How to Improvise Belly Dance
Recently I signed up for a course on improvisation, and was told to "feel the music and let it tell you how to move"! Gee, thanks. That advice doesn't begin to address why I find improvisation hard - and I suspect the same goes for many other dancers, too.
Even that most spiritual belly dancer Shemiran Ibrahim says:
Even improvisation needs structure for it to feel good to the dancer, and look good to the viewer.
... so simply disengaging your brain isn't going to work! (read the rest of her article here).
Of course, if your difficulty is because you've become overly-focussed on technique and have lost connection with the music, then there could be some value in meditatively feeling the music -- but it's not going to solve the fundamental problem.
I agree with Anthea Kawakib, who has several tips in her article on how to get started with improv. As she says:
Improvisation is a subject in itself, one that can be taught in class–it doesn’t just automatically spring forth from the artistic depths of the soul
Nadira Jamal expresses it neatly when she says:
Your movement vocabulary is like a big tote bag: the more you put in it, the more time you spend digging around for your keys!
That's exactly how I feel. When I first started belly dance, I could bop around the floor happily, doing the few steps I knew: now I have a much wider repertoire, I'm faced with too many choices when I try to improvise, and it's overwhelming.
Nadira offers a DVD on structure in improv (it's Volume 2 of her "toolkit" series) and I must say, I'm tempted to buy it. She takes her tote bag analogy further - she says that her course basically teaches you to organise that tote bag:
You put the items (primary moves) you use most often in the easy-to-reach outside pocket, so you don't even have to think about where they are...You put the rest of your belongings (other moves) into the other compartments of your purse. Even though they aren't in that handy outside pocket, you can still find them quickly, because you know exactly where to look.
That makes total sense to me, and is exactly the kind of help I (and probably many others) need.
I can see why some teachers go for the "feeling" option -- because if all you're doing is dancing round the lounge room, or doing a quick improv in class, that's enough. But there's a big difference between that and creating a real, satisfying dance experience for both you and your audience (if there is one).
For those not ready to invest in a course, Shira offers a couple of tips in this article: http://shira.net/technique/improvising.htm
Basically, she offers two strategies - "Now What" moves and "Required" moves. "Now Whats" are steps that you fall back on when you're stuck for ideas: "Requireds" are moves that you must include - you start with two and gradually build up. Worth a try!
Let's not forget how important improvisation is! After all, belly dance was originally an improvised art form - choreography came later. Here's some inspiration from the great Egyptian belly dancer Suheir Zaki, who was famous for never using choreography: