Yesterday my ballet studio had its regular summer recital. My experience of it was different from all the others, and I wanted to capture that briefly here.
The background is that the past few months were busy and stressful — perhaps no more than my work usually is, but I had expected and badly needed a quieter summer, and was not prepared for it to be as hectic as it was. What that meant for my dance was that I attended regularly but not as frequently as I wanted (once a week instead of twice), and even then often had my mind on problems at work. As a result, I had trouble learning the barre program that we wound up doing for the recital. Even in the morning rehearsal, I realised I didn’t know what was coming for any given exercise. Conversely, I found it pretty easy to learn the choreography for our little dance at the end.
Usually I am nervous either before a recital or during it — or both. But a funny thing happened this time. I didn’t have it all down, and I knew it. And I also didn’t care. I was completely calm and relaxed throughout. Instead of thinking about what my feet should do, I focussed on having an integrated posture, on the quality of my movement, and on relaxing my face. I made mistakes, but I left them behind somehow. I truly did not care about the mistakes.
Now if you know me, you know I very much do care about mistakes. But I didn’t yesterday. It was such a peaceful, happy experience of dancing. I’ve wondered why this happened yesterday. Was it that I was so stressed out in the previous months that dancing was allowed to be an escape? Was it my new, beautiful Bloch leotard that made me more aware of my posture? Was it the five Tibetan rites I did for the first time that morning? Who knows! Physically, I was not at my best for a number of reasons, and yet I had a lightness and sense of beauty in the dance that I rarely do.
Fluid Yoga is a DVD unlike any I have ever seen. Let me tell you why.
But before I do, I should tell you two things. First, I worked with a review copy — I had seen the DVD online, found it compelling, and asked to review it for the site. Second, I worked with the program when I wasn’t in shape. I hadn’t been able to do any exercise for a while, so I was not at my strongest.
In fact, I was due to have surgery early the next day, and I wanted to use my body before I couldn’t again for a while. And I chose Fluid Yoga because it seemed different from everything else in my collection.
The DVD was created by and features two Bremen-based yoga teachers, Klaus Busch and Tülin Sensan. It is a thing of beauty. I mean this seriously: it is filmed and edited like a gorgeous documentary, with calming nature shots easing the way into the practice sequences. The instructional segments are filmed in a a dark, sparse studio, but Busch and Sensan are lit well enough that it is always possible to see what they are doing. The film quality is very high definition, unlike anything I’ve seen in an exercise DVD before. And the entire program, all the way through, is accompanied by gentle, unobtrusively beautiful guitar music.
I’m going on about what might seem like superficial things because I love well-crafted work. And if you read this blog, you know I really appreciate it when people take care in making DVDs. I’ll add that while the video is PAL, it has both English and German tracks (as well as music only), and as far as I can tell is region free. I worked with the English track, which is quite good, with only a few tiny nonnative moments.
Now to the practice itself. It’s a little hard to find the right words for it. As you might guess, this is a flowing yoga practice, and it is built around many of the typical yoga poses. But if you are picturing vinyasa yoga, this is not it.
Fluid Yoga has slow, but often quite challenging sequences. Busch and Sensan move like dancers: every placement of the hands or sweep of the arms is done with intention and precision. The quality of the movement sometimes reminded me of tai chi, often of flamenco too. They will often make multiple adjustments to a single position, using breath, soft arching of the back, and spiraling motions to reach different points. The focus seems not to be so much on going deeper into positions as it is on using tiny movements to explore a position’s possibilities.
At first I thought that the programme would be quite easy and passive, or at most challenging in the way yin yoga is. This is not the case. There are sequences that require you to move slowly in a balance, which I suspect will take quite a bit of practice to do halfway as beautifully as the instructors. There were also intense stretches and variations on plow pose.
