Choreography and improvisation are both important parts of bellydance, but whenever I hear the two talked about the discussion is always framed as choreography versus improvisation, as if you had to choose one team or the other. I might add that I see this done most frequently by dancers who favour improvisation, who snobbishly dismiss choreography as something only done by amateurs who don’t know any better. “Real” dancers only ever improvise!
Well, I’m going to stick up for choreography. I love choreography!
I like learning choreography from other teachers. I like seeing how someone else puts movements together and how they make those transitions. I like learning how someone else hears a particular piece of music, the nuances, accents and melodic lines that speak to them when they listen. It helps me think about music in a new way. I like to hear other people’s ideas about stage dynamics and how they think about their audience as they dance and choreograph. I even like the challenge of learning a complete choreography in 3 hours, it means I have to use my mind as much as my body and now that most teachers allow time to video at the end of a workshop it means I have a complete record of what I did. Not necessarily because I want to replicate that choreography myself, but so I can analyse it at my leisure and take away the aspects that I like.
I like to teach choreography for all those reasons as well. It gives me a chance to explain about how to transition between different moves and to talk about how you can interpret a piece of music. I’m certainly not the only person in the world who gets a sense of achievement from learning a complete choreography and many of my students enjoy going on to perform what they’ve learned at haflas.
I like writing choreography. When writing for students I have to think about what technique they know already and what I will be teaching them and structure the choreography accordingly. This means I have to think about how I am interpreting the music and not just go for my default moves or combinations, which keeps me on my toes! When writing for myself I can challenge myself with footwork, weight changes and complex layering and really immerse myself in the music.
I have nothing against improvisation. In fact I love improvisation too! From social dancing at a hafla to performing with a live band, all dancers need improvisational skills. Speaking for myself, a lot of the ideas I come up with when improvising originate in choreographies. I don’t magic stuff out of the air. I’m not necessarily thinking “that combination from [choreography] would work nicely here”, but my body remembers something that I’ve spent hours practicing and the combination just comes out. I am confident that I have the ability to leave my choreography behind if I need to.
It doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to choreography and improvisation. A lot of people probably favour one over the other, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who prefers the other is bad or wrong or not a proper dancer. Good dancing is good dancing whether it is planned or spontaneous.