After a year and a half of building my technique and movement vocabulary, there’s no way around it. I have to start improvising. With my background in ballet, I’m unaccustomed to performing without a heavily rehearsed, essentially ingrained choreography at my fingertips. In fact, I’ve withdrawn myself from a dance rather than perform it half-knowing the choreography. But in the bellydance world, you need to do more than just act out what a choreographer has given you. You need embody the music not just choreographically, but spontaneously–through the moment.
The beauty of choreography is that it cuts down on the white noise in your head. You only have to focus on the audience and the music. Everything else is provided for you. But while improvising, your head (or at least my head) feels filled to the brim. You’re thinking about the next step, musicality, emotion, and your audience. And somehow, even with all that going on your mind, that little negative voice in your head, the one that judges your movement as you perform it, manages to make itself heard. Things get even worse when you’re in front of a live audience. Suddenly, you’re not the only one judging, a whole room full of people is judging your creativity as it’s produced, and there’s no opportunity to take anything back. If it’s awkward, it stays awkward.
The thing that inspired me to start practicing–really practicing–my improvisation was my audition for the Bellydance Superstars last fall. While I just went for fun (and to be in the same room with Sabah and Kami Liddle), I still wanted to do well. We were taught a brief piece of choreography, and at the end we had to do a 16-count improv. I managed to look promising, if not stage ready, during the choreography, but the improvisation was a bust. You could scent my insecurity from a mile away, and as such, I didn’t receive a call back. It was a discouraging moment but also a wonderful reality check. It was time to bite the bullet and improvise until it felt just as good as choreography.
During my next attempt at improvisation, the music cut out on me. Not once. But twice. Needless to say, it ruined whatever groove I had going, and it was a highly unpleasant performance. I finished the song, but I couldn’t wait to get off stage. I didn’t work up the courage to try public improvisation again until last weekend. I danced to “New Baladi” at a gig with Dolunay. I carefully sandwiched it between a choreographed cane number and choreographed drum solo. This way, even if I screwed up in the middle, the audience would walk away remembering a clean start and finish. However, I purposely didn’t let myself choreograph anything to “New Baladi.” I mapped out what I wanted to do and memorized the music, but I still had to invent all the movement on the fly. I probably looked a little rushed, but the performance felt good. I felt the music. I felt my audience. I couldn’t ask for much more.
For tomorrow night’s performance (click here for details!) at the Grisly Pear, I’m going to try something new. As per the advice of Hipmix.com I’m going to choreograph short “go-to” phrases for each song and mix those in with raw improvisation. This could either trip me up or be super helpful when I feel stuck. I’m dancing to a whopping 6 songs in a row (hopefully the musicians will remember my request to keep the slower songs short and sweet) one of which will be my first improvised drum solo. I can feel the nerves building, but I refuse to psyche myself out. As long as I keep my eyes on the prize–a happy, entertained audience– things should be alright. I’ll be sure to post the results via Youtube shortly!