The 90-minute DVD is composed of a brief Introduction, five practice sequences, a deep guided relaxation, a four-minute Bonus that is essentially a song track with inspiring scenery and yoga poses, and a brief lexicon of yoga terms. The sequences are:
Sun Salutation (quite gentle, slow variation on a sun salutation)
Half Moon (balancing and standing moves centered on the half moon)
Moon Salutation (plow pose, shoulder stands, and boat pose variations)
Forward Bends (seated forward bends with lots of tiny variations that get a very deep stretch)
Lying Trees (variations on tree pose lying down, intense leg stretches)
Every practice sequence is done fully on one side, then on the other side. I sometimes found myself with my back to the screen when I was doing the practice for the first time, so next time I will check which way I should face when I begin. In general, it would be a good idea to watch this video before working with it, since it is so different from other programs.
My favourite sequences were the forward bends and the lying trees, as they reminded me of the kinds of exercises I’ve done in ballet classes and stretch programs. My least favourite was the moon salutation. I usually love shoulder stands, but in this case the lengthy time spent in plow pose made my nape sore for a few days. (Take it easy when you do this, is my advice.)
Overall, Fluid Yoga was a deeply enjoyable practice. The beautiful music and cinematography were soothing, and made it feel more like a meditative dance than like a workout. Whereas in regular yoga practice I often want to push deeper into stretches, with this DVD I felt motivated to emulate the instructors’ graceful, soft movements. It’s a DVD to grow into too, with balances that are surprisingly challenging because done so slowly.
I would recommend Fluid Yoga to anyone who wants to be transported while doing yoga, or who is looking for programs that focus on precise movements and subtle modifications. I would also very highly recommend it to anyone who dances. The core work and stretches are precisely the kind dancers need, and the aesthetic makes yoga feel like dance.
I mentioned at the start of this post that I did this program as my last bit of exercise pre-surgery. Doing Fluid Yoga that night really felt like a gift to myself. It allayed much anxiety, helped me feel at home in my body, and helped me sleep well. I’m looking forward to continuing the exploration.
You can find Klaus Busch and Tülin Sensan’s website here.
Last month, I did an unusually spontaneous thing. I was on Facebook when I saw a video of a dancer who had amazing fluidity and grace. And playfulness. You know, the exact qualities I want in my dance. When I googled her, I found out she lived in Toronto — and I was about to go there the next week. Well, in a matter of hours, we had gotten in touch, and I had a booking for my first private dance class ever with Badia Star, aka Brenda Bell.
I had no idea what to expect. We did talk in advance about the kinds of things I wanted to cover, but the whole structure of a private class was new to me. And because I hadn’t done any bellydance in quite a long time — and in a class, even longer — a lot of what we did involved trying out different movements and finding the spots where I could learn the most.
Badia/Brenda is such a warm, encouraging, spirited teacher. But she was also carefully watching me to give me tips on form and execution, which is exactly what I want in an instructor. I came away with a long list of notes on what we did, and ideas on what I could practice on my own. So here were some of the things the class made me pay attention to:
Oh my lord are my shoulders tight. I knew that I had lost some connection to my abs over the past years (ok a lot), but I didn’t realise how tight my shoulders had become. Really tight. Rock solid. This is a thing. Not a good thing.
For someone with a swayback, a strong core is really just as important in bellydance as it is in ballet. This has to be my number one concern, and I think it’s part of the reason ballet classes have often left my body feeling better than bellydance ones. (Despite how “artificial” ballet feels, it’s all about strength in the core and engaging every possible muscle.)
So much of my bellydance training has involved standing in a single spot and doing a move. Maybe doing a few moves. But definitely standing in that spot. Perhaps also pivoting on that spot, or doing one or two steps to the left and to the right. What has my bellydance training rarely integrated? Broad-ranging movement across the floor, learning isolations in combination with steps (not as things that have to be added to each other), really covering space. This was perhaps the big mind explosion in this class. The reason I am so static in my dance is that I have learned this dance in a static way. (I’ve taken classes with a few other teachers who put the steps first, and wonder if doing steps first might not be a better way to transition to actual dance.) Badia had me moving the whole time, walking around the room, linking movements together. And it was challenging, but gave me a sense of how to actually dance with these movements as opposed to presenting them.
