This weekend I had the honor of teaching a sold out zill class at the amazing Tribal Revolution Belly Dance Festival in Chicago, Illinois. For years I have felt that the art of finger cymbals playing was on the decline as festival show after festival show featured not one dancer playing these amazing instruments. But now I can confidently say that the scene is on the upswing, due much in part to the tribal community. Not only ATS but many of the big names in the scene are bringing cymbals back into their dance and I am TOTALLY THRILLED!
Thank you, incredible dancers, for wanting to level up your zill playing and for choosing to do it with me! I am honored and grateful to have had this moment with you to share my love of the zills, geek out a little bit and play!
So here it is, my lovely ZillStars – a list of resources for you to continue on your finger cymbals journey.
I know we will dance together very soon!
There are many pitfalls we as dancers may encounter when we are choreographing, and I’ve battled every single one of them. Here are my top three, how to avoid them and what to do instead!
Mistake 1. Choosing a piece of music that doesn’t suit your goals.
This can be a song that does not have enough dynamic variation, is all wrong for your intended audience, or is not in the style that is best suited for your movement strengths.
Instead, listen through prospective musical choices with the end goal in mind. It isn’t enough that you just love to listen to the piece. Will this song give you enough material to choreograph to, suit your intended audience and performance space and play to your strengths? If the answer to any of these is no, I suggest you keep looking!
Mistake 2. Not letting the music be your guide.
This is, in my opinion, the biggest faux pas of the choreography world. When you focus too much on forging ahead with a movement choice or choreographic idea and don’t allow the music to guide the timing and quality of how you perform it, you can find yourself floating untethered with nothing to connect you or your audience to the music supporting your dance.
Instead always let the music be your guide. Whether you choose to dance to the rhythm, melody, counter-melody or something else you hear within your piece, use that as the starting place for your movements and your dance will always feel more authentic.
Mistake 3. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
This one has tripped me up more times than I care to admit. I create a bit of choreography that I’m not crazy about and I end up beating my head against a wall repeatedly to try to make it better. I will often get caught up on one 16-count phrase, totally stalling out my choreographic process for days or even weeks on end.
Instead, just write down what you have, use it for now and move on! Inspiration ebbs and flows and something that completely stumps us today may be easily danced to tomorrow. Keep moving forward, even with the imperfections, and you will find yourself happily inspired to continue creating.
Have you encountered any of these issues in your choreography process? How did you overcome them?
How would you like to have an arsenal of incredible tools to help you create dynamic choreographies confidently and joyfully? Join me for my new online choreography intensive “Secrets of the Confident Choreographer” and I will share with you the process I’ve used to create more than 80 choreographies in the past 15 years.
Once you start to firm up your brilliant choreographic ideas, how the heck do you remember them? You may think that remembering your own choreography should be pretty straightforward… after all, you created it, right?
My experience could not be further from that idea. I can spend hours in the studio creating what I consider amazing choreography but if I don’t notate it the way that works best for me it may all be for nothing!
Everyone learns and commits things to memory a little differently. There are four basic learning styles, and most of us fit into a combination of them:
It is important for you as a choreographer and a dancer to understand HOW you learn best so that you can maximize your learning potential in any situation. I’ve found a great combination of techniques that helps me remember my choreographies quickly and effectively and using these ideas, you can too!
This is SEEING the movements and combinations. Before the days of the smartphone (yes, I started dancing before smartphones existed…), this was not an easy option. But now that we all walk around with a video camera/small computer in our pockets, I have found my smartphone to be indispensable in the choreography creation process. I create a combination that I like, set up my little phone camera, hit record and voila! I have my ideas notated for the future.
While I use this all the time to record a recently-completed piece of choreography, I have found I cannot learn a choreography from simply watching a video over and over. Written notes are crucial for me. But more on that in a bit.
This is LISTENING to your music and knowing it fully. I often tell my students when I am teaching them a new choreography to put the music in their car on repeat. Knowing the music like the back of your hand will allow you to learn and remember your choreography (or anyone else’s) much more easily. Since the music cues our movement, knowing what auditory idea comes next tells your brain and your body what to do.
Another fun way to use this idea is to create a video or audio track of you speaking your movement combinations over the music. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience: Your dance teacher drills a choreography over and over while speaking the movements rhythmically with the music. And from that day forward you will hear his or her voice every single time you dance the piece. Right? Slightly annoying? Maybe. But also highly effective.
