In Defence of Choreography

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.

Comedy and Bellydance

Not comedy bellydance, sorry.

Stewart Lee on whether comedy is art in an interview with Marc Maron, 11/8/10

“SL: A lot of money is spent in publically funded theatre workshops where highly educated theatre practitioners sit around working out how to engage directly with ordinary people in an audience, how to break the fourth wall, how to take theatre into unusual spaces, and all those things are things that the worst hack comic does every night. He has to walk into a room and recalibrate everything around the space, who’s there, what time of night it is. He has to make in the moment choices that people in theatre win awards for doing, if they do it the slightest bit people go ‘It was amazing, he turned slightly to the left instead of walking straight forward because something had happened in the room’.

MM: It was an improvisational choice in the moment, what a genius

SL: A comic is making improvisational choices from the moment they enter the room. They know, they go ‘You can’t do…that’s not going to work here, they won’t be able to see me there, the bar’s open, the last place you did it was closed’ every single thing is different.”

Bellydancers, does this sound familiar?

Every performance is different for us. We make improvisational choices every single time we perform.

When you perform at a restaurant or party there is no fourth wall to break, you are engaging directly with “ordinary people” from the second you appear. Families, couples, birthday parties, work parties, hen nights, rugby clubs…..all react differently to a bellydancer and want to engage in different ways. Or don’t want to engage at all and stare firmly at their dinner as you shimmy past! Sometimes they are happy to get up and be part of your show, sometimes they want to take it over (I like to have a little sit down at that point and let them have their moment!). The presence or absence of alcohol has a big effect on the average British audience when faced with a dancer. Personally I love audience interaction, as a dancer and as an “ordinary person” but it can be a frightening thing for a performer to attempt. Of all performers I think only comedians come close to the level of audience interaction that bellydancers have, and so far Stewart Lee is the only one I’ve seen actually leave the stage and join them (although I believe a lot of the young comedians are doing it now) like, say, Khaled does. Now there’s a comparison 🙂

Performing in unusual spaces…I bet we’ve all got stories to tell about that! I’ve had audiences on one side of the stage, two sides at a right angle, two opposite sides (had they all had a fight before I arrived?), three sides and in the round. Unexpected pillars, waiters and children. In a theatre, in a church, in a club, in a school, in a field. Very rarely do you know what the space will be like beforehand. If you’ve danced there before it may be different this time, even in your regular restaurant maybe the tables are set up differently, maybe there is a big table rather than four small tables, maybe tables have taken over your performance space! My students and I danced at a big event this summer which has become an annual gig for us. We carefully planned our entrances and exits based on the stage set up that has been used for the past two years only to find that this year it had been changed. Fortunately we are used to adapting to circumstances quickly and everything went smoothly.

All that’s before you consider whether you’re dancing to CD or have the unpredictability of a live band…

So bellydance and stand up have more in common than you might think, right down to the question of “but is it art?”, and I think that is very revealing. Bellydance and stand up are both entertaining, and I think there is a perception that something cannot be both art and entertainment. Art is good for you, but you’re not supposed to enjoy it. Like sprouts :). Why can’t we concede that being entertaining IS an art?