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Gilded Serpent presents...

Taking it to the Next Level
by Piper

Performing is very different from learning to dance. Taking that leap from attending classes to dancing on your own in front of an audience can be scary, so try to think of it as a fun challenge and an opportunity for you to share what you have learned with your friends. Youíve worked hard to learn to dance, so why keep it a secret?

Some people think that performing is a way for egotistical show-offs to get attention. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A true performer entertains her audience, doing her best to make sure everyone is having a good time. What could be more generous than that?

Choosing Your Music
What you like to listen to best and what you dance to best may not be the same. Only practicing to a particular song or orchestral piece in front of a mirror or camera will let you know. Practice in costume! You donít want your jewelry catching your fringe, or your hip belt riding up to your waist when youíre actually on stage.

Can you feel the musical accents, rhythm changes and the end coming before they happen? If you canít, try a simpler piece of music. You donít want to be surprised by the end of a song right when youíre in the middle of a step.

Does the length and tempo of the piece work for you? If you feel that you have to race through your steps to stay in time, you need a slower piece of music. If you are winded by the end of the song, try something shorter. If the music ends and you are just getting warmed up, celebrate! You are ready to try a multi-part solo.

Does the feeling of your music match the tempo? Some music feels quite lively, but the beat is actually slow. If the tempo isnít quick enough for you, try alternating your steps between full time and double time and see if that works. A song like Stingís ďDesert RoseĒ feels slow and lyrical, but the beat is actually quite fast. Can you dance half time to it? If not, try another piece of music.

Think of your setting before you choose your music. In a noisy restaurant, that lyrical flute piece might get lost. In a small living room, your favorite drum piece might be overwhelming.

Find music that your audience can relate to. A five minute amané for your taqsim might work great for Arabs, but Iíve heard Americans describe this as ďI have a toothache music.Ē I love Ofra Haza, but she was Jewish, so I wouldnít use her music to perform for Palestinians. In the end though, if you really love a particular piece of music, your dance will radiate with your inspiration, and audiences will share your joy.

If you want to work with musicians, you need to develop a talent for winging it. Back when I was a baby dancer, doing 5 shows a night, 7 nights a week, all the clubs I worked in had an artistic director, and extensive yearly or even quarterly rehearsals with the band and all the performers were required. Nowadays, no one seems to have time for rehearsals, and you are lucky if you get to request songs, so if you are dancing to live music, you need to learn to improvise!

Rhea (author's mom) boogies to the band at Papa's Taverna on one of her visits to the SF Bay Area. Notice that promo tape is in her hand, ready!

The best way to learn to dance well, is to DANCE, as often as possible. Classes, home practice and troupe rehearsals will improve your technique and transitions, but if you want to learn to freestyle better, put on a favorite piece of music and dance around your living room. When a particular combination of moves feels ďrightĒ, write it down. This is the way to create your own combos. Now vary your posture and add different arm positions or a dip or a hop, and suddenly one combo becomes two. Once you have several combos you like, try mixing and matching various elements from combo to another until each one flows from one step to the next. Then try some step progressions, starting with a simple step and then embellishing it with different arms or layered hipwork. Add these to your combos. In this way, three different combos with three steps each can get a beginner through a whole song! If you keep doing this, using different tempos and rhythms each time, soon you will be able to handle anything a band can play like a pro.

To choreograph, start by just listening to your chosen piece until you know every nuance. Does the music tell you to leap around joyfully, or stay in place, controlled and focused? As you listen, a couple of steps will come to mind. Try them in one order, then reverse them. A good choreography will evolve over time. Donít expect to get it right in one sitting. Preferably, you will perform your choreography for someone with a critical eye who can give you some constructive criticism, then youíll decide what needs to be re-worked, practice, and perform it again. My sister and I have been doing our mom, Rheaís Raks Kahti choreography together for decades; it just keeps getting better!

When making up your own choreography or performing someone elseís, do not try to get fancy. You should only do movements that you do very well when you are on stage! If a particular step is too hard or doesnít work for you, substitute something else. You honor a choreographer more by making her work look good than you do by sticking to her every step if itís one you canít do well.

Transitions are important, too; keep them simple and logical so you can do them smoothly. Remember that performing is more about entertaining your audience and communicating your love of dance to them than it is about doing the latest, most complex dance movements

Practice makes perfect! When performing a group choreography, itís important to practice until you donít have to think about what step comes next, so that you can focus on technique. If you are going to choreograph a solo, you need to go one step further and know your choreography so well that you donít have to think about the steps or the technique. This will leave you free to feel the music and pay attention to your audience.

The Cabaret Routine
The Cabaret (or 5-Part) Routine evolved in the U.S. in the early Ď60s. There are no rigid rules, but generally it goes like this:

  • The dancer begins with a fast, exciting entrance piece.
  • Next comes a slow piece, a bolero or taqsim wahada (slow chiftitelli), for veilwork.
  • In the middle is an up-tempo number, maybe a folkloric piece or a karsilama or a debke to get people clapping. Some dancers use this middle piece for a cane dance, or to get a few people up from the audience to dance with her for a moment or two.
  • Another slow piece is used for floorwork and/or any special showy tricks like snake dancing, balancing a sword or tray, or hand-held candle dancing, or balancing on water glasses.
  • Drum solo plus finale. If the dancer goes out for tips, she will usually do so just before or after the drum solo.

If you are dancing to CDs, you can choose a single multi-part composition written for dancers, such as Aziza or Set al Hosín, or you can put together your own favorite songs into a 5-part routine. Make sure to leave a bit of silence between songs for the audience to clap, but donít leave too much! Ten seconds of silence can feel like a painful eternity when a room full of people are looking at you.

I recommend planning your performance rather than choreographing it.

author's son, Connor
Once youíve chosen your music, learn it by heart, paying special attention to the transitions so that none of them will sneak up on you when you are on stage. Find all the breaks, listen to the instrumental changes, and think about what moves you can do for those parts. Plan your entrance and finale. Choose a few step combos that will work with each piece in your routine so you wonít draw a blank on stage, but donít lock yourself into a long complicated series of steps to remember. The audience may only be on one side of the performance space or all around it, and the stage may be bigger or smaller or more slippery than you expected; you need flexibility!

Finally, if you mess up or forget your choreography, keep smiling! Only you know what you planned to do. This isnít the Olympics and no one is going to give you a score. If you relax and have fun, your audience will too.

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