Setting Limits in Tribal Improv

Limit Yourself

We’ve had several instances lately where a mixed level group danced together. We haven’t been in that situation for a while, actually maybe close to a year. So it was a bit of a train wreck – well, that’s putting it too strong, but it didn’t go as well as I expected. And since I was dancing in the mix too, it felt like I was watching an accident happen in slow motion. My mistake was not seeing it coming.

Since it had been so long since we had danced in a mixed group with such an extreme range of “tribal know-how” I should’ve reminded my advanced level students about how we do it, which would’ve saved the poor newbies from being danced into a state of confusion! The reason I didn’t think about preparing the way ahead of time was that these performances were informal events, not shows. But it was a good “head’s up” for me!

The dancers ranged from only 2 months in class to over 10 years of dancing; so nobody should have cued the Staggered Line formation (in which the entire group dances as one). But it happened TWICE! It was the second time it happened that astonished me – hello, there are some newbies over here!

In another instance, during Center Dancers, the more advanced leader began moves that her lower-level partner didn’t know – awkward! “Throw the lead” I kept whispering from the Chorus Line. But it’s hard to be heard over music and finger cymbals!

What Strategy Works in a Mixed Level Group?

Obviously when you dance in a group, you have to be AWARE of who is dancing with you! I’m still not sure why this happened more than once, with experienced dancers who have been doing tribal improv for years. It just goes to show that reminders are never out of place, I guess. Lesson learned!

  1. No Staggered Lines. Theoretically, you COULD have a Staggered Line and then only cue combinations that everybody knows, but obviously that’s risky because it places so much responsibility on the Leader. It also limits the variety of combinations, which is boring for advanced dancers. So the group should stick to the Chorus Line formation, and allow Center Dancers to come out in front.
  2. Know Your Partner(s). Now that the group is featuring Center Dancers, each Leader must know with whom they are dancing! If you get out front and don’t know who came out with you, then either throw the lead right away or (even better) do a combination with an optional turn so you get a look at who’s out there with you. Both strategies have risks though; so the best way to handle mixed-level group improv is this:
  3. Pre-Arranged Center Dancers. This gives the newbies more confidence since they know they’ll be dancing with someone who’s aware of their limits. Also, the advanced dancers will be happy because they can all go out with each other; they can even go out in a large enough “Center Dancer” group to create their own Staggered Line. And in that instance, sometimes I’ll instruct the Chorus Line not to play cymbals so the advanced Center Dancer group could play them out in front.

Of course that is an exception to the rule, but it makes for a better show; and it’s more fulfilling for the dancers as well.

large tribal group belly dancing

Center Dancers out front in their own Staggered Line

So even if you have newbies and pros dancing together, there IS a way to do it – and next time that situation arises I’ll certainly remind everyone about it before we step out to dance!

How do you handle mixed-level tribal improv groups?

(End of Post)



  1. AJ Reardon said

    When I danced group improv, we used a variety of the strategies you listed above when dancing in mixed-level groups.

    I think it can also be helpful to pre-arrange who is allowed to lead moves. It can be super-awkward if a relatively inexperienced dancer ends up in charge of the chorus and either freezes, or is off-beat.

    Also, communication is key. Let people discuss what moves they are and are not comfortable with, pair people up based on their strengths so a duet or trio of center dancers can really wow the crowd by busting out combos that they have down pat.

    In a perfect world, it would all be truly improv and spontaneous, but it takes time dancing together as a group to perfect that, and along the way you just have to pre-plan a few things to avoid potential disasters.

  2. Kawakib said

    you’re right about that – thinking ahead (& a little planning) really makes a difference.

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