We teach fairly difficult choreographies in our beginner classes. We do this for a reason, so if you’re in one of these classes, I hope that you’ll stick it out, you can do it with practice, and the rewards are coming. It may seem harsh to some, to teach a ‘beginner’ choreography with complicated sequences and picky technique. Thinking back to high school and college, when I was learning choreographies for various extra-curriculars, and even some of the beginner belly dance choreographies I learned later in life, several of them had one thing in common: they were difficult (requiring me to really practice the moves), or they were cheesy (in a bad way) and I felt a little embarrassed to dance them, even after I had learned them well enough. When I learned that Jules had a similar experience in show choir and as a beginner in belly dance, I began theorizing that perhaps this is common in choreographies taught to beginners across multiple styles. I will note that I cannot speak for ballet, as I did not take ballet as a child (where a recital might have been a possibility) and the classes I took as an adult did not teach choreography.
In our mission at this school to help students develop a dance practice for themselves that they can enjoy and be proud of, we don’t want to spend your valuable time teaching you routines that we all think are cheesy. So, we teach choreographies that we like (and hope that you’ll like, even though you’ll have to practice more). I personally have always worked harder to learn choreography that I liked, found challenging, could see myself actually performing, and could be proud of having learned.
Since every school can define things differently, I’d like to share with you our thoughts on how we define what separates a ‘beginner’ choreography from others:
The movements are taught.
In a beginner class, students will receive a breakdown of the movements used in the choreography, usually in the warm up. This will not be as detailed a breakdown as they would get in a technique class due to time constraints. Students that believe they need more help to pick up the underlying technique should consider attending the technique class as well. In an intermediate or advanced class, students are expected to already know their belly dance technique, with the exception of any particularly specific or unique stylizations which get a brief breakdown. Choreography classes get less and less movement/technique breakdown as they get more advanced.
No requirements are imposed for range of motion or strength.
Choreographies with beginners in mind will not include dance movements that require particularly taxing or dangerous feats of flexibility or strength. No splits, no back bends, no drops, no requirement on how high a battement (kick) needs to be, etc. If there is floorwork being taught, which is rare, there will be modifications available for those that have joint issues or do not yet have sufficient strength to execute the movement safely (it is the student’s responsibility to mention these issues in order to make sure they are given a modification.) In more advanced choreographies, certain movements may be required and students will be expected to train up to the appropriate strength, speed, or flexibility level before they can perform (or in some cases before they can learn) the choreography.
Modifications are Available.
As mentioned before, modifications are available in the case of floorwork in all beginner classes.
Modifications are also available for more complicated movements, and it may be optional to drop a layer in class and practice it more at home. When preparing for performance, if there are layers that some students are still not able to execute, those layers may be dropped. (An example of a layered movement is a ¾ shimmy on top of a foot pattern with prescribed arm movements – in such a case the ¾ shimmy might be dropped.) The same concept applies to particular movements – if it just proves to be too difficult for the group after they’ve had enough time to practice on their own and ask clarifying questions in class, an easier move can be substituted for the group performance.
Choreographies in beginner classes generally will not have extensive or complex layering. This does not mean there will be no layering. Layering a shimmy with hip, arm, or chest movements is pretty common in our beginner choreographies. Because it’s such an essential part of belly dance, we feel it’s good to just practice that and get past it early on so that layering something on top of a shimmy won’t be a stumbling block later on. Layering can (and does) get much more complex as a student advances. Timings, foot patterns, arm patterns, finger cymbals, hip, chest, head, and abdominal movements can all be layered on top of one another (each having its own downbeat and direction options). Thankfully in beginner choreographies we usually stop at layering shimmies with one other thing.
Beginner doesn’t mean easy.
In order to have a choreography that you are proud of having learned, are excited to perform, and have put the work into in order to learn it well enough to perform it for others, odds are it wasn’t easy. The difficulty of the routine has little bearing on whether or not it can be appropriately taught to beginners (safety precautions regarding range of motion and strength still apply). You get out what you put in, and if you feel like a choreography is not exciting or not challenging, you are less likely to put much into it. So yes, many of the routines we teach in our ‘beginner’ class are difficult for a beginner. If you don’t have to learn something new and work for it, exactly how proud are you going to feel of your accomplishment? Not very proud at all, I figure, and I want you to be proud of yourself, so I hope that we challenge you to push yourself. The rewards have always been worth it to me, and I hope they’ll be worth it to you as well.
When it comes to belly dance choreography, particularly for beginners, it all comes down to one simple concept:
If it isn’t cheesy, it wasn’t easy.