1. Body connectivity and coordination
These are ‘fundamental fundamentals’, before you learn steps in any dance. You have to get comfortable with your body and the way the human body is naturally designed to move. This involves using your breath, activating your core, aligning your posture, manoeuvring around your spine, and working the body halves separately. Over time this develops into your ‘invisible dance’ as you learn how to use your weight, to choose which muscles to initiate, move away from your center and return to it and much more.
This aspect of the dance happens all throughout your training. While you can learn and enjoy the bellydance moves on their own, it’s difficult to really grow as a dancer without this aspect. If you don’t have a dance background and struggle with the bellydance moves, especially when it comes to layering and travelling steps it really helps to work on this area in parallel.
Most of the time when people struggle with the moves it’s because of tight muscles that block the awareness of how the body moves. Everybody can dance, it’s just the body intelligence is more developed in some persons than others – sometimes because of natural ability and other times because of experience. However it’s something everyone can develop with guidance and practise. Dance is perhaps 90% body conditioning so it’s important to also have regular practice in classical exercises like those for ballet and contemporary dance.
2. Know the moves
Bellydance in its pure form has a core set of movements of the hips, pelvis, torso and arms. Depending on what style you are learning there are also specific floor patterns for travelling steps and ways of gesturing with the arms, head and hands. Practise makes perfect, so don’t stop practising when you think you know the move. Practise until you can’t forget it. It should be in your muscle memory, which means there is a sensation of pleasure in your body when you do the move, so that you can easily recall the feeling and it prompts the movement as they are connected.
Bellydance is made up of layers of movement that give it an decadent look. To layer well, each move has to be well developed and embedded into the muscle memory so you don’t have to think about it. It’s not possible to do multiple things at once and actively think about them all. Even if you could, it would look robotic because you would be in your head which is a more masculine principle than a feminine one. The feminine principle is in a state of flow and deeply connected to many things at once.
Once you start moving around with travelling steps you’ll need more interesting and seamless was to get to the next move than simply stopping. I really enjoy taking classes that focus on transitions because it’s a really great feeling to move smoothly and gracefully from one thing to the next. It gives a sense of confidence and ease that I believe carries over to other areas of life.
I also believe that when we perform it’s important to consider the emotional experience the audience is having watching you. Any tension you create should be deliberate, and then you have a responsibility to bring them safely down again. So you must be able to quickly gain control over what happens next. Good transitions alleviate stress for both you and the audience.
5. Interpret the music
There are two types of music for the purpose of performing oriental dance – simple and complex. Simple songs are great for giving you the freedom to do whatever you want, however it takes a lot of confidence to dance with music that doesn’t really tell you what to do next.
An example of a simple song structure is Zalim from Raks-I Feyzan, Vol. 5. Complex songs like Baligh Hamdi's Ansak Ya Salam have a lot of dynamic changes and unexpected turns that make you really have to listen deeply and draw out what the music is asking of you as a performer. You also need the movement vocabulary that would allow you to express what you discover. It takes a lot of skill, and is one of the reasons it’s important to learn choreographies that have been developed, refined and stage-tested by dance masters.
6. Learn Choreography
We may learn complete choreographies to whole songs, or mini choreographies that cover short sections of music. We also learn extended movement sequences. The purpose of any kind of choreography, apart from performing them outright is to help you develop your own dances. You do this by deconstructing the pieces and understanding why they work, so you can use them with other music.
7. Improvisation skills
A number of performance skills come together to make a succesful improvised dance. Oriental dance historically was largely improvised but nowadays dancers lean more on choreography. I think for paid performances you really need choreography to ensure that your clients get what they expect.
I also strongly believe in oriental dancers being able to perform for each other, friends and family in a more informal environment that lends to improvisation. Not everything has to be competitive with rigorous rules and technicalities (the masculine principle). It’s a great experience to just be in the moment, present in your body and dance freely and naturally (the feminine principle).
8. Choreograph your own dances.
This is probably my favorite part, but honestly without a commercial deadline, most of my creations go unfinished. I have numerous pieces that I’ve started, reworked and revisited for years.
Dance is unlike other artforms because you really have to go out of your way to create a record of it – there are no canvases or manuscripts – the dance only exists in the mind of the choreographer until it is performed, and then it's gone. Two skills that have helped me to keep records are learning how to write choreography notation (I have volumes of journals with mainly choreography) and; cataloguing music.
The music part is really important because things happen that you don’t think about at first. Musicians can withdraw from the market and recordings of their work stop being readily available. You’ll be happy that you own a high fidelity copy, or at least have the information to search for it. Sometimes for a choreography you want to mix your own music – you don’t want to spend countless hours listening to songs trying to find the right one – cataloguing can help.
One area often overlooked is that all dance is taught /performed in a context. Many of us oriental dancers are learning from a variety of teachers and then putting together the best of what we glean from them to make our own dances. Few dancers today have the benefit of studying a pure style long enough to become expert at it.
We tend to claim the style that we most identify with, but often after our interpretation, the end product is a sort of fusion. My dance has elements of Egyptian, Turkish, North American, Persian, Lebanese, Latin American and Caribbean dances in there, because that's my story. I would not promote myself as an Egyptian dancer, even though most of my teachers are Egyptian or, expatriates with decades of professional dance experience in Egypt.
When I study with them it’s obvious that much of what gives the dance its essence can only be approximated outside of Egypt. So I would say appreciate the styles, respect them, study them, incorporate them but don’t get obsessed about defining your dance in rigid categories. Just do the best you can with what you have and dance your truth.