If you have been dancing for a while, you might well feel the desire and need to develop your own belly dance choreography. This though can seem like a daunting task the first time and for this reason, I have listed below some tips that will hopefully help you create your choreography.
This may seem obvious, but the more you like the music you choose, the easier it will be to create a piece of choreography to it. Creating a dance routine can be time-consuming and you will find yourself listening to the same piece of music literally more than a hundred times as you prepare each step and movement. It is essential that you like or perhaps love the song or songs you plan to use.
In first choosing the music you will use, also dance to it a few times freestyle, just to get a feel for the music. If you follow the music, quite often it will inspire you and make you ‘feel’ like you want to perform certain moves to certain notes. You can then start creating your choreography around these first ideas. What I find is that, after a few times that I improvise, the choreography almost composes itself as certain moves naturally fall into place.
Developing and building your choreography around the repetitions means that every song repeats some phrases more than once (usually in groups of 4, 8 or 16 counts). If you start choreographing from these refrains, this will help. You can repeat the same sequence during each one of these phrases or vary the sequence a little bit at some point, just to create an element of surprise. Some repetition in dance choreography helps the audience follow the performance.
By understanding the music through listening to it many times, choose percussive movements to go with drum sounds, flowing movements with wind or string instruments like the oud and do shimmies to tremolando sounds. (Learn more about instruments).
Use stage directions and vary them, if the music allows it. You can move sideways, forward, backward, diagonally and in zigzag, circles, ellipses or eights around the stage. Also make use of transitions, turns and layers where possible but without overdoing.
During your choreography routine, a good idea is to use different levels i.e. moving upwards and downwards, on flat feet or on tiptoes. Also, you can, for example, do big hip circles that means that you have to lower your body a bit, or bend your knees gradually while doing vertical figures of 8 going down and then up again by straightening your knees. There are a lot of ways to change levels, you only need to experiment and see what suits you and the piece you want to create.
Another way to spice up your choreography is to use different planes, especially when posing. For example, standing with your whole body facing front or sideways or with your hips facing forward and the upper body slightly rotated in a diagonal. The idea of spatial planes comes from Laban theory (developed by Rudolph Laban). According to this theory, there are three main planes that the body can move through the wheel plane, the door plane and the table plane. The wheel plane includes the space you can reach by moving your body forward and back, as though you were a wheel that rotates forward and back.
The door plane includes the space you can reach from the sides of your body, as though you are in a doorway trying to reach the 4 corners of the doorway without turning your body. The table plane is the one that you can reach by rotating your body from the centre; imagine there is a table around your waist and you want to touch its corners with your limbs. If you are aware of these planes, you can combine them and get inspiration to create interesting movements. You can read more about Laban planes here.
To really understand the basics of belly dance choreography, watch videos and performances of other belly dancers, not to copy their routines step by step, but to get inspiration and new ideas. I find that this helps a lot. It does not mean plagiarising if you are only taking inspiration and not copying whole chunks of a choreography.
In dance, symmetry can be expressed through a body position or movement (i.e. arm waves with both arms at the same time), in movement across space (such as a step turn to the left, then to the right) or within a group of dancers (i.e. split the group in 2 parts doing same movement, but mirroring each other).
Asymmetry is the exact opposite, i.e. step turn to the left, then move forward. During a dance choreography, you should ideally use a little bit of both: symmetry gives structure, but too much makes a performance boring; asymmetry spices things up, but too much of it creates an unintelligible mess.
Make sure the choreography is not predictable. This is connected with the symmetry versus asymmetry point above. Too much symmetry can make the choreography predictable. Also, if you are repeating the same sequence more than once throughout the song, you can make the last repetition a little bit different from the rest. If the style and music allow, use your arms instead of keeping them still by your side (without exaggerating though). If your choreography is for a group, you can create dynamics, i.e. split the group into two parts and have them move in different directions or in a question and answer way.
Choose to pause sometimes, even when the music is continuing. This will give more drama to your performance, show you are in control and highlight even more the energetic ‘wow’ moments.
If you are working on a choreography with a group, watch them dance. If you are on your own, video record yourself. Seeing the performance from the outside will give you a better idea of the overall effect and if some movement needs amending.
Use your gaze to direct the audience’s attention where you want it to be. Look at the audience most of the time, but, if you want to draw attention to a part of your body, look towards it. For example, if your hips are doing some interesting accents, look at them gazing downwards, to drive attention to that movement. As part of your choreography, plan an entrance at the beginning of the song and an exit or a pose at the end.
Build your choreography around the easier parts of the songs to choreograph. In every song, there will be parts that are more obvious than others to think of movements for, or that you like the most. Identify these parts, choreograph them first and then fill the gaps. Create first a simple step and movements pattern; then develop it and add layers to it, if needed.
Do not try and cram all the moves you know and all complicated moves into the song. Mix simple movements with more complicated ones, so that the ones requiring more skill will be highlighted more. Having said this, sometimes it requires an incredible amount of skill to do a simple movement very well and with feeling.
There are a few books available which, although they are not specifically about belly dance, but rather aimed at western types of dance, can give you some useful ideas. Below I list some that I have read myself.