between different shapes or body parts for each part of a call and counter, as examples.
Phrases are a great way to break out of dancing in blocks of 4 and 8. Although they will fit into the rhythms, they can have pieces that call for a new accent before the rhythm's count has finished. You want to wait until after a sentence is over to move into a new movement (excepting new moves that are part of a combo used to express what's going on in that phrase, the sort of thing that occurs were a sentence has a proverbial comma, and movements are well integrated with each other). For example, if a phrase continues, you don't want to suddenly switch direction in the middle of it, you want to wait until the phrase finishes. If a phrase is repeating itself, you might want to use the end of the phrase to switch sides before doing the same move on the other side when the phrase repeats.
Listening for this can help you avoid the distortion of time that happens when performing, and therefore gives you a hook to ease nerves and avoid the over-dancing that comes with feeling like you've been doing the same move for too long. If the phrase hasn't ended yet, it hasn't been as long as you feel like ^_~
Zooming out another step, we put away the magnification and just look at a full song. At this level, we're concerned with the sections of a song, AKA the verses. To continue the metaphor of the sentences, these are like paragraphs. When you listen to pop or rock music, and you hear the change from the verse to the chorus, that is a change in section. When listening to orchestrated pieces composed for bellydance it can be harder to find these, but the more MENAHT music you listen to, the more you'll start to recognize. In pieces composed as entrance numbers or art music there is usually a change in rhythm to mark a new section.
At this level, you can use poetic structure to map out your song's sections/paragraphs. For example, a song with a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, and chorus would be noted as A, B, C, B, D, B (from the standpoint of the lyrics. Musically, theres a good chance A and C are the same, if we're talking pop or rock music). I usually map my songs out with more descriptive names, and do this to feel confident in my preparation before I do an improvised performance, especially if it is going to be on a stage ( as opposed to in a restaurant).
Here, you can use your movement families to organize your performance for contrast. Listen for what makes one section different from another and try to draw attention to those changes. Did the music speed up or slow down? Did it go from one instrument to the whole orchestra? Is it giving a nod to a specific folkloric style? I like to, instead of choreographing each detail, plan on using one movement category for each section. This ends up looking something like: "traveling steps, percussive moves, circles, travel again, shimmies, undulations, travel and pose!"
Another way you can add interest is to pick a character and mark each section as a part of a narrative. For some songs this is already done. For example, Ana Fi Intezarak is commonly presented as an instrumental, but the original has lyrics about a lover who went away and the singer is going mad for not knowing why he did not return. Often a melodic instrument takes the part of the vocals for songs like this. In other songs, like Mishaal, there were never any lyrics, so you can create your own story. The audience might not know what it is (and unless it is a theatrical piece, I don't recommend making it explicit), but it makes things more interesting for you, and can give your performance that extra little spark.
The most zoomed out level of musicality concerns the management of energy, tempo, mood,
character, and interest over the course of a full set.
For a traditional American Cabaret set, lasting between 20 minutes to an hour, the dancer would do either a 5 or 7 part routine. Dancers often danced for audiences with a mixed background. Some might be Turkish, some might be Arabic, some might be 5th generation Americans from any number of backgrounds. For audiences who wouldn't usually recognize the different songs, and were even less likely to pick up on references to folk dances or culturally specific archetypes, changes in tempo helped to hold the attention of patrons in busy restaurants and supper clubs. If you think of a scale of energy, with zero being "ummmm.... I think the dancer fell asleep...." and 11 being "OMG this person drank WAAAYYYY too much coffee!" a 5 part routine would go like this: Entrance 7 Veil: 3 Lively audience interaction song: 5 or 6 Floorwork (maybe inc balancing props): 1 or 2 drum solo: 9 finale: 10! The name of the game is contrast. If you go all fast all the time, you wear them out. If you go all slow all the time, you put them to sleep. Of course within each number there would be rises and falls in the energy level, but the overall range falls in that scale. Notice that the show does not start out as high as you can go, you need to leave yourself room to build, but still come in with enough energy to distract them from their falafel. In an old school Egyptian set, the energy level will still fluctuate, but a lot of the interest comes from changes in character. Since the audience will likely understand the cultural references and the lyrics, there is more room for this. The types of characters the dancer decides to put on depend on her persona, the type of show she wants to put on, and her audience, and which pieces of a set she is choosing to do. The types of songs used aren't as set in stone as in vintage American style, an Egyptian entertainer might do an entrance number and then spend the rest of the night just dancing with her audience, especially if she is entertaining at a wedding, whereas in the nightclub era an American dancer might not have so much as word with the band before going on and having a set flow to the show that was fairly universal was excellent grease for the wheels. One possible example of character changes in an Egyptian set is: Entrance: magnanimous hostess Taxeem: introspective artist Tarab: starcrossed lover folklore: country girl Drum solo: honey pot finale: back to gracious hostess Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive, but one is more common in each setting.
There you have it! Each level is important, and there's no specific order, beyond however your teacher decides to organize it, to learn. I would argue that having some skill with the most zoomed in level helps a dancer work with all the others, and this is why I make those skills the focus of my level two (the first level after introductory) classes, but each teacher sees things differently, and those different perspectives are what makes studying with different dancers so beneficial. I hope this helps you organize the skills you've learned, or are planning to learn, and put them to good use!