by Luna

by Luna



Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Always Let Your Music Be Your Guide: Choreography vs. Improvisation

Something I’ve always been curious about was whether Cairo’s belly dance stars choreograph their shows.  I remember watching Dina, Randa, Soraya and Asmahan for the first time seven years ago, thinking there's no way such artistic genius could be produced spontaneously. At the time, I was a choreography junkie, and I imagined everyone else to be. I couldn't believe that improv could look so good.  Until now, I still don’t know whether/which dancers choreograph. I’ve never asked any of them, and I don't exactly suppose I’d get honest answers if I did
If my onstage experiences are similar to those of other Cairo dancers, however, I think it’s safe to assume that most of us do both choreography and improvisation--depending on where we are in our careers. I’ll speak for myself at least. Currently, I mostly improvise. But that wasn’t always the case. When I first started performing regularly here four  years ago, I relied heavily on choreography. My own, of course. Back then, the thought of dancing to live music for live Egyptians :) terrified me. I was afraid that if I improvised, I would be boring, or “mess up,” so I choreographed every single doom and tek until the piece was airtight. I also figured that performing choreography would free my mind to concentrate on posture, hands, emotions, and presence, and that if I were too busy thinking up the next step, all those other aspects of my performance would suffer. 

This made my musicians dread working with me. They would get frustrated every time I brought them a particular version of a song and expected them to play it that way and only that way, because that was the version I had choreographed. Naturally, they preferred playing things the way they’d been playing them since before I was born. This went on for a good few months until I became more comfortable with the music, less anal about everything, and way too busy to choreograph at home.  So 98% of the time now, I’m improvising, even when I’m doing a TV shoot!

Am I happy about that?  Generally speaking, yes (though ideally I’d like to be more rehearsed for a TV shoot).  I learned a very important skill and I can easily produce on the spot.  I’ve also developed a “style,” so to speak—a default way of dancing that is uniquely and identifiably mine.  Having this ability is priceless, but it only comes when improvising becomes part of your regular dance routine. 

But what about choreography?  Is it true that choreography isn’t “real" belly dance, as many of us like to say?  Is it too much of a crutch?  A cheat?  Is it like training wheels on a bike, or like painting by numbers—to be abandoned once we can stand on our own two feet?  Is there nothing to be gained from this supposedly western dance skill?  The answers are yes, no, and it depends. 
Chances are, if you’re not Egyptian, choreography made up a large part of your belly dance education.  That’s just the way we do dance in the West.  We teach, learn, and perform just about everything from ballet to ballroom by memorizing routines. It’s only natural that we would apply the same pedagogy to belly dance.  This is especially true for those who aren’t even aware that NOT choreographing is an equally valid option for belly dance, as well as for those who don’t know that choreography is an alien concept for most Egyptian belly dancers. 

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with choreography. It helps get technique into our muscle memory, and teaches us how to transition between steps.  However I’ve been noticing that our overreliance on others' choreographies leads to a sort of copy-cat syndrome.  Rather than dissecting routines to understand the choreographers' artistic choices, too many of us are content to just memorize and perform…memorize and perform, until we all look like clones of each other.  It’s getting even worse now that so many of us copy one or two dancers who have become stars in the workshop circuit. It seems that a lot of us believe that so long as we’re imitating a star, we’re stars ourselves. But it doesn't really work that way. Just because we dance exactly like someone we all know and love says nothing about our own abilities. If anything, it stunts our growth as artists, as we never give ourselves a chance to explore our own ways of moving.

Done properly, however, learning others' choreographies *should* be like two people having a conversation. The first person says something, which then prompts you to say something in response. What you say will be related to and based on what the first person said, but by no means would you echo them. Not only would that person think you're crazy or immature, but that wouldn't even qualify as a conversation. By merely echoing what a person says, you're effectively shutting the conversation down, not contributing to it.
This is why it’s a good idea to reduce our dependency on other people's choreography as much as possible. Creating our own choreography, however, can be a useful tool in our artistic development.  As a performer, I find that taking time to pre-plan what I’m going to do to the music forces me to push my boundaries. Since I’m neither distracted by the audience nor constrained by time, I can practice to the same section of a song until I tame it, mold it, and make it mine. I can chew it up and spit it out until I turn blue in the face--until I come up with something that satisfies my inner artist and supersedes all that I normally would have done had I only been given one shot at it on stage.

