Dancing to live music is a great experience for any oriental dancer and performer. It is completely different from dancing to music recorded on a CD. I was lucky enough to be able to experience this and dance in Egypt, in Luxor, with a live band. The band was Layali el Helwa and it was during the Farha Festival in Luxor. I improvised to Ya Helwa Sabah, a classical Egyptian song that I had never danced to before, so it was total improvisation. I only had a chance to practice for 10 minutes on the same day a few hours before the performance. However it was fine because the audience were supportive and it was a laid back environment I was in.
With live music it is much easier to feel the emotions in the song and the music, because the energy, that the singer and the musicians transmit, is much greater than with recorded music. The secret for a dancer is just to relax, tune in and go with the flow of the music. I had this amazing opportunity during the Farha Festival. The Farha Festival was a yearly belly dance retreat in Luxor, Egypt, organised by Sara Farouk and Kay Taylor, owner of Farida Adventures. (It was run until 2013 and then sadly discontinued).
If you are lucky enough to be able to experience dancing with a live band, here are some tips that may help you.
If you have the time and the opportunity before the show, introduce yourself to the band . This will also be the opportunity for you to ask if you have any request for a particular song.
Request a song if you wish. If you request at least one song, it will show the musicians that you are knowledgeable and you appreciate their music. However, do not go over the top by requesting too much as some musicians may be annoyed by this.
Become familiar with the music. You can do so by listening to a lot of Arabic music in different styles and familiarising yourself with the most popular songs. Of course, live music does not necessarily sound exactly like the versions recorded on CDs and some improvisational skills are always needed, but at least you will get the general idea of what a song is like, when to expect pauses, what the refrain sounds like and so on. You will basically have an overview of the music and you will only need to improvise the details, so you will not be completely unprepared.
Acknowledge the band. At the beginning of the performance nod to them, look at them and acknowledge them during the performance by turning towards them and looking at them every now and again, and finally bow to them and encourage the audience to clap for them at the end of a performance.
Communicate non verbally with the band. You can agree a communication code beforehand if you want, to communicate if you would like the music to speed up or slow down, for example.
Listen to the music. As you dance, try to take in as much as the music as you can. This does not mean hitting every accent (dancing like this would seem too mechanical) but pay attention to the music. Do not forget to smile and relax though, an intense look of concentration on a dancer’s face does not look good!
Use the rule of 4s to your advantage. Arabic music usually has phrases that repeat the same motif 4 times. The first time you get used to it, the second and third time you improve the movements to that piece of music and the last time you prepare to what may come next. With experience and the more you listen to Middle Eastern music, the better you will get to know what to expect.
Be prepared to improvise and be ready to adapt. Live music is not set in stone, like recorded music so, within a set song, there may be changes of nuances according to the mood of the situation. Hence, even if you want to be prepared by listening to Middle Eastern music and knowing the most popular songs, you will still need to adapt your dance to suit the mood of the occasion. After all, this is the beauty of live music and dancing to it, as every performance is unique and it will depend on the mood and energy of the dancer and the musicians, as well as the rapport they create with the audience.
Last but not least, relax and enjoy! Dancing is fun and this needs to come across in your performance. Smile and do not worry too much about making small errors or dance tips that the audience will not even notice as long as you keep smiling and look relaxed. Also, by relaxing you will be more able to tune in to the music and let your musical intuition take over and translate into movements.
A DVD I found useful for getting tips on how to dance with live music was Secrets of the stage 3 by Michelle Joyce. Click here to purchase.
Regarding the event in Egypt I had a chance to dance at, the Farha Festival, this was an amazing event for belly dancers because it was a week long dance retreat in Egypt, an intensive course with Egyptian dance teachers. It included at least 4 hours of dance tuition a day every day (except for one day, which was free for sightseeing or relaxing by the hotel pool), evening shows, the possibility to dance socially to Arabic music every night and, on the last night, the opportunity to dance with a live band. It was really a belly dancers’ paradise, where it was also possible to meet and socialise with like minded people if you, like me, are an oriental dance fanatic. It is not easy otherwise to travel alone to a country like Egypt, especially for those who do not know the language and have never been there before, let alone dancing with a live band. Travelling with an organised trip like those run by Farida Adventures, allows dancers to make the most of their experience in Egypt.
If you are interested in Egypt and dance then make sure also to visit our pages on: