Drum solos are a huge part of belly dancing. The interaction between the drummer and the dancer is exhilarating for audiences to witness because it's so exciting that sparks practically fly from the stage.
Even though I was among the last generation of Los Angeles dancers who “grew up” dancing with live music, it took me a while to get the hang of what, exactly was going on within the drum solos I was seeing-and often dancing to onstage. As luck would have it, the first drummer I ever worked with was Issam Houshan. Issam was an incredible tabla player years before he became internationally famous. As a baby dancer, I naively thought all Arabic drummers would be just like him…but little did I know, his magnificent playing spoiled me rotten!
Nearly twenty years later, we are working together regularly again, having recently embarked upon our BaLAdi Tour, so named because we both live in Los Angeles. It is amazing to teach and perform alongside him; to me, it feels like coming home, because the way he plays is literally engrained into my soul. Still, I learn something new from him every time we practice or do a show. The only real difference between working with him in “back in the day” as opposed to 2014 is that now I understand all the ingredients that make a terrific drum solo!
The following thoughts and ideas are things that Issam and I share in our workshops… whether you improvise your drum solos or do choreography only, whether you're working with a live player or a recorded drum solo, try out some of these tips and see how they work for you.
Identify The Root Rhythm
Whether I’m planning choreography to teach or having fun improvising onstage, I always identify the basic rhythm that is being played at any particular time. Sometimes, when the drummer is doing all sorts of fancy embellishments in the course of a solo, it might be a little difficult to realize that what he’s going so crazy on is just plain old Maksoum (also known as Baladi) or the Greco-Turkish Chiftetelli. Listen carefully to the drum solo you’re about to work with and note what each root rhythm is in its most basic form. If you don’t know your Masmoudi Kebir and Saudi from your Malfouf or Samai, then it’s time to learn…cause being able to discern the unique Arabic time signatures is the key to an amazing drum solo!
Look For Repetition
Issam almost always repeats each rhythmic pattern at least four times. Almost every drummer worth his or her salt will do that too. The concept, in Issam’s own words, goes like this:
“First time, the dancer will hear that I’ve done something new. Second time, she knows what to do to the new rhythm, and third and fourth time, she nails it!”
Obviously, if you’re working with a recorded-as opposed to live- drum solo, you’ll listen to the track over and over so you’ll be able to nail it every time! But it helps to know this idea when you’re working with live musicians, and an experienced drummer knows work with repetition so that both of you will have a great show. Some drummers even repeat each phrase more than four times.
Listen For Signals And Transitions
Make sure to really listen to the segues the drummer makes between the various rhythms being used- a typical drum solo has lots of variation! Once you really can hear the transitions, it will make your dance transitions that much easier. Again, if you’re working with recorded music, this will be a lot easier than it will be if you’ve just jumped up onstage and are partying down with a live drummer.
Whether you’re listening to your iPod or rehearsing with a real live person, just have fun and improvise to the drum solo. Chances are, your body knows what to do even if your brain is in a dither, wondering what isolations you’re going to employ. If you just take a few passes through the drum solo just for the hell of it, you’ll probably start to see some natural and organic physical responses to each new pattern.
It’s also good to realize that not everything you do needs to be a complicated string of mind-bending technique… a simple movement or series of movements done precisely on the beat can often be every bit as effective as a multi-layered extravaganza!
Divide And Conquer!
When you’re in the midst of learning a new drum solo, divide it into nice, easy-to-digest bite sized chunks. Work on each section until you’re happy with it before you move on to the next section. This will also help you to feel really comfortable with each part of the drum solo, as opposed to trying to get the entire thing down in one big piece. Run each segment until you know it by heart, and then when you move on, the parts you worked on previously will flow better and more naturally, they’ll seems like old friends.
Let Your Feet Do The Walking And Your Hips Do The Talking
After I’ve done a few improvisational passes on the new drum solo, I like to quit actually dancing to it and just walk it a few times. I forget about anything else except my feet, and just stay really conscious of stepping on the doum, the Arabic word for “downbeat”. I get hyper-conscious about my weight placement, and really feel my directional work, my turns, and things like that. I like to make sure my feet know exactly where they’re going before I start in on what my hips…and everything else: hips,arms, torso, head angles, etc. are doing. Walking through the solo always helps to make me feel more grounded and in sync with the drum sounds and different rhythms.
Silence Is Golden
Issam and I are both adamant about acknowledging that the silences, or pauses in a drum solo are every bit as important as the actual sounds the drum is making! Many dancers don’t realize this, and feel as though they have to remain in constant motion. Pausing or standing still onstage is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the most effective.
If the drum stops, you stop.
Wrap It Up
Know your ending pose- plan it in advance. Finishing with a bang in a beautiful pose will make your drum solo look really polished. For recorded music, obviously you’ll know when the end is nigh, but in a live situation, this might not always be the case.
If you’re working with a live drummer, watch the drummer’s body language, and make eye contact- these are two things that should be done throughout the drum solo, but they’re crucial towards the end. The drummer will be hitting a big frenzy, and you probably will too, but direct eye contact will allow you both to finish together. Once the audience starts applauding, make sure to gesture towards your drummer presenting him or her to the crowd… and then take a bow together.
Our BaLAdi Tour CD with fifteen tracks, including some majorly hot drum solos is available here:
Issam’s The Dancing Drum, Vol. 3 features eleven tracks of commonly used belly dance rhythms- a must for the informed dancer! Get it here:
Next dates for The BaLAdi Tour
With Princess Farhana & Issam Houshan:
June 7 & 8, 2014: Cairo Shimmy Quake, Glendale Civic Auditorium, and Los Angeles, CA
July 12 & 13, 2014, Arabesque 2014 El Paso, Texas
To book The BaLAdi Tour for November/December of 2014 or in 2015, email us here: