Improvisation is so vitally important, I'd go so far as to say:
If you can't improvise confidently and fluently to a familiar piece of music, you're not ready to take solo bookings.
There are two reasons. One is a a matter of principle. True bellydance is a solo improvisational dance. If you're still totally reliant on choreography, you haven't mastered one of the most fundamental aspects of your art. If you haven't mastered your art, you're not a professional, and shouldn't be representing yourself as such to the public.
But the other, more important reason is entirely practical: there's a very high probability you'll have to improvise part of your performance at a paid gig.
Performing in a private home or function center is a totally different ball game from dancing on a wide, empty stage. Space is always an issue! I'm always amazed how many sensible function center managers, who would set up a stage for my flamenco performances without needing to be asked, will blithely assume I don't need much room to belly dance – “you just dance around the tables, don't you?”
No matter how much you explain to the client beforehand, you'll turn up at the venue to find there's no central open space where you can give your performance.. Or if they have left a gap somewhere, it's not nearly big enough for you to swing your Assaya stick safely – or there's a huge pillar or buffet table between you and half the audience.
That's where improvisation comes in. If it's too dangerous to perform your Saiidi dance with a stick, you'll have to do it without – and that means changing the choreography on the fly. If your veil is going to land in someone's soup, you'll have to cut out the flicks and do more moves close to your body. And if there's no central stage, you'll look ridiculous if you do your whole performance wedged between two tables – you need to move around, which means turning all your static moves into travelling steps.
I admit, I was absolutely terrified of improv when I started belly dancing. All my training in ballet, jazz and flamenco was about following a syllabus and performing choreography - no personal variations allowed. I'm very grateful to my first teacher, Shemiran: her unique style of teaching, which incorporates improvisation from the very first lesson, made it possible for me to break through that barrier. I'm still nervous improvising to a new style or to unknown music, but if the music is familiar and it's a style I know well, I can now improvise with confidence. I wish more teachers would incorporate improvisation in their syllabus earlier.
Image by Archway Andres