Over the years, I’ve helped a lot of my students create their first belly dance choreography. This method works! Whether you’ve never created a dance before or you’re trying to get unstuck, give it a try.
9 Steps to Creating a Belly Dance Choreography
This is the system I use for creating dances. Adapt it to your own style!
- Select Music
It’s really easy to get bogged down in this part, but the perfect bellydance song will NOT magically save you from being boring or from dancing badly. If you’re having trouble deciding between several nice pieces, choose the shortest one. Everyone will love you for it. As a beginning soloist, I figured I was interesting for no more than 3 minutes — and I’m pretty sure I overestimated myself!
Look for music with lots of changes. Slow parts, fast parts, drummy bits and swoopy bits are easier to choreograph than a pop song with one constant driving beat. A great belly dance choreography will have lots of variety and changes.
- Research your music
The next step is take some time finding out a little more about this piece of music — while you listen to it over and over! Your teacher and the internet are your best friends for this part.
Do you know what style it is? Pop, folklore, Oriental, drum, Turkish, Egyptian, tribal?
Who is the artist? Can you find out more about him/her with a google search?
What is your song about? If the song has lyrics, or if it’s an instrumental version of a song that originally had lyrics, try putting different spellings of your song title in Google. Shira.net has a section with lyric translations also.
What are the rhythms in your song? Knowing your way around common rhythms will help you figure out the sections and how to dance to them. If you don’t know much about rhythms, you should probably get some help before you try choreograph a complex or classical Egyptian piece since some rhythms may reference folk steps. If you’re dancing to a pop song or fusion piece, this is less important.
What instruments do you hear in the music? Are they folkloric, orchestral, modern? Your costume and dance style would be different for a piece featuring mizmar and rebab than for one featuring violin and accordion, for instance.
Finding examples of others who’ve danced your music on youtube could be inspirational or could lead you astray… you decide!
- Divide your piece into manageable sections
I find that 20-40 second “bits” are easiest to manage, but look for logical places to divide.
Listen for structure/repetition. Pop songs usually have an intro, verses that repeat the same melody with different lyrics, and choruses that repeat verbatim. sometimes there’s also an instrumental interlude or a ‘bridge’ to break up the repetition.
Oriental compositions can usually be divided up by rhythm. An overture, then an entrance (often a fast ayoub or malfouf rhythm) then sections with varying tempos or folkloric bits. If you’re a beginner at soloing, you may not know all the rhythms by name yet, but you’ll probably find it helpful to note whether you feel like you’re hearing 2 beats, 4 beats (most common), 8 beats, 3 beats, or at least whether the tempo is slow or fast.
Use any method of documenting that works well for you. Time markers (i.e. 1:33-2:10) are a great way to write out your sections. I also like to to use descriptors based on misheard lyrics or the ‘feel’ of each section.
Here’s an example from a piece I’m working on at the moment. Remember, this is how I do my notation, that certainly doesn’t make it the right way or the best way. Write down things that are meaningful to you. ( This piece is much longer than you’d probably be using as a beginning soloist, so your list may only be half this long!)
0 – Overture (can I trim this down?)
:40 – Entrance (malfouf)
1:05 – Drummy bit, repeat entrance melody
1:48 – Saidi comes in, then melody 2
2:27 – Masmoudi, with tinkly melody
2:58 – repeat melody 2 with accents
3:17 – Saidi, swoopy melody
3:55 – continues, stronger percussion
4:09 – malfouf, violins, dramatic cymbals
4:25 – shimmery bit over 6 beats
4:50 – Malfouf, violins melody w/accents
5:13 – reprise of entrance as finale
5:33 – drummy bits, bow, rising violins
- Plan your feet first
First create your patterns of movement around the stage, without worrying about what steps you’ll be using exactly.
How will you get onstage? Beginners are always tempted to start out onstage, but believe me, once you’ve experienced walking out in front of the audience to get to your ‘spot’ with no music, you won’t want to do that again!
Which sections will you travel to? When will you be stationary? The music should give you strong feelings about this, and you need to trust those. Don’t second-guess yourself, there’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s typical to alternate traveling sections with stationary moves.
