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Learning to Dance

"As long as non-dancers insist on performing, the Arabic dance will remain on the fringes of respectability, and self-esteem will remain an elusive goal." Viviane Hamamdjian, quoted by Judy Gabriel in Habibi Magazine in 1983.

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La Meri and Ruth St. Denis founded the School of Natya in 1940, which evolved into the Ethnological Dance Center which functioned until 1956. La Meri described the curriculum as a 4-year Artist's Course that was to set the foundation for 'the lifelong education of the total ethnic dancer.' You might find how she laid out her curriculm to be of assistance... she had a lot of experience and a passion for teaching as well as performing.
  1. Physical techniques: 4-6 hours daily, and graded with notebooks of terminology demanded. Every hour of class was expected to be followed by hours of practice.
  2. History and Culture: Lectures, research, and complete notebooks.
  3. Music: Western and Eastern, note values, movement to music, dynamics of music translated into physical movement. Eastern scales and rhythms were studied.
  4. Writing and Speaking: Articles written and lectures given by graduates.
  5. Composition and Choreography: study of structure, work presented onstage.
  6. Makeup, Costumes and Production: Graduate students were presented in concert at Carnegie Hall and were required to manage their production and supply their own costumes.
  7. Pedagogy: Lectures and notebooks, practical work teaching selected classes under supervision.


Anthea discussed the problems of teaching yourself to dance in a 2011 edition of Zaghareet

  • The body develops habits very quickly and will even change its shape to accommodate repeated movements.
  • Using DVDs encourages folks to skip the parts they aren't interested in, even if essential.
  • You have no teacher to set goals, drill, clean up mistakes, polish technique.
  • You will have to be both teacher and student; to assess yourself and then act on it. It is a monumental task!

The Perils of Learning from YouTube on, of course, You Tube!


From an article by Bedia in a 1989 edition of Middle Eastern Dancer magazine.

She recommends that potential students attend the first class as an observer; if they participate, they'll end up concentrating on performing rather than evaluating the effectiveness of the teacher. The goal is to find a teacher who makes herself accountable for student progress.

  1. The teacher's goals for the students should be apparent. What are they, and are they appropriate?
  2. Do students demonstrate an understanding of the What, How and Why of what they are being taught?
  3. Does the teacher motivate and prepare students for dance activity with carefully planned warmups?
  4. Does the teacher set high standards that the students achieve through her motivation?
  5. The dance class should contain the following dance activities:
    • Axial work (center floor, isolations);
    • Traveling steps (movement through space);
    • Several types of movement dynamics (sustained, percussive);
    • Development of rhythm and timing.
  6. Is the teacher able to teach using a variety of approaches:
    • Clear, precise movement demonstrations;
    • Clear verbal instructions;
    • Auditory and kinesthetic cues;
    • Information on the anatomical basis of the movement;
    • Use of imagery;
    • Skill or training in movement analysis (a must)?
  7. Does the teacher provide constant feedback and effective corrections that allow the class to achieve the objectives by the end of class?
  8. Can the teacher handle different skill levels within a class so that all students progress?
  9. Does the teacher demonstrate a knowledge of anatomy, kineseology, movement analysis, dance injury, health and nutrition, historial and/or cultural knowledge, technical training, experience in other dance, music or acting disciplines?


Anthea (aka as Kawakib) has been publishing informative articles on her website and in various dance magazines since 1990. Her writing is clear and to-the-point. She covers everything, from concepts to technique to costuming to peformance to music. She follows the same format on her You Tube channel, Dance Eternal: clear and to-the-point. Her mastery of zills makes her zill videos especially valuable to dancers who feel overwhelmed about the prospect of zilling while dancing.

Keti Sharif published a article on teaching methods for belly dance teachers. However, there is no reason for you to wait for a teacher to tell you these. The short list:

  1. Spend at least ten minutes warming up major muscle groups and joints. Use larger easy to follow moves, such as step/points footwork.
  2. Count clearly throughout the want to get "a sense of the underlying rhythmic structure and how it correlates to footwork"
  3. Develop co-ordination skills in layers: footwork, then arm work, floor patterns and directtional changes.
  4. Focus on technique, refinement and correct execution of moves, including posture.
  5. Develop sequences and routines and the transitions between them.
  6. Work with the music and rhythm. "The rhythm is the base structure and the melody is open to is interpreted within the body - eg: drums/hips, violin/shoulders, accordian/chest, flute/arms. "
  7. Balance choreography and improvisation "to integrate both the participant's technical skills and creativity ability."
  8. Set challenges and monitor development where the memory must be used/
  9. Mentor, do not mother. Support, teach and correct, but do not fall into the role of counselor for students with personal issues. "Your energy as a teacher is best invested into helping your student become a confident and knowledgeable dancer."
  10. Develop your teaching style to support YOUR vision with short and long term goals.


