Taqsim is a beautiful part of many Arabic and Turkish musical compositions and performances and, as dancers, we sometimes come across a piece that contains a taqsim. Personally, in my development as a raqs sharqi dancer, I only heard this term after I had been taking lessons for about three years and I find that it is not one of the first concepts you may come across as a beginner. Yet, dancing to taqsim is an experience that can help you grow a lot in your dance.
Taqsim can be transliterated in many ways, including: taksim, taqasim, takasim taxim, taxeem, taxsim takaseem, taqseem. So, if you want to search for this term online, try to use various spellings. I found that taksim and taqsim were the most common transliterations in English language websites, but the other variations can be found as well.
What Is a Taqsim
A Taqsim is a piece of music, which usually precedes the performance of classical and traditional Middle Eastern, Arabic and Turkish compositions and it is improvised. A typical Egyptian baladi piece, for example, starts with a taksim. A taqsim is performed using either one instrument only or one main instrument with another one in the background. The instrument in the background supports the main instrument by playing a drone (a note sounded continually). The accompanying instrument can be a drum or any other instrument. Similarly, the main instrument can be any instrument. The most traditional instruments used for takasim are oud, kanoun, nay, buzuq, rebab but often other instruments adopted from western music are used as well, such as violin, cello, accordion, flute, clarinet and even guitar, saxophone or trombone.
The taqsim is entirely melodic and there is usually no rhythm, except for when a percussion instrument is used in the background, but the rhythm is never the protagonist. So, taqsim is a melodic improvisation done generally with one instrument. Also, a taksim starts from the tonic of a particular maqam, which is a melodic mode in Arabic music. The first few measures of improvisation are in the lower ajnas (sets) of the maqam. After the introduction, the performer can move to other parts of the maqam or to other maqamat and then returns to the original maqam at the end. A taqsim lasts from about 1 minute up to about 15 minutes.
How Do I Dance to Taqsim
Dancing to a taksim can be quite challenging if you are not used to Arabic music. It definitely took me time to start to appreciate its slow, almost meditative mood. Just like many western dancers, I was used to moving too much and wanting to fill every note in the music with movement. This was out of passion for the music and the dance and almost an eagerness to be into the music as much as possible. However, I did not appreciate that, as a dancer, you do not necessarily want to be ‘slave to the music’ and express every accent. There is a lot to be said for slowing down in the dance and a lot of value in savouring every moment of your dance and making it last, rather than wanting to burn quickly through the whole experience. You could say it is the same as bringing mindfulness to the dance, enjoying every second, rather than wanting to rush to the end of the piece.
This is the reason why I found taqsim very challenging to dance to, to start with. I found it boring because of the lack of rhythm. However, by persisting in the practice, I have started to appreciate it. It does not mean that I would do a whole performance as a taqsim, but it is a good thing to incorporate into your practice.
So, how do you dance a taksim? I list below a few points to keep in mind:
Dance slowly – taqsim is melodic and soft and the movements that accompany it should be calm and relaxed.
Relax into the music – resist the temptation to feel bored. Just relax, breath, let the music sink into you.
Listen to the music and the emotions that it conveys – every maqam conveys different emotions, so get used to feeling the music.
Movements to use – in general, fluid movements go better with melody. Any sort of soft undulations, circles, figures of eight. If there is a drum in the background, you may want to add a small, sharp accent here and there, just to acknowledge the drum, but do not overdo it. Hip shimmies, are good with ‘tremolando’ sounds.
Do not dance to every note – pauses are ok and a having a movement for every note would be overdoing it.
Dance on the spot – you can move around or spin slowly but not too much. Generally speaking, taqsim is danced on the spot because it is very internal and introspective.
You can use different ranges of movements, depending on the emotions and the pitch of the instrument – for example, nay or flute inspire fluid arm movements, towards the high part of the body. On the other hand, accordion or kanoun lend themselves to movements of the hips or belly. However, do not be afraid to experiment and follow your feelings.
In summary – the dance with a taqsim is internal, improvised, relaxed, lets the emotions flow gently. It is introspective, with the energy going inwards, rather than exploding outwards; the dance is improvised just like the music is improvised. The dance shows the emotions that the music evokes in you, the dancer, but emotions need to be released in a slow, intense, yet relaxed way.
Benefits of Practising Taqsim for Dance Development
Personally, I find that practising taqsim helps me to focus more on the music and on the emotions. It is good practice to learn the different variations of Arabic music and also, it helps you focus on your body as a dancer. It really helps with concentration and it is almost a meditative experience. The slow pace of the taqsim can help you as a dancer, to pay attention to small details, both in the music and in the movements, and be present in the moment when you dance.
Listening to taqasim is helpful to get a feel for the emotional content of Arabic and Turkish music, because each maqam has its colouring. As I mentioned above, something that often western dancers struggle with (and I for one), is dancing more slowly and avoid cramming too many movements in a piece. Dancing to taqsim is a really good practice in helping you to get used to slowing down your dance. Finally, practising dancing to taksim is a very good way to learn the sounds of different instruments, as you really listen and pay attention to an instrument on its own.
More Tips on Dancing with Taqsim
Below I have listed a few more tips for you on dancing with taqsim:
Do NOT dance taqsim in front of a mirror – dancing to taksim is a very introspective process and the focus needs to be on emotions and interpretation. Hence, it is better not to look at your dance, as doing so can distract you from the feelings and make you judgmental towards yourself. If you have a mirror in the room, turn your back to it or cover it. Dancing with your eyes closed can be useful too, since taksim is best danced on the spot, provided you do not lose your balance.
Use taqsim as a warm up or cool down for your dance practice – I find that taqsim is a very good warm up, because the movements are gentle and slow, so it is a great way to prepare the body gently and mobilise the joints before the dance practice. It will warm up and prepare your mind and set the mood as well. After all, you can see, for example, in a baladi performance, with taqsim the dancer and the musicians are warming up themselves and the audience for the rest of the performance. I find that taqsim is also good to finish the dance practice. It is a great way to cool down and wrap up your dance session.
Taqsim is also a great exercise if you want to build your improvisation skills – Since taqsim is all about improvisation, it is a good place to start.
Whatever you do, do not be judgmental towards yourself when dancing taqsim – be kind to yourself and try to leave all judgment aside. Some days you may feel more inspired than others and that is fine. It does not matter if movements work or not. Just experiment, play with the movements and the feelings and all will fall into place.
Use a music played by a different instrument every time – try to introduce as much variety as possible in your taqsim dance practice, by using music performed by different instruments. For example, one time you can choose an oud taqsim, another time an accordion one and so on. This way you will become familiar with all instruments individually and your ability to listen to music, and therefore dance to it, will improve.
I have created a list of 40 different YouTube videos with instrumental taqsim, which you can use for practising. I have included taqsim with: violin, nay, oud, saxophone, cello, trombone, trumpet, qanoun, clarinet, piano, rebab, various instruments, guitar and accordion. It is a very useful list! You can download the list of links by clicking here.
Maqamworld is a very helpful site about Arabic music, which explains what maqam, ajnas and other features of Arabic music are.
I have to admit that I am very biased towards Egyptian style, in particular the older dancers, so I have included below a few videos of baladi progressions with a taqsim at the start. They are old videos of Mona el Said, Fifi Abdou and Nagwua Fouad. However, I have also found a very good Turkish style taqsim by Joana Saahirah and also another baladi video of the same dancer, when she was dancing with her band of musicians on the Nile Maxim in Cairo. Enjoy watching them!