Whether you are going to improvise or plan a piece of choreography, it is useful to think about how to interpret Arabic music. By learning how to really feel and understand the music you are dancing to, you will find that ability to dance will be improved. Below are some ideas and tips which I have gathered during the years I have been belly dancing. I would love also to hear your thoughts and input!
Arabic songs tend to have a precise structure, with parts that are repeated, like sentences (usually in groups of 4, 8 or 16 counts), throughout the piece, sometimes with small variations. Understanding the structure and flow of the music will help you to improve the choreography or the way in which you develop your belly dance moves.
Usually, because these groups of phrases repeat with small variations, it is possible to repeat similar movements to each phrase but with a small variation in the last one or two. I find repetition useful in dance sometimes as, rather than making the dance boring, it reinforces some movements in the mind of the viewer, giving them a chance to see them more than once and it gives structure to the piece. So, the viewer feels reassured and not completely confused and at a loss (which may happen if the dance is all made of completely different movements without motifs). Then, when the viewer expects a certain repetition, you can surprise them, by changing the movement from what they expected.
Listen to the music and perform accordingly, for example flowing movements to wind and string instruments, sharp movements to percussions or shimmies to tremolando. In other words, take into consideration the type of instrument in the music and to which you are dancing. Also, if there is only one instrument playing, such as a drum, this will make you want to move less in space, whereas many instruments, such as orchestras, call for more travelling steps to embrace the magnitude of the music. If there are two instruments or instruments and vocal that play in a sort question and answer way, you may want to reflect this in the movements.
Generally speaking, a big orchestra playing with many instruments calls for more and bigger travelling steps and large use of the stage space than, for example, a drum solo. As said above, with orchestral music you may want to embrace the ‘size’ of the music by making your dance bigger and you can do this by travelling more and using the space around you.
If the music is earthy and grounded, with a lot of percussion’s, doing steps on flat feet is usually better than floating around on tip toes. Usually, styles such as shaabi, baadior folkloric, are danced on flat feet because they are grounded. These are styles born out of social context and still danced socially, by normal people in everyday life; there are no pretenses and the style is grounded and genuine.
On the other hand, if the music has a lot of melody and air and string instruments, lighter movements on tip toes reflect better the music. Raqs sharqi, or oriental, is a dance mainly used for performing and for the stage, which has been influenced by western dances such as ballet and the music used for raqs sharqi is lighter and inspires you to move on tip toes.
Do not hurry through your dance. Even if the music seems fast, you do not have to rush, but take your time. Remember to pause sometimes, taking advantage of small breaks or changes in the music. This will show you are in control, build suspense and highlight more dramatic movements (it also will give you a chance to take a small break!). Do not overdo the pause either, but use them sensibly.
With sharp movements, i.e.. shoulder tucks or hip lifts, but not necessarily every single accent. Choose to skip a couple of accents, otherwise the dance will not look natural. As said above, you need to listen to the music, but this does not mean that you have to show every accent or be a slave to the music. It is up to you as the dancer to chose which accents or layers to reflect in your movements. As Arabic music is often multi-layered, for example, with rhythm and melody at the same time, you may want to show the rhythm of the drums sometimes, with percussive movements, while fluid melodic movements to follow the melody at other times. In any case do not show every single accent. This in dance is called Mickey mousing (from early Mickey Mouse cartoons, where the music accompanied every single movement of the characters) and it does not look natural.
Do not forget your facial expressions. Smile whenever possible, unless the lyrics of the song or the music are sad and dramatic.
You can choose to follow either the rhythm and perform percussive movements (i.e. hip drops) or follow the melody and perform flowing movements (i.e. snake arms), when a piece of music has both melody and a defined rhythmic pattern at the same time. However, make sure you do not always follow only either the rhythm or the melody throughout the song. Vary and follow a different layer every now and then.
Many pieces of Arabic music (just like non Arabic music) are played with different instruments. Every time, you can choose not only if you are going to dance to the rhythm or the melody, but also which instrument you will be dancing to. Also, you can choose to follow the singer’s voice, if the music is sung to.
In general, listen to Arabic music of different styles, as much as you can and not only when dancing. The more familiar you are with a certain type of music, the easier it will be to interpret it.
Feel the music – what mood does the music convey? Is it sad, dramatic, happy, playful? Reflect with your body’s movements the emotions and moods that come from the music.