For many years the Egyptian / Middle Eastern style dancers have been admired by the public. Many have held them to be ‘Goddesses’ and they were followed by their students all over the world. Many were highly respected as artists, and only history can show the effects some dancers will have had on the worlds of dance, acting, music and singing. Dancers such as Naima Akef, Taheya Karioka, Samya Gamal, Soheir Zaki, Hager Hamdy, Zeinat Oloui, Houda Shams Eddin, Nagua Fouad, Suzie Khairy, Nahid Sabry, Azza Sherif, Mona El Said, Lucy and the list can go on forever.
For several decades it has been vital for me, as a dance music composer, to understand the mentality of these dancers and how they approach the dance. I found that there was one common denominator to them all.
I realised that the dancer is the FINAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENT OF THE ORCHESTRA. She is an instrument who translates the musical sound into a three-dimensional moving shape.
The dancer is a musical instrument who has the supernatural ability to hear the sound performed by the soloing musician at the very same moment this sound is being created in the imagination of the soloing musician, even before he starts to hear it coming out from his instrument, be it a violin, accordion, qanun, nay, oud…
This brings me to a very important point of musical translation. I have often asked myself, “How should a dancer really translate the music?”. Then came the discovery of this simple but very effective formula: “E = E in its size and direction.” You can read about this in more detail in both my articles “Been There…, Done That…,” and “Drumming 4 Dancers”.
What is the 1st ‘E’? This is the musical sound you hear from the orchestra or instrument. The second ‘E’ is the movement made by the dancer in response to that musical sound. This movement is equal in length and size to the sound of the music. It also changes direction every time the musical sound changes in the slightest.
You have seen it, you fell in love with it every time you witnessed it, and many are trying to achieve this without knowing how to do it. Well, rest assured… it can be done.
Someone might say, well, this level of professional, experienced and famous dancer knows exactly what her musicians will play in whichever part of any music she will dance to. Well, let me tell you something here: This level of professional, famous and experienced dancer hires only the top level virtuoso class musicians to work in her band. At this strata of musicianship one is dealing with an artistic musician who is very experienced in playing his musical part perfectly and as it should be, every time.
However, this level of artist NEVER repeats the exact same phrase twice, EVER.
If we divert a little into the construction of musical composition, you will find that, while the components of music are:
Orchestral phrase (Lazmah)
A dance composition or a song is (roughly) composed of the following formats:
Repeat of the introduction
Musical bridge (optional)
Repeat of the introduction
Repeat of chorus
Repeat of the introduction or another musical bridge to bring in the
*(A musical term derived from ‘Introduction’. Used for ‘going out’, ‘leaving’, ‘the end’. At the beginning of the piece you have an ‘Intro’ – at the end you have an ‘Outro’.)
These are some of the basic components of a song or a dance composition. This does NOT mean that EVERY piece will be composed in this order. Some start with different points. Some composers will repeat some other parts more than others and some songs may have many verses.
This is usually how songs are composed and you can listen to some examples of compositions on this compilation such as CD I, tracks 13. Zeina, 14. Yahliw, 15. Sanatein Wanahayel Feek, 16. Be tes’ Al Leh Alayya, 17. Bey-Olouly Tooby, 18. Yammal-Amar Aalbab, and CD II tracks 1. We Maly Bass, 2. Sahret Ghawazy, 3. Tool Omri Ba-Hebbak, 4. Olulu, 5. Sowar El Habibah.
However, the intro, the outro, the musical phrases, the bridges and choruses are ALL precise and ALL have to be played the same way every time by the orchestra. But, the verses, when repeated, are performed differently each time by the soloist. This is amazing to listen to.
Please listen to the various repetitions of the accordion solos in the melody on track 14. Yahliw on this album. You will hear that he plays the melody 4 times, twice, then another 4 times between the qanun and nay solos, then a further 4 times after the oud and violin solos. This makes it 16 times. He plays it completely differently each time and each time it follows the same melody.
This is what I consider the most amazing quality possessed by Egyptian dancers. I have seen this in many of the performances I was honoured to participate in with some of Egypt’s great dancers where the melody is from a well known song and the solo instrument is the violin. You just hear it as if you have never heard it before. The inspiring part, to my mind, was when I saw someone like Mona El Said translating into dance what the soloist played exactly and so freshly as if she knew precisely what the violinist was going to play.
I always wondered to myself “How do they do it? How does this ever happen? What is the secret behind it?”
How does it happen, that when I am playing a tabla solo for a dancer, the dancer knows immediately what my next roll is or what my next tabla break or phrase is? Even if I have not played this particular roll or break for her before. How do we synchronise, drummer and dancer to this extent? And is there a way for dancers to learn or improve their own ability to translate the music at this speed and to this extent?
It is obvious that when all those special style of dancers danced, they portrayed the music perfectly in an “E = E” style even before I thought of it. Well, actually I thought of it after I watched them dancing this way in the first place. I only put their philosophy into words.
Then I wondered if there might be a way to develop this skill of translating the music with all its complexities and with all its layers of rhythm, melody, musical phrases and harmony.
