A Choreography State of Mind

belly dancer leyla najmaThe other day I was talking to my students Julie and Amy and I told them that this one combination came to me in the shower of all places. But another student Judy inspired the combination but why the heck did it evolve in the shower? Another group of dynamic turns came to me in a dream but I woke up before I figured out how I did them. I remember saying to myself  in the dream that I had to remember the turns and I woke up actually talking to myself.

That was a little creepy having a conversation with myself and than answering myself!  The other morning lying in bed I worked out a 6 week course curriculum and figured out how to make each class lead into the next.  Is creativity possessing me through choreography?  If so it is the kind of possession that never leaves you alone and can turn you into an eccentric old dancer who toots her own horn even if nobody is listening.

A wonderful quote says: Read more

Choreography In The Box And Out Of The Box

belly-dancer-leyla-najma-peacock-headress-headshotMany dancers will write me and ask very valid questions regarding music and structure in choreography. The first time any dancers choreographs her dance can be a very scary thing. And it can be daunting because how does a dancer put in creativity into her performance? Years ago when I went to workshops and learned choreography the one thing that always happened to me was that I just didn’t hear the music like the instructor and secondly there were times when I felt the moves didn’t fit with the music. But what do you do when you are learning from a master dancer and choreographer and you don’t agree with their combinations to the music? You learn as much as you can and change what you don’t like. And that’s what I did. Most instructors expect a few changes here and there anyways. But one important thing is always give credit where credit is due. Tell people who choreographed the dance you are performing if you did not choreograph it yourself.

If you look at in the box choreography you will find that there are venues when this works to your advantage, especially if you are in a troupe. Also in the box choreography works well if you are performing at a venue where you get called last minute but than spontaneous choreography works well here too. The best thing to do is be efficient in both.

Restaurant dancing for me has always been a venue where I creatively did whatever I wanted within the space given. Since I performed for over 15 years in restaurants, I feel that restaurant dancing helped me to improve my stage and nightclub performing.
It is amazing what can happen to you when you work with a live band especially if you can’t always rehearse with them before you perform. I can remember working with a band in Houston and some of the musicians were arguing…..in the middle of my show. This was one instance that I was grateful for spontaneous choreography! Another time I worked with a wonderful band in Dallas and the drummer was really grumpy the night they were playing for me. We ended up doing a 20 minute drum solo because he wasn’t ready for me to be finished and he was mad at his girlfriend. As I lay on the floor of my dressing room seeing stars (literally) it occurred to me that not only did I live through the drum solo but again spontaneous choreography saved me.
Just so you all know I had a discussion with the drummer afterwards and told him to either get another girlfriend or go make up!

Choreography is very important when it comes to the interpretation of the music. Pauses, accents, posing, traveling steps and layering all make choreography come alive. Combinations can become robotic if you don’t put life into them. A good choreographer understands that she is the visual
interpreter of the music to the audience. Remember to be yourself and to speak with your body the way that you would speak words. An audience can tell if a dancer doesn’t believe in herself or her dance and this can be very disappointing for them. Believing in yourself really is half the battle and once you gain your confidence you will find that grace on stage comes from a comfort level a dancer has with herself. This means that whether your dance is spontaneous or in the box the audience wants to see a confident dancer.

In the box choreography is based on learning how to count to each phrase in the music. It’s easier to work within your 4 to 8 counts on any given combination. Bringing in your opposition hips can really help out with in the box choreography because even though you may work a 4 count combo on each hip you can still have variation and create different movements for each side. Make sure you master both hips so that you can easily go from one side to the other with ease. I look at my hips as twins but they are not identical twins. This is because each movement will look slightly different on each hip.

