How to Belly Dance With a Live Band: What I Wish I Knew Years Ago

Belly dancing to live music for an audience is the ultimate belly dance experience. It is nothing like dancing to recorded music, and when you can dance confidently and respectfully with a live band
your understanding of belly dance will rise to another level.

It is surprising how many dancers study American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion, classical Egyptian belly dance, folkloric and American Cabaret Style and then sit down when it is time to improvise to live music. Dancing to live musicians is my favorite part of belly dancing!

Years ago I started learning percussion in order to deepen my understanding of the music and also to drum for other dancers. By playing in a Middle Eastern band for 5+ years, I have also learned a formula for great chemistry between dancers and musicians.

Know the song. Listen to recordings of the song over and over.

The best way to prepare for a belly dance performance is to listen to your music on repeat for weeks before. Just like muscle memory, your mind will know the flow of the song. Listen for indications that the taksim (solo) is ending, how the musicians move into the verses, and any bit pauses. And of course know the meaning of the song and research the context in which it was written and is performed.

Know the beginning and end of the song really well

The audience will remember how you enter the stage and how you finish the song. So nail it! Be ready to start on or off stage. Practice snapping into your finishing pose and beginning pose so you can fall into them without thinking. Bands usually have a signal that the song is ending. It may be a raised foot or a fist in the air. Ask them what signal they give when the song is ending and who gives it.

Just have fun if you don’t know the song before dancing

If you don’t know the music and the band wants you to dance, dance anyway. Follow their lead and enjoy. And the audience never needs to know that you were not prepared.

Anticipate pauses in the music, especially if you don’t know the song

Look for cues from the band for pauses in the music. And practice smiling and doing something fun for the audience if you make an obvious mistake. Luckily the audience won’t notice most mistakes unless you look like you screwed up.

Connect with the band and the audience

Look at the band occasionally and smile so they know you are paying attention and you love what they are doing, and make eye contact with your audience. If you are always looking down or a too far above the heads of the audience, people watching will lose interest. And remember that it looks bad when you leave early or come late to a show when you were invited to perform. Support the other performers and enjoy the whole show.

Be ready for anything. Extra verses, surprise solos, break downs and exclamations

When I performed with American violinist Harold Hagopian, (the son of oud virtuoso Richard Hagopian), we never knew how many verses would be played or who he would look to for a solo. It was so much fun, and it was an authentic way to perform Middle Eastern music. There is improvisation. Sometimes the music leads the performers rather than the performers reproducing what they played last time. As a dancer, we look to the band. Sometimes the band will take our cue for turning up the energy or winding down, but in general as a dancer I bow to the band.

When an instrument is soloing, be that instrument

Imagine if you were soloing and no one was paying attention to you. That can happen to a soloing musician if you don’t help the audience focus on their mastery. Know what instrument is being featured and dance to that instrument only during a majority of the solo. Resist dancing to the drums if a melody instrument is soloing. The strings of the oud quiver inside of your hips. The violin lengthens your arms. The clarinet undulates your whole body. Help the audience feel what the musicians are playing.

Connect with the singer

The vocalist is often the focal point of a band. When you dance, you are sharing the spotlight with the vocalist. Build on that connection together with eye contact. Make sure you do not block the singer when you are dancing. Physical cues from us dancers can help the vocalist perform at an even higher level and ensure that the singer does not feel like the dancer is stealing the spotlight.

Listen to belly dance music to prepare for popular songs

Where and when do you listen to music? If you want to grow as a dancer, integrate belly dance music and belly dance podcasts into your life while you are cooking, cleaning, walking and  commuting as well as when you dance.Listen to Belly Dance Body and Soul playlist on Spotify to prepare for popular songs. In my belly dance circles, bands love to play Aziza, Karoun Karoun (akaFattoum Fattoum), Alf Layla Wa Layla (originally a gorgeous 58 min song sung by Umm Kulthum), Habibi Ya Einy, Lamma Bada, Ya Ayn Mawlayitan, Sari Gelin, Kamancha, Armenitsa, Anar Anar, Yael Menfi, Caje Sukarije, Moreena, Ayva Cicek Acmis, Berber Oglan, and Hicaz Peshrev.

The more you know about belly dance music the more intuitive it will be to dance. Consider how naturally many women from the Middle East move to belly dance music and Arabic pop music. The music is inside them!  Surround yourself with dance music from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, the Balkans, belly dance electroncia, fusion, flamenco, Kalbelia and tribal music and you will feel more comfortable dancing.

Acknowledge the band and the audience

We are in the spotlight when we dance for an audience, but we would not be there without the band and the audience. Love them! Honor them. Pause and accept applause. Really. Soak it in. If you fly away without letting the audience thank you they will not feel your appreciation reciprocated. And at the end of your set gesture to the band so that the audience knows to applaud for the band.

When possible, rehearse with the band and ask the band what is appropriate to wear for the performance

Make the time to go to the band rehearsal and listen to or dance to the song before performing. And ask questions. It can be quite memorable (and embarrassing) to show up to dance at the Arabic culture night in a cabaret costume and find out you should be wearing a beledi dress. Ah! Sometimes the band forgets to tell dancers what is appropriate. Just ask and you will find out. And of course you can simply prepare for a more conservative situation and have a dance bra you can put on quickly if it seems like the audience would appreciate it.

Turn up the energy on drum solos!

Each song has a flow, climax and end. The drum solo is often a peak in the energy of the song, so make sure you turn up your energy too. That doesn’t have to mean shimmying the whole time or moving really fast. The audience like contrast. Practice dancing to drum solos so you can hear the cues. Most drum solos are improvisations on the most common belly dance rhythms: maqsoum (Dt tD t), baladi (DD tD t), saidi (Dt DD t), malfouf (Dt t), ayub (D k D k), chiftitelli (D kt kt D D t), masmoudi (D D tktkt D tkt tk tktkt), and 9/8 (D t D ttt)
Stay just behind the beat so you can anticipate sudden changes

It will look like you are dancing in perfect time with the band, but your mind is controlling your body so you can modify your movements in a flash and it will not look choppy. You can learn this skill by improvising more and by dancing alone to music you have never heard and pretending you are actually performing.

Add contrast during drum solos by pausing and adding slow moves

Audiences remember endings. Make the ending beautiful and memorable. And practice your bow and acknowledging the band!

Don Baragiano Trio

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