Learning Choreography Fast Without Pulling Your Hair

You’ve created a choreography for a hafla. Or you’ve chosen to take part in a choreography project like The Juniper Project, or Masmoudi Students, or like the Olivia Kissel Hybrid intensive. Or someone from your troupe has broken a leg and they need a replacement for their part. Either way, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got a limited amount of time and you need to learn a choreography.

The way a lot of people seem to tackle this is the usual: repeat until it sinks. Problem is, that takes a long time. Also, by merely repeating a choreography that you are learning, you are reinforcing the mistakes, wrong steps, wrong weight shifts… If you are not clear and clean on what one move is doing, you keep repeating it muddied. Basically, you are reinforcing all the bad patterns which you will then need to work even harder to remove.

Another typical way that people learn a new choreo is by learning a new bit and tucking it to the rest. So they learn the first 16 counts, repeat that a few times. Learn another 16 counts, do all 32 counts a few times. Lather, rinse, repeat. The issue with this approach is that you are repeating the first part far more than anything else, and the final far less. So you’ll have a strong beginning, and a weak ending, because if you’ve repeated each part 20 times before adding another, and you’ve got 5 parts, then you’ll have done the start 100 times, next part 80 times, until the final just had 20. Nobody wants that.

Other typical way is to start, wait to see where you are stumbling or making a mistake, stop at the mistake, and restart again from the beginning… lather, rinse repeat. So again you are reinforcing the first section, hoping that somehow you will clear up that stumbling block before moving on, and you are wasting time with sections that have no issue. Not ideal.

So, how do I do it? I use a combination of methods taught to me by my piano teacher at the National Conservatory back in my home country, and extra bits I gathered from Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent (which, btw, is a fantastic book, go get it!).

  • write it all down: I use a combination of words, squiggles, and symbols borrowed from Laban’s notation; some people do diagrams, you might know choreography script; it doesn’t really matter HOW you write it down, but the act of carefully considering all the elements of each movement will help your brain realise all it needs to do for each part. If you are working from video, this also saves you having to wait for the whole slow explanation each time, or having to figure out where in the video they are; with the notes, you can go “maya maya omi omi roll up shoulder shimmy”
  • split into manageable sections: with Masmoudi Students, we have videos for “weeks”; if you don’t have that, you can use definite sections in the music, verses if there’s singing, or any other way that makes sense to you. Once you’ve done that, split into even smaller chunks. I do it down to 8-16 counts, and this happens concurrently with the previous point, so while I am writing, each line is ideally a set amount of counts within its’ own section
  • grab your tools: mine include a free metronome and The Amazing SlowDowner from Roni Music. There are other options, either for your music player, phone or computer, some free, some paid. I got a nice little app for free for my old iPod which is very basic but does the trick too. Audigy allows you to do this if you’re using your computer for music. Whatever works for you, really; the idea is to have *something* that allows you to work slowly. Like PAINFULLY slow.
  • practice each section separately: and I mean each SMALL section of either 8 or 16 counts. Practice it slow, and use your notes. I prefer working on these small sections without the music, as that saves me having to wait for the bits before and after the loop; I use the metronome for the counts, but if not possible for whatever reason, I use the slow downed version. I also start each section from the pose where I would have ended from the previous section, and end with the pose/step you would have gone into. This makes joining sections later on easier. If one section is complicated enough that is still causing issues, I slow it down even more until it becomes doable and it flows
  • start joining small sections two at a time: keep working at snail pace focusing on getting the technique and the steps correctly. the slow speed will allow you time to focus on everything, and the short sequences will make them easier to memorise. Remember to always end each sequence with the beginning move or pose from the next
  • counter game: once you’ve got all of your small sequences from your big section paired, it’s time to start playing a game against yourself. Grab some counting items (I use coffee pods, you can use coins, buttons or whatever). By now you should have repeated each sequence enough to have it memorised, and you should start feeling comfortable with the pairs; some people find they are adding some sing-songing in their heads while doing each part that helps, some just count… again, this is personal. Whatever works for you to remember what you’re supposed to be doing in each section. Join the pairs, so there are 4 mini sections, and add one counter for each repetition you do without checking your notes, and without mistakes. Play this to win: “five repetitions, I will take a break” or “five repetitions I will move onto the next” or “five repetitions I will have a chocolate raisin”. Whatever challenges you. You want to make it more challenging, make it so that those five reps need to be consecutive; if you mess it up restart the counting. Repeat with the rest of the mini-sections in your chunk, and until you have done your main section several times without messing up; I prefer to use the music only when I start working on the main sections, and use the loop function on the Amazing SlowDowner to do this automatically so I can just keep on dancing
  • STOP and go have a nap: seriously, have a nap. Some neurophysiology studies suggest that a quick nap after learning reinforces patterns, as they give the brain time to process what it has just worked on; if I am doing this in the morning or afternoon, I try to go over what I learnt during the day right before bed, either by doing a quick once-over, or repeating it in my head, or if I am learning from a video, watching that particular section.
  • start the process again with the next section, ignore previous, or do a quick once-over after you’re done with this new part
  • join all main sections, again, keep at ridiculously LOW speed; by now you should be familiar enough with the material because of the individual repetition that you shouldn’t need much extra aid, and make sure you are working slow enough to repeat it without mistakes, as you want to reinforce the correct technique, steps and weight shifts and not to fumble around
  • identify weak spots and address them by working on that really small bit; even if it’s just a wrong weight placement during 2 counts, include the bit before and after to make sure your body picks up the context of the moves; work as slow as you need to.
  • speed up: once you can repeat the whole thing at snail’s pace, start speeding up; the current piece I’m learning, I’m working at 75% speed; for one I learnt in class with a teacher I worked at 80%. When you are able to do the piece several times really slow, up it a notch, say 5%, and try again; this will make the speed increase incremental enough that your brain should keep the clean moves while getting faster at it; if you want, bring up the counter game again; when you are fully comfortable with the speed, up it another notch until you reach full speed

