When we begin our dance journey, we spend a lot of time building a particular dance technique, usually the technique of our teachers or the general style of the genre we like the most. Once that technique is “hard set” in our bodies, we tend to approach new related dance forms with the same technique without first “clearing our cup” of what we currently know. We don’t always understand when we begin dancing that it’s so much more than muscular control. It’s essence. It’s nuance. We don’t recognize this and know we must remain open and “empty cupped” so we can easily assimilating new, different technique and style. So, we may eventually struggle with getting the look and feel of a different dance style.
As many of you know, not all Middle Eastern dance styles are the same. American Cabaret is different than modern Egyptian Oriental style. Qawliya (Iraqi) is different than Saudi Raqs al Na’shaat (thobe dance). Turkish Oriental is different than Classical Egyptian style. It’s important to recognize this and come to each new style with a fresh approach. Not assuming that what we currently do stylistically will “work” with a different style of dance, the truth is, it does not work well. Something is lost, the feeling, the nuance. That special something that helps non-native dancers be mistaken for native dancers.
We’ve all seen those dancers that seem to have an innate ability to morph into just about any style. Their beledi is beledi. Their modern is modern. Their classic is clearly Golden Era. All the while, maintaining a clear personal style. These dancers are amazing! On the flip side, we’ve seen dancers where it doesn’t matter which prop, music style, or costuming, it’s all the same. Same moves done in the exact same way.
So, how does one become a more flexible dancer? I’m not talking about whether you can do the splits or not. I’m talking about, are you able to recognize the differences in other styles and be able to change your movement patterns to match the style? Or are you at the mercy of your previous training and unable to make those detailed changes that are tell-tale signs that you aren’t really learning all that you could be and performing to a more refined standard?
Before I give you some tools to help you learn how to see and better incorporate stylization, I want to first take the time to ease your mind. Nobody worth your brain-space is waiting stage-side to beat you over the head, if you aren’t doing an impeccably styled performance. And if anyone is, please disregard them. We’ve all got growing to do and need room to do that. With that said, if you are a more experienced dancer that wants to add the icing on the cake, wants to more accurately represent folkloric dances or styles that are related but different, than this info is for you, even if your goal is to dance like an native Egyptian. Remember don’t get too obsessed with perfection, think of it as refining what is already there – this takes time and experience. It’s a worthy road to begin to go down, but take the time you need, hone your craft, and don’t strive to be perfect out of the gate. Just keep moving forward in your natural learning process. In the end, it can’t be rushed, but with a little help you can begin to recognize and make those finer refinements, that in time, will take your dancing to the next level of mastery.
To begin to stylize your dance, no matter the style or dance you want to study and assimilate into your dancing, the first step is to recognize the most typical characteristics of the style you are wishing to learn. For this task, we will be using some of the same tools that dance movement experts and researchers use to describe and record the dances they study around the world. Though we will only be learning the most basic of characteristics in this article, know that if you wish to become an expert in a particular dance or style there are many more details that you can gather on the dances you choose to study. This article will only get you started…
When you are approaching anything new, even just a new teacher, it’s important to understand first that not all hip drops are the same. Even if you look at a single movement done by dancers within a similar style, you will find differences. Yet we go to workshops hoping to glean the essence of a particular dancer we love and we wonder why we don’t look like they do, when they do it. Obviously, body types differ, but even more than that we are not really analyzing the detail to a great enough degree and executing movements in the exact same way, the same amount of force, with the same posturing, etc, etc. There are many details that make up one’s personal style and any other dance or dancer’s style you wish to assimilate.
Once you deeply understand that differences DO exist – that all hip drops are not the same. You will approach each new dance (or even teacher) in a different way. You won’t just make an assumption that what you are doing is the same thing. You will begin to look with a more critical eye. Not critical in a negative sense, but critical analysis where you determine what is really happening internally and externally to make a movement occur. Then and only then, are you able to take the first steps to reproduce a particular movement in your own body.
Let’s say you are wanting to learn more about Egyptian beledi style. You are taking some workshops from someone who is known for their “beledi” style or you have found a bunch of beledi videos that are known to be “beledi” or you are visiting Egypt and have an opportunity to see it first hand. Where do you begin? What are you even looking for?
You will begin by looking at some of the characteristics that make-up movement, space, and context and from there you can compare what you discover with your own movement, determine what changes must be made and then you will be able to alter your movement in a conscious way, rather than what your body would otherwise do involuntarily.
Studying dance is time intensive and no simple task and to some degree, I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but again do understand that this is only an overview, a brief introduction to dance research movement analysis.
Before you even get into the movement analysis, it’s important to take at the context of the dance style you are learning about.
Where is this dance taking place?
Country, region, rural, urban, theater, home, etc.
When is this dance taking place?
Actual date, time of day, circa, year, month, day, season, is this dance done only on certain days, times of the year, for certain occasions?
Does the dance have a purpose?
Audience entertainment, self entertainment, ritual, custom, religious, etc.
Who does the dancing?
Hired dancers, family members, people on the street, troupe, soloist, etc.
Describe the performer/dancer(s).
Gender, ethnicity, class, age.
How long is the performance/activity?
One 20 minute show, during one song or section of song, several hours, etc.
Whom is the dancer dancing for?
Self or others at informal party (what type of event is it?), informal on the street for fun or to earn tips, an audience that has paid admission, an audience that hasn’t paid admission, etc. Describe the audience: age, class, gender, ethnicity, etc.
