Belly Dance to the Music of Americanistan!
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Dancing to Live Music
by Dunyah

This article was published in Discover Belly Dance Journal, Vol. 26 #6, April 2004. Used by permission. Revised by the author on 5/26/04.
In 1976 I saw my first "belly dance" performance. The show, at an outdoor festival in Southern California, included live music, and I was enchanted. It was my first exposure to the Middle Eastern forms, and I fell in love, hard. I signed up for dance classes and have been hooked ever since. My love affair with belly dance has been the longest-lasting love of my life.

Perhaps I became "imprinted" with the live music idea through seeing that first performance. I have always preferred to dance to live music, and I love shows with live music. It's just so, I don't know, ALIVE!

Likewise, my band, Americanistan, loves to play for dancers. That is our specialty. We have been developing this for about thirteen years. For many years I danced in the shows and also played in the band. Along with the harmonium, I play dumbek, frame drum, and arabic tambourine. Here are my top tips for dancers who are beginning to work with live bands:
-Familiarize yourself with the band's music ahead of time if possible. Listen to CDs or attend shows to get an idea how the band sounds and how they work with dancers.
-Best is to rehearse with the band before show time.
-If rehearsing beforehand is not possible, make a written outline of your music requests for the band. This could include names of specific songs if you are sure the band plays them.
It is good to prepare something like the following (based on a music request by the beautiful Manon of Seattle):
1 minute  - Enter to ney. Short segment dedicated to the sacred qualities of what we are creating together as musicians and dancer.
4 minutes - Party Song!  Upbeat happy music with a celebratory feel to get everyone feeling good.
2 minutes - kanoun taksim with masmoudi rhythm.
3 minutes - Tip song.  Upbeat music that makes everyone want to dance. I'll return to stage, we'll end the song, we'll take our bows and then a 15-30 second finale/ exit piece to get me off stage. 
That adds up to approximately 10:30.

Or, for a more simple routine:
Entrance piece, Upbeat, beledi rhythm 2 1/2 min;
Slow  chifti telli rhythm, veil dance 2 1/2 min. Drum Solo 2 min.
Exit Music 1 min.
Total time: 8 min.

Having a written outline accomplishes several things. It gives you credibility with the band, as a person who is "together." It clearly communicates your musical request to the band, which can be difficult to accomplish at the last moment before a show. It helps
the band organize the music the way that works best for you.

Having said that, keep in mind that not every band can accommodate every request. They may not know a particular song, for example. Or they may not have a particular instrument for taxim, such as violin or oud. But at least having the written outline gives you your best chance of getting the music you need. Ideally, you would give the written outline to the band IN ADVANCE so that they can rehearse it. Email is great for this.

When you arrive at the show, greet the band members or the band leader if possible. That personal human connection between dancer and musicians really can make a difference in the performance. Be on time, have a cover-up to wear while not dancing--the basic common sense stuff of show etiquette. A written introduction for the M.C. to read prior to your dance is also important.
Try to avoid last-minute changes to your music request unless there is a true emergency, like you forgot your Gypsy skirt and you were supposed to dance to special 9/8 Turkish Gypsy music.

It helps to know the names of the rhythms, though you can get by specifying 4/4 rhythms only, or no 9/8 or 7/8 if you just haven't mastered those odd rhythms. As a band, we really love playing something besides maksoum (aka Beledi Backbeat, or "the mother of all rhythms") all the time, so we like it when a dancer enjoys 6/8 or
other unusual rhythms.

Remember that as the dancer, YOU can cue the musicians. Eye contact, a nod, and a spin can cue the ending of a section--of course the band needs to get to a "stopping place" in the music. But they should be watching the dancer to see what she needs. Some bands are less able to be flexible and they must finish the entire song
before they can make an ending, so if that is the case you will just have to keep dancing until the band cues you. You should be able to find out how the band works ahead of time by emailing, or phoning the band leader, by talking to other dancers who are familiar with the
band, or (maybe) by visiting their web site to glean clues about their attitudes and ideas about dancers.

It takes confidence for a dancer to perform to live music, especially when there has been no rehearsal. Therefore, anything you can do to increase your confidence level will help. A solid dance background,
rhythm classes, drumming, zilling, and time spent in improvisational dancing in class or at haflas will all be helpful.

Most importantly, remember that you are unique performer. There is no one else like you on earth, there will never be another like you. Your uniqueness is precious. So enjoy yourself, be in the moment, and have fun!