Congratulations, you haven’t just danced your piece beginning to end, but you should have also memorised it along the way as the careful, mindful repetition should have reinforced the correct steps. Now go and have fun.

Doing your first choreography

Sneaked among the latest post was a tiny bit of momentous news: I’ve finally gone and done my first choreography. Which wouldn’t strictly be true, as I wasn’t working on one but two, but right now I’m focusing on the one that is actually finished.
I know that for some people that have done theirs for ages, it’s not a big deal. For others, it’s anathema: they see belly dance as a dance form which should be free, improvised on the spot, according to the feel of the moment, and the music, so a pre-established choreography is not something desireable.

Me? I’m middle-ground. I’ve danced a few choreographies by several “famous” (or equivalent in the belly dancing world) people, some by Khaled, a handful of Kazafy’s. I’ve also done some by a troupe mate. I’ve enjoyed some, some I didn’t, and this had nothing to do with who created them. I think choreographies have their place, particularly when you’re in a troupe and not following an established improvisational style like ATS. As does improvisation: we tend to add a “free form” piece at the end of our Egyptian-style performances where we can dance with the public, if we are in a suitable environment, but the choreographies allow you to have something more established when planning.

Since we started taking ATS classes, my friend L and I had the request a few times to “prepare something tribal” . Of course the whole concept of improvisation can be difficult to explain to people not familiar with the format, and a choreography would both cover this and any spot of nerves that might raise. I’d also wanted to choreograph something for the Sunday group, as we don’t really seem to have any dances “of our own”, relying instead of older dances done by the Advanced group. So the “brilliant” concept (and notice the quotes; I am not taking this seriously, as I suspect it will create a load of headaches down the line) came about of putting something together to dance with L., and then show it to the Sunday Group, and if they liked it, see if we could teach it to them. Two birds, one stone and all of that.

