Thursday, December 6, 2012

Characteristic of Belly Dance?

 Recently I heard an experience belly dance teacher describe belly dance as “characterized by sharp, isolated locks as well as sultry “snakelike” movements.”

Really? Characterized by? I went out and re-viewed some of the videos I have of top belly dancers that I admire – Fifi Abdou, Naima Akef, Aida Nour. Not a “sharp, isolated lock” to be seen. Not much snakes either. So, maybe she meant American belly dancers – Cassandra Shore? Nope. Morocco? Nope. Shareen el Safy? Nope.

So what did I see as characteristic among these dancers? Physical control and grace certainly – but that applies to any dance form. Isolation and control – but in a quite gentle and deceivingly “natural” manner. Shimmies and layering – often. Use of pelvic initiated movement. Use of curves and circles.

But to a certain extent all this can be seen in other dance forms. Jazz is often isolated. Shimmies can be found in island dance; hip movement in South American dance; Martha Graham and Gaga technique use pelvic initiation; Hula uses hip circles.

The two stand outs are the music used and how it is interpreted. A characteristic of belly dance is the use of (a subset of) Middle Eastern and North African music. If you do Highland dance you use Scottish music. If you do Bharatanatyam you use the appropriate music from the south of India. If you do hula you use Hawaiian. Same with belly dance.
Interpreting the music is the other side. You can take an appropriate piece of music and use the belly dance vocabulary and still come up with something that isn’t entirely “belly dance”. One aspect is that belly dancers make the music visible (but that doesn’t mean hitting every accent). This is different from a number of other dance forms – Contemporary is a case in point where our teacher complains if we lock into the music!

But there is more. Easy to spot when it doesn’t work. Hard to describe. To get a feel for how it should look watch lots of (good) native dancers. Watch their performances over and over. Try and follow along to see how they switch between rhythm, melody and lyrics. Because at its roots belly dance is a Middle Eastern dance form. You can adapt and change it – but if it drifts too far from its roots it becomes something else. Not necessarily bad dance or worthless dance – but different dance.