Crafting a Set 3: Dancing

Ana performing at Gothla 2019; dark costume, holding an open white fan

In the last few posts I’ve written about how I put together a set, what I think about before I start, how I select my music. I mentioned that the next step was creating the dance, or at least the outline.

I will not write a lot about this part of my process because it will be very different for everybody, and will depend a lot on your style of dancing and how you connect with the music. ATS® may be improvisational, but that doesn’t mean it is haphazard! And it should be the same for any other style.

However, there are still things you can do, if you are working with a recorded track:

  • listen to the track, lots: figure out the structure, you can draw a line on a piece of paper to see where you feel the track ebbs or surges, where there is a particular piece where you feel there needs to be more emphasis, or even if there are repeated sections
  • map it somehow: can be by music phrasing, by “feel”, by vocals, by main instrument or by counts. We are supposed to be another instrument working in conjunction with the music, and we can’t do that if we’re not familiar with it. This will help stop you from something like starting a 32 count combo if you only have a 16 count phrase.
  • moves/combos: for ATS-ers, this can mean using Indian inspired combos if dancing a track with heavy Indian influence (see Bounce in the previous post), classic for old school like Helm, Hossam Ramzy or Upper Egyptian Ensemble. For other types of belly dancing, you can have a similar approach: golden age style for Om Kolthoum, etc. Reminding yourself of what you can do and practicing those is not cheating, nor it is “limiting your self expression”; it’s just giving yourself a framework
  • moves/combos 2: see if there are any parts of your music that you feel “calls” for a certain move, or a certain family or type of moves: percussive, continuous, or vibrating.
  • decide on improvisation or choreography: if you are doing an improvisational style, there is no debate; but otherwise, there is no shame in choreographing; one is not inherently superior than the other. You can also do a hybrid; have some set points choreographed, and improvise the rest.
  • intensity: if you drafted the dynamics of the track while listening, you can now decide how to represent them with your body and expressions. If you’re doing gestures, make sure you understand where these come from

Dancing is where most your efforts should go. You can compensate for a weak track or a dull costume with brilliant dancing, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Putting in the work dancing is where you’ll get beter, costuming is just the sprinkles on top. But ultimately, when you are creating your own dances, nobody can tell you what to do, and can only tell you whether it works or not after the fact.

Being prepared should not stiffle your artistic sensiblity, but overthinking might. Understanding the tracks and your reactions to it will ultimately allow you to flow in the moment.

Next time, I’ll write about my costume selection process.
What is your favourite way of creating a dance?

Crafting a Set 2: My Music Selection Process

Kanum player, public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia
An Arab Kanum performer *

Last time we talked about the general considerations for crafting a set for performance. This week I want to discuss my process for selecting music.

For me, it’s not as easy as picking up a song I like and boogieing to it. Different audiences have different expectations, and what I might enjoy dancing to might not be what gels better with them. We have far more leeway for indulging ourselves at an event for other dancers, but if we’ve been asked to dance at a restaurant, or and event for the general public, we need to think of the audience.

In my experience, general audiences will probably prefer music that is closer to pop and easier to listen to and assimilate. Drum solos are also popular. Leave the seven-minute slow mizmar pieces for a hafla or a show for other dancers, where they will be more appreciated. I enjoy dancing slow, and I do prefer starting slow so I can take those first few seconds to settle any possible stage nerves. But after a few flops, I also realised that the general public does not seem to “get” into slow, meditative movement as much as they do with more lively pieces. So I try to find music where there is a change of pace sprinkled along, adding interest, or that increases in speed or somehow intensity, so I can both have the slow moves I love and the excitement the general public enjoys.

This means I try to use music that has some level of complexity and dynamics, instead of a repetition of the same 32-count phrase in different instruments that has become so popular with Western musicians trying to imitate Middle Eastern music. I’ve noticed that people start zoning out and just loose interest very quickly when these pieces are played, so I try to avoid them.

Also, be wary of the lyrics, and if you do not speak the language, search online. Try to find a native speaker if you are not sure about the tone; double entendres might not be obvious on translation, and they happen often, particularly with Sha’abi, Reggaeton and Cumbia. If you are dancing to a piece in English, make sure the lyrics are appropriate to whatever event you are dancing at… I had been invited to a show, didn’t read the fine print, sent my music, and then as the show started and I listened to the intro talk about the fundraiser, I realised my choice was completely inappropriate due to the lyrics. It sunk like a lead balloon, of course. If you can’t find a translation, or even the general gist, you could try emailing the band. There’s no guarantee you’ll hear back, but I’ve done it a couple of times for Balkan bands singing in Rom dialects, and they were very helpful and appreciative that I was making sure I would not be offending my public or their culture by dancing to something inappropriate.

