Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting better at bellydance without leaving the sofa.

Part 5 - Using other people's performance videos to improve your dance

Are you exhausted from all those classes, drilling and conditioning? Are you perhaps recovering from an illness or injury but still craving some bellydance? The good news is, that even when you can hardly move a muscle, you can still keep working at improving your dance! This is a real thing as neuroscience is showing us that trained dancers' brains have the ability to simulate movement while observing other dancers, how cool is that?

I really love YouTube, for the vast variety of, well, everything it has on there. For a dancer it can be a really valuable resource, allowing us to catch up with the happenings of events we couldn’t get to, or see our idols perform without leaving our armchairs. I am constantly updating my playlists of dance material for my students and other dancers.

YouTube can also be a great training tool. I’m not talking about those “learn to bellydance online” videos. Forget those. Although learning from DVDs and video streaming can be a worthwhile option, YouTube is full of dancers with no credentials teaching wrong and potentially damaging technique, without the feedback or detail you need to really master the dance.

What I am talking about is performance videos. There are literally thousands of examples of bellydance performances on YouTube, some are highly polished productions, some a home camera footage from small events, but you can learn and improve your dance with all of it.

Getting out and watching live performances will always be the aspirational option, however unless you are in an extremely busy dance community, you won’t be doing that every night, or even every week. If you are, you are still missing out on amazing performances happening all around the globe, you can’t physically get to everything!

Whether the dancer is highly accomplished, or inexperienced, whether the performance resonates deeply with you or not, there is always something to take away from watching a dancer. You can optimise this by taking time to consider and reflect upon your observations.

I like to watch a video through twice. The first time I let it wash over me, I just enjoy the performance as it is, trying to avoid critical eyes. I think it is important to retain the ability to simply experience a performance. Dance is communication, listen, don’t drown out the soul of the dancer by analysing every minutia, not yet.

After the first watch, take a moment to reflect upon your impressions. It can be worthwhile to write them down. If you are a bit stuck, think about these questions:
  • What was the dancer trying to convey?
  • What was the mood of the piece?
  • Is this a character piece? Who is the character, do you feel you know them?
  • Did you like the dance overall?
  • Does anything stand out as being particularly good or particularly distracting?
The next viewing is the time to start analysing, you might even want to watch in short sections, repeating anything you feel needs another look.

Try and identify what it is exactly that you liked about the performance, and if there were elements that you didn’t feel so great about, why was that the case? There are a huge number of things you could focus on. Try to pick a few based either on something you are personally working on, or something that struck you about this particular piece. Why not start by choosing just one of these elements and the example questions here?


When we look at presentation we are taking in many different elements, from setting and costuming to audience engagement. Good presentation will vary to suit the venue and audience.

The look
Costume, make up, hair and jewelry, look at the visual the dancer has put together.
  • Is the image authentic or suited to the style? If so how? 
  • If there are unconventional elements, do they work in your opinion? Why?
  • How does the costume and make up reflect the audience and setting?
  • How does the aesthetic compliment the mood or message of the dance?
  • Does the dancer use their costume for artistic effect, or dance in a way that shows off the costume?
The setting
What is the dance space like? Small restaurant or large theatre? Is the dancer on a raised stage or on the same level as the audience?
  • How does the setting affect the relationship between the dancer and the audience?
  • Does the dancer use the setting to its full advantage?
  • What does the dancer do to overcome the limitations of the venue?
  • How does the dancer move into the dance space?
  • How do they use stage lighting to facilitate the entrance and mood?
  • Do they use all the dance space available?
The presence
Stage presence is key to how a performance comes across, but it can appear quite intangible when you are trying to cultivate it yourself.
  • Does the dancer hold your attention, and that of the audience?
  • Can you identify something that makes them compelling to watch?
  • How would you classify their on-stage persona, dramatic, flirtatious, friendly, intimidating?
  • What do they do to reinforce your impression of their persona?
  • Do they interact with the audience, even subtly? How?
  • Are they unable to interact with the audience, if so, how do they keep a connection?
  • If there is a band, how does the dancer interact with them?


If you are working on a particular style of Middle Eastern dance, like Saiidi, Melaya Leff or Khallegi it is worth watching a range of performances to see how the style can be interpreted. The same goes in fact for all categories of bellydance.
  • What style is the dance in?
  • Is it true to the tradition of the style?
  • How does the music choice reflect the dance style?
  • What elements of the convention of this style have they incorporated?
  • What have they done that is innovative?
  • How do they convey their personality or individuality within the framework of this style?


  • How does their music choice reflect the style of dance they are portraying?
  • Which part/parts of the music are they dancing to?
  • Do they respond more to the rhythms, the melody, or mix it up?
  • Does the choreography fit a beat count? Obviously so? Or is it more fluid?
  • How do they interpret strong accents? Every time? Which movements? Which is more effective?
  • On what part of your body do you see the music interpreted? Is this consistent or varied?
  • How do they dance to repeated phrases? In the same way, a similar way, or completely differently?
  • Are there times when the dancer does something “unexpected”, like dances slow to a fast section of music? What effect does this have?


  • Is the piece choreographed or improvised?
  • Are there repeated sections in the choreography? How do you enjoy these as an audience?
  • How does the dancer use stillness or poses in their dance?
  • Is there a story or journey being conveyed through the dance
  • How does the dancer use the performance space? 
  • Are there any major shifts in mood or style? How are these handled?
  • How does the dancer deal with getting on and off stage?
  • Are there changes of dancer or group within the performance? How are these carried off smoothly?
  • What range of techniques does the dancer use? Are there lots of different steps, or a smaller number? What is the proportion of simpler movements to challenging ones? 
  • How does it finish? Is there a false finish (such as a change to a new music track), how does the dancer differentiate between these and the true finale?

The technical bit

I remember watching a gorgeous dance by Frank Farinaro, and exclaiming to myself out loud “what WAS that, it was BEAUTIFUL”. So when I had finished the first viewing, I rewatched that section and identified the step, it was a fairly commonplace layer, but travelling on a turn in such a way that it looked so fluid and otherworldly.

If you are working on, perhaps, your arms, watch the video through, concentrating on what the dancer does with their arms. What do you like about how they use them? The same could go for hipwork, footwork or facial expressions. Concentrate on one aspect at a time and you will process it better.

Sometimes you will see a movement, or a combination that you love, so why not break it down and work out what they are doing.

Even if you don’t like the dance as a whole, the dancers persona or even the style of dance, you may well find a gorgeous snippet that you can learn and remodel into something that you can incorporate into your own dance. Changing the timing, the emphasis or the size of the movement can make it into something completely new.

Watch the section a few times over.
  • Observe where the feet are falling. Does the step travel, turn or otherwise? Does it need to?
  • Is the movement sharp or smooth, which parts are moving and which are still?
  • Which plane are the hips/torso etc moving in? Is that a horizontal or a vertical 8?
  • What are the possible ways the movement could be generated? A hip movement could be driven by the obliques, legs, glutes or some combination of the 3. Can you tell from the movement? Does it make any difference (if there are layers it likely will)?
  • If you are looking at a series of steps, how does the dancer transition from one to the next?
Hopefully this has given you some ideas that will improve the value you get out of watching dance performances on video. It's just a starting point, I am sure there are many things I have missed, but I am also sure that you will discover all kinds of benefits from watching and properly reflecting upon dance videos, once you get started. Don't forget to do some actual dancing inbetween! 

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