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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 9
Can't We All Get Along?
Dancers and Musicians
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column.
This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

Dancing to live music is a treat that some of you experience often and many of you havenít experienced at all.† The scarcity of musicians and the unwillingness of many party givers to pay for musicians as well as dancers probably will continue to make dancing to live music a rare happening.† Hopefully the popularity and frequency of large bellydance seminars and conventions will bring this special experience within your reach more each year.† Iíd like to comment on the ways in which dancers and musicians can work together effectively.† Iím assuming that most of you are dancers and therefore am not going to make many suggestions for musicians to consider.† (I look forward to the day when Iím speaking to an audience of musicians who wish to work better with dancers!)

First, you donít have to be afraid of working with live music.†

The excitement generated from such an experience will far outweigh the uncertainty you might feel because you cannot predict exactly whatís going to happen.

A Greek duo on Bazooki and trap drums, at the Minerva in SF,CA

In fact, itís that very unpredictability and spontaneity that makes live music so exciting.† Before going further with my positive remarks, Iíd like to say that you have to be realistic in assessing the possibilities of working cooperatively with musicians.† If your musicians simply play terribly out of tune, and add or take away beats from the rhythm, you canít do much except ask for a simple routine, and be imaginative in your dancing to cover up the bad sound.† (Sad to say, but dancing to tapes would be better than dancing to bad live music.)† If your musicians play well but are extremely arrogant, giving off clear messages about their inapproachability, there isnít much you can do to make the performance a shared experience.† In that case, you probably should try to be as outwardly pleasant as possible to run less of a risk that the musicians will deliberately try to trip you up with the music.

Many musicians do recognize the importance of working together cooperatively with dancers.† They are wise enough to know that if they play in a way that makes the dancer look good, they will sound better to the audience.† When working with such musicians, donít be nonchalant about your music, telling them that you donít care what they play because you ďcan dance to anything.Ē†

Theyíll assume that you donít appreciate good music and probably wonít put their heart into their playing.†

The band at Tropigala in SF, including Georges Lammam on violin, Fouad on Kanuun and Amina at the mike
On the other hand, if you spell out your musical requests with such detail that there is little room for creativity or choice on the part of the musicians, you might get exactly what you asked for Ė but played without spirit.† For best results, try something like the following: let the musicians know how long your dance is supposed to be and the order of rhythms and tempos you want.† If you have a favorite song or two, mention them.† You might have a favorite instrument for floor taqsim Ė request that.† Ask the musicians to pick songs for the rhythms you requested.† (Unless youíre very learned in Middle Eastern music, you might line up songs that are in melodic modes that do not follow each other well.)† So that you can dance and play cymbals effectively, itís very important that you have each section at the right tempo, so be sure to make those needs known to the musicians.

So far Iíve been talking about how to cooperate with musicians before the performance by selecting the music together.† Now Iíd like to take about the performance itself.†

Of course, you do have to work out ahead of time what cues youíll give to indicate your desire to shift rhythms.†

A performance at the Mendocino Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp. Photo by David Ludwig

Be sure that you decide on very clear cues, like: ďWhen I drop to the floor, begin the nay taqsim,Ē or ďWhen I get up, begin speeding up and shift to baladi soon.Ē† When you give your cue for making a change and the musicians are in the middle of a song, donít ask that they change abruptly Ė but rather continue with what you are doing and expect that they will make the shift at the nearest possible time without butchering the music.†

If you respect the beauty of melodies and the continuity of music in this way, then the musicians will most likely respect your dancing more and give you their best. †

Dance for the musicians as well as for your audience.† Show your pleasure with the music and let go and dance full of feeling.

Many personal experiences have shown me how good music can transform a mediocre dancer into an exciting artist Ė and how an inspired dancer can bring forth new heights in musical creativity from musicians who might ordinarily play as though they are bored to death.† When a performance is really tops, the dancer, the music, and the musicians blend into one magnificent whole, bringing the audience along to join in that unity.

Ling Shein & Mark Bell play for a troupe
I am painting a glorious picture because I have experienced it that way and wish that experience for all of you.† But Iím also aware of the attitudinal blocks that can disrupt such cooperation between dancers and musicians.†

  Some musicians feel that music always is on a higher spiritual plane than dancing.† Others are very resentful of dancers getting all of the praise for their performances while the musicians just stay unrecognized in the background.†

Many dancers donít know enough about Middle Eastern music to appreciate the skills displayed by the musicians, so they take for granted much virtuosity.† Some dancers feel very intimidated by musicians.† Others feel that all musicians are hopelessly caught up with ego problems.† Since most dancers are women and most musicians are men, general attitudes that men and women have about each other also get in the way.† Knowing both the musiciansí world and the dancersí world, I appreciate the beauty and value of both.† I hope you will join me in trying to bring those worlds closer together.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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