Thursday, January 13, 2011

Choreography vs Improvisation

I love improvisation. Most of my own performance is improvisation. I believe that improvisation is at the heart of belly dance. I introduce it in the second week of my beginner course. But I teach mostly choreography. Why?

First, there is the huge resistance I have found from most of my students to improvisation. And, no, I don't start with expecting them to do a whole song. Choreography feels safe to them - even if it is harder.

Second, most of my students perform as a group so they need a structure to look good. I have a couple of numbers where pairs "improvise" for a few bars but in practice what they do is create their own small choreography.

Third, with good choreography you do learn. This year at the Winter Warmup I added six more from Aida Nour. There was something to learn in every one. Several things in some - from musicality, to combinations, to weight transfer, to gestures, to arms and hands, to folkloric knowledge, even facial expressions.

Yes, you can learn this using the follow-the-bouncing-butt method – but these days I have difficulty in remembering much of 20 hours of improvised dance – but a choreography – where you go over and over the same moves - will stick better; even if the actual dance doesn’t have the range of nuance of several interpretations to the same music.

Finally, choreography is a way to reinforce what is belly dance. Some times when I have had enthusiastic students improvising I need to pull them back when they step over the belly dance line. (I generally let the beginners go initially) You can learn the lines through watching lots of good performances - but learning choreographies from a range of sources is another way to learn what is and is not "belly dance".

That said, to get past being a beginner I think you do need to be able to improvise. Not necessarily to completely unknown live music but you have to be able to let the music flow through you. Then, I think, your choreographed performances will also be better. And as a bonus you won’t get thrown when a waiter or small child wanders through your dance space.

1 comment:

  1. I improvise primarily, but I also teach my students choreography, for the reasons you mentioned. It's also beneficial because it gives them a sense of accomplishment, and a structured context for practicing the movements we've learned. I also use it to start teaching them about dance composition right away, explaining why I made the choreographic choices I did. (The value of repetition, use of space, etc.)

    That said, I also teach improvisation in class. Their first exposure is in a "circle dance" at the end of class, where each student takes a turn in the center, does whatever movement they want (belly dance, other dance, or just silliness), and the others copy them. I also do structured improvisation drills to ease them into improv, so it's not quite so intimidating at first.