Know your music

When you’ve been bellydancing for a few years you probably start to think about choreographing your own dances. Finding your own style is an important part of a dancer’s development, and creating a choreography can be a really good way to explore your ideas about musical interpretation. You’ll have some ideas already from learning other people’s choreographies, and hopefully at some point someone has told you the importance of knowing what your music is about. You don’t want to bounce around with a big grin on your face when the singer is heartbroken, or dance to a religious song (yes people have really done this, and there are videos on Youtube to prove it!). But how far do you take this process?

With a pop song you’re probably OK if you can just get the general gist of the song. Pop music isn’t very complicated, either you’re in love and everything is wonderful, or your heart is broken and you can’t carry on. You need to take care with shaabi, it might just be a nice song about going for a ride in a hantour but there could be a double meaning you should be aware of. It could be about politics or drugs or bird flu… I recommend reading what Candi has to say.

In this post I’m going to talk about the classic songs in the Egyptian dancer’s repertoire and use Ana Fi Intizarak (Oum Kalthoum)* as an example. These songs are just beautiful. Like pop songs, they tend to be about love and heartbreak, but in a more complicated way. Love is never simple, to love is to suffer! This emotional complexity is what makes dancing to these songs so challenging and so rewarding. Also, if your audience is Arabic there’s a good chance they’ll know all the words and can sing along!

Here’s Fifi Abdo dancing to it.

When I’ve chosen a song to dance to the first thing I do is find out what the words are. Ideally I want a transliteration of the Arabic along with an English translation. I’ve written before about choosing music and you’ll find sites with collections of translations at that link. Luna (Kisses from Kairo in the bar to the left) offers a translation service with a very good reputation. Sorry, I can’t help with translations from Arabic to other languages. For Ana Fi Intizarak Shira has not one, but two translations! Direct translations can sometimes sound a bit clunky and awkward so with two (or more) examples I can compare how different people have translated different expressions. For example, I’ve found one line translated as:
“With each little letter I count your conversations with me”
“I consider the whisper your language”
“Each whisper counts your words”
“I hear your voice in any whisper”

It will really help if you can learn some Arabic. Look out for workshops aimed at dancers which will teach you some of the common words in songs – I’ve been to good workshops with Kay Taylor, Yasmina and Sara Farouk. If you have more time go to an evening course or try learning from CD. Knowing a few words will provide some anchor points in the translation for you.

If I’ve chosen an instrumental version of a song my next step is to find a vocal version so I can establish what the words would be if they were there. Even if you’ve chosen a version with a singer I think there is still a lot to be gained by hunting down the original version. You’ll find a lot of recordings uploaded to Youtube, occasionally there is a video to go with them but more often not. Here is 35 minutes of Ana Fintizarak:

I settle myself down with the instrumental version, the vocal version, the translations and my notebook and get to work!

If you’ve got this far no doubt some of you are thinking that this sounds like an awful lot of work, it’s far too analytical and isn’t it better to just dance to what you feel? Actually, I find that going through this process, which requires a lot of detailed listening, makes me appreciate the music on a much deeper level. I hear nuances in the instrumentation that I may have missed when I first listened. Comparing the different translations really makes me think about how to interpret the words and how I feel. There’s no one correct way to feel about a song. Oum Kalsoum sounds like she is in utter despair, but Fifi looks like she is in the early start of a relationship where you can’t bear to be apart so while she is suffering she is enjoying every moment…

For the readers who are thinking “Well, I know and do all this already”, good for you! However, I never had anyone sit down and explain all this to me and I guess I’m not the only one, so I thought it might help a few others. For you I offer one more link I found when researching Ana Fi Intizarak. It’s a detailed analysis of an 18 minute improvisation by Oum Kalthoum around 4 lines of the song and I found it very interesting.

Now geek out!

*Oum, Om, Um, Kalthoum, Kalthum, Kalsoum, Kalsum and probably no end of other potential spellings. Ana Fi Intizarak, Ana Fintizarak, Ana Fi Entezarak, etc. etc.

Call of Arabia

Oh how I envy dancers who work with a band all the time!

