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Secrets of Improvisation Part 2

Practical Ways to Unleash the Improviser in You

The Four Steps of Improvisation

A major key to improvisation is to “listen to the music”. Dancing is a channeling of music through your body, heart and spirit. What you feel in your body you will channel, and the audience will feel that same feeling. That’s why the act of watching dance can be such an emotional experience; the audience is on the receiving end of the dancer’s energy which includes her emotions.

Here are the four steps of improvisation in sequence:

  1. Get centered:
    Be sure you are standing in a comfortable open posture, with your energy flowing through you. Feel your body from the inside, feel your feet on the ground, and feel your belly rising when you breathe into it. This will get you into your body. Also make sure you are in proper Belly Dance posture which will aid this openness; feet under hips/or in Classical pose, knees released, pelvis centered, lower belly muscle tucked in, rest of belly released, chest lifted, shoulders dropped back and relaxed, head high like a Queen. Above all, make sure you feel open and centered. Balance your weight over your feet to feel stable and grounded. Remember, improvisation is a meditative process, so prepare to meditate!
  1. Be led by the music:
    Now listen to the music. Let it soak into your being. Don’t move just yet, let the music inform you. Once you’ve taken the music in, start moving in a way that is led by the music, not the other way around. Especially relevant when you already know the song!
  1. Sit behind the beat:
    This leads to what is known as “sitting behind the beat”, were you are dancing a fraction after the sound, not on it or before it. Pace yourself and stay in this space. If it feels uncomfortable and you feel in a hurry, consciously slow yourself down. Sit in that discomfort and remember to breathe.
  1. Stay in your body:
    Dance with your body, instead of dancing with your mind. Keep your attention on how it feels to be in your body while you’re generating the movement. Keep your mind in your feet and in your belly, this will keep you connected to your body. Order your mind to take a back seat, and let your body lead the movements according to what the music is telling it to do.

If you find this hard because of a wondering mind, keep bringing your focus onto your breath. Belly Dancing with constricted breath is no fun, does not feel good, and does not look good to the receiver – your audience. Feel your body, breathe WHILE you are moving, and take a moment out of your mind. This can lead to the ecstasy that Belly Dancing is renowned to bring to its participants. In the famous words of Mr. Myaki to the Karate Kid “Breathe through the movement”.

These four steps will put you in the right space to improvise; a lucid, emotionally channeling and energetically open space. Once in this space, remember to move the way the music moves you. By listening to the music, the right movements will come to you. In the words of Aziza “Become the music”.

Three Steps to Overcome Fear While Improvising

It is all well and good to start improvising, but we can all be stricken by a moment where we freeze, what I call “The Moment of Doubt”. It is a moment when the mind says “What am I doing next?” and the fear of the unknown, the unplanned and the illogical takes hold of the body. This sends us into “fight or flight”, constricting our breathing which leads to hyperventilation and it all falls apart from there.

You might notice you get this freeze while improvising and you feel like you can’t recover from it. This is normal, and getting comfortable with the “Moment of Doubt” and pushing through it is a muscle one can build.

When struck with the “Moment of Doubt”, understand that your mind is scrambling for something to hold on to, and follow these three steps:

  1. Firstly, go to your “Fall Back Movement”:
    Stand-up comics use this technique for when they fall out of flow. The “Fall Back Movement” is a routine they know inside-out and can do with their eyes closed. When stricken by the “Moment of Doubt” go to a movement or routine you know well and feel at home with. This is far better than stopping and scratching your head or pulling a face. Always remember; you know you’re freaking out, but the audience doesn’t until you show it. This step will help you turn the first corner out of the “Moment of Doubt”.
  1. Watch your breathing:
    Take your attention off your fear and put it firmly onto your breathing; in through the nose, out through the mouth, and slow it down. Breathe while moving. Breathe all the way down into your belly, feel your belly fill up and rise. Do this while performing your “Fall Back Movement”. Once you do this you refill with energy and the anxiety starts to subside allowing you to pull it together again. This step is what will shift you out of the fear inherent in “Moment of Doubt” into an open space again.
  1. Be led by the music:
    Now that you can think straight again, give your mind the music. Melt into the music. Think of nothing else. Feel the music in your body. Don’t just think about what the music sounds like, feel it in your body and ask it “What do you want me to do?” Is it a big sound? Is it soft? Is it flowing, or has it a strong rhythm? Is it sad, happy, melancholy, giving and extroverted or sensitive and introverted? Take your queues from the music and give these queues to your mind as something to interpret. This diversion of your attention from the fear of the “Moment of Doubt” to the music is what will connect you back to your flow.

These three steps might look long, but they take place in seconds. Practice them time and time again to strengthen the mental muscle needed to pull yourself out of the “Moment of Doubt”.

As a dancer you are an interpreter of the music, of its feeling and vibration as well as its notes, melody and rhythm. Step out the rhythm with your lower body (feet and hips) and express the melody with your upper body (torso, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, head, eyes, lips and facial expression).

True, moving and inspiring Belly Dancing, not to mention Belly Dancing that feels ecstatic to the dancer, is Belly Dancing done with feeling. Belly Dancing danced with attention on the body, not thinking the movements to death in the mind and trying ever so hard to squeeze them out of the body. Belly Dancing done with an abandon from logic and ego and “what looks good or impressive”, and done in that sacred space where ego melts away to allow the heart of the dancer to shine through. It is a modest space and a vulnerable one, but it is where the epitome of dance resides.

What holds us back from this space is fear. The most common problem people have with improvisation (in dance as well as life) is that “Moment of Doubt”, so I hope the above steps will help you in dealing with such moments next time you improvise.

Taqsim

Taqsim (or Taksim) is often a solo improvisation played by a melody musician on a melody instrument such as the Oud (Arabic lute), Nai (reed flute), Qanoon (horizontal harp), or Violin (tuned to Arabic scales). It is traditionally a slow piece of music that requires the emotional expression of the dancer. Taqsim is known as the most emotional of Belly Dancing styles, it is impossible to choreograph as it is a spontaneous emotive expression of improvised music.

“Do not deny yourself the opportunity for a spontaneous exchange between the musician and yourself. Let the music come inside of you and dance that music. It is this most intimate musical self and your most intimate dancing self. Feel the music. Fill yourself with it….This is the art of Taqsim”. Artemis.

Movements used for Taqsim are:

Circles

Undulations

Figure 8’s – horizontal and vertical

Small fluttering shimmies

The Omi (pelvic tilting circle)

Taqsim is at the heart of improvisation, and if you feel like learning to improvise, find yourself some beautiful Taqsim music and start dancing to it. Use your arms and upper body a lot as they are great in expressing the melody.

Thinking on Your Feet; a Key to Improvisation

Because improvisation is not planned, you need to learn how to plan in the moment; you need to think on your feet. This sort of thinking is learnable.

Once you’ve learnt the basic movements and travel steps that make up Belly Dance, you will need what I call “gluing” devices, techniques to glue the basic moves together in a way that will give an authentic feel and look to your dance. These tips and tricks will help you bring everything together, giving you a structure upon which you can build your self expression in the moment. Following are two concepts to empower your Belly Dancing improvisation;

1. Geometry & Short Distance Travels

2. Adding Texture to Your Improvisation

Geometry & Short Distance Travels

Even improvisation needs structure for it to feel good to the dancer, and look good to the viewer. A major component of adding structure is to travel with some sort of floor plan in mind; traveling to the front, back, left and right, drawing a geometrical sign on the dance floor and always being able to go back to your start point. This is called “sacred geometry” and some basic shapes you can draw are:

Circle ○

Triangle ∆

Cross +

Cross ×

Figure 8 on its side

Diamond ◊

Decide on a shape and stick to it for your chosen song. Let the song inform you as to what might be more suitable.

