Doing your first choreography

Sneaked among the latest post was a tiny bit of momentous news: I’ve finally gone and done my first choreography. Which wouldn’t strictly be true, as I wasn’t working on one but two, but right now I’m focusing on the one that is actually finished.
I know that for some people that have done theirs for ages, it’s not a big deal. For others, it’s anathema: they see belly dance as a dance form which should be free, improvised on the spot, according to the feel of the moment, and the music, so a pre-established choreography is not something desireable.

Me? I’m middle-ground. I’ve danced a few choreographies by several “famous” (or equivalent in the belly dancing world) people, some by Khaled, a handful of Kazafy’s. I’ve also done some by a troupe mate. I’ve enjoyed some, some I didn’t, and this had nothing to do with who created them. I think choreographies have their place, particularly when you’re in a troupe and not following an established improvisational style like ATS. As does improvisation: we tend to add a “free form” piece at the end of our Egyptian-style performances where we can dance with the public, if we are in a suitable environment, but the choreographies allow you to have something more established when planning.

Since we started taking ATS classes, my friend L and I had the request a few times to “prepare something tribal” . Of course the whole concept of improvisation can be difficult to explain to people not familiar with the format, and a choreography would both cover this and any spot of nerves that might raise. I’d also wanted to choreograph something for the Sunday group, as we don’t really seem to have any dances “of our own”, relying instead of older dances done by the Advanced group. So the “brilliant” concept (and notice the quotes; I am not taking this seriously, as I suspect it will create a load of headaches down the line) came about of putting something together to dance with L., and then show it to the Sunday Group, and if they liked it, see if we could teach it to them. Two birds, one stone and all of that.

So, when my Choreography Bunnies started bouncing around too much, I finally took some time and tried to come up with something. And it was surprisingly easy once I figured things out. So here are my suggestions, in no particular order:

  • decide what is the intended audience for your piece; will this be a street performance, a carnival, a theatre, a hafla? general public or bellydancers? where will you perform? Different venues and circumstances might make you think twice on what you’re doing (i.e. sword in a street performance with people walking around you invites disaster)
  • pick a piece of music that *really* makes you want to dance; bonus point if it’s not something that has been done to death, or that people might relate to (i.e. that obscure mizmar piece would be great for an appreciative belly dancer audience, but the nasal slightly discordant tones might feel too alien for the general public)
  • familiarise yourself with the music, to the point that you can repeat it beat for beat in your sleep; learn the phrases, accents, peaks, or tension within it; this will make it easier for you to practice and think of combos or steps to use.
  • if there are lyrics, become familiar with them, and their meaning, as it can help suggest to you gestures, expressions or actions
  • put it on a few times, have a few free-flowing dances to it; take note of things that you like (and I mean it, TAKE NOTE, write it down, don’t rely on your memory), even if you are missing chunks in between these parts.
  • now that you’re starting to get a skeleton for your choreography, look at the music again: notice the structure, whether there are repeating parts that could benefit from similar steps, whether there is an increase in pacing, a stretch in the notes being played, a modulation of the tone, or anything similar, and think of how you can help express that with your movements
  • it’s not all about the hips: you don’t need to shake your hips constantly like an electrocuted frog in a lab; you have a wide variety of moves on your dance vocabulary that include the whole body, use them!
  • it’s not all about you: if you’re choreographing for a group, remember it’s not all about you being in front and having backing dancers; think of ways to arrange things so that everybody has a chance to shine, unless they want to remain hidden in the back
  • it’s not all about the base rhythm; these can be quite similar and even monotonous unless you’re working on a drum solo; try to capture the feel of the main “voice” on the piece, be it a human throat, instruments or yes, even percussion
  • everybody doing the same in their little dancer’s box is ok, but a bit boring: travelling steps help a lot, and using the stage to move about or change places make the choreography more dynamic and visually interesting.
  • it’s not all about the High Concept: having an idea, trying to tell a story, is all nice and good, but don’t let your dance be lost in your concept; sometimes people dance because they’re happy or sad, or energetic, or simply because they like the music; don’t let your High Concept get in the way of your dancing to the point that it overpowers it; sometimes music is also made just for enjoyment!
  • don’t try to cram everything in once piece: don’t make your choreography a catalogue of moves, and try to give it some unity instead; repeat combos on similar sections, for instance, or do moves that are related instead of going for something completely different with every bar!
  • build up: you don’t want your audience to be bombarded with everything from the get go, or so overwhelmed with cool moves that everything blurs… showcase interesting moves among simpler ones,  and build up your moves as the music builds up
  • if you’re choreographing for a specific group, take into account their strengths and weaknesses; some of your troupe mates might be better at some moves, and some might be unable to do others, so think of ways around this
  • conversely, be mindful of your limitations and those dancing with you: impressive moves are impressive, but basic moves are beautiful too when done with proper technique; choose moves that are suitable to your level and that of those around you
  • don’t give up, or expect the whole routine to be ready in a matter of hours; these things often need quite a bit of time to come together, and sometimes what works inside your head might prove to be  just awkward to execute, so be ready to make changes
  • finally, when you start practicing, make sure you are aware of what parts of the body will take more of a pounding or require extra flexibility, so warm up those accordingly

In my case, I started with a song I really liked, and which hubby helpfully said “that would be nice with some dancing”, and went on from there. I keyed on certain parts of the song (slow intro, chorus) thinking of what could fit them, then took it one verse at a time, and once I had a first half I liked, tried to use it as the starting platform for the remaining half. I’m still doing touch-ups here and there, but overall structure is in place, and hopefully by the time the first performance rolls in, it’ll be ready for unveiling.

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