Understanding Improvisation in Belly Dance
Improvisation is the essence of Belly Dance in the Middle East; free movement that channels the spirit of the music through the dancer. Movement that lives in the moment has a very different feeling to it. It has the power to shift audiences to the heights of ecstasy or the vulnerability of tears.
Belly Dance improvisation can be uncomfortable to many dancers, and to others is can be downright terrifying. Some Western professional dancers will not dance to a live band or improvise if their life depended on it. There is a good reason for this, and there is a way out of this tunnel. Read on to find out the secrets of improvisation for yourself.
Part One: Understanding Improvisation in Belly Dance
Why is Improvisation So Scary?
Inner Abilities that are Cultivated through Improvisation
Part Two: Practical Ways to Unleash the Improviser in You
Improvisation Tools & Techniques
Thinking on Your Feet; a Key to Improvisation
Part 1: Understanding Improvisation in Belly Dance
Why is Improvisation so Scary?
Improvisation is dancing in the moment, in full abandon, without any pre-planning of routines and choreographies. Just instant reactions to music the dancer may not have even heard before, and capturing not only the essence of the music, but also every beat and nuance. This can be very challenging to students of Belly Dance and professional performers alike.
Ultimately, there is vulnerability in improvisation that can be very frightening. Many people don’t want to experience it as it makes them feel vulnerable to harm, fearful of the unknown. The mind says a lie; “if you stop using me for a moment, you will lose control of what happens to you and your environment, you will then be in danger”. There is something the mind is trying to keep you away from. That something is a moment of letting go, a moment of true surrender, a moment of release, a moment where you could spontaneously just be yourself; your true unrestricted, unbridled, uncensored joyful self. A moment of truthful emotional expression.
The moment of improvisation is a very sensual moment, one where you experience life in your senses and in your body rather than in your mind. In the West, there is an epidemic emphasis on mentalising life. Very early on in childhood, a rift happens between heart and body, and plays out in many ways throughout adulthood. This goes on to shape Western society. I can say this because I come from the Middle East and have the ability to see the West from an alien’s point of view. Objectively looking at the West, I see many ways that this rift happens, and it starts to explain why so many Western women who come to Belly Dance classes or perform Belly Dance professionally find improvisation so challenging.
Most Western adults have trouble being in a space of pure emotional expression and release. The systematic disconnection children go through from their emotional selves in the West is quite staggering. Just go to any place where there are many young children or even toddlers, and see how many times their expression of emotion gets told “lower your voice”, “don’t run”, “stop crying”, “where’s your happy face”, “smile”. I write this in 2007, and I have spent the last three years in playgroups and playgrounds as my son was under pre-school age, and have observed what seems to be a societal allergy to emotion.
Be a fly on the wall at night in the home of an average Western family, and watch what happens when the baby cries. Because some “expert” somewhere wrote in a book that control-crying your baby is the only way to teach babies to sleep (which is simply incorrect, see article footnote), the mother will leave the baby crying on its own in the dark. I have seen mothers do this to the point of when the baby is literally panic-stricken and in so much emotional pain you’d have to have had a lobotomy to not run into the room and scoop the child up in your arms. The funny thing about mentalising life too much is that we can become just that; mental.
Nature has a wisdom to it beyond the mind, and it is always truthful. The only thing that seems to get in the way of nature in the entire animal kingdom is the human mind and its ability to make us think our moment instead of feeling it. Your nature as a unique person is also always truthful, but the problem is that most people in the West haven’t had a natural childhood; a style of parenting and education that responds to each individual child’s natural needs. So the message comes through loud and clear from babyhood; your natural impulses, your natural needs, your emotions, your body and its requests are not valid and will not be responded to.
Children seem to get told-off for displaying what they consider to be their joy; loud laughter, shouting and using their lungs, scrunching up their faces, sitting in funny ways, jumping in puddles or playing in mud. They’re also widely not allowed to experience or express the flip side of joy – sadness. Boys still get told to “not cry like a girl” (yes, even in 2007) and boys and girls alike are ordered to stop crying in childcare centers everywhere.
Joy is the reverse side of the same coin as sadness. So to make crying invalid and unheard, and to make sadness a no-go-zone, we inadvertently shut down the same emotional channel that helps us sense joy. As the Sufis say, the extent of which you allow yourself to feel one feeling, you will be able to feel the flip side of it. So, only if you allow yourself to experience and feel deep sadness will you know the heights of joy within your being. So what has all this to do with improvising Belly Dance?
I see many, many Western women come to class in a frozen state. They’ve lost their natural ability to smile comfortably. They find it hard to move freely in their bodies. There is a palpable disconnect between the spirit they were born with, full of spontaneous joy and expression, and the person they are today. Something happens along the way on masse.
