Performance Professionalism: Improvisation How To With Ma*Shuqa

Going Solo with Improvisational Performance 

Performance Professionalism – The It Factor, Can it be taught?

Ma*Shuqa Method instruction provides students with a method to:

 1) Understand Middle Eastern music and rhythms,

 2) Learn dance movement combinations,

 3) Listen actively and discern patterns and match dancing and finger cymbal playing "live", and 

4) Develop beautiful dance styling that features your special dance movement styling and professional performance persona.

What is the It Factor? I say that performance tricks are a dime a dozen. The dancer who can make you sit forward in your seat and pay attention has “it”. A dancer with a personal stamp of styling, energy, emotion and expression in their movements - has “it”. As a competition judge and as a seasoned dancer I can tell if a dancer has “it” or the potential to grow, learn, and become a dancer with “it”. As a result of personalized and stylized performance dancers become known for being unique; and thus have the “it factor”. Because of their uniqueness and expertise - Jillina and Sadie Marquardt - are examples of well known and well-traveled dancers recognized for their signature dance styles.

 Components of the “It Factor”

What are the components of the It Factor? Performance presentation, personal energy, movement quality and timing, unique personal engagement with the audience, body alignment, and a performance signature that is musical and matches musicality and dynamics in the piece. What are the elements of professional personalization besides styling? You must bring out every aspect of your character to convey controlled energy. Each step must have an intention behind it and emotionally engage the audience. There can’t be disconnection between being expressive with movement and engaging emotionally while dancing.  Sometimes when we see a great performance, it is so awesome that we get chills.  We’re not conscious of each nuance or movement that creates this reaction; we just know that we are watching a great performance.

Great dancing should appear flawless and easy.  But in reality there are a million nuances in the body alignment, movement, motion, and musculature that occur during great performances. Fluidity in dancing occurs when the dancer controls the movement. Core energy and strength are keys to controlled movement. Core energy and action engages the body, creates personal energy, stabilizes the torso providing a solid foundation for movement; and also allows the dancer to move legs and feet smoothly, lightly, and with flowing movement.  Engaging the core energy using this body alignment method allows dancers to perform intricate quick movements of the feet and legs because their bodies float separately above the leg and foot movement. Your characteristic walk and movement styling that result from your controlled movement makes you a unique performer. The personal style and energy you project onstage will uniquely affect your fellow dancers and the audience as well.

Weight transfer and balance are two vital elements related to core energy impacting performance intensity and styling. You must be both light and weighty to offer a dynamic movement in performance. A simple weight change has the potential for the dancer to develop a personal style of dance. A difference in the execution of the weight transfer changes the entire look of a movement. For example, either “step down and change weight with a bent knee”, or, “step up and change weight in relevé” with a body undulation are simple weight transfer movements that look completely different. And because each weight change movement style creates a different movement characteristic - the dancer to presents a unique performance look and feel to audiences.

 Stylistic Differences and Professional Development

In regular classes, dancers may notice stylistic differences in the look of movements and steps among the students. This observable difference is due to personalized styling and forms of moving, timing, and feeling as dancers execute the same movement. The movement quality and presentation differs as a result of their own unique personal approaches to movement. Thus, in weekly classes as dancers drill to master technique – they also begin to develop their own personalized movement styling.

A diligent rehearsal process ensures a steady progression towards developing a signature movement styling as well as confidence in performance. Performance perfection comes through creating an illusion that dancing is easy – but only happens as a result of long hours of hard work in rehearsal. When working on intricate isolations, dancers develop heightened body awareness and laser focus of what they portray when they move.   As professional dancers describe when they know a performance was good – they will likely describe: alignment and body lines worked, movement matched the musicality of the piece, and the joy they felt when moved by the music. When you connect with these it factor elements in your dancing - you can relax and enjoy performing when you feel everything come together on the stage in performance.