All fine and good, but what about specific pieces I enjoy? I will list some of them below, and you can find them in a handy YouTube list (link opens in a new tab/window, all tracks were uploaded by the respective music owners so the streaming supports the musicians!). They are just a few suggestions of tracks that are easy to find and relatively popular to get you started. This is not a comprehensive list, there’s a world of music out there for you to explore.

  • Farasha, by Helm: there are changes from slow to fast, but the song is fairly structured and easy to follow once you figure out the pattern
  • Derwood Green has to be my favourite Phil Thornton/Hossam Ramzy track; there are SO MANY textures overlaid in this piece!
  • Luxor Baladna, by Upper Egyptian Ensemble: contrary to popular belief, this piece wasn’t originally folkloric; it came from a movie, and was danced on screen by no other than Mahmoud Reda. It was also a rather pop piece. The Upper Egyptian Ensemble’s version is much more earthy, and goes better with the overall feel of the singing
  • Baburi by Yuval Ron: starts slow, picks up, goes slow again and increases intensity until the climax of the piece pretty much bursts through in the high notes of the flute. Brilliant track for a long-ish set that has it all
  • Bounce, by Solace: very hard hitting, upbeat track, never fails to make people clap and engage
  • Bulgarian Chicks by Balkan Beat Box: a fun track with a steady repeated pattern by some winds in the background, but varying gliding, melodic, and rhythm patterns over it, and a sultry horn solo in the middle that’s anything but boring!
  • God is God: totally different type of track, electronic but with a great Middle Eastern vibe in the vocals and a lot of texture and changes in the music despite the repetitive background; I’ve edited this track and danced FCBD®Style with a friend as part our very first Gothla set a few years ago. It’s super-energetic, the audience loved it, and if you are dancing a non-folkloric style, edited down you can get a *lot* of bang for your buck.

Of course, if you have the luxury of a longer set, you can instead do different pieces with different paces instead of cramming it all into 4 minutes. But in that case I would aim to start high, and end with a bang (fast) and leave the expressive, regal or soulful slow for the middle of the set. Always, keep the thematic unity as much as possible: if you are doing ME ethnic music, don’t throw in an electronic western piece into it, as the change will be jarring. If you really have to for whatever reason, see if there is any way of splitting your set, and take it out on its own, or maybe build up the switch.

You can also edit your songs to make them shorter but keeping dynamics, particularly for pop songs. This again, prevents the music from becoming repetitive. For instance, if the song has two verses, two choruses, and one instrumental part that repeats the verse melody, then a final chorus, you could edit it to have one verse, one chorus, instrumental verse, chorus, end. And if you need help editing your music, you can refer to my post about it.

How do you know if your music needs editing? If you find that you are tuning it off after a few moments, if the piece sounds the same all the way along and there’s hardly any noticeable changes in dynamics, if you start it randomly at different points and can’t tell where you are in the song just by listening, chances are the music needs some trimming, or even reconsidering. Remember, what’s wonderfully atmospheric to have in the background at home as you relax might not work at all in a threatre or a village green. This doesn’t mean that you should only dance to pop music. But leave the repetitive beats and phrases for the classroom. Performances are your time to shine, so don’t sabotage your efforts by drowning your audience in the same 4 bars repeated for 4 minutes.

Once your music is picked, make sure you follow organiser’s guidelines, but even if you send it as an mp3, it’s good practice to have it with you in an mp3 player, USB stick or CD -or even better, all- *just in case*; you never know when the system will go haywire, or even when you’ll be asked to do a last minute extra performance. Beware proprietary connections (Apple’s lighting connector, I’m looking at you!). I learnt this lesson the hard way, when I had to dance to a full theatre with the sound coming off my phone’s tiny speakers, because the connector failed. I went back home and ordered an mp3 player with a mini jack that I loaded with my performance tracks, and carry with me ever since.

What are your favourite tracks to dance to and why? Leave a comment below!

* Kanun, and mode of playing it, Palestine, picture p. 577 in W. M. Thomson: The Land and the Book; or Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land. Vol. II. New York, 1859. Image courtesy of Wikipedia, under Public Domain

Inspiration: DeAnna at Tribal Migrations

DeAnna Padrón Freeman is a wonderful dancer, and one of the few Advanced Instructors for FCBD®Style. This is a solo she performed at Tribal Migrations in February 2020.

She also runs a great blog full of information for dancers, and runs online classes if you can’t visit her at the Datura Studios. You can view/join her blog at

Crafting a Set 1

Dancer with a fan in her right hand holding her skirt in her left hand
Location matters!

With Spring fast approaching, the events queue starts filling up rather quickly. Now is a good time to review the previous year and prepare for the upcoming season.

Over the years, I’ve had to plan or co-plan sets for these events, ranging from last minute “please put together a CD for the group performance tomorrow” to “there’s a 30 minute performance in two months”, and I wanted to share my impressions and notes for those who could find them useful. A lot will sound rather obvious if you have done this before, but wasn’t to last-minute-scrambling-first-time me, so I’m writing this series for *that* potential person.

