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The Pernicious Influence of Music on Dance

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Evolution or Disaster? and How to Best Express Your Displeasure

Almost all dancers and musicians agree that the music influences the dance, and that change is inevitable. However, exactly WHAT combinations of dance, music and change are acceptable is endlessly in debate. For some, the more influences the better. Others battle against the pollution of pernicious (and usually Western) influences. I perceive yet another symptom of an enervated and diluted culture: no pith, no pungency, no artistic merit in artistic debate. What do the disputing parties offer the intelligent bystander as reward for her valuable attention? Consult your artistic consciences... not much, wouldn't you admit?

Compare our feeble performances with the exquisite hand-to-hand verbal combat achieved in the August 1936 issue of Musical Times, specifically in an article entitled Symphonies and Ballets. In this case, it was not dancers arguing about acceptable music; it was musicians arguing about the use of symphonic music in ballet. Leonide Massine, for many years ranked as the greatest ballet dancer AND choreographer in the Western world, began choreographing ballet to large, loud symphonies by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms. He caused an uproar among the critics, but the audience loved his work, and eighty years later I suspect few even bat an eye at the notion. (Is there a moral in here somewhere?) But for the people caught up in the event, it was a revolution. The article in Musical Times included some no-holds-barred opinions which still set the standard for verbal duels between passionate people.

"Les Presages suggested an encounter between the Demon Influenza and a mixed hockey team, with the consequent despair of the lady secretary impersonating Hygiene."
"No one would attempt to dramatise Browne or Kant. These ballets are no less absurd."
"Les Presages and Choreatium would be hooted in Vienna or Berlin. Their acceptance here is a sign of a musically uncultivated community."
"You really do not prove your point by suggesting that those who happen to differ from you are congenital idiots."
"Sensitive musicians can, and do, witness Choreartium without torture because in the presence of another art that interests them their musical sensitiveness goes into abeyance."
"Ballet-symphony requires a new type of symphonic writing in which the appeal to the imagination is limited and needs to be supplemented by the dancer's art. Distinguished balletomanes who give their blessing to Choreartium are demonstrating that to them the purity and integrity of a musical composition are of minor importance."
"Mr. Capell's heading, Massine's Little Miscalculation of the Eloquence of Legs, is not a serious contribution to the discussion."

Would it be too much to suggest a correlation between wussy insults and wimpy music and dance? I argue for a higher standard of artistic dispute. Grab your Thesauruses and tie a few new words on!

Live Music vs. Canned: Three Decades of Change

In 2004 Habibi magazine printed 'Three Decades of Change,' a collection of ten short essays by ten famous dancers. Three of them (Aisha Ali, Margo O'Dell and Amera Eid) included observations about the sea-change in the type of music used in American belly dance during the last half of the twentieth century.

Aisha Ali: If dance is the visual representation of music, the most significant change in the way we dance today, as opposed to forty years ago, has evolved through our music. During the sixties most ethnic supper clubs had live music. With call-response between musicians and dancers, one's performance could vary between exhilarating or disastrous, and without it, the dance could be monotonous; but it was always personal. At the time, the music might be from a mediocre family band or a virtuoso direct from the Middle East. Many of the musicians then were Armenians, Turks or Greeks. The small selection of Middle Eastern LPs available had sound quality too poor to use for performances.

Now there are fewer nightclubs, and many professional dancers perform at restaurants without stages or lighting and without live music; still, they enjoy something that is equally valuable, the chance to dance to music of their own choice. Today, a lot of musicians are drawn to synthesized sounds and remixed fusion, and a new generation of dancers finds that sound exciting; however, we now have the opportunity to dance to any instrumentation from any era whether it be raqs sharqi or raqs shaabi - reproduced in high quality sound.

Amera Eid: Artistically, sometimes I think we were better off in those days than now. I feel that this generation lacks a feeling and connection to live music that we took for granted....Not enough real Oriental dance music is being produced by dancers for dancers. If you don't get ... goose bumps from the pit of your stomach to the tip of your head from the music, how can you express it in your body?

Margo Abdo O'Dell: In the late 1970s I began formal study of Middle Eastern Dance. Pressure for scrupulous authenticity marked the early development of the dance in the United States and strongly influenced attitudes towards it. Over the last three decades, the dance in the U.S. has been influenced by everything from flamenco to new age to hip-hop... Contemporary Arabic music is incorporating these cross-cultural sounds, as well as being influenced by jazz, classical and rock and roll.

Do Some Musicians Sabotage the Dancers?

Lou Shelby, the owner of the Fez, the first Arabic club in Los Angeles, addresses this question in an interview in Habibi magazine:

In Lou's experience, the main attraction in the show was between dancer and drummer, rather than the other instruments. At times, this is especially unfortunate, since the drummer can make or break the show more than any other musician. In response to a question regarding how to get musicians to cooperate with dancers and get the music the way we request, Lou said "I don't know what caused musicians to be this way (sometimes uncooperative and spiteful). It's like a jealousy; they react badly to being upstaged. But if I sing, why should I be jealous of the dancer? If I play oud, why should I be jealous of the violinist? I think it comes down to lack of ability."

Jamila Salimpour, describing the California nightclubs in the sixties: "Since the musicians were mostly amateurs, and from a variety of Arab countries, the music was haphazard. Rarely did they know the same piece, often going in different directions, and they practiced during the show. Rehearsals were unheard of. Musicians were in short supply so we couldn't complain. You could replace a dancer easier than a musician."

Should More Dancers Learn to Sing?

Jezabel Anat, in her interview of Ozel Turkbas in a 2005 issue of the [now defunct] dance magazine Bennu, said that Ozel thought the American dancers forgot to be entertainers:

Özel does feel that one of the reasons for the popularity of the Bellydancers in the American clubs in the sixties is that they were entertainers, not just dancers, and they could sing and tell jokes in addition to dancing. That's how they managed to do long shows. She thinks that the popularity of these venues began to ebb because the girls were dancing too long without telling jokes and singing; instead, musicians were singing and dancers went on too long.

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