This is NOTATING your choreography in a way that makes sense to you. This one is crucial for my ability to learn a dance. I have a three-column method that I’ve been using for years. Column one is the time stamp and number of counts for that line of choreography. Column two is the main foot and hip movements and column three is dedicated to arms or prop details if there is one. Without this step I personally cannot commit any choreography – mine or otherwise – to memory. Every single choreography I have ever created or learned in my entire dance career has a set of written notes and this is what I refer back to when I have questions.
This is actually DANCING your choreography. For most dancers this is a huge component to their ability to learn and memorize a piece, though there are dancers that can practice effectively while visualizing themselves dancing in their head as well. (That would fall into category #1 – Visualization) There are many ways to physically experience a choreography, from marking through just the footwork, to outright fully dancing the composition. Try dancing your piece with music and without! Dancing a choreography without the music is a great test of your knowledge!
Now that you know bit more about the different learning styles, what do you feel are your top two methods for remembering your choreographies?
Have you ever found yourself completely frozen on the dance floor when trying to put together a choreography? Your mind goes totally blank as your hips grasp for a move that will be perfect for that section of music. We as dancers are forever hung up on the WHAT of our choreographies – more specifically exactly WHAT move should come next in our dance.
I have news for you.
The WHAT is not the really important part. The HOW is.
Almost whatever movement you choose to do can be darn near perfect in the moment, if you do it while truly listening to the music.
Let me say that one more time, just to be sure you heard me.
Nearly any movement you choose to use while dancing can look like it was perfectly selected and destined to be there if you let the music be your guide.
So please let go of your quest to find the “perfect” or “best” movement when working on a choreography and open yourself and your heart to expressing what wants to come out of YOUR body.
Next, practice doing that movement in a way that expresses the music that is inspiring your dance. Whether your movement is a chest circle or a hip drop, I promise you can find a way to make it sit inside the music and create dance magic. So stop panicking and start enjoying the process!
Have your doubts? Good! Try this exercise and see for yourself.
So for years I created pretty much every choreography with a method I like to call “The Shotgun Approach”.
Basically I would go into my practice space, put on my chosen music and dance to it. Over and over and over. After a few dozen attempts, some ideas would stick. I would write them down. Then I would lather, rinse and repeat until I finished.
This honestly worked pretty well for me for several years.
And then it didn’t anymore.
I found my combination ideas repeating themselves time and again, new concepts and movements I’d learned weren’t being utilized and worst of all… I was totally bored.
So I took action.
Over the past 6 years I’ve totally redesigned the way I create choreographies, and while there are many elements involved in the complete process, here are the six ideas that have made the most impact.
1. Create a framework through music mapping (this one is HUGE)
I took an amazing workshop at 3rd Coast Tribal several years ago with the director of Anahata Belly Dance (an incredible Texas-based tribal dance troupe). She talked about the process that she uses to create her troupe’s choreographies and it REVOLUTIONIZED the way I approached my own. Through mapping my music starting first with the counts, I can divide up the piece into phrases and sections, better recognize repetition and variation and create a framework with which to create my choreography.
2. Invent a “storyline” to drive the movement
While belly dance doesn’t often use a formal “storyline” like some other dance forms, inventing one helps me to approach choreography creation from this standpoint. If I create a loose storyline – anything from perhaps a simple idea such as “unrequited love” to maybe a more specific “I’m unsure of where I stand, I seek and find hope in the world and emerge victorious” I can approach movement from a totally different angle, resulting in more creative choreographic choices.
3. It’s not about WHAT it’s about HOW
This idea is hugely powerful for me and for my students. Stop worrying about exactly WHAT movement you should do for a specific phrase and start looking and HOW you do it. I have news for you… there is no RIGHT or WRONG move. Stop for a second and think about it. Almost any movement you are drawn to can work provided that you use the music to inspire it.
4. Emotionally driven content
Along the lines of our storyline idea but slightly different. Try approaching your choreography through a series of 2-3 emotions. For example – sorrowful, comforted, hopeful – and see where this takes your movement. Allow yourself to use ANY KIND of movement in this exercise and don’t limit yourself to traditional belly dance moves. You may be surprised where this takes you.