Be sure to let a little music go by before you enter. 15-30 seconds is perfect. If it’s at all possible with your music circle the stage once or twice to “greet” your audience at the beginning of your piece. Keep things slow and simple in the beginning. It will make you seem more calm and in possession of the stage, and gives the audience time to take in your costume and appearance.
Some entrance compositions have overtures of a minute or longer which are meant to play through before you enter when the rhythm kicks in. Personally, I don’t like to let that much time go by while the audience waits for me, especially if I’m Dancer #12 in a hafla with 20 performers. I either trim it to under 30 seconds, using Audacity, or find a way to dance to it.
Once you decide WHEN to travel, figure out WHERE you’re going. It’s common to circle the stage during your entrance, greeting all the sections of the audience, then dance in one spot at center stage. After that, you might travel to one front corner and dance there for a bit, then to another corner. Sometimes it’s effective to travel to the back of the stage, dance there for a section, and then “charge” the audience by traveling straight toward them.
It’s OK to move from side to side across the stage some, but doing too much of that one pattern is a trap to avoid. It’s easy to scamper back and forth for a whole song without realizing you’re doing it – especially if you’re nervous. To avoid making your audience feel like they’re watching a tennis match, build some front to back and circular patterns into your stage movement.
Find the most dramatic part of your music (This is often about 3/4 of the way into the song, followed by a reprise of the main melody and then a finale/exit). You’ll probably want to be dead center on the stage for that part, or front and center. I like to map out my traveling so that I’m at the back center stage right before the Drama Moment, then travel forward or spiral in to take my center spot. So figuring out when you want to be front/center allows you to map out the sections leading up to that moment as well.
See if you can choreograph your ending to include bowing and traveling offstage at the end as well.
So, now you have a piece of music divided into sections. You have sections of traveling at the beginning and end, and in between are traveling sections interspersed with times you’ll be dancing on the spot. Congratulations! Your skeleton is in place and your work is probably half-done. Celebrate a little. Pat yourself on the back. Take a break!
- Characterize each subdivision
With my students, I use ‘sharp’ and ‘smooth’ as the simplest, broadest categories. If the music is percussive, rhythmic, with a driving beat, mark that section as “sharp.” If it’s lyrical, rolling, smooth, mark it as “smooth.”
Now each section of your music will be marked with both a travel/stationary indicator and a smooth/sharp indicator. You should see each section marked as ‘smooth travel,’ ‘sharp travel,’ ‘smooth
stationary’ or ‘sharp stationary.’
What smooth (fluid) traveling moves do you know? (camels, traveling circles or 8s, turns, graceful walks) What sharp traveling moves do you know? (Egyptian walk, walking with twists or ribcage drops, traveling shimmies). Can you apply these steps to your travel sections?
Now do the same for your stationary segments. Let the music tell you what to do. Crisp ribcage and hip isolations? Gooey undulations and figure 8s? Shimmies? It’s in the music. Trust yourself to understand what you hear.
Of course, you can be more descriptive than just smooth and sharp. You can use words like big, small, swoopy, shivery, spinny, crisp, rising or falling, etc.
Sometimes you’ll want to mix up little combination of smooth-smooth-smooth-sharp-sharp. Or, if you’re more advanced, hit a sharp accent on some heavy drumbeats WHILE dance smoothly to the melody.
It’s OK to leave some parts open for improvisation, even within a choreography, especially if you’re doing detailed standing isolations. It’s YOUR choreo, it can be as structured or loose as you want it.
- Write out some steps for each section
With your structure in place, this part becomes fairly simple! Suppose you need a smooth traveling step going toward center backstage for the section beginning at 1:20, for example — just pick one and write it down. Hopefully when you focus on this tiny portion of the music and you know whether you’re traveling or holding still, the right step will come to you. If not, just pick something that meets your criteria of “smooth traveling step.” It doesn’t have to be The Perfect Step. In fact, you will probably change it as that section develops. The important thing is to pick something so you can begin the work.