Spontaneous choreography is my favorite and I tend to have more fun allowing the audience to add to my dance. The way I look at spontaneous choreography or in the box for that matter is that 90% of my dance is done before I go on stage but I allow the audience to finish the last 10% of the dance by telling me what kind of energy they want and by what kind of audience they are. Either way the audience must feel they are a part of your dance at least with your eye contact and facial gestures.
Spontaneous choreography can include off counting and opposition hip combinations that aren’t the same count. For example I may do a 3 count move on my right hip and than a 5 count move on my left hip. It adds up to 8 but I can guarantee you that the audience won’t know the count because once you understand how to work in your opposition hips, your speed will make it hard for anyone to count out what you are doing.
Spontaneous choreography allows for you to change up anything you need to especially if you dance for a crowd that is more conservative or one that is more lively. And let’s not forget your stage factor. If the stage is smaller than your were told, spontaneous choreography comes in handy but if you are within a 5 year range in dancing, in the box choreography will help here and you can adjust to the size of the stage by making your traveling steps smaller.

Bottom line is that as you accomplish the combinations and the moves you love, your enthusiasm will shine through to the audience. Feel comfortable in your own body and work on moves that feel good to you. Choreography really is all about your life story. Your life story is up on stage for the audience to see. So make sure you show them how incredible you are and leave them wanting more!

Belly Dance Talk Live, August 31st – Choreography Known and Unknown

rozanne-al-jinan-leyla-najma-cane-choreographyUnknown choreography seems to be the missing puzzle piece that stump many dancers. It did me but as I matured in this dance form I realized that sometimes it’s up to me to fill in the missing links. I think in many ways choreography is about creating on another level of thought. It can mathematical in many ways but also the unknown choreography is the equation that only we can figure out. Known choreography in many respects can be like wearing a dress that feels good all over and fits like a dream. We create what fits our bodies but if we forget this, the missing pieces can seem like gigantic holes or an unsolvable equation. Read more

Belly Dance Chat Room “Belly Dance Talk”

 Belly dance chat room, “Belly Dance Talk” is happening this Wednesday at two different time zones, 10:00 to 11:00am and 9:00 to 10:00pm. We decided to give you two choices to make it easier for you to come in and join the fun even if you don’t live in the United States. So let’s talk about your drum solos and anything else that comes to mind.

How To Join: To reserve your spot just enter your information in the box to the right. 


        Rocking and Grooving your Drum Solo

Most women who see belly dancing for the first time usually remember the hip work the most. I remember I did and the main thought that went through my head was, “How did she do that?” Once we decide to take the plunge and dive into belly dancing our fate is sealed. Rocking and grooving our drum solos is the Holy Grail of fulfillment,  a journey that lasts over a life time.

The drum solo is the one aspect of belly dancing that almost everyone looks forward to seeing. The connection between drum solo and dancer is a relationship that magically brings to life the soul of music.  Dancers bring to life visually what the audience hungers for because if the dance is executed well, the audience time travels with the music. But getting to the point where you own your drum solo meaning it’s all you and not an interpretation of someone else, isn’t always easy. So for the beginner dancer it’s important to learn to feel movement in your body. Now what does that mean, well most of us spend most of our belly dance lives trying to figure that out.

When I first started out with my drum solos it was obvious that I was going for pistons, thrusts and shimmies basically playing it safe. But I was starting to get bored and I realized that there is only so much of the same moves that people will watch especially if you are a restaurant dancer. So there has to be a light bulb moment when you finally just cut loose and do your own thing or as I like to say create a signature style of dance that represents you.

Drum solos tell so much about a dancer for instance how comfortable she is with her dancing, how well she listens and interprets the music and I think the most important, how she executes her moves. A good dancer will know how to create a mood with her dancing but a skilled dancer will take her audience with her. When a dancer invites an audience into her story she’s guiding them into a magical world that doesn’t exist outside of her. For those few moments all eyes are on a dancer’s hips because how she executes her moves reveals how she interprets and interacts with the drums. Movement without sound is just that, movement.

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance. How can we know the dancer from the dance?” William Butler Yeats

Years ago I danced at a wonderful night club called Al Amir and there was a disc jockey named Ahmed, who told me that I was too American in my way of dancing. He said I needed to listen to the music like an Arab. Ahmeds words stung alittle because I thought with my trip to Egypt that I had some sense of the music. But I had to agree with him because I was struggling with my dancing at that time. Al Amir had separate dance floors on three levels which I would either perform solo or team up with another dancer. Running up and down the stairs definitely kept us all in shape!