Workshop instruction and performance coaching requires a solid foundation of technique to guide dancer development beyond the weekly class. In a workshop, not every dancer will execute new movements or combinations perfectly, but everyone should come away with knowledge of the structure of the music and how the dance movements fit to create performance musicality. Performance coaching enhances the learning process by tailoring instruction and feedback to the uniqueness in each individual in addition to matching the music in performance.

 Extemporaneous Dance to Live Music

One of the most telling signs of a dancer who has not learned how to improvise and dance with live music – is to observe: stiffness in her movement, the dancer “missing the qaflas and breaks” and a dance that does not match musical passages – or is different than expected because she hears the music differently in her performance. A professional who looks absolutely stunning in performance – may “have it all together” and look polished and professional because they have analyzed and choreographed every beat, musical passage, and musical accent with appropriate movement and gestures. With choreographed movements pre-programmed, it is great that they can concentrate on staging and projecting a beautiful performance. However, these very same polished professional dancers become average performers when challenged to “hear and perform” to live music that they haven’t studied or prepared for in advance.  And, a further indication is the “loss of the performer’s individuality and polished performance projection.”

No Orientale Raqs Sharqi dancer should create an improvised performance in a vacuum and move any which way they wish.  You have to know the history and culture. You must have an understanding of cultural relevancy - what the spirit of the dance is about and how it came about and has evolved. You must know the every aspect of the musical selection: emotional mood/tarab, rhythm, meaning of the song, cultural aspects of city or country styling, and the musicality and rhythms in the music – and how to portray these elements in performance.  

In a worst case scenario, a dancer unfamiliar with a musical selection, or music from another culture or genre of Middle Eastern music – not having previously studied the musical genre or the musical piece, aren’t knowledgeable and can become “lost in the music” because they have no reference points or are trying to use choreographed movements they know useful for other pieces of music.  It’s like trying to dance Raqs Sharqi to Hawaiian slack key pieces – all the technique in the world doesn’t translate directly to the music and dance requirements, and the structure of another music and dance genre.

When you have “it” and When you don’t

I recall watching a professional who dances Egyptian style and teaches a method for learning Oriental dance by teaching beautiful and exquisite movement and choreography in her workshops – who was lost when she attempted to perform with a band known for their eclectic and wide range of music and styling. They played Turkish and Armenian pieces for her – and it was evident she did not know nor have a dance background in these songs, rhythms, and styling in her repertoire. Dancers who had taken her Egyptian choreography workshop at the festival were dismayed watching her dance as her performance became almost a basic step hip dance. Without a framework for listening and developing extemporaneous dance, she could not improvise to the live music.

I can hear what Judge Bruno Tonneoli of Dancing with the Stars might say to such a performer: “My dear that was a hot mess – your dance reality really missed the mark - it didn’t match the beauty of the music nor the structure and styling of movement appropriate to the music.” Key words from this fictitious judging commentary reinforce the idea that for a dance performance to be beautiful it should contain appropriate movement that matches the music, rhythms and musicality and dance genre.

Another example of well rehearsed Raqs Sharqi performers who lose the “it factor” can be seen at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach, CA. In the competition finals for the “Universal Category” and the “Drum Solo Category” – one can clearly see the difference between a well rehearsed choreographed performance set to recorded music in the semi-finals, and an improvised performance to live music in the finals. This competition is unique because the four finalists compete with live music dancing side-by-side on the stage. Judges and the audience can readily see the professional difference of whether or not the dancer has the knowledge, expertise, and performance ability to dance extemporaneously. Those who win this competition have truly displayed their ability, expertise, and unique dance styling in effective and beautiful performances that complement the live music.