Alia Thabit's article Emotion Inspired by Song: Interpreting Arabic Orchestral Music discusses the challenges of dancing to Arabic orchestral music. You can expect to find a complex structure with many sections; lyrics with emotional content that must be understood; and orchestral flourishes. She outlines three stragegies to use with choreography or improvisation.
  1. Interpret the music literally; articulate every note and flourish of the music. This approach prioritizes musical complexity and form, including moves, and lots of them, over emotional content.
  2. Interpret the lyrics literally; act them out with movement and mime. This approach prioritizes emotional content over musical complexity.
  3. Interpret the music emotionally.

LEARN to ACT while you DANCE

7 Secrets of Super Performers by Nichelle Strzepek at

"Remember that dance has a dimension beyond the physical. The body-as imperfect as it always is-is only part of the picture. Your energy, the quality of your movement, your feeling about the world, your dance spirit-that is what we see under the lights."

  1. Never dance alone, even in a solo. Do not forget or ignore the audience or the other dancers on stage. Make eye contact. Project your energy to a dancer(s) or audience member(s). Use or respond to the energy of others give to you.
  2. The eyes have it.
    • Real or sincere facial expression often has more to do with the eyes than with the mouth. Practice an open expression with the whole face and especially the eyes. Engage facial muscles by slightly lifting the eyebrows in a way that is comfortable and easy to maintain. This is the same expression most people use when really listening to a friend or speaking excitedly in conversation.
    • Relax the lower jaw. This will improve any type of expression and, if fitting, make possible a smile that comes easily but is not plastered to your face.
    • Truly SEE, LOOK, and TAKE IN the world through your eyes as you dance.
  3. Super performers understand musicality.
    • When counting beats, it is easy to forget that a beat includes the space between the beats, just as all movements include transitions and shifts of weight... Musical performers fill these spaces in the music and movement, not letting the energy or intent drop between shapes or between counts.
    • Utilize dynamics. Incorporate crescendo and decrescendo (sudden or gradual changes in the quality of the movement) that reflect or work within the accompanying music or score.
    • Identify what part of the music (rhythm, melody, counterpoint, etc.) the choreographer is using to inspire the movement.
    • It is helpful to have a basic understanding of music composition or theory, but THINKING about what you FEEL and HEAR in music and applying these to your dance practice is the first step in bringing musicality to your performance.
  4. Exude Confidence..
    • Attitude is not confidence. Attitude is a persona the performer during performance. Confidence is trust in yourself and in the situation.
    • Trust in yourself and your fellow dancers is the practical side of confidence and comes from preparation, expertise and experience.
    • Don't be afraid to be amazing.
  5. Super performers are actors as well as dancers.
    • Actors understand the context (the situation, the scene, the conditions, and background) within which they are performing. Dancers, as actors, should be familiar with the time period or origin of the dance, understand the emotions of a piece or have an idea of what the choreographer is trying to express or intend.
    • Engaging performers make the audience believe something even if it is not true or actual. Much of being a convincing performer is making something seem real even to yourself; evoking emotions that were not present a second ago.
    • Being real in acting includes discovering what is natural or of human nature. What do you really do when a prop falls- do you ignore it (unrealistic) or try to catch it? You may not choose to pick up a prop when it falls (because timing can be crucial in a dance) but becoming an excellent performer requires investigation of and experimentation with different kinds of behavior (guided or otherwise).
  6. Be secretive.
    • Playing one's hand all at once is not a good idea. Think about how it feels to withhold something you want to share with someone else and apply that type of contained excitement or knowledge to your dancing. There may be natural points in the choreography where you might reveal portions of this secret, like opening birthday presents one at a time.
    • Even if you don't know what your secret is, pretending that you have one changes the energy on stage. It helps depict the fun in your dance without relying solely on happy or joyful feelings. Not every dance is happy but they can all have their secrets.
  7. Super performers dance beyond their kinesphere.
    • Kinesphere describes the space surrounding the body. It is the imaginary bubble that encircles your frame in stillness and as you move.
    • Moving with a sense of directing or expanding your energy beyond your kinesphere will not only make you a more engaging performer. If practiced throughout your classes as well, projecting energy beyond your fingertips and toes, out through the top of the head, from your eyes, or even from every cell in your body, can improve your execution of the movement as well.


Dance improvisation now has its own Dance Improvisation page.


  • How to Learn and Remember Choreography for the Stage by Ananke. Good for performers of any art. How to drill, how to maximize muscle memory, how to prepare for an audience, why panic is good when you are prepared, bad when you are not.
  • Bert Ballandine was Najia's teacher for many years, and this article at Gilded Serpent, Tale of the Rat, is full of the maxims that she took to heart as she became a teacher while remaining a performer herself.
  • Mary Ellen Donald wrote an article on Basic Rhythms for Cabaret Belly Dance Routine with the intention of helping ordingary dancers become first-rate dancers who can work with the music rhythms to "bring variety to their performance and express the excitement within the music."
  • Anthea has several articles on creating choreographies on her website.
  • Faresha breaks down performances into Entrance, Opening stage placement, Audience/Dancer interaction, and Finale sections. She then divides each section into the challenges specific to Soloists, Duets and Groups. ( These are larger strategic considerations that can be incorporated for maximum impact no matter what your dance skill level. ) She then addresses the problem of filling in the moves. She recommends:
    • Always be pro-active about learning new moves.
    • Use 16-beat combos, varying direction, angle, elevation or arm position to keep it fresh.
    • Start out simple and do not rush yourself. Expect to spend a month on your first choreography.
    • Challenge yourself with one or two new moves but make the bulk of them moves you have mastered.
    • Remember the details: where the eyes go, where the arms are, what the personality of the dance is.


The usual caveats apply: this is NOT a substitute for professional advice. This is something to get you thinking!

From Belly Dancing Beats Backache Blues by Linda Schreurs in 1991 edition of Middle Eastern Dancer magazine.

  • Do any exercises gently.
  • Find warm-up exercises for lower back and be sure to cool down after dancing. Neck warmups (gentle rotation of head and neck) are important.
  • Posture is vitally important: knees bent, never locked, and tuck buttons in and down wheh stretching lower back muscles.
  • The hypertextension involved in hip circles and back bends needs to be approached carefully; maintain a slight tuck, minimize the extension and do not hyperextend when teh back is acting up.
  • Tight muscles anywhere along the spinal column can affect spinal nerves; many lower back problem actually originate in the neck area (for instance, when turning the head wrong). Tossing or swinging the head may be too great a risk.
  • Shoulder problems often feed into back problems as well. Shoulder rotations followed by stretching the arms and shoulders can loosen the shoulder area. The neck strap of a halter bra can also be a culprit: sweitch to a two-strap variety.
  • Remember to keep back straight and knees flexed when lifting objects during daily life.
  • Shoes with heels can also be a source of problem. Changing heel heights on a regular basis can be of assistance.
  • New back injuries need ice, not heat. Ice reduces swelling while heat increases it. When a spinal nerve is injured, it swells and presses against other injured nerves and the bones of the spinal column. If you carry a small blue-ice pack you can apply the cold immediately on injury. Once the swelling is controlled (not before the second day), gentle heat can be applied for short periods. Using ice can cut down-town from 3-7 days to leass than a day.

Be Part of the Solution, not Part of the Problem

As a student becomes a dancer, ethics come into play, and with ethics come decisions. In May 1995, Conchi of Cincinatti wrote a two-article series for Crescent Moon magazine about ethics. In the second one, she discussed the students who cannot bring themselves to behave in a way that fosters community and professional dancing.
The typical Middle Eastern student and dancer is between 20 to 40 years old, with a college degree and a career, married and some with children. We are, therefore, dealing with adults whose personalities, behavior patterns and ethics were formed long before coming to us. I firmly believe that the ethics and behavior people display within our dance community reflect the ethics and behavior they display in their everyday lives.
People who have difficulty getting along with others, especially co-workers, will bring the same problems to the dance group. Those who experience jealousy of their co-workers’ successes and achievements, and have not learned how to cope in a positive and constructive way, will experience the same problem in a dance group... ‘Jealousy is the root of all evil.’ People who are willing to step on their peers so that they can advance or get a better job will use the same tactics with their fellow dancers. We have all heard of dancers offering to dance for less pay so they can get a job away from another dancer. It is quite sad and destructive...
If students come with a desire to learn how to dance but refuse to follow basic human rules of behavior and ethics, it is not because we have failed in our teachings, but because there is something lacking within themselves... Unfortunately, we do not have a radar to alert us when trouble is walking through the door. A lot of pain and hurt is experienced by all before the decision of severance takes place. Everyone is affected, including our dance community. Luckily, we all learn and grow from our bad as well as our good experiences.



  1. Training your Hands to Dance by Najia on Gilded Serpent.


  1. Carlla Silveira

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