Though I was gung ho to take on Ahmeds challenge some of the other dancers weren’t so thrilled about it so we had to work in my sets separate from everyone else’s. In a way I was really excited about changing things up and my adrenalin kicked in basically making me a human yo-yo. Ahmed made me feel better because his enthusiasm was so contagious plus the night of our first “duet” he was at the club early making sure I had a great set to dance to. I walked in nervous as hell and he walked up to me saying, “Just wait till you hear the music I chose for you, it’s all new music!” With his comforting smile calming my nerves, I walked up the steps to our dressing room and started to dress for my first set. The first set wasn’t crowded because it was early in the evening so I was relieved that I wouldn’t be making a total fool of myself to a full house.  The fateful moment arrived with Ahmed giving me a special introduction so I knew there was no turning back or running away. I will always remember my first song; it was by Amr Diab called “Nour Alain.”

After our first set was over I was hooked because Ahmed created the best line up of songs I could have hoped for. He would get in the newest songs weekly that the crowds loved so it looked like I was up on all the new music. I have Ahmed to thank for that. To this day he remains one of the pivotal players in changing my career and teaching me to hear music differently. He would throw in drum solo music in various places through out my sets because he felt that it was the only way that I would learn to dance to music instead of anticipate what comes next. He said that the one big difference between American and Arab dancers is that Arab dancers follow the music without anticipating what comes next. I learned quickly that listening to music is different then hearing music. I can’t thank him enough and I will always be grateful to him for what he did for me as a dancer.

My week days were full of practicing to various songs that Ahmed gave me but there were always new songs in my sets at the club that he would bring in to keep me on my toes. He expected me to practice during the week and he would create many variations of music for me so that I could understand how to follow the music. What ended up happening is I learned to relax and enjoy myself and then I started to hear changes in the phrasing in the music differently. The owner of Al Amir, Jon told me he saw a difference in my dancing and he felt I had improved. One of the regular customers came up to me and said, “Leyla you have become Arab in your dancing.” That to me was the best compliment a dancer can be given. That was a huge compliment and testament to Ahmed’s help.

The changes that happened were gradual but they felt more natural to my body. First course of action was I layered a lot more with my drum solos and I put in more traveling steps. I would incorporate layering with shimmies along with soft moves. I think that the confidence I felt was the most impactful change because when you feel good and confident on the dance floor it shows. Today I still search for my Holy Grail of drum solo combinations. It’s a quest that will last as long as I am in this dance field. But I feel it’s important to remember those people who along your dance journey made the difference and impacted your dancing in a positive way. I thought I would share with you some text that might work for drum solos. Let me know how the text works out and if you feel like it, share your story in our belly dance chat room, “Belly Dance Talk”. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your stories and how belly dance has impacted you!! —————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Text Combination Ideas for Drum Solos and Choreography

Rt hip thrust to the side/rt hip ommi/lf hip thrust to the side/lf hip ommi/Full hip circle starting from front clockwise/Full chest circle to the rt (clockwise)/rt shoulder roll back/lf shoulder roll back

Lf hip thrust to the side/lf hip ommi/rt hip thrust to the side/rt hip ommi/Full hip circle starting from front counter clockwise/Full chest circle to the lf  (counter clockwise)/lf shoulder roll back/rt shoulder roll back


Rt hip thrust/lf hip thrust/rt backcorner thrust/lf backcorner thrust/Full chest circle to the left (counter clockwise)/rt shoulder roll back/lf shoulder roll back

Lf hip thrust/rt hip thrust/lf backcorner thrust/rt backcorner thrust/Full chest circle to the right (clockwise)/lf shoulder roll back/rt shoulder roll back ——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Rt hip piston up/lf hip piston up/rt hip ommi/rt hip maya/rt hip piston down/lf hip piston down/pelvic down/up.