This is why I make sure I go back to the studio. More often than not these days. Because even though I dance every night, it's not enough in terms of artistic development. Improv certainly has its benefits. But when you do it every night, your body gets used to doing certain moves and combinations. In fact your improv can eventually turn into a default choreography over time! The only way to break that mold is to use your time off stage to create new material. This is why I go the extra mile and experiment with different technique and combinations. (I suspect many star dancers do this, though they'd deny it to the death. They want others to believe that their talent is completely effortless and God-given. As if that somehow makes them better than their colleagues who admit to working their @$$e$ off). The results are rewarding, as my body shows me entirely new possibilities and creates new moves that I then test on my audiences and students.

I also like using choreography as a teaching tool... though most American dancers, convinced that "real" belly dance is improvised, seem to prefer technique classes to choreography ones. Personally, I find this wrongheaded. And a bit lazy. Yes, technique is important. But studying belly dance is not simply a matter of learning steps and then stringing them together any which way you like. Not in the beginning at least. There has to be a logic to the way you combine your steps and transition between them-- a logic that depends entirely on the music you're using. This is true whether you're improvising or choreographing.
The best way to learn this logic is to study others' choreography (providing they're good at what they do, of course). The art is in the interpretation-- in the choreographer's "ear," so to speak, not in the individual steps. This is especially true of those who have years of experience dancing in Egypt.

I think it's obvious by now that this is how I learned to belly dance. All of the classes I took, from Yosry Sharif in New York to Raqia Hassan in Egypt were choreography-based. It helped that I had years of ballet under my metaphorical belt-- the idea of utilizing the memory to learn an entire piece wasn't alien to me, even if the new moves were. In fact, this was how I learned technique--within the CONTEXT of a larger, meaningful work of art. Little by little, after studying with many different teachers, I had a acquired a pretty impressive technical repertoire, and developed  a knack for choreographing my own pieces. This has only become easier with time. Before, it would take me one to three months to choreograph something! Now, it takes me one to three days.
Still, learning and producing choreography is a challenge for many dancers.  Many of them ask me how to do it, or else protest that the whole concept of memorization kills the spontaneity of belly dance. And it's understandable that they would feel this way, as there's no shortage of authorities encouraging dancers to write down choreography or engage in other mental exercises to remember the sequence of steps. Let me respond to that by saying that this is a completely misguided approach, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how choreography should be made. If you have to rely on your memory to do your own routine, then you're using your mind to create it, not your ear. You're using your intellect instead of letting the music tell you what to do. Which means you're imposing moves on the music that most likely don't fit and have no real connection to it. Or, you're imposing movements that fit technically, but that aren't really the best choice for that piece. On some level, you realize this, which is why you turn to your memory for help. What should be happening is that the music tells you what to do, not the other way around. When you surrender to the music and let it take control, your dance choreographs itself. Meaning, your body just knows what to do (providing you have a large technical repertoire and a good ear). It responds naturally and organically. Actually it will probably respond in almost the same exact ways when dancing to the same piece of music over and over, thereby eliminating the need for memorization.

But what is your "ear," and how do you learn to rely on it? Your ear is your musical interpretation. It's how you envision what you're hearing and how you translate it with movement. The only way to rely on it is to train it. You do that by listening to as much Arabic music as you can, even if it's not Egyptian. Get familiar with and learn to love the violin and the accordion. They are staples of Arabic music. Explore all the ways your body could respond to these instruments by studying. Watch videos of the greats of Egypt, both past and present (but don't always suspend criticism, either). Take classes with those who have performed there. Then get yourself in "same but different" mode. Come up with different ways of interpreting things without transcending the boundaries of what is considered acceptable for a particular musical phrase. And build your technique vocabulary.
Once you feel you've gained a better understanding of how the music works, approach each piece as though it were a puzzle. Listen to it actively and passively until you can sing it and even correct others who sing or play it incorrectly. Know its ins and outs, accents, tempo changes, lyrics. Strategize. If there’s a part that’s really fast in the middle, for example, it would be better to build up to it slowly rather than making the whole piece fast from start to finish. Just for the sake of contrast and depth.