So, when my Choreography Bunnies started bouncing around too much, I finally took some time and tried to come up with something. And it was surprisingly easy once I figured things out. So here are my suggestions, in no particular order:

  • decide what is the intended audience for your piece; will this be a street performance, a carnival, a theatre, a hafla? general public or bellydancers? where will you perform? Different venues and circumstances might make you think twice on what you’re doing (i.e. sword in a street performance with people walking around you invites disaster)
  • pick a piece of music that *really* makes you want to dance; bonus point if it’s not something that has been done to death, or that people might relate to (i.e. that obscure mizmar piece would be great for an appreciative belly dancer audience, but the nasal slightly discordant tones might feel too alien for the general public)
  • familiarise yourself with the music, to the point that you can repeat it beat for beat in your sleep; learn the phrases, accents, peaks, or tension within it; this will make it easier for you to practice and think of combos or steps to use.
  • if there are lyrics, become familiar with them, and their meaning, as it can help suggest to you gestures, expressions or actions
  • put it on a few times, have a few free-flowing dances to it; take note of things that you like (and I mean it, TAKE NOTE, write it down, don’t rely on your memory), even if you are missing chunks in between these parts.
  • now that you’re starting to get a skeleton for your choreography, look at the music again: notice the structure, whether there are repeating parts that could benefit from similar steps, whether there is an increase in pacing, a stretch in the notes being played, a modulation of the tone, or anything similar, and think of how you can help express that with your movements
  • it’s not all about the hips: you don’t need to shake your hips constantly like an electrocuted frog in a lab; you have a wide variety of moves on your dance vocabulary that include the whole body, use them!
  • it’s not all about you: if you’re choreographing for a group, remember it’s not all about you being in front and having backing dancers; think of ways to arrange things so that everybody has a chance to shine, unless they want to remain hidden in the back
  • it’s not all about the base rhythm; these can be quite similar and even monotonous unless you’re working on a drum solo; try to capture the feel of the main “voice” on the piece, be it a human throat, instruments or yes, even percussion
  • everybody doing the same in their little dancer’s box is ok, but a bit boring: travelling steps help a lot, and using the stage to move about or change places make the choreography more dynamic and visually interesting.
  • it’s not all about the High Concept: having an idea, trying to tell a story, is all nice and good, but don’t let your dance be lost in your concept; sometimes people dance because they’re happy or sad, or energetic, or simply because they like the music; don’t let your High Concept get in the way of your dancing to the point that it overpowers it; sometimes music is also made just for enjoyment!
  • don’t try to cram everything in once piece: don’t make your choreography a catalogue of moves, and try to give it some unity instead; repeat combos on similar sections, for instance, or do moves that are related instead of going for something completely different with every bar!
  • build up: you don’t want your audience to be bombarded with everything from the get go, or so overwhelmed with cool moves that everything blurs… showcase interesting moves among simpler ones,  and build up your moves as the music builds up
  • if you’re choreographing for a specific group, take into account their strengths and weaknesses; some of your troupe mates might be better at some moves, and some might be unable to do others, so think of ways around this
  • conversely, be mindful of your limitations and those dancing with you: impressive moves are impressive, but basic moves are beautiful too when done with proper technique; choose moves that are suitable to your level and that of those around you
  • don’t give up, or expect the whole routine to be ready in a matter of hours; these things often need quite a bit of time to come together, and sometimes what works inside your head might prove to be  just awkward to execute, so be ready to make changes
  • finally, when you start practicing, make sure you are aware of what parts of the body will take more of a pounding or require extra flexibility, so warm up those accordingly

In my case, I started with a song I really liked, and which hubby helpfully said “that would be nice with some dancing”, and went on from there. I keyed on certain parts of the song (slow intro, chorus) thinking of what could fit them, then took it one verse at a time, and once I had a first half I liked, tried to use it as the starting platform for the remaining half. I’m still doing touch-ups here and there, but overall structure is in place, and hopefully by the time the first performance rolls in, it’ll be ready for unveiling.

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