Tomorrow night (Saturday 29th October) I’m taking part in “The Call of Arabia”, a new show being produced by The Arab Quarter go buy a ticket if you haven’t already 🙂

On Wednesday I had rehearsals with the band, along with Melanie Norman and Anne White. It was just great being able to work with Hassan (tabla, vocals) and George (keyboards), deciding which parts of each song to do, which bits should be longer or shorter, how the introduction should sound, what rhythms to use…in short, to totally customise the song. Rather tricky to get such a good result from a CD without access to an editing suite and a sound engineer. When Emile (violin) and Bashir (ney) arrived the sound just filled the studio, it was glorious. I will do my best to make my dancing live up to their music 🙂 I’m really looking forward to tomorrow night.

Choosing your music

This post inspired by a suggestion from Jitka. Sorry it took me so long to write it 🙂

Some of the first questions students ask – after “How do you shimmy?” – are about music. What to get and where to get it. Arabic music is so easy to find now. Most of my music has come from Aladdin’s Cave , who always have a wide selection and great customer service, but in the past few years more and more has become available to download through sites like iTunes, emusic and Amazon. If you want to listen to a whole song, rather than the snippets available on those sites, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone dancing to it on YouTube. Bellydance downloads can help you find particular tracks.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive in this post because I think discovering music for yourself is such an enjoyable experience I would hate it to be spoiled with a box ticking mentality. I just want to point you in a direction and let you explore. Everything I write here is just a suggestion 🙂 how much you do is up to you.

With so much choice out there it can be hard to know what to start with. If you’re a beginner, or new to Arabic music, then pop music can be a good way to start training your ear. The rhythms and the structures of pop songs are pretty simple, so all you’ve contend with are some unfamiliar instruments and a language that you probably don’t understand. If you’re feeling very keen you can always look up the lyrics, there are websites out there dedicated to song translations:

Look out for album series like “Now Dance Arabia….” and “Now That’s What I Call Arabia…”. I have a double CD set which is quite out of date now 🙂 but I still like it called “Arabia: The Essential Album”. Find an artist you like, search for more of their songs…

When you’re ready to start moving beyond pop music try looking for compilations. One of my favourites is Bellydance Superstars Volume 1, it has a really varied selection of styles. None of the other albums in the series have had such a good selection, in my opinion. The only downside is that this one was so popular that a lot of the songs have been done to death – please let me never have to hear “Chicky” again! Another album I like is “10 Songs Every Bellydancer Should Know”, which is a good introduction to some of the classics. The “Oriental Fantasy” series is not so widely available now, but you can download them . Find a song you like, find out what it is about, look for videos of dancers using it, find out the composer and who originally sang it…

If you’re looking for music with performance in mind, check out the albums produced by dancers who have worked in Cairo. Yasmina, Leila, Outi, Samasem, Nesma…dancer-friendly versions of lots of classic songs. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning music piracy up until now, because it’s something that everyone knows is bad but does anyway. I’m mentioning it now because producing these CDs is often a labour of love for the dancers, so please try and get yourself an original copy.

Ask questions! When you’re in class or a workshop and you hear something you like – ask what it is. If you have a song you like but you’re not sure what the style is or how to dance to it – ask your teacher. We like questions. Get on the internet and start searching. If you want a checklist of composers and singers then Candi’s website is a fantastic starting point I often refer to it especially when I’m looking for different versions of a particular song or some background information.

Music is essential for bellydance. It can be difficult at first if you’re not familiar with Arabic music – new rhythms, new instruments, a language you may not understand – so I can understand why people seek refuge in the familiar and end up dancing to western music or Shakira. I think it’s such a shame to limit yourself in this way, more so if you are telling yourself that you are in some way being edgy by doing so. What is transgressive about dancing to the music that has surrounded you all your life? Learning about a whole new genre of music is a challenge but if you want to call yourself a bellydancer it’s one you must embrace. Listen and listen and listen some more and you will soon find you lose yourself in the ethereal beauty of a ney taqasim, or luxuriate in accordion balady, or with a lump in your throat listening to Oum Kalsoum.

You can even learn to love the mizmar. Really.


Emma’s Soapbox: “Why Yes, I Am a Professional Bellydancer”

Last week the following video went round the online bellydance community.

It made me laugh, in a hollow, sad sort of way. I decided to write about it.

   In this post I will consider the following question: what SHOULD a professional bellydancer be? I am addressing anyone who considers themselves to have reached a point in their dance career where they can represent bellydance in public outside of a hafla setting[1], whether through performance or teaching. Student dancers, relax, I’m not talking about you :). These are the standards I hold myself to. I am not claiming to be perfect and I have not always managed to fulfil all of these in the past, but when I fail to meet these standards I do my best to make sure I learn from that and do better next time.