Musicality in Memorable Performances

Musicality is the performance characteristic that when observed makes it almost seem as though the performer is “creating the music as she dances”. One of the “tests of time” for brilliant performance is whether you can conjure up an image of a magical performance when you hear the musical score.  Like the magical flourishes you envision accompanying the Disney characters in the 1940 film “Fantasia” movie score created by artistic animators. Yes, if you have seen this movie you can “see” and recall glimpses of the dancing movements in the Fantasia movie when you hear “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” montage from music by Paul Dukas – the “Scherzo after a ballad by Goethe”.  Of course, anyone who has seen this film has a memory recalling Mickey Mouse portraying the sorcerer making the brooms dance. I know you can see the brooms dance in your minds eye – yes and I know your memory recall will definitely happen when you envision the picture that occurred during this rhythmic pattern: Dum, ta-Dum, ta-Dum, ta-Da Da Da…

As an audience, you want dancers to pay attention and savor the music.  As you listen to music and observe a performance you look for this melodic and rhythmic matching of the music in performance. To the dancer I would say: “Listen with an educated ear – listen for the variations, innuendos, call and answer, and emotion in the music. To listen carefully feeds your dancing, because it gives you the desire to represent the details of the music.”

Learning the Language of Music

Dancers just learning a dance genre may say, “How can learn to be beautiful and perform, when I need to focus on my counting and dance steps?” Counting out the beats as you learn to dance in class is necessary and can block the feeling process as you dance. While it’s important to learn to move to the beat and rhythm, the next key step in the learning process is learning to speak the rhythm to internalize the rhythms and the phrasing so the music becomes a language for the body. Consider lyrical dancing comes from recognizing the “poetry of the music” – the phrases, sentences, rhythm and rhyme of what the music expresses.  The key to dancer development as they learn is learning the fundamentals of movement and rhythm as they relate to the music and musical qualities or musicality of the music.

Once you have developed a dance movement vocabulary – then you need to understand and learn the structure of music and dance. Improvisational performance is like carrying on a conversation using your dance movement vocabulary to develop a performance. Developing improvisational choreography in the moment, one must have a structure in mind.  Consider a 32-bar chorus as a paragraph of the written word that develops a theme from an idea. Then, we have sentences within the structure of the paragraph.  All the sentences begin with the capital letter, just as dance movement passages begin with a pose and a “and one” count preparation movement. Then, the dancer listens to the music as it happens and hears the punctuation, the fine nuances in the music = musicality, the dynamics of rhythm, tone, tempo, phrasing; and the fine tuning of the Middle Eastern music with quarter-tones and swirling sounds of the mordents. I’ll explain more about all of this in future articles.

To answer the question, ”Can “It” be taught and learned?”  Yes, I say because moving beyond technique and combinations after learning a basic structure of the dance - the dancer who will have “it” can develop and become not only proficient, but also dance beautiful  memorable performances who inspire praise from audiences. Since I specialize in teaching solo performance and coaching dancers for competition, I’ll share with you in future articles on Solo Improvisational Performance some points from my Ma*Shuqa Method Instruction that focus on preparing and guiding the dancer to successful extemporaneous performance.

Author Bio

Ma*Shuqa teaches weekly classes and private classes at her Los Gatos Dance and Photography Studio.  She has been teaching and coaching for over 46 years and is known for the Ma*Shuqa Method format of developing unique dance styles – that brings out the best in each student.  See information at her website for her Diva Professional Development Intensive Retreat in August 2021. She and her husband, Carl Sermon, a performance photographer, offer photo sessions at Yaa Halla Y’all festival and a Middle East Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, CA with coaching and posing for professional performance images.

Professional Performance #9: Gait and Its Effect on Body Posture and Dance Movement Quality

By Ma*Shuqa Mira Murjan


This topic and discussion is another in my continuing professional performance series and is a result of my continuing research and problem-resolution approach to search for everything that impacts our dance genre. Especially since our dance genre doesn't have the strict method and approach to developing the dancer by routinizing dance movements - I feel it is appropriate to take a proactive approach and always think about how we can improve both our teaching and performance of this dance. The central tenent of and thesis of my research are these questions: “How and why do we move uniquely differently?” And, “How can we learn to apply this understanding to improve our professional performance?”


Why do we dance so differently? Teachers, you may have noticed that students often perform dance movements very differently from you, and other students. In class, you’ll notice that movement is individualized – the outcome of their body structure, posture, energy, and personality. In this article, I discuss how gait affects body posture and dance movement quality. Then, I’ll provide information to help dancers restructure their posture and movement quality – a basic tenant of my Ma*Shuqa Method. My premise is that gait and posture impact balance and movement quality.


