The Gilded Serpent presents...

Music to My Ears

How I Learned to Hear Like a Dancer

by Najia Marlyz


You gotta go where you wanna go
Do what you wanna do
With whoever you wanna do it with

You gotta go where you wanna go
Do what you wanna do
With whoever you wanna do it with…

If you were around in the late ‘60s, you probably remember that song from the Mamas and the Papas. When I began to think about writing my next column, the tune popped into my mind with new lyrics that said:

Hear what you wanna hear,
See what you wanna see,
Dance what you wanna dance,
With whoever etc….

I took it as a message from my inner core that what I wanted to write about this time was the human tendency to transform and interpret—and not just lyrics of a song. Whatever someone has said to you as a dancer in commentary or critique is also subject to the same interpretation or also, misinterpretation. Dancers can, and do, hear music with a selective point of view that depends on their mood of the moment and their ability as dancers to interpret music through movements and choreography. However, musical interpretation is where the true skill and artistry of dancing actually resides.

Musical interpretation is the single, most important skill that can elevate the Oriental dancer from the chorus line to the spotlight.

Oh, how I enjoyed the decades of the 1960s and the 1970s as well as the other songs of the Mamas and the Papas! It was a free and exciting time in which we young people were busy with our personal quests into sexuality and embryonic feminist issues. (Please excuse the pun, I could not resist.) That era led me to explore archaic crafts and other artistic, if anachronistic, skills. One of them was “Belly dancing”.

However, nobody ever comes to belly dancing lessons as a blank slate, and I was no exception.

Amazingly, many of the things we are taught early in life end up becoming useful in later years in very unexpected ways. When I was a small child during the war, (No, not the war in Viet Nam, Silly! It was WWII, the war to end all wars…) we grade school children were attending public school only half a day in order to utilize in double sessions the school facilities near the airbases. Yet, I vividly recall being taught beginning and rudimentary music reading by the use of orange felt patches placed upon green felt-boards in ascending and descending melodic fashion as we little patriots sang the tones, higher and lower as indicated by our teacher, Mrs. Cop. Mrs. Cop was a doozey of a teacher who punished all wrong doers by placing them, for various periods of time, inside her own personal coat closet, which was intimidating and pitch dark inside. Rather than having to face this stultifying terror, you can bet that, at four years of age, I did my level best to “be a good girl” and to follow her orange felt patches up and down—exactly! That was my first brush with the idea that the sounds within music rose and fell and that they could be followed with the voice or the body in dance.

Just when I thought I had the world by the tail, the war ended, and my family moved to a house further away from the airbase, where the students had been attending school regularly for a full day every weekday. Almost overnight, I learned that I knew next to nothing about every subject I had studied until then in my half-day school with the exception of “Art” and the rise and fall of tunes. When my mom was not working at the airbase like Rosie the Riveter, she had spent a great deal of time with me at our country home, doing arts and crafts of all sorts, even while canning fruits and vegetables and raising chickens so that we could sell our neighbors the eggs which were not available in grocery stores. Dance was not among our wartime priorities, and my tap dancing class had to be ended because we could not spare our gas rationing stamps for that activity, but I learned from Mom the essentials about visual and graphic arts such as utilizing color, line, texture, stroke, and other basics of composition that I could relate to dancing later in my life.

When I arrived at my new school, the Principal brought me to Mrs. Dinelli’s third grade class, where the children were doing the most odd tapping ritual upon the surface of their ink-stained wooden desks. I sat there like an ignoramus, puzzled by my new teacher’s explanation that “We are on page twenty three of the music book, ‘On Top of Old Smoky’. Well now, I knew what that was; it was a song! However, these strange children were not singing; instead, they were tapping upon the edge of their desks as if each desk were a piano with only two keys! Within a few weeks however, Mrs. Dinelli had taught me how to read the meter of the music from the music book and tap it out upon my desk with the other children. I learned about rests, bars, and “doe, re, me”…

More importantly, Mrs. Dinelli also had us listening to what she termed “real music” on her ancient wire recorder (personal tape recorders didn’t exist at that time or maybe had not yet been invented very long before). She also used a peculiar (old even for the ‘40s) four legged, 78 r.p.m. machine with its black sound horn mounted inside the top, for playing brittle, scratchy phonograph records. She made sure that we could distinguish one part of the musical arrangement from the other and could recognize and identify each of the main musical instruments. Little did she realize that she was creating the future Oriental/Belly dancer I became decades later. She did not deem it unworthy of my seven year old brain to “hear the conversations” in the music, and I certainly adored hearing them! She told my mom that I had a “good ear”, and so my mother, ever hopeful and proud of me, sent me to a strange smelling, gray haired and old agoraphobic woman named Miss Ida who taught piano lessons to children in her home.