5. Traveling vs. stationary moments
The first time I got on stage a soloist ever, it was with a live band at a Greek restaurant. I was subbing last-minute for my teacher, and had probably performed a total of three times in my entire life (doing a class choreography with an entire troupe). I thought I would be sick. She gave me just one piece of advice before I got out on stage. “Sometimes the music will encourage you to move around the stage and sometimes it will make you want to be still. Alternate between those two ideas.” Simple, but it worked and I use this ideas in my choreographies to this very day.
6. The shotgun approach (yes…it’s still there!)
I haven’t done away with my shotgun approach. In fact, after I map my choreography it’s often still the first method I use when starting to choreograph. By combining this with the ideas above and a few more choreographic techniques, I’ve been able to create pieces that keep me, my dancers and the audience engaged and excited.
So – do you choreograph? How do you go about creating your dances? I would love to hear what inspires your creativity!
So I just took a look in my “CHOREOGRAPHIES” folder on my laptop and over the last 15 years I have personally created more than 80 choreographies… that’s more than 5 each year (or one about every 2 months!)
Honestly, that surprised the heck out of me. But it also helped me understand the complete choreographic rut I found myself in about 6 years ago.
I am a belly dance instructor and director of two professional dance troupes. At one point in my career I taught five weekly classes. I was solely responsible for generating unique material for each of these classes as well as choreographies for my professional troupes.
About six years ago I hit a creative wall.
I’m sure many of you can relate. Whether or not you teach, creating dances for yourself or others is a huge creative effort – exciting and enjoyable, yes, but an effort nonetheless.
My realization that something needed to change came one day in my Intermediate class… I was about halfway through teaching them my newest choreography when I realized I couldn’t distinguish this dance from the one I had just been teaching in my beginner class… the combinations began to blur and merge in my brain and I found myself totally lost in my movement.
I realized three hugely important things that day:
I am happy to say that six years (and about 30 choreographies) later, I have a new way of approaching my choreography creating that has helped me organize and strategize my work as well as avoid the repetition caused by my previous choreography by intuition approach.
Is this story familiar to you? Have you found yourself creatively tapped out at some point in your artistic life? Or maybe your dancing has started to feel too repetitive or lacking of growth and change? I totally get it!
Tell me where you’ve gotten stuck and I’ll tell you what’s helped me pull myself out of my creative rut. Together we can rev up our creative engines to work in new and exciting ways!
I just spent 21 Days zilling playing the most amazing zills on the planet with some of the most amazing dancers on the planet.
And I am so very grateful.
The 21 Day #RakMyZills Challenge with Saroyan Cymbals far surpassed anything I could have ever hoped for. Over 70 dancers in more than 5 countries participated, making time in their busy lives to spend a moment making music with me. Wow. I am beyond honored.
I am amazed at where my life has taken me since beginning to dance nearly two decades ago. Who would have thought the belly dance class I drove across town for once a week would put me on the path to find my calling, my passion and my sanctuary. Twenty years later and I am so grateful I can spread the joy of the dance with people around the world… and so easily! A one-minute video a day and new zill fans are created. Amazing!
So here it is, my lovely ZillStars – a list of resources for you to continue on your belly dance journey.
I know we will dance together very soon!
So it appears that Instagram may not like me rocking out on my zills to Prince… bummer! So I am reposting here in case you like to check it out. This is part of the 21 Day Instagram Challenge that I am hosting RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT with the most amazing zill manufacturer on the planet – Saroyan Cymbals. Check it out – it’s not too late to join in. 21 Days to build a new zill habit and become a better more confident ziller… and there are wonderful prizes to be won!
Here is the repost:
Day 9 | #RakMyZills Challenge with Saroyan_Zills and @SahiraBellyDances⠀
This week we tackle the question that plagues many a ziller … how do I decide WHAT to play on my zills once the music begins? 🤔⠀
Here are my top three answers. ⠀
You can play to:⠀
1. The tempo⠀
2. The rhythm⠀
3. The melody⠀
(There are certainly more options, but these are my favorite.)⠀
Today we discuss playing with the tempo and what that entails.⠀ ⠀
✨Your challenge: Pick a song – any song – and zill along to the beat. Now that we are a bit deeper into our challenge I invite you to move while you play, be it marking time with your feet, moving your arms, or all out dancing! (For inspiration visit @SahiraBellyDances)⠀