Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.
— Deborah Wingert, Ballet teacher
Musicality is one of the most important aspects of dancing. The best dancers have more than impeccable technique and passion. They have an ability to read the pitch, rhythm, melody, and mood of the music, and translate it into movement. They don’t just step on the beat. They match their movements to the spirit of the music, while simultaneously showcasing their personality and signature style.
A strong understanding of Middle Eastern music is the starting point for creating a unique visual expression of the music. Like any skill, improving your musicality takes practice. Listen to the same song over and over again until you have identified the different elements of the music.
3 Elements of Middle Eastern Music
As the stunning Brazilian belly dancer, Mahaila El Helwa, explained in her workshop on reading music, there are three parts of Middle Eastern music: Melody, Percussion, and Voice. A song may use all three components, or only one or two. It’s important to consider each element, and how it is presented in the song.
A melody is a beautiful combination of intervals and rhythms that express the emotion of the song. It can stir powerful emotions, even if the listener can’t understand the lyrics. These emotions can magically transport you to a memory, just like smell or taste.
Most of the Middle Eastern melody instruments fall into two categories: chordophones (or string instruments) and aerophones, which produce sound through the vibration of air. Some of these instruments include: lutes, violins, ouds, qanuns, flutes, ney, clarinet, mizmar, and horns.
When listening to the melody, consider the following questions:
- What instruments are used?
- How does the melody change in the song?
- Are there any patterns?
- When do you hear pauses?
- Does the volume change at any point?
- Is it a soloist or an orchestra?
Percussion is commonly referred to as “the backbone” or “the heartbeat” of a musical ensemble. Percussion, meaning “struck”, is believed to be the oldest musical tradition. Percussion instruments include: drums, frame drums (the riq for example), and finger cymbals. All of these instruments create sounds of indefinite pitch. In other words, the pitch is unpredictable or uncontrollable.
When listening to the percussion section, consider the following questions:
- How is the rhythm structured? Where are the Dums, Teks, and silent moments? Is it a medium paced 4 count rhythm, or a fast paced 2 count rhythm?
- When do you hear pauses?
For more on rhythms, check out the blog post, Middle Eastern Rhythms for Belly Dancers.
Voice can be a tough one if you don’t understand the lyrics. Dancing playfully to a song about tragedy can be a bit embarrassing. It is best to find translations, or to ask a native speaker to translate for you.
When listening to the voice, consider the following questions:
- What do the lyrics mean?
- What is the cultural context? In general, it is not advisable to dance to political or religious music, especially the Call to Prayer.
- Are you listening to a soloist or a choir (many singers)?
How the three elements are presented
Unlike Western music, Middle Eastern music does not use multiple notes at the same time to sound harmonious. Instead, it uses different techniques to contrast and highlight the melody.
Melody, percussion, and voice may be presented in one of three ways:
You may hear only one element, for instance the percussion. Therefore, you can only dance to this isolated element. There are no other options.
You may hear two or all three elements at the same time. Which of the elements do you want to highlight in your dance? Do you prefer to dance on only the melody? Or you can choose to use hip movements for the percussion and arm gestures for the melody. There is no right answer. It is up to you to choose how to highlight the music.
Call & Response
You may hear the melody, then the percussion after, as if responding to the melody. This is a common technique in Middle Eastern music to create a musical conversation between a lead instrument and another instrument.
In addition to the song structure, don’t forget to consider the mood. Is it a flirty, playful shaabi song or a spiritual taksim? Does the mood change during the song? With practice your can start anticipating the rhythms and repetition, and become an expert at improvisation.
Mahaila’s workshop in Switzerland, February 2018
Photography by Jgaunion