This is perhaps the hardest realisation to articulate. Bellydance for me has always been about coming to terms with my feminine self, whatever that meant at a particular point in my life. As a 20-year-old, it meant finding a form of womanhood I could feel natural in. As a 30-something, it was part of adjusting to motherhood. But as I approach forty, working in a male-dominated environment, it’s really hard to know what that should look like at all. I just know that losing bellydance as a daily practice has gone hand in hand with other kinds of loss. And I want to change that.
There’s a lot more that I’m thinking about. I’ve been practicing a bit more since the private class, though sickness and work have kept me from doing so as much as I’d like. But I was so very glad I did it — it was precisely the kind of boost and inspiration I needed at this point. Now it’s time to figure out the next steps…
Ursula Karven is a German actress whom I only know because of her series of yoga DVDs. If, like me, you tend to check out the workout section of any DVD display, you will know her face.
Her DVD Power Yoga is not the kind of thing I usually go for, mainly because I prefer hatha to vinyasa yoga. However, I realised lately that I crave a slightly more energetic, flowing yoga practice, so I decided to give this a try.
It’s an older program, as you can probably tell from these images. There are English and German tracks — I used the English track, which is narrated by a man. The yoga flow is about 50 minutes long, and there is a half-hour guided breathing meditation that seems only to be available in German, narrated by Karven.
I have to say that I was really pleasantly surprised by the program. It assumes you know the basics of yoga postures, and doesn’t provide excessive cueing or instruction. It does, however, provide enough so that you don’t have to keep looking at the screen: cues for where to put your limbs, what to do with which breath, how to modify a position to make it more or less intense. The narration is calm throughout.
More importantly, it’s just a gorgeously put together program. It begins with breathing and gentle stretches and twists, moves on to sun salutations and standing poses, then back to the mat for back exercises, more intense stretches, and inverted positions. It’s everything I want in a yoga practice, a bit of sweat and a bit of stretch and a bit of breathing, all in under an hour. If I were the kind of person who gets up early in the morning, this is what I’d spend that extra time doing.
The program is filmed in a desert landscape, with a very artsy, Ali McGraw-aesthetic. Positions are performed by Karven and four other practitioners, some of whom do modified versions of poses. I appreciated not having to “float” anywhere during my sun salutations, but it would have been nice to be given a modification for chaturanga.
All told, however, Ursula Karven’s Power Yoga is an excellent vinyasa yoga practice, and made me feel strong and relaxed once I’d finished it. Even though it’s an older program, it looks likely to become a favourite in my collection.
If a workout video can make a person have extremely confused feelings, this one is it.
Julianne Hough is a two-time Dancing with the Stars champion. She is young, peppy, charming, and impossibly slim. She’s also a real dancer (as opposed to a fitness pro who adapts dance moves), so I was looking forward to working with her videos. I got a two DVD set of Just Dance! and Cardio Ballroom, and decided to try what looked like the easier video first.
Just Dance! turns out not to be easy. Yes, there is a short instructional segment in which Julianne explains some of the trickier moves. Yes, she layers the moves carefully into combos — every bit of a mini-choreography is introduced alone, arms and stylizations are added later, and all of it is repeated plenty of times. And, as is typical in many workout videos, one of her backup dancers demonstrates modifications for less of a challenge.
At the same time, so many things are challenging. Moves are demonstrated at what would be full speed in another workout video, then sped all the way up. (Some of the steps were so fast I just couldn’t even move my body through space quickly enough to keep up.) A number of them take real control not to do in a way that would be hard on the back or knees. And there are head flipping moves that an unwise person might occasionally try to imitate — which is part of why I have some shoulder pain today. And because of the music video editing, it’s often impossible to see the woman doing the modified workout.
That said, the program is worth a try, at least for someone who is already somewhat fit and used to picking up dance moves. Because the choreos are on the harder side, there’s room to grow into it. The moves are also pretty fun, sort of a mix of sexy go-go and club dancing with a touch of African dance. And even though Julianne makes me want to put on a parka and never take it off, her personality is so fun and energizing that you want to keep going until the end of the program.
