The Relationship between Music and Belly Dance

I’ll probably bruise some egos here (including my own), but in belly dance music always comes first, and dance comes second. I’ll explain. The essential purpose of this dance genre is to interpret the music by using body movements, so that the body becomes an additional instrument that brings the music to life. So, if there is no music, there is no dance. Our goal, as belly dancers, is to embody the sound of one (or more) instruments from the orchestral ensemble through specific movements representative of this dance genre. Moreover, different instruments are acknowledged by moving specific body parts – as a general rule, the part of the body where the instrument is held while being played (for instance, drums = hips, violin = arms), but, of course there are exceptions to this rule (as with many any other “dance rules”).

Most of the songs used in what we call Oriental-style belly dance (or Arabic, or traditional, or Egyptian, or Middle-Eastern, or Raqs Sharqi) come from Egypt. And here is why this may be confusing: even though Egypt is mostly Muslim, and the language spoken is an Egyptian Arabic dialect, this country is situated in Africa – obviously not in the Middle-East, and the population technically is not Arab. Moreover, the ethnic songs and rhythms from various Middle-Eastern countries are rarely used in a typical belly dance show. But more about this later on, in another blog.

The Egyptian music used in belly dance has a specific sound given by traditional instruments (such as various types of drums, kanoon, oud, mizmar) along with classic instruments (violins, keyboard, etc), and employs specific rhythms (baladi, maksum, masmoudi, saidi, etc). A trained dancer would know these rhythms and which moves go with what, so she’ll be on the beat and her dancing will make sense within the context of that song. Also, Egyptian songs are sprinkled with numerous accents which the dancer will try to catch and express – the more the better. Too keep in mind, not any song is appropriate for dancing. Some songs are not culturally appropriate, or just technically not feasible (some drum solos may fall under this category).

Western songs, or westernized renditions of classic (or more modern) belly dance songs are tricky. Even some modern pop Egyptian songs are tricky. The sound may be more “friendly” to a Western audience (or dancer), as opposed to the “heaviness” of Egyptian songs, but a lot of time they are missing the very parts that are needed for a good belly dance performance, such as the staccato of a kanoon, the crisp accents of a drum, the heavy “dums” and nuanced “teks”. And as the music is supposed to be driving the moves, the result can be a lukewarm dance performance, as the specific sounds of a belly dance song are simply not there. Thus, the core-intensive moves typical for belly dance are substituted with dance elements from other genres (such as ballet, contemporary, even other ethnic styles), or excessive acrobatics. At the opposite side, a good song can actually save an average belly dance performance.

But you may say that that’s the case with any dance forms. Well, yes, and no. Yes, most dance forms are trying to match the moves of the body to the melody or beats in the music, in a characteristic manner. But in Western styles (like ballet, jazz, contemporary, etc) the focus is more on athleticism, expression of an idea related or not to the song, or impressing (even shocking) the audience, rather than following a specific instrument(s) and switching from an instrument to the other with your body movements, which is the point of belly dancing. Nevertheless, the moves in belly dance are very technical, very precise, much rehearsed, where everything is learned and practiced; little should be left to the chance of intuitive moves.

This takes me to the notion of improvisation in belly dance. First, there is no such thing as a complete improvisation, as is absurd to expect a dancer to masterly dance to a completely new, never heard before, song. Or at least the chances of a very good improvisation are slim. Very skilled and experienced dancers can do a better job, admittedly. It’s very difficult to come up with good moves, be on the beat and look smooth and flowy on a completely new song. Most likely, the dancer won’t be able to catch the accents and nuances in the song, which make a performance entertaining.

In reality, most of us do know a lot of belly dance songs, and even if we haven’t danced in the past to a particular song, we are likely familiar with the tune and know what to expect, or we can recognize specific rhythms and patterns for which we may have pre-rehearsed combinations. Or, we may play a song that’s choreographed in certain places and “improvised” in-between (again, to a tune that we know very well). Some songs are truly hard to choreograph entirely (such as baladi songs, or taksim parts), and that’s actually the point of that style – to improvise and go with the flow. But here we know what to expect because we’ve listened to that song a thousand times before.

I guess I got a bit side-tracked in this blog, but I’ll come back to some of the ideas I touched here in future posts. The point I was trying to make is that you cannot expect us to offer a satisfactory dance performance to any song you may have in your playlist, no matter how much you like that song, let alone if we haven’t heard the song before or if it’s lacking the sounds/rhythms of a typical belly dance song. And this doesn’t make us any less competent dancers. On the contrary, a professional belly dancer is very careful in choosing the songs for her dancing because she knows how important is the song to make the most of her performance and to provide the best experience to her audience.” >