The Routine Roller Coaster

by Nadira Jamal

Nadira inherited her old-school tastes from her mentors Amira Jamal and Artemis Mourat. She cross-trains in Turkish and Arabic styles, but still loves vintage American Cabaret the best. Nadira teaches in the Boston area, and coaches dancers locally and online. She is the hostess of The Belly Dance Geek Clubhouse show, and the creator of the Improvisation Toolkit DVD series and the Rock the Routine online course. For more geek-tacular resources, visit the Belly Dance Geek.

Entertainment is the art of manipulating the audience.

Usually, we think of manipulation as a bad thing, but that's not true for performers. Manipulating the audience is our job! A good belly dance show takes the audience's emotions from excited highs to intense lows. Without manipulation, our show would feel pretty bland. Those highs and lows are what keep the audience's attention. If we performed the entire show on the same emotional level, even the best dancing would get old fast. That's why the old-school "AmCab" routine structure is designed to alternate fast and slow tempos, and high and low energy levels. The routine is like a roller coaster: it's all about the ups and downs!

Let's take a closer look at those ups and downs. The 6-part routine is the traditional format for American Cabaret routine, and is what you'll usually see in old-school venues like the Athenian Corner. The 6-part routine includes six sections (duh):

1) Introduction

This is a high-energy, splashy entrance piece.

Goal: greet the audience, get them "warmed up" and ready to enjoy the show.

2) Veil

A slow, lyrical song, danced with a veil.

Goal: deepen the emotional experience by slowing down.

3) Middle Section

A medium-to-medium-fast tempo piece, often with a folkloric feeling. Sometimes danced with a cane.

Goal: the "main course" of the show. Show off your "regular dancing", particularly your juiciest hipwork.

4) Chiftetelli

A slow-to-very-slow song with a snaky feeling. May include prop balancing or floorwork.

Goal: mesmerize the audience, draw them into your inner world.

5) Drum Solo

A high-energy duet between the drummer and dancer.

Goal: build drama to create a high-energy climax.

6) Finale

A medium-fast to fast section, with a triumphant feeling. May use a song in 9/8 time.

Goal: resolve the dramatic tension of the drum solo, say goodbye to the audience.

Did you catch the roller-coaster pattern?

During the routine, we:

  • Start with a splash   (intro)

  • Dip down to a mild low   (veil)

  • Rise back up to a mild high   (middle)

  • Plunge to an extreme low    (chiftetelli)

  • Soar to an extreme high  (drum solo

  • Come back down to earth  (finale)

That keeps the audience on their toes.

By alternating different tempos, we hold the audience's interest. Just when they're getting used to a high energy level, we slow it down. As soon as they get comfortable with slow, we crank it back up. We always keep them guessing. And we increase the intensity throughout the show: the earlier lows and highs (the veil and middle) are less intense than the later lows and highs (chiftetelli and drum solo). By increasing the intensity, we increase the stakes. So we're not just alternating fast and slow; we're building drama.

That's some sophisticated manipulation.

But you don't have to be an expert in audience psychology. It's built right into the structure of the routine. Just by following the traditional format, you can play the audience like an instrument. And they'll thank you for it.

Of course, there are exceptions. The 6-part routine doesn't always have six parts. Depending on the venue, the band, or recording, and the length of the show, you may get a variation on that format.

Sometimes you get a 5-part routine. In some routines, one of the sections will be omitted, usually the middle section or the chiftetelli. (It's less common for the other parts to be left out, but it does happen.) In fact, I was brought up calling this a 5-part routine. It wasn't until I started teaching this structure to my own students that I realized that the bands had always played six parts for me.

Sometimes there's a 7th section. And in some communities and venues, there may be an additional audience participation/tipping section after the chiftetelli, which would make this a 7-part routine. (At venues like the Athenian Corner, the audience participation is usually rolled into the finale, instead of having its own section.)

Sometimes it's even shorter. When you need a shorter set, like for a bellygram or a hafli, you can leave out a few sections to create a mini-routine. Usually these follow a fast-slow-fast or fast-slow-fast-fast format, such as:

  • Intro, chiftetelli, finale
  • Intro, veil, drum, finale

I've seen this format in many shorter recorded routines, such as George Abdo's Raks Mustapha. But the general structure is always the same. Regardless of how many parts are included or left out, the overall structure of the routine is the same:

  • The remaining parts appear in the same order.
  • The aesthetics of each part don't change.
  • How you dance to each section doesn't change.

And we're always working with the same framework. Even when we leave a part or two out, the "ups and downs" aesthetic is still the core of the structure. So you can pick and choose which pieces to include in your roller coaster, as long as you keep the ups and downs.

Summary

As performers, our job is to manipulate the audience's emotions. Don't feel bad - they enjoy this.

The basic structure of the 6-part routine is: introduction, veil, middle, chiftetelli, drum solo, finale.

Some routines may omit parts or add an extra participation section. So you may get a 5, 6, or 7 part show, or even a fast-slow-fast mini routine. But this doesn't change how we approach the routine.

The tempo and energy changes built into the full routine create an escalating roller coaster effect. That holds the audience's attention and builds drama and momentum.

You don't have to be an expert in audience psychology to create those effects. It's built right into the structure.

Next Steps

Listen, listen, listen. To get those ups and downs into your bones, listen to some full routines. You'll find full routines on the albums Mystical Veil (featuring New England artists) and Belly Dance New York, and on most John Bilezikjian CDs. Or put together your own playlists!

Observe. Patronize old-school "AmCab" venues with live music, like the Athenian Corner. As you enjoy the show, observe the structure. Watch how the tempo, energy level, and dancer's interpretation changes with each section. (Note: Venues that feature Arabic style will follow a different format. You can still learn a lot from those shows, but you probably won't see a 6-part routine.)

Give it a try! The best way to get a handle on the full routine is to try it yourself. If you can't handle a full-length show yet, work on it one section at a time, or try the mini-show format.