Dondi dances to the band, Middle-Earth:
(L-R) Mike Mesleh, Glenn Goodwin, Robert Rotsler,
Dave Dhillon, Frank, and Anthony Sarain.
Photo by Erika Novak

Gilded Serpent presents...

Tips on Dancing to Live Music

(a Musician’s Perspective)

by Frank Lazzaro

Many dancers find performing to live music intimidating, but with a little preparation, good communication, and a positive attitude, you can make it the most exciting part of your dance performance. Here are a few tips to make this challenging experience thrilling and successful to new and experienced dancers alike:

  1. Be prepared. Familiarize yourself with the music of the musician or band you will be dancing to. Try to obtain a CD of their music, so you will be able to practice to their music, request songs, and make an unrehearsed piece appear free and natural. Knowing the music beforehand will certainly lessen your anxiety.
  2. Check-in. Arrive early at the venue, take a moment to introduce yourself and establish rapport with the bandleader. Make sure the emcee knows your stage name, particularly if it is difficult to pronounce. Let the musicians know if you plan to use props, ie. sword, veil, candles etc. Talk about your song requests and routine, ask any questions, and agree on what is mutually expected between the musicians and the dancer, so there are fewer surprises.
  3. Wait for your cue. Do not enter for your performance until you are announced and the music starts. You would be surprised at how many dancers make this mistake. Many experienced dancers will let the music play for a few bars before entering, as to build the anticipation.
  4. Approach the stage. Upon entering for your routine, approach the stage first. Acknowledge the musicians, and your audience, but do most of your dancing during the first song in front of the stage (or on it, if space allows), rather than straying out to the audience too soon. Establish a visual connection with the band and interact with them, as well as your audience.
  5. Listen to the Music. The most important thing is to listen to and feel the music. Try to relax and let the music dance you. Developing an ear for Middle-Eastern music will come with experience and study. A typical Belly dance routine consists of 3 tunes, usually fast-slow-fast, but this style certainly varies with dancer, band and venue. Realize that as in Middle-Eastern dance, the music may also call for improvisation, and the version played live may differ slightly from the CD version. It is up to the dancer to listen attentively for changes, stops and endings. Again, familiarity with popular Belly dance music will assist you in anticipating these changes. Usually the band will hold the ending for you to spin and pose rather than ending abruptly, setting you up for the final stop.
  6. Communicate with the band. Make fleeting eye contact, and use manual, rather than oral, gestures if you need something. Covert hand gestures can be used if you need the music to speed up, slow down or end (but be patient). If the situation becomes desperate, you can casually dance near the band and tell them briefly what you desire. The band is there to provide beautiful music for you to dance to, and will do what is needed to support you. Your role in turn is to support the music with your interpretation of it, highlighting what you hear in the music for your audience to appreciate visually.
  7. Be flexible. (Both physically and mentally!) Sometimes, for whatever reason, you may not get the song you requested, or the music may not sound just like you expected, so a skillful dancer will be able to adapt and improvise. A true professional makes mistakes look like part of the act!
  8. Don’t fear the drummer. Try to make the drum solo the most exciting part of your routine by connecting with the drummer. Interact with the drummer in a lively give and take. Become familiar with popular drum rhythms and listen for the “Rule of Four”, whereby the drummer will play a recognizable phrase 4 times in succession for the dancers’ benefit. Dance in close proximity, make eye contact, and keep your traveling to a minimum during the drum solo. Avoid accepting tips and dance partners during this time, so you may give the drummer your attention.
  9. Know when to quit. After the drum solo and collecting tips, listen for the imminent ending. The bandleader may try to get your attention, but usually it is obvious when the song will come to an end. Similarly, you may hail the bands attention and “circle for a landing” when your energy has become exhausted and you are ready to end. Once the third song ends, take a bow, and acknowledge the band. Await your brief, lively exit piece, to which you will whisk yourself off stage to a roar of applause. Do not wait for your final exit piece to conclude before you exit, to maintain the musical energy of the performance. Always leave the crowd wanting more!
  10. Smile. Above all, keep a positive attitude and smile. Hopefully, we all do this for the joy of it, so convey that joy to your audience, to your band and to yourself. Like music and dance, that joyful spirit comes from within, and shines for all to see.

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