Where is the dancer in relation to the audience?
Dances in audience, dances on stage near audience, dances away from audience
How does the audience respond to the performance?
They only watch quietly, clap, cheer, yell obscenities, sing along, try to dance with the dancer, ignore the dancer, etc.
What is the dancer wearing?
Type of costume, is it specific to this dance style, etc. Are the costume clothes worn only for the dance event or is this “everyday” wear?
What music is being used?
Instruments? Only vocals? Only percussion? Rhythmic percussion and melody? Is it specific to this style (only this music)? Can other genres be used? Does the music have vocals? In what language (dialect) are the lyrics?
These questions will help you to choose the correct music, choose the right costume, and help you to keep the style within its context.
How is the dance executed?
Improvised completely or partially, choreographed fully, etc.
Does the dance have composition with sections of the “dance performance” having particular elements?
Does it seem to follow a prescribed order, either dictated by the purpose or for any other reason, etc.
Does the purpose of the dance have a particular meaning/tone/feel?
Its meant to be happy or celebratory, sad, pensive, etc.
Is the dancer expected to express meaning/feeling/tone?
Yes, no, or express content in a particularly way through gesture, facial expression, singing, movement choices, etc.
What going on with the dancer’s posture?
Is it rigid or relaxed all over the body, or in certain areas of the body?
Does it hold a certain position or pose?
Is it upright, leaning forward, bent over, bent back, etc?
What is the head doing?
Upright/lifted, tilted, free, moving in a certain way, etc.
Are the knees straight, knees soft, knees very bent?
Use of the Body
What areas of the body are used?
Torso (is a certain area used more?), footwork, arm/hand work, legs, etc
Are certain areas of the body used more often?
Are certain areas of the body used less often?
Does the body tend to be in a particular shape or state?
Symmetrical/asymmetrical, angular, rounded, twisted, elongated, compressed
Use of Space
Use of performance space?
Stays stationary, moves around sometimes, seems to travel more, etc
Use of body space?
Are movements close to the body? Do movements extend out?
Is the focus mainly downward, upward, forward or back, or switches among directions? how often does it switch among directions?
Does the body, parts of the body, or movements tend to move in certain pattern(s) or shape(s)?
Does any footwork tend to make certain patterns or shapes?
How are the arms held (or not held)?
Straight or softly rounded, or bent sharply. Do they just hang off the body or are they held in a certain position?
Do the arms generally maintain a certain level?
Low, medium, or high.
Do the arms maintain certain shapes or positions?
Do the arms primarily move or stay still?
Hang down, stay in fixed position, or move freely.
What are the hands doing?
Staying in a certain position (what position?, moving a certain way (how do they move?), moving at a certain speed (slow,fast, etc)
What is the typical position(s) of the feet?
Toes forward, feet open, on balls of feet, flat footed, etc.
Are the feet usually close or wide a part?
Does footwork seem to play an important role or are the feet just used to move the dancer around?
Is it footwork intensive? Or is footwork not as important.
Now that we have looked at some of the most basic and general details regarding context, usage, and body requirements, lets now take a look at the finer details. Chances are, you are interested in exploring other styles, improving your own style or moving into another style. The following can help you take a closer look. These are the details you will want to notice and attempt to replicate in your own body.
Execution of movement
How is the body accomplishing the movement? What muscles are used/not used? What plane(s) of motion does the movement go through? Where does the movement originate? Where does the movement end?
Does the movement”: stretch, bend, twist, turn, rise, fall, swing, rock, shake, etc.
What locomotive movements are involved and how are they executed?: walk, hop, run, jump, leap, 3-step turns, chaine turns, shuffle, etc.
Qualities of Movement
Percussive, sustained/smooth, swinging, vibratory, suspending, or collapsing.
Timing of Movement
Is the movement done fast or slow? Some fast, some slow? With tempo or faster/slower than tempo? Flows with melody?
Volume of Movement
What are the size of the movements? Small, large?
Dynamism of the Movement
Soft, hard, subtle, larger than life, etc.
It’s important to keep in mind that movement description can be highly subjective and it’s up to you to thoroughly observe what is going on in the body of a dancer(s) you are analyzing and do your best to “see” objectively without assuming or filling in information based on your previous experience. The more you are able to objectively glean, the more authentic information you will have to potentially apply to your own technique and style.
Let’s assume you have done your homework. Now, you can apply what you have learned to yourself by assimilating the qualities that you have discovered. Before you begin this final step, it’s worth repeating the importance of “clearing your cup.” So, how exactly does one do that? It starts with your attitude! An attitude of learning that assumes you don’t have all the answers and that you are open to change both mentally and physically. You must be able to abandon what you know or have done and what your body is use to, in order to assimilate a different way of moving.
Having been a teacher for many years, I have observed students with previous training of various types to have the most difficulty, than students with no background in dance at all. The difference is simply because the new dancer’s cup is already empty and open to new ways of moving. Where the experienced dancer’s mind and body are more set in its ways of moving. However, clearing your cup is possible when it’s done consciously with intention. It’s when you are just going with the flow and not looking with fresh eyes (with beginner’s eyes) that you will miss the details. And when you miss the details, you can’t really assimilate the new style. Best advice… Don’t resist, even subtly! Approach dance and perhaps life with more openness and vulnerability, and you will be surprised where that attitude will take your ability to assimilate STYLE.