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A Kabylian Woman
by Bridgeman 1875

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Painting Dance -Fabulous!
By Najia El-Mouzayen
February 3, 2003

My life has always been filled with the color and mystic of paintings.  The walls of my home are covered with paintings, both real and prints, some very old ones from the middle of the19th century and into the 20th.  I love the graphic arts and should have been a painter, except that my parents and school counselors always insisted that a girl of my era needed to be practical and “always have a vocation to fall back on” in case the marriage or just life itself didn’t quite work out the way it was hoped.  Because drawing and painting were among my earliest creative interests, I often describe dance in terms of drawing, composition and painting technique in my dance workshops. 

I have always believed in a profound similarity and congruity between all the arts. I'd like dancers to understand how the ideas of color, texture, tone, shading, etc. can also apply to the art of speaking through movement.

Certainly, sooner or later, all students in my dance clientele have been introduced to my views about composition and choreography. (I include here the spontaneous choreography that seemingly just happens but is, in fact an abstract, intuitive, and quickly determined set of movements.) If you have attended my classes or dance workshops, the chances are that you may have saved your notes listing ideas that more commonly are associated with painting and drawing compositions on paper or canvas.  You may have forgotten and now puzzle about what the word “color” or “texture” could possible have to do with dancing.

At the time that I explain my logic and lay out my method in the lesson, it all seems so clear and self-evident that often students are extremely reluctant to “waste precious class time” to take notes or to take them in enough detail.  Sometimes however, the result is that haste and insufficient note taking result in forgotten or incorrect recall of important dance ideas. I insist that dance students must stop the continual execution of movement during a lesson long enough to process the dance concepts being discussed. It is effective to put ideas into writing, and therefore, hopefully, retain them and recall them when they are next needed.  (I am opposed to the practice of instructors simply handing out pre-fabricated notes at seminars for this reason.)  When students review hastily scribbled notes months, or even years later, poor or hasty notes don’t make any sense because the student did not really understand what she/he had heard. For one glorious moment while the class is still in session, they seem to believe that the concept was insight on a self-evident level.  However, encouraging note taking is sometimes the only way a teacher has for evoking questions and clarification.

My Dreadful Laundry List of Terms
Following is a list and basic explanation of my terms.  Check them over and see if you already understand performance quality movement and determine whether or not you have used these ideas to enhance your own dances.  If not, I invite you to try them and see if you can get new meaning and enjoyment into the details of your solos.

Negative Space 
When artists draw or sculpt, they do it in a real space, and it is both positive and negative in nature.   The negative spaces where you do not draw are equally important as the lines (positive spaces) you have drawn.  The same is true in dance movement. It is easy to understand positive space but art also has to treat negative space as a reality. Negative space is as much an influence upon floor plan and moving through actual space as it is to sculptural poses of the body of the dancer. Perhaps you have already experienced this effect in the study of Hatha Yoga, also a movement of the human body. In Yoga movement, it is thought that the point of beginnings and ends of movements are only as important as all the nearly infinite points in between the beginning and the end. I see this as an integral part of dance technique also.   All movement points are to be approached with equal value, pressure, and personal spirit, intent, and dedication. 

What differs from the graphic arts is that the dancer’s body is all one piece and must proceed logically from one point to another while the graphic artist’s hand can lift and return with a new application tool and a new color or type of stroke. While the graphic artist is free to skip about the composition making changes here and there, the dancer is limited to a logical and natural time line and is limited and guided by the musical composition.  (…Or should be guided by the music! I have noticed that many dancers seem to need to do everything they ever learned in each and every presentation, whether the music asks for it or not.)

So, the places on the stage that you occupy are equally as important to your composition as the areas in which you are not moving.  The spaces your body uses are no more important than the spaces you have left unused. 
Pauses: a type of Negative Space
The pauses in your movements are also like negative spaces in a drawing. 
Sometimes dancers have to suspend movements for more dramatic impact.  Pauses provide a more restful quality or, sometimes, they introduce an element for setting-up your audience’s expectations of what dramatic content will occur next in the composition.

  Negative spaces and/or pauses compliment the action and sculpted shapes by giving the eye longer to take it all in. In a sense, sustained motion or elongated movement can be a form of relative pause because the human brain seems to connect the dots with after-images.  The after-image exists in the brain’s memory much like the taillights of a car photographed at night by prolonged opening of the camera’s iris.  If dancers made better use of this phenomenon, they would not turn out the frantic, frenetic, wild and meaningless performances seen so commonly today. 

