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Belly Dance Improvisation

After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.

Even advanced belly dance students can find improvisation daunting. So, what is the secret to improve your improv?

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Know the music thoroughly before you start
  • Think combinations, not individual steps
  • Don't be afraid to repeat the same move—vary with changes of level and direction
  • Always have a go-to move

Improv is so important in belly dance, I'm going to make a bold statement:

If you can't improvise confidently and fluently to a familiar piece of music, you're not ready to accept solo gigs.

I say that for two reasons.

One is a matter of principle: True belly dance is a solo improvisational dance. If you're still totally reliant on choreography, you haven't mastered one of the most fundamental aspects of your art. If you haven't mastered your art, you're not a professional, and shouldn't be representing yourself as such to the public.

But the other, more important reason is entirely practical: There's a very high probability you'll have to improvise part of your performance at a paid gig.

Performing in a private home or function center is a totally different ball game from dancing on a wide, empty stage. Space is always an issue! I'm always amazed how many sensible function center managers, who would set up a stage for my flamenco performances without needing to be asked, will blithely assume I don't need much room to belly dance—“You just dance around the tables, don't you?”


No matter how much you explain to the client beforehand, you'll turn up at the venue to find there's no central open space where you can give your performance. Or if they have left a gap somewhere, it's not nearly big enough for you to swing your Assaya stick safely—or there's a huge pillar or buffet table between you and half the audience.

That's where improvisation comes in. If it's too dangerous to perform your Saiidi dance with a stick, you'll have to do it without—and that means changing the choreography on the fly. If your veil is going to land in someone's soup, you'll have to cut out the flicks and do more moves close to your body. And if there's no central stage, you'll look ridiculous if you do your whole performance wedged between two tables—you need to move around, which means turning all your static moves into travelling steps.

I admit I was absolutely terrified of improv when I started belly dancing. All my training in ballet, jazz and flamenco was about following a syllabus and performing choreography—no personal variations allowed. I'm very grateful to my first teacher, Shemiran: her unique style of teaching, which incorporates improvisation from the very first lesson, made it possible for me to break through that barrier. I'm still nervous improvising to a new style or to unknown music, but if the music is familiar and it's a style I know well, I can now improvise with confidence. I wish more teachers would incorporate improvisation in their syllabus earlier.


Resources to Learn Improvisation

Once, I signed up for a course on improvisation, and was told to "feel the music and let it tell you how to move"! Gee, thanks. That advice doesn't begin to address why I find improvisation hard—and I suspect the same goes for many other dancers, too.

Even that most spiritual belly dancer Shemiran Ibrahim says:

Even improvisation needs structure for it to feel good to the dancer and look good to the viewer.

— Shemiran Ibrahim

So, simply disengaging your brain isn't going to work! (read the rest of her article here).

Of course, if your difficulty is because you've become overly-focussed on technique and have lost connection with the music, then there could be some value in meditatively feeling the music—but it's not going to solve the fundamental problem.

I agree with Anthea Kawakib, who has several tips in her article on how to get started with improv. As she says:

Improvisation is a subject in itself, one that can be taught in class—it doesn’t just automatically spring forth from the artistic depths of the soul.

— Anthea Kawakib

Nadira Jamal expresses it neatly when she says:

Your movement vocabulary is like a big tote bag: The more you put in it, the more time you spend digging around for your keys!

— Nadira Jamal

That's exactly how I feel. When I first started belly dance, I could bop around the floor happily, doing the few steps I knew. Now that I have a much wider repertoire, I'm faced with too many choices when I try to improvise, and it's overwhelming.

Nadira offers a DVD on structure in improv (it's Volume 2 of her "toolkit" series) and I must say, I'm tempted to buy it. She takes her tote bag analogy further—she says that her course basically teaches you to organise that tote bag:

You put the items (primary moves) you use most often in the easy-to-reach outside pocket, so you don't even have to think about where they are . . . You put the rest of your belongings (other moves) into the other compartments of your purse. Even though they aren't in that handy outside pocket, you can still find them quickly because you know exactly where to look.

— Nadira Jamal

That makes total sense to me and is exactly the kind of help I (and probably many others) need.

I can see why some teachers go for the "feeling" option—because if all you're doing is dancing round the lounge room, or doing a quick improv in class, that's enough. But there's a big difference between that and creating a real, satisfying dance experience for both you and your audience (if there is one).

For those not ready to invest in a course, Shira offers a couple of tips in

Basically, she offers two strategies—"Now What" moves and "Required" moves. "Now Whats" are steps that you fall back on when you're stuck for ideas: "Requireds" are moves that you must include—you start with two and gradually build up. Worth a try!

Let's not forget how important improvisation is! After all, belly dance was originally an improvised art form—choreography came later. Below is some inspiration from the great Egyptian belly dancer Suheir Zaki, who was famous for never using choreography.

© 2020 Marisa Wright


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on April 05, 2020:

Nice article on improvisation in belly dance. Well presented.