How Transitions Work Their Magic

Friday, July 15, 2011

When you're learning to belly dance, transitions are an almost mystical concept: a magical ingredient that transforms a bunch of moves into a polished, professional dance. We collect these talismans as we run across them in class or in choreographies, and if we're lucky, we become proficient with our small repertoire.

But for most of us, how transitions work their magic remains a mystery. And that keeps us from moving from proficiency to mastery. Because the first step to mastery is understanding.

Transitions Work Their Magic In Three Ways

Part of what makes transitions so mysterious is that, even though they are a single tool, they serve three different purposes:

1) They physically prepare your body for the next movement.

2) They help you organize your ideas into logical movement phrases as you improvise

3) They signal to the audience that you're changing to a new movement idea

Why Are These Three Roles Important?

Physical preparation
This one is obvious: if your body isn't in the right position for your next move, you can't do it. So until we master transitions, we stumble over our own feet, freeze up, or miss out on great combos because we couldn't get into the right position in time. Good transitions make our dancing looks polished, professional, and planned – even when it's improvised in the moment.

Organizing your ideas
This is not so obvious, but it makes improvisation a lot easier! When you think of your dance as a string of individual movements, you have to make dozens of decisions in every minute. Under that onslaught, most dancers panic, and then freeze up or start scribbling. But when you master transitions, you start thinking about your dance in terms of phrases instead of individual moves. That leaves you with far fewer decision to make, and gives you the breathing room to stay calm and make better choices.

Signaling a change of idea
This is a hidden gem. As we discussed in Volume 2 of the Improvisation Toolkit, the audience can't enjoy your performance if they can't keep up with your train of thought. Clean, clear transitions are like road signs: they help the audience follow you as you progress from one idea to the next. And when they can understand your show, they enjoy it a lot more.

So How Do I Use These Ideas In My Dancing?

Take Stock
The best place to start is to see how you're already using transitions. Look through your choreography notes and watch any videos you have of your own performances. (If you don't have any, turn on the camera and improvise!)

As you watch, make a note of five or six transitions you used, along with the combinations they appeared in. For each one ask yourself:

  • How did this transition help me prepare for the next move?

  • How did this transition help me keep my ideas organized as I improvised?

  • (Or for choreography, how did it help you organize your ideas as you planned your dance?)
  • How did this transition help the audience see that I was about to start a new idea?

Revisit and Revise
Next, identify the area that you're least comfortable with: physical preparation, organizing your ideas, or communicating changes.

Revisit each combination, and brainstorm some different transitions that would be more effective in that area. Repeat the revised versions of your combination over and over again to get your favorites into muscle memory.

But I Can't Keep Track of All That While I Improvise!

While you're learning to improvise, you already have plenty on your mind: the music, the audience, whether the waiter is getting too close to your veil with his tray of flaming cheese… So it's not practical to add three more concerns to your performances right away.

That's where practice comes in. We usually practice individual movements, or whole combinations or choreography. But if you dedicate some practice time to focusing specifically on transitions, much of it will become habit:

  • Physical transitions become movement habits, and flow naturally out of each move.

  • Organizing your ideas becomes second nature, like pausing between ideas when you speak.

  • Signaling changes to your audience follows naturally from organizing your thoughts.

It does take focused practice to get to that point, but once you've mastered transitions, using them is a lot like walking: your body will automate the process for you, except where you choose to do something unusual. And even the unusual will only take a passing thought.


Transitions seem like magic, but in reality are just multi-function tools. They prepare our bodies for the next move, facilitate improv by helping us organize our thoughts, and help the audience follow our train of thought. To make sure you're using them to their fullest, do a transitions audit of your performance videos and choreography clips. Identify your least comfortable area, and brainstorm some ways to use it more effectively in the same combinations. It may be a lot to keep track of at first, but with time, they'll become second-nature, and no more mysterious than walking.

Next Steps

Gather your video clips and choreography notes, and do your transitions audit. (Or, if you can't do it this minute, schedule a time on your calendar.)

Photo copyright Linus Bohman, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.


Carol from Texas said...

Thanks very much! These are effective and useful ideas that make a lot of sense. My next practice session will definitely focus on transitions. I am looking forward to the next installment in your wonderful guide to creating beautiful and enjoyable dance composition.

Nadira said...

Thanks, Carol! I'm glad it's been helpful.

Alice said...

thank you for this, ;)

Nadira said...

My pleasure, Alice!

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