Everyone loves a good belly dance choreography… once, of course, it’s grown up into a well-mannered and polished routine. In its growing stages, choreography can be an unruly, demanding brat- a brat that sometimes makes us want to cry or tear our hair extensions out.
It’s easy to get intimidated when you first begin. Suddenly it’s as if you can’t remember any of the moves or combinations you know. You think that everything you try looks stupid, or it’s just not good enough (anyone else besides me a perfectionist?). These kinds of thoughts aren’t helpful. In fact, they can shut down your creativity. So when we choreograph, we have to give ourselves space to experiment. We have to be willing to have some failures, and to acknowledge that this is part of the process. We have to trust ourselves.
Follow this mantra: Keep. It. Simple.
Keep it simple means that we get out of our own way. We aren’t overly critical of ourselves in the early stages. We keep an open mind to all possibilities. We choose movements and combinations that our bodies love to dance, not moves that we think we should be using or that are beyond our skill level. Keep it simple works because we can (and will) add complexity later. Keep it simple is just our path to get us there.
Before We Begin
The music comes first. Choosing the right song is crucial! The music you select should inspire you, be appropriate for your skill level, and be sensitive to the cultures it represents. Give this some thought before you begin. To start, you can read my blog article about selecting the right music.
Give yourself plenty of time. Rushing the creative process to meet a deadline is stressful! You’ll have more space to experiment, more opportunities to be innovative, and a better chance of enjoying the experience if you work with a longer timeline.
Use the techniques that work for you (and ignore the ones that don’t). We all have a different way of learning, and inspiration may come to us in different ways. Experiment with the techniques listed here to see what resonates with you. Don’t add unnecessary work by using every technique in this article. <– Shameless plug: Next month I’ll be discussing how to make your learning style work for you. Check back here in September!
Consider keeping a journal. You can write down (or video!) your thoughts as you go through the process. It’s helpful for remembering where you left off at your last practice, and for noting ideas you’d like to incorporate later or even in another piece.
Relax. Creativity works best when the mind is clear. Find space in your day when you can set aside your to-do list and life’s demands. You may also find it helpful to begin your practice with a short breathing exercise or a few minutes of meditation.
Step 1: Explore Creatively
The first stage in the process of creating choreography is like brainstorming. This is when we want to be inspired, to be open to lots of possibilities, and to withhold judgement. This is also the stage when we really dive deep into the music, getting to know its nuances and complexities. You might find it helpful to commit to time, not goals (Instead of “I will choreograph the first minute of this song” think “I will spend an hour working on the choreography today”). Be kind and patient with yourself!
- Improvise. Dance to the music without any expectations and see what happens naturally. If you’d like, you can even use a video camera for later review. Make notes about anything that felt or looked right. It’s okay to note challenging sections too, just remember to withhold judgement.
- Map the music. This can really help you learn the music at a deeper level. Name each section and note where sections repeat. Mark any interesting accents or melodies. Note rhythm changes or difficult transitions. Later, your map may help you decide where you’d like to repeat sections of choreography, and where you’d like to accentuate contrast.
- Create a movement bank. Listen to the music and envision the dance in your mind. Write down any moves or combinations you hear along the way. Create a list that you can reference later if you get stuck.
- Work with a friend. Together you may discover new possibilities that neither of you had thought of before. A friend can help you brainstorm movements, or simply be your sounding board as you talk your ideas out aloud. Make sure, however, that you don’t rely upon him or her to do the work for you.
Step 2: Strengthen with Structure
Now we’ll take the fruits of our brainstorming efforts and begin to organize them more formally. This is where we start forming combinations, playing with transitions, and thinking about how all the pieces fit together as a whole.
- Start with sections. This means you don’t have to start at the beginning and then work your way through to the end. Choreograph each section of the music discretely, then build the bridges between sections with solid transitions.
- Repetition is good. Untrained eyes in your audience will need repetition to take in all the complexity of your movements, and even trained eyes enjoy seeing repeated combinations. When a section of the music repeats, your choreography should acknowledge it in some way. It’s your choice whether to repeat choreography strictly, move by move, or to add a little variation. It can be as simple as changing the direction or orientation of your movements. Another idea is to keep the overall structure but change specific isolations.
- Add interest with contrast and texture. These elements give your choreography depth. Contrast can be achieved by breaking patterns, changing the mood or level of energy, or accentuating differences in the music. Texture can be added through variations in arm positions, level changes, body orientation and angle, and through floor patterns.
- Pay attention to your transitions. After all, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is really where you define your own style as a dancer. Transitions are simply how you get from A to B: between two movements, two combinations, two sections of the music, two moods. You can aim for seamlessness, and the audience arrives at B from A without having noticed. You can also deliberately add contrast, by making transitions sharp (but these are best used sparingly).
- Spend time on the macro and micro. This is the key to making your choreography balanced. Macro elements are the big picture. It’s how your choreography flows from high energy sections to slow, reflective sections. It’s the symmetry of repeating combinations, giving equal weight to different parts of the room, and having diversity in movement. It’s how props are introduced, carried through, and discarded. Then there’s the micro elements, or the details. These elements include building combinations, the transitions between them, and their presentation.
- It’s okay to be a hybrid. There’s nothing wrong with fusing choreography and improvisation together. You can create a macro structure and leave the details to improv. Or you can create a flow of movements and then improvise how and where you’ll carry them out in the performance space.
Step 3: Refine and Polish
We’re ready to add the finishing touches – these are the details that will take your choreography from “nice” to “WOW!”. This is also the stage where it’s okay to be a constructive critic. Just remember that it’s the choreography that is being critiqued (“This shimmy isn’t working there… I need something that can let me travel”) not the dancer (“I can’t shimmy… I look awful”).
- Make use of technology. Use that video camera or smart phone to record your performance! It’ll let you tease apart the areas that still need work, and it’ll show you what you look like without the aid of a mirror.
- Get some feedback. A peer can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in a choreography. This is also a great time to schedule a private lesson with a teacher (in person or even online!) Getting overall impressions is useful, but you may also ask for help on specific areas or sections.
- Consider expression and mood. Remember that through dance you can convey all the emotions of the soul, from celebratory joy to tragic loss. There’s also your approach, which can be flirty, mischievous, sensual, introspective, mysterious, or strong. Think about your body language or other cues you can give the audience. This is quite an in depth topic, but one we’ll surely explore in a later post!
- Think about the presentation as a whole. How can you use costuming and makeup to accentuate the mood or movements? How you can use the venue’s performance space to your advantage? How will you introduce this piece to the audience?
I can’t promise you that after reading this blog article you’ll love creating choreography, nor do I think there are any tips I can give you that will make the process magically happen for you. In fact, I think it’s healthy to get frustrated, even to hate, the process sometimes (it shows that you’re being challenged, which means you’re growing as a dancer). Instead, I hope that this article may guide your approach and help you make the most of your creativity.
Well then! Now that you have a finished piece it’s time to really learn it. Check out my article on how to learn (and remember!) choreography for the stage.Thanks to Burtn and night-fate-stock for the stock images.
Coming in September: We all have different learning styles. Find out which one works for you and how to use it in your study of belly dance.
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