Let’s, for example, take the layer of Rhythm:
In the orchestra for Egyptian dance we have so many percussion instruments playing the rhythm. The dohollas and duffs are keeping the basic foundation of the beat. The mazhar players play in certain parts creating huge flourishes when needed. The toura (large finger cymbals) keep the timing and make little stops here and there, opening up the sound with orchestration and keeping it tight with soloists if they ever play at the same time as the soloist, which would be unusual.
The riq (tambourine) plays the rhythm as well as decorating the phrases. You also have to understand that in classical music the riq is the leader of the orchestra’s percussion section. However, in the dance orchestra the 1st tabla is the leader of the rhythm section. The 2nd tabla plays the rhythm straight and clean, no frills or decorations. Finally, the 1st tabla player just sits on top of all of this, decorating, preparing, advancing, translating, pushing power and pulling back the energy when needed and frilling to make it sound prettier, or doing straight 4s when he just wants it to roll along smoothly. He also translates both the music as well as the movement of the dancer. At the same time he directs the orchestra at the right pace and speed, he also marks the dancer’s steps on the floor, translating some of her arm movements, portraying the action of her hips while ensuring that it all looks perfectly smooth and as if it is all meant to look this way.
This is just one moment within the percussion section of one musical phrase in a whole dance routine. And this is just within the first layer, the rhythm… Can you imagine what happens when you are listening to the full sound of the entire orchestra?
If you listen to CD I, tracks 14. Yahliw, 15. Sanatein Wanahayel Feek, 16. Be tes’ Al Leh Alayya, 17. Bey-Olouly Tooby, 18. Yammal-Amar Aalbab, and CD II, track 1. We Maly Bass as examples, you will be able to hear and recognise the various levels within the various four layers of the music plus those separate layers within the percussion section as I just explained.
But I had many other questions that needed answering, such as:
How does a dancer get to keep all these sounds in mind, body and soul? How does a dancer ever get to be prepared in advance for what one of the musicians might play to create a new version of the same solo? How does she translate it so instantaneously and spontaneously?
The answer came to me as follows: “I DO NOT KNOW.”
So I embarked on a mission to find out…. I decided that the best thing to do would be to put myself into practice mode for weeks and just drum away, practicing and practicing. I imagined that I was drumming for a dancer, and I imagined that she was doing all sorts of known and unknown moves that I had to translate in a soloing situation. I did this for months, even years. Until I could not imagine that a dancer could do a step or movement that I could not translate on the tabla or with a musical composition.
I practiced during daytime and performed at night clubs during the nights. I began to get many compliments not only from the dancers I was drumming for, but from my fellow musicians who began to recommend me to other bigger artists and bigger bands. Believe me, I was not and I am not looking at this from a SELF point of view. This was a STUDY, an EXPERIMENT. It was almost done “laboratory” fashion.
Could, then, a dancer also undertake the same experiment, and train herself to be able to predict what sounds she might ever encounter from any soloing instrument?
YES, THE DANCER CAN.
I realised that dancers can translate the music faster than the speed of THOUGHT.
I mean if you, the dancer, are meant to “be the music” as it sounds and at the moment it is played, there should be no time gap between you hearing it and the audience seeing it.
So I developed an excellent way to do this and many of my students worldwide have used this technique and have developed the above skill.
This is how it is done:
- Take any tracks from this compilation with a free-flowing solo such as in track 14. Yahliw.
- Now, while sitting down (to start with), move your arms artistically according to the sound you are hearing.
- One musical note from the soloist, however long or short, equals only one movement from your arms in one direction that is as long or as short as the musical note you hear. This has to be done in such a strict manner that if you miss one sound, please return to the beginning or a little before the start of that phrase and do it again.
- Two musical notes from the soloist, however long or short, equals two movements of your arms in two different directions. And each of these movements is longer or shorter than the other movements according to the length of each of these two musical notes by the soloist.
- Three musical notes from the soloist, however long or short, equals three movements of your arms in three different directions. And each of these movements is longer or shorter than the others according to the length of each of these three musical notes by the soloist.
And so on and so on…
If the soloist stops for a pause, you stop with him, dead. No movement until the sound of the soloist starts again.
After a little while, you will feel that your arms are going to fall off from exhaustion and you will feel like hitting Hossam for suggesting this in the first place. But if this happens, please take a short break and breathe deeply. Then start again when the blood starts to flow back normally into your arms.
This is not an exercise to make your arms stronger, even though it will, this is something much more of a dance item than mere athleticism. It is training your heart, your mind and you, the soul behind the dance to be one with the music.
Alright, as you practice with this style of translating the sound into movement, sitting down, I would like to ask you to do the same thing standing up and engaging your hips in all types and varieties of figure 8s. Particularly with the violin, accordion, saxophone or other instruments from this family of sound.
Please do the next exercise as follows:
- One musical note from the soloist, however long or short, equals only one movement from your arms. This has to be done in such a strict manner that if you miss one sound, please return to the beginning or a little before the start of that phrase and do it again.