Actually, I would give the same answer to someone asking how to improvise. Only, I would add that one shouldn't be all over the place. Just because you don't have a plan doesn't mean you need to do every move you've ever learned. You may think that will make your dancing more interesting, but really all you're doing is exercise, not dance. Dance is art, and art requires some kind of coherency, some kind of consistency. You can't attain that if you do a hundred different moves in one song. Rather, dance the first sixteen counts. Try to remember what popped out so that you can repeat it at different points throughout the song, but with minor variations in angle, arm position, and level. But don't stray so far away that your audience can't see the logic in your interpretation. And definitely don't be afraid of repetition, within moderation of course.
Most importantly, whether you're choreographing or improvising, hone in on the melody. The melody is what differentiates one song from another, and it's what will really allow you to connect your movements to the piece. This is why I emphasized paying attention to the non-percussive instruments. The violin, accordion, piano, flute, oud, qanoon, and even saxophone.... all are melody-creating instruments. And there are hundreds of thousands of melodies, whereas there is a small and finite  number of rhythms (maqsoom, masmoodi, saidi, sama'i, fallahi, ayoub, etc.) present in every single piece of music known to the Arab world. So if your idea of dancing is merely responding to the drum beat, you're not incorrect, technically speaking. But it means you're missing out on layers of depth and artistry that can be extracted from the melody. And it means your dance is generic. It could be easily imposed on many other songs and fit quite well. Yet it will always lack that special something that lets your audience know that THIS dance was created for THIS music.

So important is the melody that in Egyptian musician-speak, it's put in a category of its own and called "mazika," or music. Contrast this to back home, where melody is understood to be just part of what comprises music, along with rhythm and lyrics. Honestly, when your musical tradition is built upon the genius of composers the likes of Abdel Wahab, Baligh Hamdi, Sayed Darwish, Omar Khairat, and Sayyed Mikawi, you have every right to give their work its own category. It's definitely deserving of it. :)
Whichever method you rely on the most, I would suggest getting out of your comfort zone if you want to grow as an artist. Challenge yourself. If you're a strictly choreographed dancer, try improvising in your house or on stage. Keep trying until it's no longer uncomfortable. If you only improvise, spend some time in front of the mirror choreographing. Analyze others' choreographies to see how they interpret instrumentation, lyrics, and transitions. Don't copy them obviously, but try to understand their "ear." See if you can pick out flaws or improve on their interpretation skills.

Other than what I've already mentioned, there's really no secret to doing either well. Like anything, you just have to do it over and over again until your body and your brain figure things out. That's how I did it, and how a lot of other successful dancers do it. Sure, I had taken some improvisation workshops, but I found them useless. The only thing that worked for me was taking a stab at it every night at work, relying on the repertoire of technique and combos that had become part of my muscle memory as a result of learning choreographies. I discovered that I'm lucky enough to have a good audience and be in a good mood, I might even come up with some innovative material on the spot. That's when I most impress myself. It doesn't happen all the time, but often enough for me to be pretty confident when improvising.


  1. LOVE this! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this subject, Luna! And letting the music inspire and guide one's dancing is how the magic truly happens...

  2. LOVE this! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this subject, Luna! And letting the music inspire and guide one's dancing is how the magic truly happens... ~Michelle

  3. Thank you for sharing, those were really valuable advices :)

  4. A great read, and gave me hope that I can improvise more comfortably in the future. Also that creating choreography won't always take 2 months! Great food for thought :-)