Tips for Performing with a Live Band

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Alla Yustur Fusion Band: Christy Smith, Majda Anwar, Doug Smith, Marla Majett, Olaf Gradin, Haider Atar, Itai Peer, Donovan Jaymz

Performing with a live band is probably one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had as a performer. As a dancer and a musician, it’s what I live for. I’ve often joked that if someone approached me with a gig to perform with a professional Arabic band 5 nights I week, I’d drop my entire life to do it. Interaction with live musicians is an experience I hope all dancers are able to experience, yet in today’s belly dance world it’s not common.

Gone are the days where the majority of belly dancers are blessed with performing with a live band on a nightly basis. In my experience, dancers don’t have the skills or experience to work with a live band simply because live music is not readily available in most cities.  However, dancers still have the ability to perform with a live band from time to time. Many festivals and large events hire bands for dancers to perform. For example, Atlanta’s local festival TribalCon, organized by Ziah Ali, has had a band for the last 7 years. I’ve had the pleasure of acting as liaison between dancers and musicians for TribalCon.

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2016 TribalCon Orchestra Pit: Denys Proteau, Darbuka Dave, Christy Smith, Kylie Hilali, Majda Anwat, Al Cofrin, Carmine Guida

For those of you who have not gone, TribalCon is the country’s largest tribal fusion belly dance conference. The festival features a live band during both the Friday and Saturday night shows.  As the dancer liaison, I help dancers choose songs for the pit to play and I help musicians solidify a roadmap for a specific song for a dancer or troupe. The TribalCon pit band is comprised of musicians from all over the country. I’ve been very proud that the TribalCon pit band has pulled together tons of tunes that are Greek, Balkan, Arabic, Turkish and straight up fusion for all styles of dance. I’ve both performed as a dancer and as a musician in many TribaCon shows. It’s been a blessing and a curse.

Acting as a translator between the band and dancer, I’ve learned a ton in this role and would like to share some of my experiences in helping dancers perform with a live band for the first time. I’m going to include tips from both the dancer and the musician perspective as I’ve played both roles. These tips are by no means exhaustive and I fully expect to update this blog post with more ideas and tips as I think of them. I’ve purposefully not included tips on drum solos as that will be a different post. In the meantime, here are a few initial tips to help you nail your first live band performance:

1. Not All Belly Dance Bands are the Same

Get to know your band. What instruments do they play? How long have they been performing? What style do they gravitate towards? An Arabic band is going to sound WAY different than a Turkish band. You may also find yourself with a fusion band who plays all sorts of tunes from around the world. Their sound will be different than a band completely dedicated to one style of music.  Instrumentation makes a huge difference. For example, if your band does not have an accordion and you want to do a beledy progression, get ready for it to sound different.

2. Understand Your Roadmap

Many belly dance tunes from the Middle East have a ton of different roadmaps. Some are folk tunes that have a million different verses or some are longer songs that have been edited down for belly dance. If you are asking for a “classic” song provide a sample for the band so they know what you are asking for. Also be prepared for a piece to not turn out exactly how you envisioned. You’ll need to be flexible as a soloist. If you are a group, communicate with the band that the roadmap will be crucial as you’ll have a choreography. If you are performing improv, workout any dramatic pauses and tempo changes so you’re on the same page. Send samples to your band early enough so that if they don’t know a tune they can either tell you they can learn or you need to perform to something else.

3. Get Ready to Improvise

Most musicians playing Middle Eastern music will include a taqsim, or instrumental improvisation, within a song. This is a GREAT opportunity for you to interact with the band. Prepare in advance by listening to recordings of the band’s improvisation to get a feel for their style. Side note:  Please do not send a taqsim to a musician and ask if they can replicate. They probably can, however, taqsim is an artist’s expression and it’s weird to carbon copy one musician’s taqsim.

4. Rehearse the Ending

Most belly dance bands will rely on the dancer to explain their entrance and exit. Be prepared to communicate how you want your piece to start (taqsim at the beginning?) and end (with a bang? Trail off?). If you have zero time to rehearse with a band, planning the ending is the most important part to agree upon before going on stage. Most audience members don’t remember your entrance, but they will remember your ending.

5. Learn the Intent and Lyrics of a Song

This goes without saying, but if you have lyrics in a piece, learn those lyrics. A lot or Arabic tunes also have deep contextual meanings based on then they were created. An Arab audience will react to a song based on both the lyrics and their personal experience. If you’re not dancing for an Arabic audience or for the audience who speaks the language of a song, this is your opportunity to educate!

6. THANK Your Musicians!

As a musician, I’ve spent hours upon hours rehearsing many dancers in preparation for a show. I understand the hustle, bustle and crazy that dancers experience performing with a live band for the first time, but do not forget to thank your musicians on stage. As much as it is a treat to perform for you as a dancer, make sure you show your appreciation towards your musicians. During your exit, bow to your musicians or acknowledge them in some sort of way before you leave the stage.

These are only a few tips for performing with a live band. I’m sure there are many more! Feel free to add some suggestions in the comments and I’ll add to this blog post.

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