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I have always said that dance is visual music in movement. What the audience hears they see in the dancers’ body moving in space. So, understanding music is critical to being a good dancer. And, with Middle Eastern music this can be a challenge. If you didn’t grow up listening to this music- dancing to it can be difficult. Furthermore, understanding music in general can be a challenge if you never studied music theory and do not understand music structure. Let’s explore these elements as they have to do with dance.


Melody is a series of notes in regularly repeated phrases and passages called orchestration. A “Melody Line” is a familiar sound that is used as the central sound to a particular composition. Think of three blind mice – that simple line of melody is the heart of the song. Melody changes in chorus and solo expressions.

Drones and Held notes = fluid, continued movement in dance.

Complex Orchestration = gets layers and combinations + steps and isolations

TAKIM: An improvised solo melody, sans rhythm.


Rhythm is regularly repeated groupings of beats with time between called “and”. Tempo is the velocity of every sentence of melody or rhythm as it is played.

  • Pops = Locks

  • Rolls = Shimmies

  • Rhythms have specific steps and movements

  • Things a belly dancer should know about the Drum solo are: Phrasing, Rhythm, Tempo, Changes & Bridges; Turkish vs. Arabic Drum Solos.

DRUM SOLO: A purely rhythmic piece featuring a drummer(s) and other percussion instruments.


The blend of rhythm, melody, vocals and chorus in one unit of composition; the entire orchestra playing together. Phrasing of the dominant line of melody, rhythm or interaction of the two.

Melody and rhythm are married in a blend of sentences, phrases and passages that combine to make the composition whole.

In order to interpret music well, a dancer must understand music. Here are some terms to know and use when creating a dance:

Accents: Emphasis on a particular sound.

“And” – The time between notes/beats.

Bridge: A short phrases of music that links one sentence or to passage another. A short 1-2 sentence interlude to transition from one section to the next in a composition.

Chorus – The reprisals of a group of singers.

Closure – The phrase or passage which includes the final conclusion and coda of a composition.

Coda: Finale of a musical composition.

Counter Rhythm – The time between the counted notes

Crescendos: A musical expansion or increase in power, volume or speed.

Decrescendos: A musical diminishing or decrease in power, volume or speed.

Down Beat – the Frist note/beat in a line/ measure/bar.

Fade: When a composition ends by becoming slower and quieter.

Flourishes: Short bursts of melody or rhythm that decorate a composition.

Lead-In: Note(s) or beat(s) that act as a count - an “and” – preceding the composition which allows an orchestra and dancer(s) to begin on the downbeat together.

Line of Music – a sentence of music.

Passage: A group of lines/sentences which are repeated as a group. A Passage includes the vocals, chorus, orchestra and refrains and coda.

Pauses: Silences in sound

Phrasing: The manner in which a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music, in order to express an emotion or impression. A musician accomplishes this by deviating stylistically from the sheet music—altering tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, inflection, and other characteristics.

Phrase/Sentence/Line/Verse: A unit of music including a line of melody and/or rhythm including flourishes, accents and pauses.

Prelude: A segment of music which introduces the entire piece.

Reprise: A repeated passage in music.

Rest: A silence in music.

Tempo – The speed of the music.

Types of Middle Eastern Music

The two kinds of Middle Eastern music are the Muwashshahat (classic music) versus the Qudud al-Halabuyya (popular music)….then there is the modern “pop” music, which falls under the umbrella of the Qudud al-Halabuyya. Classic Middle Eastern music is complex and heavy on rhythm so knowing rhythms is critical. Understanding the maqams is also important to be able to express the moods of the music. But, POP is easy to understand – just a simple 4/4 rhythm and lots of repeated phrases and sentences. The bottom line is that, if you understand music structure in general, you can understand and interpret Arabic music.

Music Structure

When dancers first start to learn belly dance they generally only respond to rhythm because that’s what they hear. Then, with time, the melodies and orchestration start to make sense. Repeated verses become clear, instruments and accents and pauses start jumping out and suddenly you ARE the music! How to get to this?

  1. Listen to as many classical songs as possible and get to know them, IE, Layla, Tammrahenna, Zaya al Helwa, Sawah, etc.

  2. Learn the crucial rhythms and listen to music focusing on rhythms.- drum solos!

  3. Listen to melody lines and tune-in to flourishes and dynamics. Taksim helps understand the instruments of melody and the melody itself.

  4. Choreograph combinations and whole dances, beginning by writing out the music with the number of measures of rhythm and the melody lines. You’ll discover that melody and rhythm are married – a melody line is as long as a rhythmic line. Use repeated verses and chorus segments to repeat combinations. Use musical flourishes, accents and pauses to do the same in movement.

If you follow these tips you’ll begin to understand and interpret music as a pro. Give yourself a year to two to really become good at dancing to the music and practice all the time!

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