Carolina Nericcio says that any ATS® presentation needs to be a combination of three factors: steps, music and costume. I firmly believe that when preparing a set for a particular event, even if you are not performing ATS®, all three elements need to be aligned not just with each other, but with the event.

Now might be a good time to remind you that I come from a design background, where choices are rarely “because I say so”, and instead are analysed and weighted against each other, both for functionality and for impact with the target audience. So what follows will be heavy on analysis and far less a case of choosing a shiny option. If you know your process is different, the next few posts might not work at all for you, or they might still help you figure out how some of us think. This is how *I* go about to do it, it doesn’t mean you are wrong if your process is different.

How do we do that? Start gatherting the bits you know:

  • what is the occasion? is this a town festival? a re-enactment? a friend’s wedding? a charity run? is there a theme for the occasion?
  • who is your audience? general public? kids? other belly dancers?
  • where are you dancing? is it an open field, a stage, street tarmac, a dance floor within a marquee, or multiple locations? Is it by the sea, on the beach, on top of a hill? How will you need to get there? Car, train, walking?
  • when? what’s the season, and what is the weather likely to be like? morning, afternoon or evening?
  • how long? have you been given a time limit for the set?

Now that you have the details above, you can figure out how they affect your set:

  • Occasion: if there’s a theme, your costumes and music should have some relevance. For example, if there’s a pirate theme, pick music that has a bit of a sea shanty flair to it. If there’s a significant time period to it, for example a re-enactment event, music and costume should be appropriate for the time period. Wedding? Do the bride and groom have some requests? Charity run? could probably do with lively, uplifting music.
  • Audience: other belly dancers are more likely to be receptive to an experimental piece; but for general audience, it’s far more likely that they will expect pure entertainment, and if we are not delivering, they will walk away. Choose pieces appropriate for your audience.
  • Location: if you are dancing on grass or tarmac, you probably won’t want super fast turns as they grip your feet; tarmac would also mean no floor work. Consider whether location impacts atmospheric conditions: I did not for a set right by the seafront, and picked a lively skirt and Flutter Fan piece. The flutter fan was threatening to blow off my hand at any moment, and I’m lucky the skirt didn’t cover my face, although it showed off plenty of my pantaloons! (see the photo above) If it’s multiple locations, do you need different sets for each location? If it’s a theatre, what colour background would you have, and cannot use for your clothing or props?
  • Weather: Temperature and general weather will obviously impact costume choices, but if the date is in a notoriously rainy or windy month, you might also need to make allowances for these, or even include in your application/contract that certain conditions can be hazardous and see about alternatives.
  • Duration: make sure you stick to the set duration, taking into account the time for introduction, goodbyes, and music and groups changing, particularly if you are part of a line up of different performers. If your slot is 15 minutes, that’s for everything, not just the music and then extra time for people to switch and get in formation for the next song. Be mindful of your fellow performers!

You will notice as you read the above that the options of possible music and performance reduce as you fine tune the performance environment. And this is OK, it makes your choices easier. With my workflow, the pieces evolve organically most often than not, but they follow roughly a similar path: I would start by selecting the music, then allow the dance to follow, and finally the costume. Next time, I’ll write about my music selection process.

Do you have any tips for good sets? leave a comment below!

Inspiration: Elif’in Hecesi

I’m currently working on a series of posts talking about my process putting together a set for performance, beginning to end, but there are four parts (at the time of writing this) and I want to make sure it all keeps the right tone. I’ll have more meaty content again next week, no worries, and thought I would share another inspiration post in the meantime.

Elif'in Hecesi YouTube Channel logo

Today’s inspiration is a bit left field. Elif’in Hecesi is a YouTube channel. I discovered it thanks to a recommendation of a single track, then kept watching/listening to, and the more I watched, the more I loved. I would have materials for months if I was recommending each piece here, so I’ll just recommend the channel.

The concept is simple: one (or sometimes two) musicians, in a natural setting: forest, farm, or their own living rooms. One camera. Traditional instruments more often than not. Sometimes they improvise, sometimes they play their own compositions, sometimes they play music of their region. So far it seems that it’s all Turkish, mostly Anatolian music for what I can tell (I might be wrong). There’s a LOT of it, and all of it beautiful, and very different from what we tend to hear in the West… Stellamara comes close at times, but not *quite* to this level of beauty in simplicity. There’s something magical about listening to these people playing while life happens around them. Quite often the viewers have left lyric translations too.

It is worth listening to, if you feel you want to add to your Middle Eastern music appreciation past the staples. Just don’t expect catchy sing along hits. This is the kind of music you listen to when you want to soothe your soul or be reminded of the beauty of the world. I’ve left two examples below, but there’s a lot more!

Stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy!

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