Footwear Affects Posture and Movement


An explanation by a Middle Ages historian described how footwear in the Middle Ages relates to footfall and posture. I watched a YouTube video as this historian demonstrates and describes footfalls and gait in the Middle Ages. In this presentation at a Middle Ages cultural park in Germany actors recreate the life and times of the era and must wear clothing authentic to the historical period - something similar to our Renaissance Fairs in the United States. Wearing authentic period clothing and footwear, he discussed how people of that time traditionally wore handmade clothing and shoes.


Body Mechanics: How Footwear Affects Movement


Shoes handmade during the Middle Ages were not much more than heavy leather stockings without rigid soles or heels. Because their "shoes" had no heavy soles, they had to walk carefully to avoid balance issues from stepping on stones or uneven ground. Thus, he noted that people "stepped forward as they walked - much like ballerinas" – touching the toes and forefoot first and then transferring weight to the foot. Ballerinas place their forefoot down then gently shift body weight onto the foot. Whereas, when people wear heavy leather-soled and heeled shoes they tend to strike the ground with their heel first, then shift body weight onto the foot. It is interesting to note that many Western movies include commentary about “tracking people by their boot tracks” as Native Americans wore soft moccasins similar to the Middle Age soft leather shoes and walk leaving no footprints.


Body posture is affected by footfall and gait. With the "ballerina soft touch, gentle weight shift" type of walk - the torso naturally is held erect as you gently step forward and your body leans upright and back until you shift body weight to that foot. Although the torso is erect, it is not rigid. The erect torso allows for a separation of footsteps and legs from the dancers’ torso – recall the light floating footfall of ballerinas across a stage. The torso is in a different position with shoes with rigid soles and heels. With the "heavy heel first walk" - the torso crumples and leans forward - the "C shaped spine and torso" happens and people will have sunken chests and slumping posture. The body posture becomes more rigid from the footfall up the legs and into the torso.


Body Posture and Footfall Styles Create Different Movement Quality


Based on this information about footfalls and body posture - I watched performances at a local belly dance festival held at a community center with a raised stage at a 4’ height above the audience. From this vantage point I could see a vast difference between the movement quality of dancers on stage. The raised stage allowed me to observe the "footfalls = torso position". And, the body posture and footfall style resulted in either graceful movement with toes first footfall or the stiff posture-fighting-gravity and the awkward or lack of body movement possible with the heel first footfall.


Especially watching troupes dance - the difference was notable. Body size, height, and weight didn't make a difference in the formula of "dancers moved gracefully, light on their feet, and torsos would easily undulate" - if they danced with footfall forward toes first. Those who danced with either "heels falling first, and/or full stomping feet" - had poor posture and didn't move well or beautifully. Fascinating - same choreography, but vastly different motion and movement expression. Truly either beautiful/graceful or pedestrian/heavy and awkward movement styling unique to each individual.


How Posture and Footfalls Impact Dance Movement


Think about body mechanics and movement quality and you begin to understand why some dancers find it difficult to shift weight easily in movement combinations. Or, why some dancers may feel tightness and locked parts of their body feel rigid when they move. They may find it difficult to layer shimmies with dance combinations or find it difficult to perform undulations and body isolations simultaneously during step movement combinations. And, with some dance troupes that require dancers to perform in high heels (even ballroom dance shoes designed for dance) – understand how posture and body mechanics change when dancing in heels – it’s even more important to dance with “softly bent knees”. Something to think about and work on to develop dance troupes that display the same beautiful movement quality in performance among all members of the troupe.


Experiment to Understand How Footfall Affects Posture


We have all experienced the difference in posture and rigidity, and the feeling our body has when either “skipping along” or “walking down an incline”. When we walk down an incline we naturally adjust our posture pulling our torso more erect with shoulders back and walking with bending knees. When skipping we engage our body core and we stand straighter as a result of the physical reality of skipping on toes.


