Space and Sound: The effects of live and pre-recorded music on dance

Many dancers, musicians and performing artists have tried their hand at digitally editing performance footage at some time, perhaps from live gigs or 
for promotional clips. I've been editing for many years, and have several sound engineers in the family who digitally master music. We've found these waveforms to be quite revealing, highlighting nuances that are sometimes difficult to pick up by listening alone. To observe audio as digital waveforms is always fascinating, as they show the 'structural form' of sound.

In recent years, whilst editing dance performance clips, some interesting patterns and differences between
live music and pre-recorded waveforms have emerged, that have spiked my curiosity. The main difference is the syncopation of sound with visual performance footage that to live music, compared to choreographed work to pre-recorded cd tracks.

In 1998, when I filmed and edited "Bellydance Live" in Cairo, with an Egyptian band, where we demonstrated music-movement relationships, some of these differences became apparent. I was explaining connections between instruments and their naturally corresponding dance movements, and also filmed several Egyptian dancers at their shows, performing with live music. Simultaneously, I was editing footage for another project featuring s
everal professional dancers, and their various stage choreographies performed to cd tracks. During the edit process, the music-movement patterns made sense, depicted clearly through waveforms. Even though it was represented within a somewhat abstract format, the audio and visuals were shown as two separate digital forms, visuals stacked over audio for easy comparison and clean editing. However, the edit process also revealed a unique quality of movement generated from the live musical experience, compared to dancing to pre-recorded tracks.

For the 
"Bellydance Live" video, I filmed some of Cairo's well known bellydancers, like Lucy at the Pyramisa, dancing with her orchestra, along with other baladi style dancers like Doaa, Neni and Hendeya. Not only were these dancers very in tune with their live music, but there was a pattern emerging in the edit files. Every time the audio waveforms reflected a distinct pattern, the feet, weight and accents synched with a transition that followed it - either just on the tail-end of the beat or lagging for a few milliseconds or more. Visually, a millisecond is usually three frames. The earth beat was almost always expressed by a connection to gravity in various points in the body. The musical bass beats and body's gravity points synched up, characterised by a very small delay. Yet, with the dancing performed to cd tracks, there was no delay, and in some cases, the movement came before the beat, as if it was leading the beat - which was very interesting.

In both cases, the rhythm waveforms reflected a consistent matrix, and the dancers found ways to respond within the invisible structure with their own feel. The dancer's gravity points remained fairly similar in look and feel, but when dancing to live music, the movements were either just on the beat or a fraction behind - indicating responsive movement. To the observer they appeared more relaxed, and more about the dancer's interaction with the music.

Compared to footage of dancers performing to cd music, especially pre-choreographed works, there was a distinct difference in the timing and syncopation of sound with movement from live recordings; dancing to live music allowed a more relaxed syncopation with sound, and the music led the movement
, whereas pre-recorded, and particularly heavily mastered tracks, saw very little gap, and in some cases the movement was initiated before the sound. In the live music recording edits, there was distinct space between the audio and the visuals, whereas choreographed pieces tended to not only lack space, but the movement often appeared before the audio. I am guessing this is because of the 'known' factor, the preparation is more pre-meditated and anticipated.

In both live and recorded track performances, the higher frequency instruments affected the energies and movement higher in the body, the bass frequencies lower in the body, and when several instruments co-join within the same note range, the dancer usually turns. I conducted a worldwide survey a few years back which showed very similar results, suggesting a range of naturally occurring movement responses. 

In LMA (Laban Movement Analysis) terms, in my edits over the years, I have noticed that bellydance movements to live music, when responding to bass beats and gravity points, usually manifest with 'pressing', 'wringing', 'slashing' or 'punching' qualities - the four 'strong' or weight-sensing movements from Laban's Eight Efforts. Responses to melodic sounds and spaces between beats usually elicit off-gravity movement, such as 'floating', 'dabbing', 'gliding' or 'flicking' movements - which are the four light movement qualities from Laban's Eight Efforts. With live music, movements with both light and strong qualities seem to occur with a sense of more space and often less movement occupies the sound. In the live music scenario, the dancer's body will often unconsciously turn toward the instrument, particularly in taqsim - almost as if the whole body is actively listening and judging where in space the sound is emanating. In contrast, pre-choreographed dances have a tighter sense of space and more control of destination, which are often intrinsic, if not essential to stagecraft and group performances.

In recent years, I'm noticing the patterns within the spatial structure of various maqamat (Arabic musical scales) and how they relate to dance movement creation. Each maqamat creates a feel through it's unique matrix, and the dancer's body fills this form and acknowledges its space; the higher frequencies elicit movements from the levity centre, the lower frequencies and bass beats create the weight shifts from the centre of gravity. Music always informs the dance. However, only in the live scenario, does the dancer also inform the music.