If you have iTunes or a similar music program on your computer, you can set it up to play just one section. In iTunes, right click on your song title, choose ‘get info’ then click on the ‘options’ tab. Here you can set start and end times for the section. Then you can choose ‘repeat one’ from your ‘controls’ menu to make that section play over and over. Keep dancing to that tiny section until something you like comes out of your body. Write it down.
*Note: If you do this and then burn the song to a CD it will only burn the selected section. This is useful if you want to lop the intro off a song, but disastrous if you forget you’ve set up iTunes to only play a 30 second piece of music!
Some people like to count out the measures. I do this when I’m choreographing for my group, but not so much for myself. To do it, I just play the section and see how many beats I count out (usually in sets of 8). So I might write down that there are 10 sets of 8 in this section, and I want to travel for 4X8, stand still for 2X8, then travel for 4X8.
I don’t need nearly that much structure for solos. Once I’m playing the same 20 seconds of music over and over, the movement begins to come naturally.
Work on one small section at a time. It’s much less daunting to come up with steps for 20 seconds of music than for 3 minutes!
Don’t worry too much about how to write the steps down. Use whatever words are meaningful to you.
- Keep it interesting
Mapping out moves that go with the music is only part of the work of creating a dance. You also have to think about your audience. You want to create a belly dance choreography that’s fun for them to watch!
There’s likely to be repetition in your music, and it’s perfectly OK for your dance steps to also repeat. In fact, it helps give your dance structure. But you can try facing different directions, using different arm positions/patterns, adding a shimmy, etc to keep your repetition from feeling….repetitive!
Can you have a couple of Drama Moves — spins, shimmies, pauses, backbends, drops, humor, prop tricks, hair tosses, shimmy sequences — whatever you’re good at that you think an audience might find entertaining? Sprinkle a dramatic move or two through the dance.
Drama doesn’t have to mean tricks and acrobatics, it can be as simple as a pause followed by a juicy shimmy. Don’t overdo it, five minutes of tricks isn’t a dance and it isn’t fun to watch. But neither is a sampler of steps that match the music and never consider the audience. Aim for balance.
Let the audience see you from all angles. Don’t just face the audience and travel side to side. When you’re on a line of travel — let’s say a large circle around the stage — you can be facing the audience the whole time OR you can be facing the direction you’re traveling. It’s a choice.
Turning around and dancing with your back to the audience for a bit is surprisingly dramatic. Your arms could be overhead, crossed over your chest (hidden from view), or lifting up your hair. You can keep the back of your head to the audience (hint: look up to give a better body line) or peek over your shoulder at them.
Slow. way. down. Try moving halftime to the rhythm — or even standing completely still in a dramatic pose for a breath before you start moving again!
Use the space around your body. Don’t face the audience flatfooted with your arms in 2nd all the time like a houseplant. Reach up with an arm, stretch out a leg, turn and look over your shoulder, face the back, vary your arms, bend at the torso, strike a variety of poses. Use levels — reach up, squat down, lean over.
- Mind the details
Arms. Don’t leave them to chance. For your first or second solo, arm positions are fine. As you become a more experienced dancer, think about arm patterns, your arms moving gracefully through positions as you move.
Body lines – your head and feet are part of your body. Where are you looking during each step? At the audience, at the body part that’s working to help them know where to look, in the direction of travel? Do your feet look graceful? Can you shift your weight, reposition a foot, etc. to get a better line?
- Flesh it out
You now have a choreography ‘rough draft.’ The details and expression come with practice/repetition.
You’ll discover new richness in your music as you practice. Feel free to add flourishes to help the audience “hear” what you’ve begun to hear.
Videotape yourself if you can! Perform your “rough draft” belly dance choreography 3X in a row with the camera running, then watch them all in a row and make notes about what you see.
Practice! Once you’re done creating your belly dance choreography, it’s time to put your dancer hat back on and learn it. Drill it, work it, refine it, until you know it so well you can dance it from beginning to end without the music. Only then will you be able to really dance it. That’s when you can relax, turn off your brain, and sing with your body!
copyright 2021 by Lauren Zehara Haas for www.bellydanceu.net If you want to share this article, please do so by providing a link to this page. You’re more than welcome to print yourself a copy, but copying and distributing this article is prohibited by law.