As half of my upbringing was in the Middle East and the other half in the West, I have a very fortunate ability to see things with the clarity of an outsider for both cultures. What I see in the Middle East is a very natural child rearing culture, at least in babyhood and early childhood. Babies and children are held a lot and their natural needs for the language of touch, the only language they understand until they grasp words, are fulfilled. Control-crying in the Middle East is unheard of, and in fact if a mother did it she would probably be admitted to psychiatric help. Children are more emotionally expressive, and that leads to emotionally alive adults, and an emotionally rich society. Negative feelings are expressed more and as a result positive feelings are felt on a deeper level.
I believe this core difference in culture is one of the reasons why improvisation comes naturally in the Middle East and seems to be the exception rather than the norm here in the West. Child rearing is only one way the Western society disconnects its citizens from their hearts, their emotions and their sensuality. It is all part of the excruciating disconnect the West especially has with all things Feminine.
Inner Abilities that are Cultivated through Improvisation
Nothing is a life sentence, so anyone can improve their improvisational ability. Just because you may have had a history that didn’t support your ability to improvise doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. But knowing where the roots of a weak tree lie helps in healing the tree.
Self knowledge is the key to personal power, as the ancients said “Know Thyself”. To find out why improvisation scares you so much, it is useful to acknowledge your history, and that the culture you grew up in may have not nurtured the part of you that is needed in improvisation: your Feminine nature and what it encompasses.
Belly Dance is an alchemical dance for a woman’s Feminine spirit; it is a training ground and a practice that can strengthen the very aspects that you may be challenged with. For example, if you have trouble with improvisation and emotional expression, simply by training in it through Belly Dance and pushing through your pain threshold, you will cultivate those very inner abilities you needed in the first place.
Just like going to the gym for a very specific reason, say to strengthen your abdominal muscles. You go because those muscles are weak. Training in the beginning doesn’t feel good, it can feel painful physically and emotionally and you can feel useless. By pushing through these feelings and sticking to your training, you come out the other side and those muscles you were working on are stronger. The inner abilities you need to improvise are what make up your Feminine spirit. So if you have a disconnection to them and you want to strengthen them, find yourself a good improvisational teacher, and start training your improvisation muscles.
Following are some of the inner abilities you will develop through training in improvisation:
- Emotional Training:
Emotional connectedness and the ability to feel and express the whole spectrum of emotions. This is at the core of improvisation. Just watch a Middle Eastern dancer; what she feels in her belly and heart shines through her face.
- The Unknown & the Void:
Feeling comfortable with the unknown - The Void - the place where creation takes place. Artists are familiar with this space; it always precedes their artistic expression. It can feel disorientating as the mind loves certainty. Feeling comfortable in the dark space of not knowing what comes next is essential to improvisation, and is very Feminine by nature. It is a cornerstone of improvisation. As there is no choreography, no pre-plan, every moment is an adventure; every moment is a jump into The Void, that dark space of the unknown, out of which many treasures can emerge. The Void is the place were receiving happens, as the Sufi poet Rumi puts it “Darkness is a visionary place”.
Surrender and letting go of control. We really don’t control anything around us, and thinking we do is a bubble of denial we surround ourselves with for convenience. Improvisation needs a lucid mind, one that can lead a little, and follow a little as well. In the moment of improvisation, the mind must take a back seat to the ear, the body and the spirit. When you improvise, your ear receives the music, your body feels it and channels it out, and your spirit flies.
- Meditation & Mindfulness:
An ability to meditate; to be physically in the moment, without mind chatter leading your action. The body directs the movement, not the mind. Feeling rules, thinking takes a back seat. Silencing the chatter of the mind is where improvisation becomes a meditative exercise, training the mind and body to be in the moment as good as any recognised form of meditation. As hard and as uncomfortable as traditional meditation can be, so can improvisation be for the very same reasons, and so can it be just as good a trainer.
To stand naked; no frills, no bells and whistles, no masks, nowhere to hide. This is again in the Feminine realm, as the mind is not taking over the moment; there is a space for pure heart expression.
Go to Part Two of Secrets of Improvisation.
Read more about the degradation of all things Feminine including heart, emotions, sensuality, receiving, intuition, the unknown, experiencing the moment, listening to the body not just the mind, living in line with nature and much more. This degradation is a long-standing malaise in the world, and seems to be exceptionally strong in the West. For more information on this topic, and how Belly Dance helps in resuscitating and reviving a woman’s Feminine spirit, please go to the three part series Unveil the Feminine.
Read about helping teach babies to fall into sleep without control-crying, please visit www.babywhisperer.com and look up sleeping techniques. Tracy Hogg is a master of keeping baby rearing both true to nature and practically real.