Lf hip piston up/rt hip piston up/lf hip ommi/lf hip maya/lf hip piston down/rt hip piston down/pelvic down/ up.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————– Right Maya Right full hip circle around (clockwise) Pin Cushion (single right hip circle around towards belly button (left) and back around to center/half of a full hip circle going forward going to left side/single left hip circle around to left side and back around to center/half of a full hip circle going from left side back around to right side and back to center).

Right backcorner thrust Left backcorner thrust Right hip thrust side Left hip thrust side Left piston down Right piston down Backward pelvic stomach roll Chest forward circle (Ferris Wheel/figure 8) Right shoulder roll Left shoulder roll

Left Maya Left full hip circle around (counter clockwise) Pin Cushion (single left hip circle around towards belly button (right) and back around to center/half of a full hip circle going forward going to right side/single right hip circle around to right side and back around to center/half of a full hip circle going from right side back around to left side and back to center).

Left backcorner thrust Right backcorner thrust Left hip thrust side Right hip thrust side Right piston down Left piston down Backward pelvic stomach roll Chest forward circle (Ferris Wheel/figure 8) Left shoulder roll Right shoulder roll          Rockin Your Drum Solo Combinations PDF Download



My Mixed Bag of Thoughts on Choreography

Thoughts on Belly Dance Choreography, Leyla Najmas Belly Dance BlogWorking with many students has given me an inside look at the ins and outs of structuring an inspired thought into movement. It’s not always easy to place movement into the body the way we see it in our heads. Head to body is the key here and sometimes they don’t get along.

I have often wondered why dancers who are solo performers dance to music with In the Box choreography. As a soloist there are so many things we can get away with on stage that a troupe can’t. We can change up our choreography at a moments notice with no one the wiser. We can pull out of ourselves those questionable moves and make them look like poetic motion. We can engage the audience in a way that allows for them to participate in our show and become part to the choreography.

I have done In the Box choreography in my beginning years and I always felt trapped within my own moves. In fact I remember a private party  I danced at years ago where I totally forgot my choreography making me improvise on the spot for the first time. Even though I bombed it felt pretty good and that experience changed my dancing forever. From then on I was the Spontaneous Choreography Queen and never looked back.

I understand why troupes and duets work with In the Box choreography but I always wondered why troupe directors would have their dancers start on the same hip. I would mix everybody up and have half going one way and the other half going another. I enjoy troupe performances but sometimes after seeing 3 or 4 troupe performances one after another, it’s hard to remember one from the other. I mean this goes for soloists too, after awhile we all want to see someone on stage that not only brings their moves to life but gives us something we have never seen.

The first rule of thumb is be original to yourself. I think its okay to watch videos of dancers but more often then not dancers become dependant on ideas from other dancers. If you believe enough in yourself trust in your own ideas. A good way to start is to see what your favorite moves are and put them on paper. Put on a favorite song and see what moves work best. You’ll start to see little bits and pieces of the choreographer in you emerge. Just trust in what you come up with.

Impersonating other dancers is what young/beginner dancers do which is natural because dancers usually want to copy what inspires them. But I have found that if this goes on too long that the end result will be a dancer with no individuality. Eventually as a dancer you have to understand that this dance is about how you live life. Your life’s path is not your teachers and it’s best to realize what makes you inspired but then remember you have to transform what you’ve learned into your own understanding which translates into your own movement.

“Do you not realize that the dance is the pure act of metamorphosis?”

I watched an old video that I have of Zohair Zaki and the one thing that was clear was the fact that when she was on stage, she commanded attention and her orchestra played for her not the audience. Seeing legendary dancers like her made me realize that if dancers don’t understand why they are on stage then they won’t understand the root essence of this dance form. It’s always been about feminine empowerment that tells a story in a way only women can that attracts the masses and keeps them coming back for more.

Taking the first steps even if they are baby steps are necessary to getting started on figuring out what inspired thought moves you to dance it. Maybe it’s a simple move but if you feel it let it be your way of feeling not someone else’s. The lasting impression on any stage should be that of a dancer who not only motivates her audience but leaves them wanting more. The survival of this dance is based on the breathless dancer who knows she is leaving her audience wanting more yet making them wait for the next show. It’s always about the next show!