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Thoughts On Playing Music for Bellydancers
by Dunyah of Americanistan
 (Note: this article was published in Jareeda Magazine in the Spring of 2006)

Thirty years ago I saw my first belly dance performance—two awesome dancers and two live musicians. It rocked my world. Ever since then, I  have studied the dance with all my heart and later, the music. Eventually I created a band in which I play harmonium (an acoustic keyboard instrument) as well as dumbek, tar (frame drum) and arabic tambourine. This article is based on material I wrote to help musicians new to the band to understand Americanistan’s approach to playing music for belly dancers. I think it is useful for dancers to hear a musician’s perspective.   
    Ideally there is an exchange of energy between dancer and musicians during a performance. The image that illustrates this principal is that of the Egyptian folk musician respectfully holding a stick to the dancer’s torso so that he can draw the energy of her dance through the stick and into his body and out through the mizmar. Each inspires the other. That is why the “best”  dancers (best in the sense that they are the most connected—to the music, to the audience, to their own body and spirit) usually get the best from the band—they draw it out of us! We don’t have a stick, we use our eyes and our intuition to connect to the dance.
    The goal of the belly dancer is to become the visual expression of the music she is hearing and to put on a good show. To accomplish this, the dancer must understand and express the rhythms as well as the melodic phrases and qualities of the instruments. Playing finger cymbals adds another level of complexity to the performance.
    Conversely, the goal of the band is to accompany the dancer while expressing the music to the best of our ability.
    The shows we do are usually not rehearsed with the dancers. This is challenging, but we deal with it by having our set lists and following them while remaining flexible. Transitions tend to be the most difficult part of the performance for the band. A confident dancer trusts that she can cue the band well enough to follow her. Hips can give the cue to transition out of the slow section, as can zills. Eye contact or a spin can signal the end of the dance. A dancer who acknowledges the band before leaving the stage is much appreciated by the musicians.
    Dancers need changes in the music in order to express different qualities of the dance. There is a standard routine we call “The Formula:” Medium Fast Entrance, Slow section, Drum section, and Finale or Exit music. 8-10 minutes is a standard length for solos at many shows in our part of the U.S. Therefore, each section is approximately 2 minutes, but the exit piece is usually shorter. The dancer may request a longer slow section or a longer drum section, which means cuts elsewhere, for example a shorter exit.
    The entrance piece is usually upbeat, medium fast 4/4. The dancer often plays zills during this section and travels around the stage “greeting” the audience. The slow section, or taxim, is often the time for a veil dance, to chifti telli or bolero rhythm. Sometimes a sword is balanced during the slow section, or the dancer may perform a “standing taxim,” which means she doesn’t use many travelling steps but demonstrates isolations in response to the music, such as arm movements to the flute, shimmies to the kanoon, abdominal movements to the oud, etc. Floor work is sometimes done during the slow section, but not so often these days.
    Following the slow, sensuous part of the dance is the drum solo or drum taxim. This is upbeat, even playful, a time for the dancer and drummer to interact and demonstrate their skill at interpreting the rhythms. In a drum solo, the lead drummer may do many different rhythms but he should follow the “rule of four”  or four repetitions of each rhythm, so that the dancer can anticipate the changes. Usually the fourth repetition is emphasized with a special flourish or accent. The tar and tambourine players  hold down a backbeat, usually maksoum or ayyub. Our lead drummer, Wayne Omar, often does what I call “tikki tikkis”  for the dancer to shimmy to, toward the end of the drum solo. At that point the backup drummers drop out, but they will come back in for the ending.     
     In a drum taxim, as opposed to a drum solo, the backup drummers hold a steady beat while the lead drummer does accents and flourishes. This is done for less experienced dancers and also to give the lead drummer a break. Performing 6-8 drum solos in one night is pretty demanding!
    The exit piece is generally faster than the entrance piece, and often is shorter. Dancers like an ending with something dramatic like a big build-up, flourishes and drum rolls. Sometimes the finale piece is done to a 9/8 or a 7/8 but we don’t play these unless we are sure the dancer is comfortable with them. Less experienced dancers can have difficulty with these rhythms.
    In summary, the Formula is: Entrance, Slow, Drums, Exit. An average time frame might be: Entrance 2.5 minutes; Slow 2.5 minutes; Drums 1.5 minutes; Exit 1.5 minutes.
    A nice variation on The Formula is to have the slow section first, then a faster section, then drums, then exit. Another variation is to have part of the slow section be a taxim (improvisation) with one solo instrument and no drums. This  gives both dancer and musician a chance to get really creative.
    When playing for students or beginners we will often play a 5-minute routine with  two sections, such as an entrance piece and a drum taxim, or a slow section that builds up speed and ends up fairly fast. We try to watch our speed and not play too fast for novices, older dancers, dancers who tell us they are unwell, etc. Even experienced dancers have difficulty playing zills and dancing the accents when the music is too fast.
    Another challenge is not playing too long. It is easy to play longer than 2.5 minutes for a section, that is why if we are taking turns within a taxim, each musician’s improvisation has to be fairly short. Watching the dancer for cues to the ending of the taxim is also a challenge. Over the years as band director I have gotten pretty good at estimating the time, so I sometimes give the ending cue if necessary.
    The most important thing for both the dancer and the band is to have fun and go with the flow. Someday we will have a perfect show which we have rehearsed many times with the dancers and we will have tech rehearsal and lighting rehearsal, and I guess then we will have hit the big time!  
    Meanwhile, we are having a blast playing for dancers of all skill levels all over Oregon. We have developed very special relationships with dancers in towns where we have returned to play over and over. We have learned to anticipate their music preferences and dance style. It has been our privilege as a band to introduce many dancers to their first experience performing to live music. We have played for tribal troupes, Egyptian and Spanish-Arabic soloists, and dancers of many styles in between. We love the challenge of creating the perfect music for each dancer. Of course we’re not always perfect, but we do always give our best effort for each dancer because we love what we do.
    Recently we played music for 35 dancers in four days! This is a record for us. We enjoyed every minute of it, too. I realized that what Americanistan actually does is to act as shamans for all of these dancers. They want to dance to our music because they love the thrill of having live music tailored to their dance. What we do is provide a way for dancers to have an experience that takes them out of their everyday reality for a little while. Even if it's only for a few minutes, during the time they are dancing they are elevated into another dimension where everything is more intense, colors are brighter, feelings are stronger. It's this escape from the mundane that keeps dancers coming back for more, not just with us, but every time they dance to a CD too. Americanistan facilitates the experience That is what we do. It all started with my love of the dance experience which we now bring to others who want to have that experience too!  

Dunyah with harmonium

About the author: Dunyah, aka Denise Gilbertson, lives in Eugene, OR with her husband Wayne. She has been in love with Middle Eastern dance and music since 1976. Dunyah is director of Americanistan, has produced 4 CDs, with more on the way. She is also known for her goblet dancing. Visit Americanistan on the web at, or write to: 3150 W. 14th Ave., Eugene, OR 97402