Princess Farhana, a guest of honour at BurlyCon 2014, has performed, taught, researched and written about belly dance and burlesque since 1990. Now, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine can bring you the best of her guides and tutorials right here, continuing with a guide to making smooth transitions in your burlesque choreography…
Transitions are the unsung hero in dance.
They’re almost an unseen ‘missing link’; they are the lines that connect the dots, stringing together a bunch of separate movements and making them look cohesive. Good transitions add an unending flow, making our performance look polished and effortless. Sometimes our transitions are fancy and flowery, other times they’re as unnoticeable as a simple weight change… but they always need to be there. Without transitions, any dance would look stilted and jerky, simply a series of stationary movements.
When I first started dancing, the very idea of transitions totally confused me. Like many baby dancers, I was focused purely on technique. I didn’t understand the importance of transitions, and often teachers don’t fully explain that, either. Many classes focus solely on drilling on stationary technique, or teach full choreographies to beginners without stressing the mechanics of what is actually being done in the choreography. When this alone happens, a student can perform a full choreography but might not be able to build a choreography (or an improvised piece) on their own.
The purpose transitions serve are many, and once you become comfortable with their purpose and importance, they will seem a lot less esoteric!
Essentially, our dance transitions are a way of matching our movement and moods to the phrases in the music itself.
Transitions function as a preparation for our bodies to segue from one movement into another in a seamless and logical way. Basically, a physical transition involves making sure that you are in the correct position to make your next movement. A transition usually involves all of or at least some of the following: weight placement, body angle and alignment, spatial movement, and embellishment. But transitions can also convey feelings to the audience. Quite often, the music we use in performance calls for a change of attitude on the part of the performer, so the dancer needs to use stage presence and facial expressions as well as body language to change with the mood of the music. In that case, an emotional transition needs to be made as well.
If you were to imagine your dance piece as a classical painting, then transitions would be the place where the colours in the painting are blended. If you didn’t have the transitions (or a mixture of colours in the painting) then your piece of art would be just a bunch of blocks of colour, not a finished work. Well, maybe it would be modern art, but I digress.
Another analogy would be to think of your dance piece as a story, or a book. In that case, transitions are the punctuation as well as the points of separation for new thoughts or ideas that run through the entire narrative, connecting the plot-lines so that the story makes sense. Essentially, our dance transitions are a way of matching our movement to the phrases in the music itself, so we can better ‘illustrate’ the song we are dancing to.
Here are some ideas that will help you out with incorporating smooth, flowing transitions emotionally and physically.
This is one of the most important facets of transitions: knowing your footing. Without proper weight placement, your dance is destined to fall apart. In order to avoid performing an odd (and unwanted) little jig as you move from step to step, or from phrase to phrase, be hyper-aware of your weight placement.
A good rule of thumb is: ‘What Goes Up Must Come Down’. In other words, if your weight is on your right foot, in order to make a seamless transition, you will step onto the left foot, and vice versa. This is especially important while turning! Drill your weight placement even if you think you are fine with it already.
Work With The Counts
When I was a baby dancer, I was confounded that so many movements could be fit into eight counts… or sixteen, or thirty-two. I just didn’t get it, and I always seemed to finish late after everyone else was done. The problem was real and the solution was simple, but it was assumed that everyone in the class would understand. What I didn’t know was that the transition in movement starts occurring one or two beats before a phrase is finished… and that concept was never explained to me! No wonder I was finishing late; I had no idea what was going on.
So, if a phrase is eight counts long, the transition to the next phrase will start at the sixth or seventh beat, not on or after the eighth beat.
Look For Clarification In Class Or Rehearsals
Make sure you understand everything you can about the way a choreography – or a ‘follow the leader’ type of improvisation – works. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher (or another dancer) to go over weight placement, phrasing, or a preparation for a turn. If you’re worried about holding up the class or rehearsal, don’t be – chances are you’ll be asking a question that many others are wondering about themselves! And even if that isn’t the case, it’s always better to be performing correctly so that the entire group looks uniform and together.
Analyze Music Without Dancing To It
Take some time to get really familiar with your music. Sit with it and analyze it; break the entire piece down into measures of eight counts.
After you’re comfortable with this, have another few listens and identify the musical changes themselves; you will start to be able to see how each musical phrase is a ‘paragraph’ in your musical story.
Of course, do this exercise with the music you’ll be using in class or for your show, but also with music that you would probably never use onstage. At first it might seem like a big daunting task, but after a while you’ll have that ‘A-Ha Moment’ and you’ll have fun breaking your music – or any music – down in this way.
Feel The Music
The next step is becoming comfortable with it, really feeling it and recognising exactly where the transitions will come. Remember to look for changes in the emotional attitude of the piece, such as a bridge that goes up into a sweeping crescendo, or pauses and full stops in the song.
The music itself will inform you, but by using your counts and sensing the mood of the composition, you will know when to physically begin your transition.
With practice, this will become almost intuitive, ingrained into your consciousness, and you will start being able to anticipate where and when your transitions will need occur, even if you’ve never heard that particular piece of music before.
Internationally acclaimed dance star Princess Farhana (Pleasant Gehman) has performed, taught, researched and written about belly dance and burlesque since 1990. She has appeared in Egypt, Turkey, Hong Kong and Australia, and toured several times across Europe and The United Kingdom, as well as throughout North America. An artistic chameleon and a boundary-pushing pioneer, she performs many styles of dance with ease, from ultra traditional to contemporary belly dance and burlesque. Her diverse talents encompass visual, literary, musical and dramatic arts as well as dance. She has fronted three bands, is featured as an actor in several motion pictures and television shows, and has been interviewed for numerous feature-length documentaries, including director Steve Balderson’s Underbelly: A Year In The Life Of Princess Farhana.
The Princess is known for her high-concept, innovative performances, dramatic stage presence, and incredible abdominal work. Her warmth, enthusiasm, extensive knowledge and her adventurous spirit – both on and off stage – captivate audiences worldwide.
Get a signed copy of Princess Farhana’s books, The Belly Dance Handbook and Showgirl Confidential here.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.