Sarah Bernhardt 1894
by Rochegrosse

Use of colored pigments, when applied to a painting, carries indications of mood or intent; color (hue) excites the senses. Though the use of the word “color” cannot be literal when applied to dance, it can be figuratively applied.  A dancer/choreographer uses the medium of movement qualities just as a graphic artist mixes and applies color for sensual and visual effect upon the human emotion. 

Those dancers who are intuitive often have an insight into human emotion that is similar to that of the painter who attempts to say something in his painting beyond the recording of a moment in time as would a camera.

Actual colors evoke emotions that flood the viewer with memories from his own past that parallel those experienced by other people.  By using movements that evoke emotions, it is quite possible for the dancer to cause an audience to understand a message conveyed by our dance movements.

Audiences can be manipulated into an emotional uproar like unexpected tears or gripped fists and grinding teeth.  Once a dancer has experienced the power of this type of emotion-evoking movement, it is impossible for her to sit patiently through empty performances by fellow dancers who haven’t a clue about use of abstract color/emotion in movement.  I have just one cautionary word about using dramatic content, though: a dancer has to be quite careful not to confuse the use of melodrama and mugging with the artful pause or the emotionally pointed gaze of focus.  Overt mugging and the frozen smile are bizarre and false.

Texture as applied to artistic movement is much more understandable to most dancers than the subject of color.  It is somehow easier to relate to the idea that a person can use smooth or sustained movement for highlighting sustained musical notes, while using finely divided movements to portray the staccato or percussive sounds in movement.  “Hold on tight; I think it’s going to be a bumpy night,” said Bette Davis, but dancers can do more than talk about it; they can create its presence; they can literally bump across the dance area in a variety of ways!

In regards to choreography, ascending and descending tones of melody relate to types of gestures and choices of movements that portray the upward or downward trend of the tunes. When using the color red for instance, a painter would mix in darkness or lightness apply a variety of value to this hue to give depth and beauty to his painting; likewise, a dancer would have to mix a variety of variations in his movements to give them vibrancy. This is subjective in nature.  How much is enough? The dancer must know. Just like the leaves of a tree can have a vast variation in color, still we identify the tree as “green”.

Following musical tone upwards and downwards with body parts is a starting point or guideline only.

  It makes visual sense to an audience and is emotionally satisfying to viewers for whatever reason.  It makes no sense, however, for one to become a slave to the tonal meanderings of music.  If music drifts relentlessly up the scale, a tonal slave can soon find herself on tiptoes, arms skyward, stretched to the limits!  One has to know when to bail out and start over. One has to “know when to hold and know when to fold” as the Johnnie Cash song says—and so also, does the dancer.

Brush strokes are clear.  A swipe with the airbrush is also clear, but how could the term “stroke” relate to dance?  I believe a dancer must pay close attention to the cadence of the music, matching its short repetitions, wobbles and quavers as well as sustained or staccato and grace notes.  Student dancers often ignore this matching element because they have not trained their ears to hear the number of oscillations a sound makes repeatedly, and sometimes, rapidly. Mostly, I notice that they boil a quavering sound down to a simplified accent movement, if they acknowledge it at all. It might be that the sound (in all its true auditory glory) is a quaver of five or more trilling or up-and-down, hard-and-soft, or busy-then-rest passages in the music. The dance should strive to match appropriately what the audience sees with what it hears (or vice versa).  Experienced dancers accomplish this without thinking while inexperienced dancers struggle to hear it at all.  Of course, as in anything artistic, it is open to personal interpretation, variation, and is very subjective in quality.

The idea of shading is what I relate to the force one chooses to put into the movement (deep or shallow, hard or soft force behind each movement) or the amount of personal style one superimposes upon ordinary dance movements. In the graphic arts, shading produces perspective and a sense of reality.  Shading of areas in a painting can transport the viewer into the painting. Shading in dance gives an emotional perspective and can transport the viewer into an emotional realm that is not real to anything he is personally experiencing at the moment. 

How hard the dancer executes a movement, timed with and appropriate to the music, gives the audience a sense of how important the message or intent of the movement is to the dancer and his/her interpretation of the musical composition.  This is why we claim that dancing can be an art, but only when it is left open to the dancer’s imprint of artistic judgment. 

If the dancer is executing someone else’s choreography however, all bets are off. A committee cannot accomplish artistry; someone gets to be the artist and someone else has to be the skilled technician. It is wise to know which you would like to be.