If you have danced to both live and recorded music, are there any differences you feel within your own dancing?

Musical exploration is a part of the new A-Z Bellydance;  finding creative ways of making personal and meaningful movement through the layers within the music. The new courses include live Egyptian music and rhythms.

The Art of Mixing: A visual Guide to Recording, Engineering, and Production by David Gibson is a great book to read if you are interested in how sound appears as form in the digital space.


  1. Dancing to recorded music is predictable. Same music, same choreography every time. It's easier to dance the same steps to the same music every time, and you know when the end is coming!

    Dancing to a live band is great - as long as the band is in sympathy with the dancer. Trying to dance to music from a hostile band is laborious and actually scary. It only happened to me once and it almost put me off taking pub gigs, but thank heaven it was a one off and I never had such a horrible experience again. The band kept playing the same chorus over and over again. I tried signalling them to move on, but the band leader just sneered at me and grinned at his colleagues.
    I should add that in those days, musicians tended to envy dancers. We would pick up the same pay for night's work as they did, but for only a few minutes' work. What the musos didn't take into account was the expense of our costumes and props, and the scarcity of work. On a good weekend I might get two gigs, and sometimes work would dry up for weeks on end. (I'm talking about the 1960s, but I'd imagine the situation hasn't changed today.)

    1. Hi Satima, thanks for your feedback, that's really interesting - I love hearing about people's experiences! You're right... the musicians and dancer absolutely must have some kind of rapport to make the performance harmonious and work both ways. Mind you, I have seen dancers performing to a live band for their very first time on many occasions in Cairo, and with an attentive band... and responsive dancer, magic really does happen in the moment.

  2. This is fascinating and validating at the same time. I've taught my students for several years that Egyptian dancers generally dance slightly "behind" the beat. But until now, I hadn't made the connection as to why. Now I's because of live music.

    It's so easy to anticipate the move when using pre-recorded music. It's familiar. But it's "rushed". But some unfamiliarity (even just the different nuances of a familiar song) in live music really does (with a responsive dancer as you noted) make for some delicious moments in dance.

    Nicely done Keti. Thank you for this and I look forward to your future articles in the coming year.


    1. Thanks for your feedback Heather... its interesting how you intuitively taught students that the Egyptian dancers dance slightly "behind" the beat! :)

  3. Thanks for the interesting article. I had been taught the idea of low notes going in the lower part of the body, etc. The teacher even used examples of lowering and stretching up with the body. Then I went on Youtube to observe Egyptian dancers. What I found was that there was no high and low; it was the speed of the vibration of the sound that went through the body. High and low are abstract concepts that we have from reading musical notation and spectograms. It is a convention of our writing system. Notes vibrate faster not higher. I am making sense to you? This was an important find for me in having the music resonate in my body freely.

    1. Yes I see what you mean... its interesting. We did a survey/study a few years back that showed that dancers tended to respond to certain instruments in various similar ways, but it was less about the notes and more about how they felt that music in their body and what instinctively wanted to move! But yep, plenty of scope to explore here...

  4. I've danced very seldom to live music, to a) a very good and enouraging band and b) an encouraging but not yet skilled band. A is amazing, B a bit frustrating - but that is in part due to my own lack of skill with live music. A full band that knows what it's doing makes it feel so easy.

    The thing I find, most of all, about dancing to live music is that I am absolutely forced to be in the moment and just be moved. I stop trying to be impressive and just concentrate on where I am, my breath, my weight, and the feeling of that band behind me and the way they are playing my song. It is very releasing.

    1. Thanks for your response Zummarad! Yes, being in the moment is probably one of the most embodied qualities of dancing to live sounds. It does feel different, and yes, its harder to analyse in that state. :)

  5. Fascinating article Keti: After 30 years of dancing to both live and recorded music in a variety of scenarios, I wonder if whether there are also external factors surrounding the dancer, as in the size of the venue, the placement of the music (as in speakers or position of the band), which would also contribute to a time-lag as to when the dancers actually hears the music & beat. I also find if you are in a venue with a large audience, then a lot of the sound is soaked up by "bodies", also changing the sound quality. Plus there's the human factor of some nights "not feeling it" also contributing to being a bit behind the beat? It's sometimes Human Beings Being Human can affect the performance.

    1. Hi Alia, thanks for your feedback, great observations - yes it seems reasonable that there would be many things affecting the dancer's responses including position and audience size, accoustics, etc. Even lights!


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