My piano teacher taught me to read the music, and how to write it on staffs also, by the repetition of seemingly endless, boring written exercises utilizing time signatures and keys, as well as musical symbols such sharps and flats. I hated all the drills. I was a miserable piano player, but I would have to credit all of those instructors (especially Miss Ida) with making me able to understand how music is constructed, so that later in life, as I explored my sensual talents through “Belly dancing” and other pleasures, I was able to extemporize and create a dance composition that expressed the essence of the music.

There was another instructor who became important to my dance. He taught a course titled “Music for Grade School Teachers” at the University of Washington in Seattle where I learned that Mrs. Cop, Mrs. Dinelli, and Miss Ida The Piano Teacher were all on the same wave length but had arrived at it by different means. Each had given me a piece of the puzzle. With the conglomerate information, I was able to hear “happenings” in the music. I can see for a fact that most dancers do not hear music they way I do, or they would not choreograph they way they do. It is evident that they cannot hear the dialog that I hear in the music, and they do not see the movies that I create from it behind my eyes. The university teacher who gave me the unusual gift of musical analysis was a young man just beginning his teaching career, and though he died tragically a few years later in a plane crash in the Cascade Mountains, I feel that I honor him during all these years, as I teach dancing. I work to bring my students to the ability to hear and respond to what he called “its musical speech”, to supply movement to his fillers, tremolos, enablers, repetitions, enhancements, transitions, embellishments, theme identifications, and differences in arrangements. For me, it was his invaluable legacy.

As crucial as all of these instructors were, still, a dancer needs to learn from an “un-credentialed teacher” who is knowledgeable about music in another way and about the ways in which it is manipulated (after and during the master recording session)—the sound technician. Routinely, music is engineered or mixed in such a way that the vocals may be enhanced, the percussion may be beefed up, the typical quartertones of Middle Eastern music may have been removed, and other electronic changes are often made upon the recording. It is important to the dancer that that manipulation needs to be recognized for what it is—the mix.

Many a dancer has discovered the hard way that one cannot hear a certain arrangement on a recording and simply request that the tune be played identically by a different set of musicians. The results may not remotely resemble the same tune.

There have been times when a dancer reports to me that the musicians who played for her were “no (expletives deleted) good”.

Actually, the dancer might be correct, but more often than not, it is her expectations for arrangement peculiarities and/or specific instrumentation that have not been fulfilled. She may have become choreographically dependant upon the exquisite little tinkle of a triangle chime in the music. She may have responded to the quivery shimmer of a kanoon that were replaced by a keyboard or an accordion. Her choreographic signposts may have been missing altogether in this live arrangement that was so disappointing to her. Or, the musicians may not have been very accomplished, but were giving it their best shot.

I vividly recall dancing to one band after having requested some favorite Arabic song.
“What happened to ‘Kariat El Finjan’?” I asked the drummer breathlessly after my set.

Quizzically, he answered rolling his eyes, “Well, we played it!” How embarrassed I was!

I also recall once hiring my ex-brother-in-law, an outstanding oud player, singer, and music instructor, to play for a special gig with me as the dancer. I just couldn’t seem to make much sense of his music that night and felt at a loss until I overheard his brother ask him, “Why did you play so much garbage tonight; what’s wrong with you?” He replied displaying disdainful attitude,

“Oh, they were all Americans, and they can’t hear the difference anyway.” That was the last time I hired him to play for my dancing.

As I coach and teach my regular dance lessons, and special local workshops these days, I share the most helpful secrets of hearing and analyzing music that my treasured instructors gave me long ago. I usually intermingle them with a few comments made by special instructors I have met while learning to perform the Belly dance in America. I hope to change the way that my dancers (and perhaps, you also) listen to music. You do not need complex technical musical terms or obscure rhythmic information to create your own casual and individual dance “inner movie”, and you may still wear your own American/Western ears while you give it a whirl. In future articles, I hope to share some of these specific concepts with you more fully.

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