Oddly enough, you will probably not have complete control over the sense of style you give to your movements, simply because a great deal of whatever produces style has much to do with the size and shape of your body (your tool for dance) as it makes a movement.  One has to understand his tool. You cannot paint fine detail with a trowel.  That is precisely why a student is unwise to expect to copy exactly the dance of another dancer. 
The dance teacher who encourages cookie-cutter dancing in groups all alike in precision lock step, is absolutely wrong if students want to learn to be fine solo dancers.

Sometimes troupes are nothing more than a clever rouse to rally students around their “star” teacher or to appear professionally without having to take complete responsibility for a performance. Troupe work is not a step along the way in becoming a professional dancer; it is a separate path that requires a technician rather than an artist.

Zahra Anise & Bert Balladine

The concept of line as it applies to Oriental dance is twofold.  It mostly refers to the postural lines a dancer makes that is pleasing.  Often these are lines that lead the eye from one point to another.  In paintings, line is accomplished by placement of items and their edges or colors that somehow relate to each other.  In the dancer, this sense of line can be as simple as drawing the energy from fingertip to toe in an unbroken sweep across the torso. 

Poor dancers frequently break their line without awareness because they forget to involve the shoulders in the line of the arms.

They apparently feel more comfortable and solidly balanced when their spines are erect and square as opposed to being pulled away from the true dance center, stretching into arm alignment. 

Of course, I have actually put the cart before the horse by using this description since it is more rightly stated that the arms should create a line built upon the slope or tilt of the upper torso, the container of the core or heart of the dance.  (This is sometimes referred to as “the seat of the dance” which resides in the solar plexus rather than the pelvis, groin, or even, uterus, as romantic feminists used to claim in the 1960s Think about it: if the movements properly began in the uterus, men would be incapable of dance).

The second way that a dancer can relate a sense of line is in movement through space to which I referred when I was discussing the concept of positive and negative spaces.  Perhaps you will recall it as the “tail-lights in the photo phenomenon”.  Since the human mind sees in this fashion, the dancer must be very careful to complete all movements and to make each shape in space have its fullest execution, starting from the solar plexus and ending there also.

Every movement has a point before its execution that comes from the body’s center.

  Like a swing of a golf club, baseball bat, or tennis racquet, it moves (at times nearly imperceptibly) in the opposite direction of the swing and has no power whatsoever if it does not emanate from the central core or “heart of the movement”.

Loie Fuller
by Alexander John White

Interest is created by contrasts of all types.  All of the forgoing dance concepts are enhanced by the use of contrast just as real life does also.  It is the spice.  It is the re-enforcer. It highlights and exaggerates. How would we know we were happy if we had never been sad?  How would we know we were moving if we had never been still? 
How would we ever develop artistic judgment if we never suffered through beginner’s recitals? 

The road without any potholes and nothing noteworthy to view is the road to drowsiness and ennui.

Our Artistic Family
All of the arts have elements of presentation, organization, and expression that call forth the elemental concepts that I have mentioned here.   Perhaps there are others that you can add.  Consider creative and artistic realms with which you are familiar outside of your dance.  Think of dance in terms usually applied elsewhere.

I believe in the universality of the arts.  That is why, for me, music is the mother of dance while the dance itself is a sister to poetry, writing, storytelling, acting, painting, and teaching. …Just one big, complex, squabbling, ever changing, vivacious family!

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Ready for More?
More by Najia
1-11-03 Music to My Ears, How I Learned to Hear Like a Dancer
Musical interpretation is the single, most important skill that can elevate the Oriental dancer from the chorus line to the spotlight.

11-21-02 The Great American Belly Dance Veil Routine by Najia El Mouzayen
After having said all that, I must add that American style Oriental/Belly dance is a distinctive style composed of creative elements that are simply outstanding.

10-22-02 A Story Written with Arabic Idioms; Why it is Difficult to Translate Arabic songs into English, Story by Annonymous, Translations and interpretations by Rima El-Mouzayen, Introduction by Najia El-Mouzayen
“just try to read it in English and at the same time, think in Lebanese Arabic…if you can! "

2-23-03 Hawaii Workshop by Latifa
Floor Work is a moving Yoga, and as in Yoga, one must let his/her body grow into more flexibility which develops with practice.

2-14-03 God Belly Danced: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dancing in the Ancient Near East, Part 1 of 3, By Qan-Tuppim
While Yahweh is not female, the man may have given Chavah a name similar to Yahweh because the woman and Yahweh had something vital in common.

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