All in all, I would recommend Just Dance! to people who already have some experience with dance, are aware of how to perform moves safely for their body, and who want a bit of a challenge. It really does help you work up a sweat, it offers a full body workout (I was feeling all my muscles the next day), and it’s good practice for learning fast choreography. Just Dance! feels, despite its slightly unusual moves, really more dancey than typical workouts. It also has a nice cooldown and stretch at the end, but leaves you with lots of energy for the rest of your day.
First, a confession: I am, apparently, the kind of person who enjoys Latin-dance-themed workout videos.
For a long time I was a bit of a snob about video dance instruction. I wanted the real thing, not some workoutified, sweatified, neonified version of real dance. I didn’t want to do lunges in the middle of a merengue, nor did I think that exercise instructors had much to tell me about hip movement.
This evening, though, after days of gorging on heavy Christmas food (hello, fondue! why hello there, Sauerbraten!), it felt like the right thing to do to wake up my muscles. So I pulled this cheap-o German DVD, Latin Dance Workout, from my shelf. It cost about five Euros, and might have been truly terrible. But it wasn’t.
I mean, there were almost no explanations of steps, it was fast-paced, and at a few moments a bit hectic. You could tell they were determined to film in one shot, whatever small mistakes happened. But it was also led by a Brazilian trainer who can really dance, Lucas Correia Freitag, most of the moves were fun and dancey enough, and after it was all done I felt as though all my joints had been pulled apart and reassembled in a more logical manner. My mood too.
So my thought for the new year is that I should not overthink this dance and movement thing. I’ve tried working towards goals and organizing my dance practice and thinking about how to improve. It doesn’t lead to much but guilt.
Maybe I need to bring my expectations all the way down to zero, and just do whatever feels right in the moment: dance, or yoga, or stretching, or weights. Ten minutes or forty minutes. Whatever works.
The same goes for this blog, which I neglect because I have the desire to write long, detailed, useful reviews and posts. I’m wondering if I can do shorter posts now and then, and just put them out into the world!
So, what are your ideas for how to structure movement in your new year? And what are your favourite workout programs that might not seem like much at first sight?
Months ago, I decided my end-of-summer treat would be a weekend of workshops at Khalida’s studio called Movespiration. I knew Khalida a bit, through her DVDs and from online conversations. I’d reviewed her Shimmies DVD and worked a bit with her All About Arms program, and over email we geeked out a bit on dance and movement. So when she said she wanted to bring her favorite movement teachers into her studio for two days, I thought it would be worth going along for the experiment.
I also liked the idea of easing into bellydance by trying it again along with other dance and movement forms. And frankly, after so much stress this year, I thought it might be great just to focus on my body, no matter what the practice was. These were my two goals for the weekend.
What I knew was that we would do some taekwondo with Master Chae Seung-Eun, ballet with Constanze Janssen, and bellydance with Khalida. In fact, the two days I spent in Würselen were even more varied. Master Chae is also an expert in Haidong Gumdo, Korean sword fighting, and one of our classes with him was devoted to this art. Constanze did ballet barre exercises and centre work, but she also led us through a modern-inspired floor barre.
Sandra van Frankfoort-Mamentu, who was in the workshop as a participant, took the lead on Sunday morning and led us through a tai-chi warmup. Even Khalida’s own classes were varied: we did do a bit of bellydance movement and technique, but Khalida also introduced us to a wealth of exercises and body techniques: lymphatic drainage, tricks to improve alignment or release certain muscles, practices for increasing turnout and flexibility and reducing pain. (She taught us so many things, in fact, that at one point I had to sit down after a session and just write them all down as fast as I could.)
