Improv vs. choreography

The beating heart of American Tribal Style® bellydance is dancing improvisationally with a group.  The entire structure of our art form — movements, formations, even posture — is set up to facilitate improvising.  Improv is fun, too; it lets you connect with your partners in the moment and have a conversation, a shared energy, that audiences really respond to.

I’ve been part of sets that are entirely improv — where even who comes out of the chorus is supposed to happen in the moment, organically (eek!).  This can be fun for practice, but it’s really scary in performance, especially if you’re not used to dancing with this particular group.  And because the dancers look unsure, it doesn’t often make for great performance.

So sometimes we choreograph all or part of a set.  And that’s okay.  It’s not “against the rules.” And if you’re thoughtful about where you use choreography, it can really enhance a set.

Here are some reasons we might use choreography in performance.

1. Your dancers are of varying levels, but want to make a great impression.

When you’re working with a group of mixed levels, sometimes giving them an ATS®-style choreography to perform allows them to relax and focus on their energy and faces.  They can settle into the sequence of the steps, and don’t have to worry about what’s coming next.

Here’s a great example: BlueDiamondsBellyDance, the umbrella student group of FCBD®, choreographed their section of the epic Tribal Fest 2014 performance, starting at 2:30. And they really nailed it.

2. You have a strange performance area, and want to use it to good effect.

The Tribal Fest® stage is a perfect example of this.  It’s very wide, but only about 9 feet deep; that means our normal approach of chorus in back and featured dancers in front won’t work well.  Many of the large-group ATS® performances you see at Tribal Fest are choreographed for this very reason.

Check this out: FatChanceBellyDance® at Tribal Fest 2012. The second piece, in particular (the one with the sword duet and two trios) shows how a larger group can create a dramatic tableau on such an oddly-shaped stage. And the last piece with the duets creates such a great lateral movement.

3. You have a strange piece of music, and want to rock those transitions.

Have a look at Daruma’s piece at Cues and Tattoos 2014. They really kicked it down with some Taiko drumming, and because they choreographed, they nailed some dramatic transitions and wowed everybody!

4. It’s a big event, and you really want to wow the audience.

If you trust your fellow dancers, you can take a hybrid approach and just choreograph the transitions.  Here’s Tessera’s piece at Cues and Tattoos 2014 (with special guest Wendy Allen):

We choreographed a few things here.

  • the transition into the diagonal trio at 3:57
  • the transition into the hand-holding quartet at 6:25
  • the transition out of the hand-holding quartet into the duet with me and Wendy, at 6:37
  • the transition into the dueling duet with Chico Four Corners, starting around 7:15
  • the Rush Hour variation with Arabic Hip Twist Flourish, at 7:50

Choreographing the transitions puts structure to the song.  We can improvise within the structure, though, so there’s both an organic feel and an effective presentation.

We shouldn’t always rely on choreography, but it’s ok to sprinkle it in here and there when the situation calls for it. Where do you put your choreography?  How do you use it for good effect?