When traveling use the 4/4 rhythm to travel 4 forward and 4 back, or 4 right and 4 left, or break it down into 2 and 2. Balance traveling in one direction with the other to give your dance more structure. Here are a few suggestions for traveling steps:

Short Travels Forward

  • Flat-Toe with hip movements
  • Flat-Toe-Flat with hip movements
  • Cross Over & Point with hip movements

Short Travels Back

  • Triple Step with Hip Drop
  • Reverse Cross Over & Point

Short Travels to the Sides

  • Three Step Turn
  • Undulation Travels
  • Step to Side with Hip Roll

Seven Ways to Add Texture to Your Improvisation

Texture is important so that you and your audience don’t get bored. Some ways to add texture are:

  1. Size:

Nearly all the basic movements can be done in three sizes: small, medium and large. Varying the size of the most basic movements can add instant interest. When dancing the small movements, think of your core when dancing; connect to your centre, your belly. Keep your thoughts there and your movements will have more energy to them.

  1. Speed:

This is about how you deal with the 4/4 rhythm, the basic rhythm you find in most Arabic music. You can break it down to 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. By counting out the “&” you effectively create double-time, which you can switch to for a while then back to the slower 4/4. Varying speed is another way to add texture.

  1. Rule of 3 & Pause:

Break down the 4 beats to 3 & Pause. This is a common usage of the 4/4 beat where movement happens on the 1, 2 and 3, and there is a clearly held pause, a hold, on the 4. Say you’re doing a very simple Classical hip drop (with one foot forward and up on the ball), if you did four in a row followed by four in a row, that’s eight hip drops in a row which will look and feel monotonous. Using the Rule of 3 & 1 with a pause on the 1, you practically add a punctuation mark to your sentence. Remember, you are always telling a story with your dance, and like any language, you need punctuation marks to make it flow. The moment of lack of movement creates appreciation for when there is movement. In this quiet moment, speak with your eyes instead.

  1. Levels:

Change the vertical level of your body by using your feet going from Flat to Toe; this can be used on the spot or in the Basic Arabic step (forward and back step) or Undulation Travels (camel walks) and other forms of travels.

Or you can change levels using the knees, bending your knees and moving closer to the ground when doing a series of Basic Lifts and Drops, or a series of Vertical Fig 8’s, for instance, then traveling back up again. Done slowly this can be very mesmerizing.

On the other hand, learning to drop down suddenly and rise back up again gracefully can be a stunning break in the dance. Lean into the balls of your feet and keep your knees together to keep your balance when rising up.

  1. Direction of Standing:

The same movement can look dramatically different to the audience because of a change of point of view, simply by changing the direction you are facing. Instead of facing the audience all the time, stand on the diagonal at times (essential when doing movements that can not be viewed well from the front like on-the-spot undulations and vertical hip circles on the Classical Pose). Also, don’t be afraid to turn your back to the audience for a short while.

  1. Arms:

Arms can add a lot of texture to your dance. Vary their positions gliding them gracefully from one position to the other, or simple hand waves or circles can be very effective. Standing on the spot with a long shimmy for example can be made more interesting with arms traveling up then down, to behind your back, to behind your head and so on. Remember, when moving arms imagine you are under water, and move them with grace, fluidity, intention and slowness. Feel your energy in the palms of your hands, traveling from your heart to your fingertips, and out to the world.

  1. Pauses:

Adding a pause when not expected can really spice up a routine. ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE MUSIC! And if there is a small pause in the music you must honour it in your interpretation by pausing appropriately. For instance if you are in the middle of a round of Classical Hip Drops and a pause happens in the music, hold your hip drop down on the pause. You don’t have to keep your whole body frozen though, feel free to finish the phrase with an upper body movement like a head slide or a hand movement.

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If improvisation scares you it may be trying to give you a message. Improvisation is based in the Feminine, and facing ones fears of improvisation can be a journey into our relationship to our Feminine nature. Like facing any other fear, the journey may include some dark places asking to be investigated. And like any other fear, once you face it you come out at the other end of the tunnel feeling like you can conquer the world.

Belly Dancing improvisation feels totally unique. The feeling is fuller and richer than following a set choreography from start to finish. Somehow it breathes the life of the music into the dancer, and that in turn shines through and touches the audience. So if you’ve been too scared to try improvisation, I hope this series of articles has inspired you to pick up your sword and slay that dragon once and for all. The treasures you will find will blow your mind!

Read Part 1 of Secrets of Improvisation.

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