My biggest surprise of the weekend was how much I enjoyed the martial arts we practiced with Master Chae. Now, I’m not a very high energy person, nor do I think of myself as particularly strong, so I was a bit nervous about what taekwondo would be like. The exercises we did were exhausting, but in the best possible way. I found, to my surprise, that I loved punching and kicking. I had the good fortune to work with a partner (Lou of Brussels) who practices taekwondo, and she pushed me hard. It was wonderful. With every kick and punch I felt I was getting some of the year’s stress out, felt like I was cleansing myself of negative emotion and frustration. And at the end, although I was sweaty and had pushed myself to the limits of my energy, I actually felt revitalized.
The same was true for haidong gumdo, which we practiced using foam-covered swords for the most part, and blunt wooden swords for cutting paper. This required more precision and speed than I could muster, but also had that element of force. It felt like something I desperately want to do again. Later, as I was telling Master Chae how therapeutic I found it, he said calmly, “It looked like you had some things to get out.”
Ballet was a learning experience too, though in another way. I’ve been taking beginner ballet classes for a couple of years now, and figured I knew the basics. In Constanze’s class, I found so much to improve just in my posture and pliés that I was sweating from the first minutes. It was such difficult work (even keeping my stomach in is still a challenge), but so important in terms of how it felt to work with that strength. My balance and turns are still terrible, and I think part of that is that I’m still not pulling my muscles in the way I need to to rice up out of my legs. On the other hand, floor barre, while challenging, was a lovely release, with lots of stretching and flowing movement.
It will take a number of weeks to work through what I learned during the Movespiration weekend. There are a few things though that I want to reflect on:
Sometimes it’s great to go really far out of your comfort zone. I would never have thought that I’d enjoy taekwondo as much as I did. But not only was it great psychologically, it also felt good as movement. I wonder what it would be like to take that knowledge that I actually enjoy putting maximum energy into something and bring it to dance.
I think it would be a fun exercise to take a similar type of move and practice it in two or different ways, switching between movement traditions. Like: doing a tai chi walk, a ballet walk, and a bellydance walk one after the other. Or alternating taekwondo kicks with grands battements. Or playing with tai chi, ballet, and bellydance arm paths.
I love stretching programs that are intense and feel like something is really happenig, but I need to learn more about the ways smaller movements and alignment changes can affect flexibility.
So much of what we learn in bellydance has to be drastically unlearned for ballet. I knew about legs — we practice keeping legs slightly (sometimes very) bent in bellydance, while ballet is all about the straight leg. Then there’s the stomach, which needs to be flexible for bellydance, and pulled in tight for ballet. But I was surprised to see how useful it can be to keep the glutes really tight too in ballet, which of course would be harder to do in bellydance. I’m not sure if there’s a good solution to switching, other than consciously practicing both.
It might be worth incorporating some journaling into dance: thinking more clearly about what I want out of any given class or practice session, and articulating for myself what kinds of things I want out of the dance itself.
This is where I am right now. I took this week to rest and let things settle — and have a bit of fun — but tomorrow I return to ballet. I’m curious to see how what I learned affects my approach, and eager to start experimenting with some of the adjustments I learned in class. I’d also love to do more taekwondo. I’m not sure I have time for another regular commitment, but I’ll see if there are any introductory lessons close to me.
And what I will definitely try to do is attend Movespiration again. Given how much we did and learned, it was an incredible value. The variety of practices we tried out took so much concentration that it felt like a real mental vacation from daily life — and that was just what I needed.
Ever since I’ve started taking ballet classes, I’ve been on the lookout for really great flexibility programs. Ballet does help with a certain amount, but one or two classes a week don’t make up for being in my thirties’ and sitting at a desk all day. And when I can’t go to ballet for a few weeks, my flexibility decreases dramatically.
So what makes Bendy Body different? First, it incorporates three different kinds of stretching: passive stretching (using an external force to increase the stretch), resistance stretching (in which you contract the muscle for a few seconds and then release), and active stretching (using the strength of your own muscles).