   So what makes a professional bellydancer?

Getting paid to dance
   Well, yes, this is the most basic definition of a professional but actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. To quote my friend Kitty Kohl : “Somebody can behave professionally and still be a student, and they can be earning money as a teacher and a dancer and be totally not professional in any way.” Sometimes a professional will choose to waive their fee, for example, in support of a charity, but even without money changing hands they still give a professional standard performance. Discussions about money and professionalism are often derailed by arguments over what proportion of your income comes from dance, which is simply not relevant. In situations where you would reasonably expect an entertainer to be paid (birthday party, restaurant, wedding…) you should be paid, even if you only do one gig in a year.
   There’s more to it than that. You should be getting paid a fair price, and if you’re not sure what that is you should ask. Hint: don’t ask a restaurant owner :). You shouldn’t be undercutting the other dancers in your area and if you don’t understand why then you are not ready to be a professional dancer. If you think the standard of your dancing means you should be paid less than the average (“50% less than any other dancer!”) you are certainly not ready to be a professional dancer.

Technical standard
   I wish it went without saying, but you must be able to bellydance well. I could write a whole other essay on what it means to “bellydance well” but for now I will stick to “execute isolated movements clearly and gracefully with good posture and demonstrable knowledge of stagecraft”. I’ve been involved in bellydance for over 12 years and have seen the overall standard of dance in the UK rise but still I come across videos that make me shake my head in sadness when I see that the dancer claims to be a professional or worse, teaches other people. And don’t come to me and say “But I only teach beginners!” because you will unleash a rant which makes this polemic sound like The Little Book of Calm!
   A professional dancer should also have the necessary background knowledge for whatever she is performing. Know the style of music, the style of dance that goes with it, what the words mean etc. You can’t assume that your audience is totally ignorant. Maybe I am there in the back row, judging you 🙂 If you are a fusion dancer, know what you’re fusing. Do you really feel “boxed in by styles” or are you just not prepared to put in the effort of learning about them? Believe me, it will show in your performance.

Professional development
   There is no standing still in dance. As soon as you stop trying to push your dancing forward you start going backwards. The opportunities for professional development have simply exploded in the time I have been involved in the bellydance world. You don’t need to travel abroad to train with world-renowned dancers, but if you do want to there are plenty of people to help make that happen for you. Artists from Egypt, the US and Europe regularly visit the UK for festivals and intensive training weekends and of course we have some superb home grown teachers. There is a mind-boggling array of DVDs available on every subject related to bellydance, no matter how tangentially. And of course there is YouTube which is an amazing resource for different styles, dancers and settings if you can navigate your way through the dross. I will note here that “free classes on YouTube” are worth exactly what you pay for them. There is absolutely no excuse for stopping your dance education, and why would you want to? Learning is awesome!
   If you are also a teacher then professional development also covers teacher training and health and safety. There are quite a few bellydance teacher training courses available although it looks like JWAAD is going to dominate the field for some time (disclaimer, I am JWAAD trained). There are also more general courses for teaching exercise to music such as that offered by the YMCA. You should seriously consider having a first aid qualification and some venues will require you to have one. Before you all email with me with the names of perfectly good teachers with no qualifications don’t bother. I KNOW THAT [EGYPTIAN TEACHER] HAS NO CERTIFICATE. I think that anyone starting out on their teaching careers NOW should undergo training.

   Oh boy, this one is a mine field. I think bellydance is more inclusive then most other dance forms when it comes to appearance. A wider range of body shapes and ages are acceptable to most audiences. For example, I would never have made it as a ballet dancer and even if I had I would have retired by now! However, we still have to dance in a society with certain expectations of what a bellydancer should look like and whilst I think many of them are ridiculous that is not what I want to write about today. How much each individual performer chooses to fulfil these expectations is their own business.
   I am more interested in the cosmetic aspect of appearance. You should be well groomed, by which I mean clean (!), with suitable hair and makeup and a good costume. Good costume – now there’s a potentially loaded term. A good costume is well made, fits you and flatters your shape. It doesn’t reveal anything you don’t want revealing (I think we can all agree that bellydance should be family friendly). It’s appropriate for the style of dance you’re performing, the venue and the time of day.
   Your costume doesn’t need to be a $1300 designer creation. It does need to be a costume i.e. “a bra from Target” with a few sequins stuck on it will not do. I cannot say this often enough, but a costume bra is very different to a lingerie bra. You can use your bra from Primark (I guess that’s equivalent to Target) as a base for your costume but it needs more work than ten minutes with a hot glue gun. Hint: if the original straps are visible it will always look like you are dancing around in your underwear. I wish I could forget the dancer I saw performing (in a professional setting) in white leggings, a coin belt that shed as she danced, and an undecorated bra from New Look. How do I know it was from New Look? Because I saw the exact same one there the day afterwards. Her costume was a perfect reflection of her dance ability. I had to be led away quietly for a strong drink.
   Student dancers, please don’t be worried. If you are performing at haflas a simple long skirt and coin belt with a nice top is just fine as long as it satisfies the principles in that second paragraph. Just be aware that if you want to step outside the hafla setting you are going to need to invest money and/or time on your costuming.

