Combinations, Choreography, and Beyond “Dance by Numbers”
Choreography is more than combinations…
Both Tempest and Princess Farhana have posted excellent blogs about learning, remembering, or eschewing choreography in belly dance. We often use the word “choreography” in belly dance to mean “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music,” but I’m here to argue differently. True choreography is much deeper, with greater gravity and meaning. To me, “movements in sequence to a particular piece of music” means a combination or routine. And there is nothing wrong with combinations or routines. They are essential learning and teaching tools for all dancers, but they lack the emotional and artistic depth that true choreography contains.
Choreography exists on a richer artistic plane.
Within the world of belly dance, there are very few true choreographers. I’d even venture to say that there are very few true choreographers in general. You know… the Twyla Tharp or Alvin Ailey types who have that gift to push the creative boundaries of movement, emotion, and staging. The ones that hear a piece of music and can somehow tease out the expressive nuances, challenging dancers’ bodies in ways we never thought possible. These are the people who don’t “paint by numbers,” and not all of them are even very well-known. (For the record, I am certainly not a gifted choreographer; I’m a natural improviser, and have one heck of a time remembering my own combinations and routines, and I must work very hard to create them.)
The prospects and perils of “dance by numbers”
Most belly dance routines, regardless of stylization, are like that childhood art project “Paint by Numbers.” Use the brown paint to fill in all the areas labeled “1”, the red paint for “2”, the green for “3” and so on… and when you’re done, you have a nice tidy image… that lacks creativity or personality. You wouldn’t call these pieces “art”, would you?
The same thing happens in belly dance. If it’s an oriental or raqs sharqi routine, the promenade begins, and the dancer glides out with her veil, chasse-ing and turning her way around the stage until she takes center stage, flings her veil away, and boom-boom rakatak boom rakatak the baladi rhythm kicks in for some crowd-pleasing hip-drops. Add in a melodic section, a folkloric section (Sa’idi kicks or a Khaliji-inspired hair tosses), and an exciting malfouf ending, and you have a typical oriental routine. In Tribal Fusion, dancers use a different formula, but it’s still a formula (which I have greatly simplified here): slow, slinky melodic intro song to highlight a dancer’s backbends, muscular arm waves, and other slow fluid movements, and then an electronica song (dubstep has been popular lately, however, mash-ups of classical orchestral elements with electronic percussion have been quite favored, too) or a drum solo to show off locks, isolations, and hard-contraction movements.
There are certainly merits to the formulaic approach to dance composition, and, of course, not all dancers perform this way. As students of the dance we must learn what the guidelines and rules are to creating dances so that we can then fashion performances that reach beyond them. We spend much of our time learning how movements connect so that we can participate in festivals and recitals as part of our performance training. I’ve started adding 30 minutes of combinations at the end of several of my own workshops so that dancers can have a more “hands-on” experience with how I approach different stylizations and concepts.
As we continue our studies, many of us learn or get the idea that these formulas are what define our dance, and that we must follow these “rules” in order to either be respectful of the dance itself (in the case of raqs sharqi) or to be considered relevant in the Tribal and Fusion scenes (ironic considering that Tribal Fusion has become as formulaic as the raqs sharqi it was rebelling against). I’ve even heard Middle Eastern musicians tell dancers that they must “shimmy to the qanun” and perform “snake arms to the nay”, because that’s what’s expected of us. (Because, apparently, the musicians know more about how to do our work than we do.)
Beyond the numbers
If you watch a performance by a great choreographer, (like Mia Michaels or Wade Robeson from the world of contemporary dance) these pieces are far from formulaic. They blend familiar steps with strange, whimsical, challenging movements to convey the emotional and theatrical perspective of the piece. The choreography itself might only be a minute and a half long, as is the case with “Fix You” by Travis Wall, and yet fills the stage with innovation, sentiment, and absolutely stunning dance technique on the part of the dancers themselves. When you watch their compositions, you’re watching far more than combinations of movement set to music… you’re watching living, breathing, moving art.
What does that mean for those of us who just aren’t naturally gifted choreographers, relegated to creating decent combinations and routines for our students, never really breaking through that artistic wall? We have to keep creating, regardless, and we have to be aware that there are formulas in our own dance world… formulas that must be broken responsibly. The more routines we make, the more combinations the teach, and the more we improvise (yes), the greater our skill as creative dancers becomes. And we must seek out those in our field (and outside our field) who create innovative work, learn from them, and then… make more dances of our own.