It’s a video that can be used to work on increasing flexibility, but it’s also a fantastic program for when you’re tight. (I’ve used it while taking ballet classes, but also on break and after a lot of traveling.) It takes very little space and equipment, since it’s all basically on a mat. You can use two straps, but I’ve also just done it on a bed with towels instead of the straps. It’s also mostly done lying or sitting, so it’s easy to do when feeling low-energy.
My favorite thing about Bendy Body though is that instead of having you hold one stretch for a very long time, Kristina shifts the stretch slightly in a number of small ways so that you don’t get bored, and stretch any given muscle from more angles. Because of all these little variations, I’ve found a number of delicious stretches that were new to me. There were a few more mobile stretches too, some of which were quite challenging (one beyond me), but it was easy enough to modify.
Bendy Body begins with a useful introduction, then moves on to four sections:
Stretching the Legs and Hips
Releasing the Lower Back
Opening the Shoulders
You can choose any of these sections from the DVD menu, or do the entire program as one — it takes about 70 minutes. The bulk of Bendy Body is dedicated to legs and hips, which makes it particularly useful for dancers, but I found the entire program therapeutic when my back or knees start to complain.
The other interesting thing about Bendy Body is that it doesn’t hurt the next day, the way I’ve experienced with a few other deep stretching programs. It makes pain go away, in fact, and feels more like a workout than like a deep stretch. Basically, it feels good. I haven’t done it often enough to speak to whether it is effective at increasing flexibility in the long term. What I would say is that it’s a DVD I’m very likely to turn to again and again, simply because of the ease of use and pleasure of doing it — and that’s likely to help more than a very intense program I do once a year.
What Bendy Body is not is a splits program. While it works on building flexibility necessary for both kinds of splits, you never practice splits per se. Because I’m very far away from that anyway, I don’t see this as a loss. That’s what Get Bent is for. But I should say that while Get Bent is more intense, I find the quality of instruction on Bendy Body far superior. Given the focus on really good form and active stretching, it’s also a better choice for dancers.
Production quality is excellent, and Kristina narrates the program in a calm, encouraging voice. In short: Kristina Nekyia’s Bendy Body is a new favorite, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in general flexibility, stretches useful for dance, contortion, or simply improving the strength and health of their shoulders, back, and knees.
Day 1, thought I’d start small with a ten-minute program off a (surprisingly) 70-minute yoga DVD. Guided by the almost-unreally soothing and relaxed Julia Pritzel, a teacher from Berlin. Unfortunately, program was more like a series of asana descriptions rather than a flow, so I had to do a bit of rewinding to even both sides out. Despite short length, some really really nice side and neck stretches that I will turn to again. Found myself improvising a bit and adding on to the end for more relaxation. Good for end of the day.
DVD contents basically a full program — wondering if Women’s Health has a longer version of this too. Really nice production quality, and whole DVD seems much more about relaxation and solid yoga than about wearing a bikini or having a sexy butt.
Here in Germany, magazines — especially women’s mags — sometimes have freebies attached to them. It might be a little book of recipes or exercises, a “sounds of summer” CD, or a makeup sample. (UK magazines have tons of really high end makeup samples, but we’re not there yet. Though I did get a free mini Chanel lip gloss once. Major victory.)
Most often, though, they have workout DVDs. Some of these are made especially for the magazines, but usually they are excerpts from DVDs available on the market, offering 20-40 min of programming.
My problem is that I can’t resist these. Every time I see one of these magazines, I have an image of myself becoming fitter and slimmer due to this little free DVD. Such a steal, when the mag is only three euros or something! Which means that over time, I’ve amassed quite a collection of them.
What I love about them when I do try one out is that they’re so low commitment. I feel like I’ve done an entire program even if it was only twenty or thirty minutes. I have so many great DVDs in my collection, but it’s often hard to find one to two hours to really work with one.
So I’m wondering if it’s worth trying to challenge myself: to make it through all my freebie DVDs. It’s not really worth doing reviews of these, since many are in German, and they’re not really purchasable in the form I have them. What I’m more interested in is the structure of a challenge, and in building a habit of doing some kind of movement even when my time is short.