The Pros and Cons of Oriental Choreography


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Would you like to learn to dance or learn another Dance?

“Choreography or no choreography”, seems to be a growing question and concern in the world of the Middle Eastern Dance Arts these days. This is a question that would have been virtually non-existant 30 years ago, as the concept of choreographing an oriental dance performance was virtually non-existant, except in the case of group presentations. Combinations, yes; sequences yes; but choreographies… no.  I even remember being completely confused when some of the students in one of my weekend workshops in Belgium, requested that I teach them a drum solo choreography. I had never heard of such a concept because usually we just responded to the progressions and accents as we heard them (with recorded music or live orchestra) and if we danced often to a favourite recorded solo, we started to repeat sequences that fit like a glove. As far as the orchestrated oriental music was concerned, I made sure that I knew my music inside out and in my sleep and, although I tended to repeat certain combinations that seemed to Embody the Music “perfectly” after dancing to it multiple times, I always left the majority of the dance open to the moment, the audience, inspiration and creativity.

However, as the world of oriental dance began to transform and develop, the idea of focusing the class on a choreography became more and more common until today, it is extremely rare to find oneself in a class or workshop that is not dedicated (often exclusively) to a choreography. So…is this new focus a blessing or a curse? To more adequately address this polemic, I would like to bring up certain comments and questions concerning the pros and cons of oriental choreographies.

Perhaps the first criticism and major resistance that I encounter as an instructor is the complaint from students that they hate choreographies, because they can’t remember them and that they are so busy trying to remember the sequences in a class (especially in a workshop) that they can not focus on the steps or techniques. Often they feel that they lack the gift of being able to remember sequences and choreographies. Like anything else that we learn in life, the ability to remember sequences and choreographies is an acquired and developed SKILL that is earned as a result of much practice i.e. hundreds and possibly thousands of hours of practice, and NOT a gift which someone does or does not have. So, with this burden of exclusivity removed, our choices are to do our time and make the effort to develop this skill and to implement some specific strategies to assist our memories. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Request written choreography notes from the instructor.
  2. Write your own notes to assist interpretation of the instructor’s descriptions and terminology.
  3. Make audio recordings of the class (with the instructor’s permission). NEVER MAKE AUDIO OR VISUAL RECORDINGS OF THE CLASS MATERIAL WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE INSTRUCTOR!
  4. Purchase the music used in the classes and videos/DVDs of the material if available.
  5. Practice and video your own practice of the choreography AS SOON AS POSSIBLE FOLLOWING THE CLASS (WITHIN 24 HOURS TO ACCESS SHORT TERM MEMORY).
  6. Exchange contact names and numbers with other students and make plans to get together for practice shortly after the class. As different people will remember different elements, you will almost certainly be able to remember the majority with a big of group effort. This can also be a really fun and positive way to begin and nurture new friendships.
  7. Practice as often as possible with the first week or two until the body or muscle memory of the choreography is established. Once this is achieved, if you can start the first few movements, you will more than likely remember almost everything.

A good choreography can also help develop the student’s memory skills by giving them an application of the new material and movements in an organized form that can be repeated in a progressive order. It is also a very practical way to manage  large numbers of students in class and workshop situations.

It is important to mention that a large part of the responsibility lies with the choreographer to create a piece that appropriately interprets and embodies the music. It is also their responsibility as an instructor to present and clarify these musical and rhythmical elements in the music and their connection to the movements. If these two essential points successful,  the musical cues will certainly facilitate the student’s ability to remember much of the choreography. This brings to light perhaps the most important factor concerning the reasons for and existence of choreographies. I believe that a choreography should translate music into movement and also should offer the student an opportunity to share the instructor’s unique and personal interpretation of this music. If the connections between the music and the movements are not clear, it is not surprising that the student will not be able to retain the choreography.

I have also heard many students complain that the class time is spent only in going through the sequences of the choreographies with little or no attention given to the instruction of the techniques required to correctly execute the movements involved, nor the musical, emotional or artistic components of the interpretation. I feel that a good choreography is only a TOOL to achieve such ends and not an end in itself. The WHAT is worth nothing if the HOW and the WHY are not clarified and passed on.

I personally spend more that half of the class time breaking down and explaining i.e. teaching how to do the movements and techniques, then putting those new skills into the progressive sequences, then sharing my personal vision of why we are doing what we are doing. If the class needs more time to learn how to do what we are doing, I take the time and often do not finish the entire choreography. There is no point in presenting more material if the present material is not understood or being absorbed. This decision has also engendered complaints from a few workshop students who live at the other end of the “choreography spectrum”. They attend workshops for the sole purpose of acquiring a choreography to teach to their classes and  will get extremely upset if an entire choreography is not presented in the workshop. They are unable to even make up an ending to someone else’s choreography.

This reminds me of my own frustration of being a “prisoner of choreographies” that resulted from of my training as a flamenco artist. Although separate technique classes do exist in Spain, the standard class is a daily step by step construction of a specific choreography. The components, the musical elements, the structure and its relationship to the song (the real dictator of the choreography) are seldom mentioned, never mind clarified. After almost 3 years of 5 hours of classes, 5 days a week, I was able to perfectly “execute” a large number of choreographies, most of which were extremely advanced, complex and theatrical works of art. However, I had NO IDEA how any of these worked, how they could be altered, simplified and made into workable “meat and potatoes” flamenco that could be presented with some basic outlines communicated between any dancer guitarist and singer who had not been involved with the creation of that specific choreography. As a result, almost all of that amazing work and effort was lost to the realm of “filed”.

I, therefore, make it very clear to my students that they I would rather have them forget the entire choreography and have them remember how to do certain things and why and perhaps most importantly how they felt when they were doing them. This is really the thing that they will carry with them and eventually apply to their own work as artists, instructors and choreographers, long after they have forgotten the actual choreographies.

If we keep all of these points in mind and continue to strive to apply them to our teaching, we will almost certainly be able to teach someone HOW to dance rather that simply just teach them another DANCE. This is the real goal of a teacher and one what will guarantee the sharing of our skills and visions, as well as the continuation and growth of our art form.

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