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Mirroring the Instrumentation and Melody
It is important that the dancer be prepared to interpret the rhythm and the instrumentation as well as the melody and words. Keti Sharif, in her book Bellydance, points out that the melody creates the emotive atmosphere, while the rhythm governs the speed and momentum of the piece.
If, in addition, the music has words, you really need to understand what the words are saying and what the context is... same as with any music! I still remember the Mormon talent show that I attended with a friend where most of the adult males in the room (including my friend) got up on stage to perform to the Y-M-C-A.
Piper Reid Hunt in her article Going Pro:
[If] you want to learn to freestyle better, put on a favorite piece of music and dance around your living room. When a particular combination of moves feels right, write it down. This is the way to create your own combos. Now vary your posture and add different arm positions or a dip or a hop, and suddenly one combo becomes two. Once you have several combos you like, try mixing and matching various elements from combo to another until each one flows from one step to the next. Then try some step progressions, starting with a simple step and then embellishing it with different arms or layered hipwork. Add these to your combos. In this way, three different combos with three steps each can get a beginner through a whole song! If you keep doing this, using different tempos and rhythms each time, soon you will be able to handle anything a band can play like a pro.
AccentsShort, sharp movements that are done EXACTLY on the beat. Best handled when you KNOW YOUR MUSIC.
Call-and-responseThis not only refers to the conversation between melody instruments, but, as Karim Nagi points out, between the singer and the instruments.
Hands and Arms and EnergyNajia Marlyz in her article Der Schnerkle: "Therefore, I reasoned, the use of one's extremities for dancing (beyond transporting one across the stage or making a movement appear finished) was to gather and distribute performance energy from the stage rather than simply wave arms about in the air with artistry and grace."
InstrumentationIt is common for the dancer to use different parts of the body to respond to various instruments and pitches in the music. Keti Sherif divides musical instruments into four elements and suggests allowing the TYPE of instrument producing the sound to suggest appropriate interpretation:
Lyrical sectionsSometimes the melody comes to the forefront while the rhythm recedes in volume. Keti Sharif suggests larger movements like turns, gliding steps or sweeping gestures. Veil work is sometimes incorporated here as well.
Repetitive rhythm cuesOccidental musicians and dancers are often surprised by how often the rhythm changes in a piece of Arabic music. Keti Sharif (in her book Bellydance) states that "Most Middle Eastern rhythms are played in four-four time, but there are plenty of variations. Usually the dancer changes when the drummer does, after every set of four. This is commonly known as the Rule of Four and helps immensely when improvising a dance...."
Mary Ellen Donald recommends that dancers be able to effectively combine zills, rhythms and body movements during performance. Dancers who understand what steps go with what rhythms do not have to rely on the crutch of teacher's choreography -- they will be able to make up their own variations. (Middle Eastern Dancer magazine in 1989.)
Taksim(Taqsim): long phrases of musical improvisations with little or no beat. Long notes are often interpreted within the context of one move (with ornamentation provided by layering).
Najia Marlyz, in her article Taxim from a Dancer's Perspective, has a lot of very excellent advice on learning to interpret taksim solos.
Anthea Kawakib Poole's small book "Kawakib's Dance Tips" is NOT (contrary to what the title implies) a collection of random dance tips, but a systematic description of what she considers to be the building blocks of good dance, all of which are applicable to improvisation. This booklet is available from her at Kawakib.com.
Anthea posted a video of a lovely video of her improvised dance to a live band to Youtube and then wrote Tuning In... To Improv, a blog post that breaks down all of the decisions she made to make her improvisation a success.
Anthea also keeps links to the many articles she has written for dance magazines on her website, and a large number of those articles relate to the challenges presented by improvisation.
Karim Nagi website.
Karim Nagi's short video on how to respond to various pitches in the music.
Karim Nagi's short video on how to respond to various types of rhythm and accents in the music.
Keti Sharif's website.
Der Schnerkle by Najia Marlyz at Gilded Serpent.
Taxim from a Dancer's Perspective by Najia Marlyz at Gilded Serpent.
Piper Reid Hunt website.
Going Pro by Piper on Gilded Serpent.
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