Belly Dancing to Live Music Tips from Emmy Awarding Winning Accordion Player Dan Cantrell
Performing with musicians can be tricky and intimidating for many of us dancers. In many Middle Eastern music genres, songs are rarely played the same way twice, a musician could be inspired to take a solo, or the vocalist could decide to sing less or more verses. You really don’t know what will happen.
So it helps to hear from Emmy award winning musician like Dan Cantrell what has worked for him as an accordionist accompanying belly dancers. He has also collaborated with Beats Antique, Tom Waits and many others. And he’s married to amazing belly dancer Elizabeth Strong. Together they have figured out how to make each other shine on stage.
I was honored to take a musicality workshop with this lovely couple. Here are 8 tips on dancing to live music from that day in the studio with Dan and Liz:
#1 Create a picture for the audience
It’s self-explanatory, and it’s a great way to describe how a dancer decides where to stand in relation to the band and the audience. Put yourself in a beautiful painting with the band.
#2 Step aside when virtuosity emerges from a soloist
While you dance, listen for the solos (aka taksim). When the taksim begins, make sure the audience can see the soloist. Translate the solo for the audience. Amplify it.
#3 If the band agrees that it’s ok for you to zill, try not to zill all the time
I appreciated how nicely Dan said this. I am in a band, and we have had multiple recordings rendered unusable by dancers with zills and noisy costumes and jewelry drifting in and out of our recording mics. The worst was when the dancer that screwed up the recording was me. Dammit! Liz added that it can be difficult for a dancer to stop their zilling pattern while dancing.
My thoughts: Leave zilling to the stationary musicians who are in a better place to respond to the changes in the music and leave space when zilling.
#4 Be able to identify the rhythms that are almost always appropriate for dancing: saidi, maqsum and chiftitelli
These rhythms are often for parties and not for sacred music.
Learn to hear the difference between the bass hit “doum” and the higher, sharper hits “tek” and “ka” on a doumbek. If you know those three sounds, you can use these phrases I created to help dancers remember some common rhythms:
Saidi = Center
Saidi has a double “doum” in the center:
Dt DD t
Maqsum has no double doum
(Maqsum is also know as the Greek Chiftitelli)
Chiftitelli is slow and sensual
And 2 measures long
#5 When you are invited to perform to specific songs, ask questions
Find out what the beginning and the end of the song sound like. What’s the tempo? What’s the approximate length? If there are lyrics, what do they mean?
Liz had a memorable story to demonstrate the importance of finding out what tempo the beginning of the song will be before the show. Liz had a fast and exciting entrance planned far from the stage for this song she knew. However, she didn’t ask the band how they would start it. When the music started, it was slow and her fast and exiting entrance wasn’t going to work. She was far from the stage, and it felt like it took forever for her to dance into the gaze of the audience to the slow intro.
I have an example as well. As I entered the stage to start dancing to a Turkish song Aksaray’in Taşları, the head of the band told the audience that it’s a song about a Romani woman walking through the streets alone and scared. Shit. I didn’t know that! I pulled it off, but if he hadn’t made that announcement I would not have known. I had not asked.
#6 Listen for cues that a taksim (instrument feature or solo) may be ending
Musicians often play the melody of a song at the end of a taksim so the rest of the band knows it’s time to jump in.
You can listen to recordings to practice hearing this and also watch for it when you are in the audience at a show. This is an easy cue to pick up.
#7 Listen for cues that the song may be ending
There may be a break in the melodic pattern that signals the end is coming. Dan called this a “Romani ending”. There may be more pauses, more space between notes than there had been previously in the song. Listen for the 5th beat (out of 8 beats) in a phrase. This 5th beat often cues the ending.
#8 If you know the musicians and the song well, you can coordinate a dance cue for ending the song.
You might turn until the last note and then do a dramatic hip drop. So many preplanned moves are possible. I think this is tough to do well, but it looks damn good when it works!
Dan also said “it’s not so much how it happens, but it’s where it happens.” I’m not sure what he meant, but it made me think.
When we dance together with musicians, the sense of place and present shapes our dance. My day together in the dance studio with Liz and Dan was really a dancers’ dream. We performed for each other, trying new things on and honoring the beauty in each dancer as we shimmied beside Dan’s accordion. As I teach more classes on belly dancing to live music and perform, I will continue to share what I learned from Liz and Dan.