Why bellydancers, anyway? (part 3) “confessions of a bellydance musician”

This one is four years coming.  I can’t even remember if I ever posted the “part 3” or not, but was considering blogging about some things relating to being a being a dancers’ musician and thought I’d look up the blogs I’d done regarding this.  I still can’t believe I’d blogged those over four years ago, but there it is and here is part 3!  For those interested, here are part 1 and part 2.

As I recently gave another intervew to Julia Zay that is a part of a series of pieces talkin about contemporary bellydance musicians, some of the things we discussed have been on my mind lately especially regarding actual collaboration between dancers and musicians (in contrast to havin dancers dance to can music) and especially regarding copyright and licensing of music for perormances or media that will be sold (show DVDs, for example).

But a few amendments to the dance exposure I mentioned in the previous (part 2) installment of this blog series, since it has been some four years since that post.

  • I’ve since been dancing intermittently with the Louisville Ethnic Dancers when I’m actually in town and not gigging.  This has given me some valuable insight into dance from a dancers side, especially regarding how to have the right musical accents and style for particular dances.  I’d mentioned in a previous post the idea of having a “musical accent” and how that can get in the way of understanding how the music works with the dance,  This is where much of that experience is coming from.  As I also joined a Balkan band (primarily as a drummer with some singing), Kermes, in Bloomington Indiana I’ve gotten the chance to play tons of the Balkan, Eastern European and Western Asian tunes and styles that I learned how to dance to with the LED.  Also, one of the members of the group, Gergana, is from Bulgaria and is one of the folk dance teachers in Bloomington.
  • As I’ve also blogged about occasionally here, I’ve started up more intimate projects with individual dancers.  The first attempt, which hasn’t really gotten off the ground, was Natyasastra which was to focus on Indian Music and Dance (especially Bollywood).  Circumstances have prevented this particular project from doing live perfomances though that may still change in the near future.  Another project, Raks Makam, has actualy done some unofficial performances.  There’s been a line-up change as Taletha, who moved to Colorado, is no longer active dancing in my area.  She remains in an ‘artistic director’ type of position with the project while one of her dance students, Jessica Hamilton, takes up the reins of the dance.  This project focuses mainly on Central Asian dance and music.  The latest duo project, Secondhand, is probably the most active.  We call ourselves a “Experimental Vintage Goth” Bellydance and Music duo, and I’ve had great fun working with Celeste on trying new things.
  • Along with joining the Balkan band last year, I’ve been playing regularly with a Klezmer group, the River City Klezmer Band, and have gotten some great experience playing traditional Klezmer and Eastern European Jewish dance music.  Also, since 2008, I’ve been playing with Ahel El Nagam, a Classical Arabic Group based in Louisville.  We play much more traditional Middle Eastern music than what you might hear from me in, say, il Troubadore.  Lately I’ve been drumming for the group as we’ve also had a number of line-up changes, but it is really wonderful getting the chance to work on some of the classica bellydance tunes in a more traditional setting than I have in the past.

So, as you can see, I’ve expanded my collaborative projects to go well outside of working with just bellydancers and in a sense have come full circle at being a much more versatile musician for them.

At the same time, now that I’ve been actively working with other types of dancers, I get a different feel for dance culture and how dancers view music.  Working more intimately with dancers and in other bands have given me a different viewpoint on how dancers conceive of music as well as how different kinds of musicians view the music they are making for dancers.

There seems to be this general conceit on both sides (musicians and dancers) regarding how they view their potential collaborative partners.  And this plays into the expectations (as well as the experiences) both have had with members of the other groups.  Many of these things are recognizable to other folks who are members of both groups (I’ve worked with and have met a number of bellydancers and other dancers who are also actively performing musicians) os have also had many opportunities to talk about some of these issues over the years.  Many of these views are misconceptions about the role and function of the other group and in many ways also informs how a group will understand, say, copyright and licensing/permission issues.

I suppose one of the reasons I do actually do so many things has to do with two inter-related things: 1) the frustrations of dealing with the misconceptions of one group vis-a-vis the other group; and 2) the desire to want to actually learn more about the music and dance I may have a passing familiarity with in the first place.

In the end, much of the above has to do with some measure of respect for the traditions I’m working with–something I bloggged about regarding the Arabic term dhawq (“courtesy”) in a previous post.  My comment on A.J. Racy’s statements about dhawq was “Courtesy implies some acknowledgement of the other musician in this context–an acknowledgement that what is going on in the melody or melodic line is far more important than what is happening in the accompaniment.”

And that’s what it’s all about–not just acknowledgement of the soloing musician or singer, but also the acknowledgement of the dancers and or the tradition of the music you happen to be performing.   In the case of the dancer, the acknowledgement of the musician.

And this isn’t just the ‘after performance’ acknowledgements where you gesture to the musicians during hte applause or nod toward the dancer in appreciation of her (or his) dancing with you.  It’s a continuous acknowledgement all throughout the performance, from the very beginning to the very end.  As Racy says, “an accompanying performer must be musically effective without being too prominent or obtrusive.”  And here obtrusiveness doesn’t just mean with the music, but with the actual physical performance itself. 

If a musician jumps up to the front of the stage like a rockstar while a dancer is dancing, or if a dancer doesn’t bother physically reflecting what a solo melody line is ‘saying’ during the performance, this is not exhibiting dhawq or courtesy.  I’ve heard from some dancers there are some bellydance bands (I won’t name them) that really don’t lke having a dancer dance to their music as they feel as if the dancer would take away their thunder i.e. would be the sole focus of attention) which just seems like a ridiculous and counterproductive stance to take if you happen to be a band that plays bellydance music.

If a dance program doesn’t bother to list the name of the musicians who made the recordings that a dancer is dancing to, that also isn’t exhibiting dhawq or courtesy.  And I’ve even hear of examples of events with dancers preferring to dance to a CD recording of a band who also happens to be performing at the same event, if that isn’t exhibiting dhawq or courtesy, then I don’t know anything anymore.

What it all boils down to is a little bit of respect and that entails constant acknowledgement which also entails not getting so caught up in yourself that you forget there are other people performing with you and more than likely you’re not supposed to be the center of attention during the entirety of the performance (or at least during the portion of the performance when you’re not supposed to be the center of attention).

In a future installment of this series I’ll take a look at each of these issues in depth and hope that with more communication between musicians and dancers (both during performance and outside of performance) we can all have more rewarding experiences practicing our art.

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