In fact, as an experiment: try skipping with a flat footfall. What do you experience? You will likely note how much more effort it takes to skip. There is much more strain on the knees and the back is jolted as you change weight between steps. Why? Because skipping requires a “roll through footfall with weight on toes” – as you skip you naturally incorporate a “releve” roll up to your toes. Ah hah! So that’s why we have more bones in our feet and arches than in other parts of our bodies. You’ll likely find yourself laughing at the ludicrous posture and difficult nature that results from this experiment and you feel as though you are clowning around.


Back to how footwear impacts gait. Interestingly, the term “clown” comes from the Scandinavian word for clown “cognate” which means clumsy. Note Western clowns in circuses wear exaggerated footwear, and clowns at rodeos wear cowboy boots and move with heavy footfall because they must move quickly, and distract and protect cowboys. So very different than the elegant movement of European harlequin pierrot clowns who wear dance slippers and move with light footfalls for delicate artistic pantomime movements. Thus, footwear type and movement intention can result in very different performances.  


Physical Aspects of Posture and Movement Quality


Other aspects of footfalls and posture may also affect your dance movement quality. Among them: foot pronation, hip and leg length, resulting in balance issues, and muscle tightness in the illiosacral area that affects the knees, skeletal structure that affects the knees and leg position – (e.g. genetically inherited physical characteristics like knock knees, bowed legs). I’ll not discuss these aspects here, but it is important to consider and address body mechanics resulting from physical body characteristics. There are several approaches to adapt posture, footfall styling, and release knees and legs during dance. In my article “Core Stabilization” – I discuss why, how-to, and when core energy is important to dance. I promote posture appropriate for dance before starting to dance and re-setting posture during dance.


Tips for Setting Dance Posture


Here are a few simple tips for setting your posture. Use these same posture setting techniques to re-set posture while dancing and add professional polish to your performance.


1)      Create a lifted torso posture: Adjust your head to be sure you are level, pull your chin up to create a long neck; then, dance looking at your audience with eyes downcast, rather than tipping your head down to look at your audience (which naturally happens when performing on a raised stage). The head-down position pulls your shoulders and torso down into a slumping position making it more difficult to smoothly dance undulations and isolations.


2)      Energize the upper body and arms. Pull arms together into the center front in a circle, with the back of wrists meeting briefly. Next, move wrists in a small gentle circle with hands following, while moving arms to the side; and lifting arms and turning elbows up, you continue arms in a wide sweep out to the sides. At arm extension out to the side gently turn your wrist and hand in a small figure 8, then into a “you may kiss my hand” position with the palm facing down and fingers delicately extended to finish.


3)      Energize the core: Before and while dancing – do this simple movement to create better posture and energize your core. Twist on the forefoot of both feet lifting your heels – changing your direction from one side to the other. As you do this, pull in your leg across the other slightly activating the inner thigh adductor muscles as you set your weight in a different direction. You will feel core stabilization: your lower back and your front torso will be energized and create dancer-ready posture for smooth movement. Utillize your adductor inner thigh muscles as you pull a leg in towards the other standing leg – finishing in a pose with the knee bent and pulled inward, and the feet in line with the hip and thigh in a pose (like making a “ballet-style bow”.


Offer to Help 


In future articles, I discuss how we can change our footfalls and posture in ways that will enhance our dancing and performance. I’ll share my healing and rehabilitation experience from foot and ankle surgeries – to dance again.


I would love to hear from dancers who are also medical practitioners specializing in body mechanics, rehabilitation, and healing from injuries. There may be much you can share to assist dancers with the best body mechanics and movement to promote posture and ease while dancing. 


During this time of pandemic social isolation, you may be dancing alone to Zoom classes or YouTube videos – and without the instructional correction you would receive from in-person classes with a teacher. If you want my assessment and feedback – send me a video and I’ll send you helpful information to assist you to analyze your movement quality and style and provide you with some helpful pointers. Send videos to or MaShuqa Mira Murjan on FaceBook.