Business skills
   If you are earning money from dancing at some point you need to be registered for tax purposes, and that means keeping records and accounts. You also need to think about public liability insurance (you’d be extremely foolish to start teaching dance without it), music licensing, advertising, creating and maintaining a website…in short, pretty much everything a small business start up has to consider. You have to be able to deal with clients and customers in a professional manner. Can you accept a compliment? Can you handle a complaint? Can you deal with competition from other dancers, ideally without creating a rift that splits your community in two? This brings me onto…

Supporting the dance community
   You can support the dance community in two ways: by playing nice and by not being an idiot. In other words, by taking positive actions and by avoiding engaging in negative behaviour (but I prefer the glib version!). So: playing nice. This includes everything discussed so far in order to be a good role model for the up and coming dancers in your community. It is also attending classes, workshops, haflas and festivals and encouraging other dancers or your students (if you teach) to do the same. You could go further and organise an event for your dance community. It is also important to show your support as an audience member, if you swan off as soon as your performance is over, or spend all your time hiding out in the dressing room, or sit scowling through every performance other than your friend’s (and I’ve seen all of these!) it will reflect badly on you.
   Alas, without infinite time and money it is impossible to show positive support to everyone. You can still support the community in other ways. Not undercutting is a big one. Not allowing your personal feelings towards other professionals to interfere with your participation – we’ve got a small sandbox to play in which is why we have to play nice. Not scheduling your events to clash with someone else’s. Not representing bellydance in an inappropriate or sleazy way. I could go on but I think you get the idea.

   I believe all of the above points are the absolute minimum necessary to make a professional bellydancer. The relevance of each is down to the individual – maybe your website is not as important to you as your training, for example – but no one point is sufficient. No, not even the one about being paid. The obvious next question to ask is “What makes a GOOD professional bellydancer?” and there’s a lot more scope for argument there!

[1] I make this distinction for the following reason. The definition of a hafla varies between regions but it is always an event put on by the bellydance community for the bellydance community, rather then the general public. A hafla is in no way inferior to any other performance setting.


In Egypt the norm is for dancers to perform to live music. Their orchestras can range from the equivalent of a fancy surround sound speaker system to a battered old CD player that skips if you look at it the wrong way, but the music is still live. In the UK CDs are the norm. Some parts of the country are lucky enough to have thriving communities of Arabic musicians, such as the Nile Band in Manchester, so dancers there have the opportunity to enjoy social dancing and performance with live music.

Cambridge is not one of those areas! If anyone knows differently I’d love to hear from you… *dreams of own orchestra*…back to reality. I’ve been bringing artists to Cambridge for the past three years to share the joy and magic of dancing with a band, we’ve had Brothers of the Baladi here twice and I’ve just arranged for the Arab Quarter to make a return visit (put 26th March in your diary now and check back in the New Year for tickets!). Last week I went to Caroline’s hafla in Huntingdon where Sheikh Taha, Tim Garside and Dave Murray entertained us with their music. As part of the show a few dancers performed (improvised!) with them and I was delighted to be one of them. With that musical line up there was no way I was doing anything other than some lovely, lovely baladi, so I asked for “Aminti Billah”.  There’s just nothing like dancing to live music, the excitement of not knowing quite what will happen and where the music will take you, the fact that the musicians respond to your dancing so your performance becomes a true collaboration, the wonderful moments when you’re all perfectly in synch in mind and body. Of course it’s different again if you’re a dancer in Egypt and can sack your band if they play a wrong note!