- One musical note from the soloist, however long or short, equals only one movement from your arms and a suitable movement from your hips in one direction.
- Two musical notes from the soloist, however long or short, equals two movements from your arms and two movements from your hips in two different directions. However, the arms and the hips should move in suitable directions either together or in different directions to complement each other. And each of these movements is longer or shorter than the other movements according to the length of each of these two musical notes by the soloists.
- Three musical notes from the soloist, however long or short, equals three movements from your arms and three different movements from your hips in three different directions. However, the arms and the hips should move in suitable directions either together or in different directions to complement each other. And each of these movements is longer or shorter than the others according to the duration of each of these three musical notes by the soloists.
And so on and so on.
I sincerely believe that if you do this with many soloing instruments as your physical, mental and spiritual daily warm-up, you will improve your ability to translate the music faster and also more accurately and this will lift you above having to concentrate on the mechanics of the musical composition. This will also raise your artistic capability in interpreting the various sounds of the musical compositions you are planning to choreograph.
But then came the big burning question… how does a dancer translate the entire orchestral sound in the answers of the arrangement within the orchestral phrase (lazmah)?
The orchestra is nothing else but yet another soloist.
‘The orchestra’ is nothing but a huge big soloist, the same way, ‘the audience’ is composed of many individuals. That’s all.
This soloist, the orchestra, is louder, stronger in power than a single soloist, of course.
The orchestra’s sound waves are larger and occupy a wider sphere in the physical world than the sound waves coming from a single solo instrument. Dancing to this is simple mathematics and geometry.
- Single soloist playing: you perform in one spot.
- Whole orchestra playing: you have the choice to use the full space on your stage or if the orchestra is playing short responses to a ‘question’ by a soloist, then you show the difference in the size of your movement between the smaller size of the single soloist and the larger movement to the sound of the orchestra.
The artistic choices in interpreting the music you are dancing to, are your own choices – not mine.
An advantage of dancing to the music of an entire orchestra is that the orchestra is ALWAYS PREDICTABLE. It has to play the exact same parts every time. No improvisation allowed. It is the soloist’s sound that you have to be alert for, 100% of the time.
You will find, that, having practiced as described above to soloist parts (violin, accordion, nay, qanun or oud) and the more perfectly you can hear, follow and interpret their sounds, the better you will be at interpreting the orchestral music.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to train you, your ears, your mind and body to be one with the music. You may not find it easy to start with but as you progress with this course, your ability to be one with the sound will rise in proportion to the amount of time you spend practicing it and how accurate you are, following my instructions above.
Here are some pointers for dancing with specific soloing instruments:
(Please refer to the album “Source of Fire” for the following solos.)
Nay (flute): Track 8, El gabbar
Always use fluid arm movements, figure of 8s, and add that famous spiritual expression on your face. Pay attention to whether it is played fluidly or rhythmically or without rhythm, mind the musical accents of the solo as well as any call-and-response between the nay and the orchestra.
Qanun (zither): Track 3. Hobbik Feyya Haram
Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy, but always pay close attention to the rhythm and the musical accents of the solo as well as the orchestral call-and-response, in between.
Oud (lute): Track 6. Sahara Groove
Same as the qanun.
Violin: Track 5. Hayah Baad Hayah
This is the one to watch out for, as the violin can play long-drawn notes as well as fast choppy type sounds. When the violin is playing “legato” (longish-drawn notes flowing one into the next without stops in between), you follow what he is doing, with your movement: Fig. 8s with arms, and fluidity. If he does the fast rhythmic ‘tremelendo’ sounds, you know what to do.
Accordion: Track 7. Domoua El Farha
Same as with the violin, but it’s more earthy and Baladi.
The basic rule to remember is simply, E = E
The soloist does a sound this long / / / you move this long / / /. He makes a sound this long / / / / / /, you move this long / / / / / /. He goes ~~~~~~~~~~, you go ~~~~~~~~~~. He does XXXXXXXXXX, you do XXXXXXXXXX.
And to reiterate, the same thing applies to the orchestral music, but with large movements, and with greater use of space. If in the middle of the soloing part there is a call-and-response between soloist and orchestra, reply with the orchestra, but with larger movements, even a spin or a change of position, according to the sound of the orchestra, then go back to what you were doing with the soloist.
Then, when the orchestra plays a big LAZMAH, you use larger movements and you choreograph that accordingly, with special attention to stops, rhythmic changes and speeds of the musical parts.
I have been working on many other exercises, to develop a dancer’s ability to express the transitions between the layers of the music, rhythm, melody, lazmah, etc.… We teach these in our “Advanced Dancers, Teachers & Professional Performers Certified Course”. To learn more about this course and other “Foundation” courses at the Drumzy School of Music & Dance, go to www.hossamramzy.com
I have seen my students and dancers around the world follow these exercises and principles very precisely and they have developed from beautiful dancers to amazing musical instruments.
I hope I have helped. It is my aim to let you know and to help you become a more KNOWLEDGEABLE DANCER.
I look forward to HEARING YOU dance.
With Lots of Rhythm,