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?

Tribal Fest 14 Recap

Yep, it’s taken me over a week to process Tribal Fest 14.  It’s always such an intense experience, with dancers coming from all over the world.  And it’s a nonstop barrage of people — some of whom you know, and some of whom know you — which is a lot to handle for this introvert.

I only came up Saturday and Sunday – Saturday to perform, shop, and take a workshop with the lovely Devi Mamak, and Sunday to work at the FCBD® booth.  That means I missed seeing the lovely ladies and gent of Ebb & Flow performing on Friday night.  Ebb & Flow is a group of skilled ATS® dancers who are all based in the East Bay of the San Francisco area, led by Wendy Allen and Sandi Ball from FatChanceBellyDance®.  Check out this beautiful choreography.

(Yes, it’s choreo, and yes, that’s okay in ATS®, in case you’re curious.  FatChanceBellyDance® has always done some choreo, especially for big stage shows, or where we want to make the best use of a strange space like the very wide and shallow Tribal Fest stage.  The hallmark of ATS® is still improv, though, and that hasn’t changed.  Stay tuned for another blog post about that; I have many thoughts.)

I also missed Donna Mejia, who is one of my favorite fusion artists and teachers.  If you haven’t taken a workshop with her, please sign up for the first available; it will change how you think about bodies and movement and space.  She doesn’t have her Tribal Fest piece up, but you can go check out her YouTube channel and witness the expansive power of her artistry.

But Saturday was great!

I zoomed up to Sebastopol in the morning to catch my friend Heather Powers for her solo on the Tribal Fest stage.  Heather is an elegant, fluid artist who has joined the management team over at Bright Star World Dance in Portland, Maine, the dance studio I still co-own in name if not in day-to-day.  I’m grateful for her help, and I know my business partner Rosa Noreen is as well.  Check out Heather’s beautiful solo.

And of course there were lots of other performances Saturday, from the sublime to the truly weird.  But that’s okay; Tribal Fest is basically an open stage, not a juried show, and it’s an opportunity for people to express themselves.  It’s where we can all really let our freak flag fly, if that’s what we want.

FatChanceBellyDance® closed the show on Saturday.  There’s been a lot of anxiety and questioning in the broader tribal dance community about what’s been happening at the Mothership, and Carolena wanted a way for us to show the community what’s been going on at the studio.  Her goal was to show everyone that even with the proliferation of studio troupes, that we’re all still connected and enjoying being with each other.

I was point person, which meant I was in charge of wrangling twenty dancers.  TWENTY. But everyone took responsibility for themselves, and everyone showed up on time and was so easy and fun to work with.  And Carolena was happy, which meant we all were happy.  Here is the joyful result of our efforts.  Enjoy!