Musicality has been on my mind lately. I have been told by many people, including some who I admire more than I can say, that my dancing in incredibly musical. Even my improvisations to live drum solos and taqasim, when I don’t know the music or what the musicians will play next. My ice dancing coaches also remarked on my ability to connect with the music, and they would fiddle with the tempo knob on the tape deck (remember those?) to see if I could keep up or slow down with the song… and I always could, if I didn’t break into laughter first (because, really, who wants to do a reeeaaally sssssssllllooooooowwwwww foxtrot?). Whether or not you think I’m musical, I do feel that musicality is an essential skill for any belly dancer, regardless of style.
When I watch a dancer, I watch for a few key elements: technique/posture, emotional expression, and musicality. If a dancer naturally has great expression and musicality, her (or his, of course) teachers have an easy job; teaching technique is the easy part. Teaching expression is a little more difficult, but through creativity and acting exercises, a dancer can make great progress. Musicality, however, I think is one of the most difficult concepts not just to teach but to convey in a practical manner. musicality is funny thing… the concept is a bit like a wriggly eel. You know it exists, but it’s difficult to pin down. How one dancer hears the music isn’t how another dancer will hear the music. I don’t believe that a dancer must be a master at reading music on a staff or know how to play a melodic instrument to have a strong musical sense. I tried to learn guitar and piano and never succeeded. However, here are some tips.
- Understand the tempo, rhythm, meter, and pulse of your music. Tempo is the speed of the basic beat; we measure this in “Beats Per Minute” (BPM). (Don’t know what BPM your song is in? Check out this awesome website). Think of a metronome: the continuous, steady TICK tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick (this example is for a song in 4/4). Rhythm is the underlying percussion (drums and similar instruments); in Middle Eastern music we must learn and recognize dozens of rhythms from the ubiquitous Saidi (in 4/4) to the flowing Samai (in 10/8) and to the tricky Sama Zarafat (in 13/8). Time signature is how many beats per measure; basically this is how much you keep counting before you start over. As dancers, we often count in 8, but some songs are counted in 9 (like in a lot of Turkish folk andRoman music) or, like the Samai and Sama Zarafat in 10 or in 13. A song counted in 9 will, in its most basic form be counted like this: TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick TICK tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick. 9 “ticks” with an emphasis on the first one, the “1″. The pulse is a bit less technical; it is the “feel” of the song. Saidi music with its heavy drums and wailing mizmars feels heavier than a delicate nay taqsim.
- Listen to the melody. The melody, in its most basic sense is a combination of rhythm and pitch. Higher pitch notes have a higher vibrational frequency; lower pitch notes have a lower vibrational frequency. In general, we interpret higher pitch sounds higher in the body, and lower pitch sounds lower in the body; this is a great guide for beginners, however skilled dancers can break these rules by keeping the quality of the sound in their movement, regardless of what body parts they move. Many songs have a structure, meaning that they have different repeating melodic sections. We often refer to these by letters: the first section being “A”, the second “B”, the third as “C” and so on. Basic songs will have A through C or A through D. The melody is played by different instruments (naturally), and these instruments have different tonal qualities (known as timbre, pronounced “tahmber”). A violin is continuous, yet has a tension (produced by the drawing of the horse hair bow over metal strings), the nay is also continuous, but has a more hollow, open feel. An acoustic guitar has more attack, meaning that the sound made as the pick plucks the strings happens almost immediately, and drops off quickly; it is more percussive than the violin or nay. The qanun and oud are similar, as they are plucked, however, the oud, with its pear-like shape, creates a slightly rounder sound than the qanun. Different movements have different qualities as well: locks and isolations are hard-contraction movements that work better for sharper sounds, and soft-contraction movements such as figure 8s and circles are better for interpreting continuous sounds. Don’t be afraid to play, but never stop listening.
- When the music stops, you stop. When the music goes, you go. It’s the dance equivalent of Red Light / Green Light. I have seen countless taqasim performed by fantastic and even famous dancers who keep moving when the musician takes a pause or a breath. If the sound stops, your movement should stop. When the musician continues, then you continue. If you keep dancing, it shows that you’re not really listening to your music, and if you’re not really listening, then what are you dancing to? Of course, a dancer can choose to dance over the sound for theatrical purposes; however, I feel that a dancer must be quite skilled to pull this off. It takes more skill and presence to be in the music than it does to dance over it.
- Listen to a lot of music. If you’re a belly dancer, you really should be listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music. Arabic and Turkish music operates under different rules and (generally) evolved from different traditions than European music. The tuning systems are sometimes unfamiliar (maqamat, singular maqam), containing microtones (think of a key between the white and black keys of the piano) and embellishments not found in most Western music traditions. American jazz, however, comes close at times, with its long improvised sections and complex syncopations. And speaking of jazz, a dancer should listen to lots of other music, preferably music that challenges your ear. That pop station on the radio just isn’t going to do it.
- Most importantly: the music should inform your dance; not the other way around. What do I mean by this? Your movements should be a reaction to the sounds, not a reaction to your internal dialog. If you’re thinking “Am I doing enough?”, “Oh no! I forgot everything I know!”, “I feel like my movements are so boring!”, “What if the audience thinks I look dumb?”, “What should I do next?”…. then you’re not listening to the music, are you? You’re listening to the voice in your head. We all have it, but we must learn to ignore it. (Not that ignoring that voice is easy; it’s a process that takes a lifetime.)
Of course, developing a sense of musical timing and interpretation takes longer for some dancers than for others, but I do think that with some true listening, a dancer can learn to be more musical. And of course, there isn’t always one correct way to interpret a sound; if we all interpret an oud taqsim in the same manner, then we would be robbing ourselves of the creative experience. Belly dance is unique in the realm of movement arts in that it is characterized by the dancer aiming to “become” a physical representation of the music. With our sophisticated torso and hip isolations, combined with artful layers, one dancer can interpret an entire orchestra with her body. Why dance over the music when you can become the music?