Review of Go-Go Dance with Angie Pontani

Friends, it has been aaaaaages since I’ve done a review. For various personal reasons, it has been a struggle even to go to my in-studio ballet classes. Getting things together enough to do a video on any given evening has just been too much. Saddest of all, I haven’t bellydanced in even longer. At this point, it feels like I barely remember the moves!

So a few days ago I was looking to get back into things. I wanted a video that I could do in an hour or less, that would give me a real workout, and that would be dance-related. My eye fell on Angie Pontani’s Go-Go Dance, which is billed on the cover as being for beginners. I received a review copy of this from World Dance New York, and back when I got it, it didn’t seem like my kind of thing. After all, go-go dancers don’t tend to impress me in terms of dance technique. But this weekend I really liked the idea of a dance DVD that was more about having fun than about perfecting a move, so I got my workout clothes on and did the entire video.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I will never scoff at go-go dancers again. Go-go dancers now have my utmost, undying respect. Which is to stay that Angie Pontani sweetly, methodically, kicked my butt. After the workout every single muscle in my body hurt (in a good way), and I could have launched sailboats on the seas of my sweat. It was awesome. I can’t wait to do it again. In the meantime, let me tell you what it is.

The program consists of three tutorial sections followed by combinations made up of the moves already learned. At the end, the sections are put together into one song-length choreography. There are enough repetitions of the combos and the choreography at the end to give a real workout, beyond the practice of individual moves.

The moves themselves are retro- and bellydance-inspired. Angie Pontani is also a burlesque dancer, and her go-go dancing is 1960’s in flavour, with moves like the Jailhouse Rock, the Buffalo Bill, the Roll & Shoot, the Jerk, and the Pony. She also teaches chest and full-body shimmies, as well as a fast hip shake she calls “The Princess Farhana.” Despite there being extensive grinding, and not a lot of clothing, the whole video still has an air of sweetness and innocence about it. The point seems to be more fun and entertainment than seduction.

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Pontani breaks down each move, and gives little tips on safe movement and stylization. Her instruction is quick, but detailed enough for someone with a little bit of dance experience. I noticed a few tiny differences between the combo instruction and what actually happened in the combo, but this does not really matter once you are practicing the combo multiple times. And, overall, Pontani is a delight: just cheerful and encouraging enough to keep you going for about 65 minutes of dancing that looks much easier than it actually is.

Go-Go Dance is a video that beginners can enjoy, and it also has a bit of space to grow. While I could do all the movements on the first go, doing them at Pontani’s top speed was still a challenge. Working on stylization and nice arm movement would add another layer of difficulty. But the real point is that it’s fun — grab a towel, some water, and a few changes of clothes, and prepare to boogie!

Review of Lastics: A Stretch Workout Like No Other

One of my biggest challenges since starting to take ballet has been flexibility. This is odd: I’ve never been a particularly inflexible person. But ballet shows you your limits fast. So I have been on the search for programs that are focused on increasing flexibility. Yoga is great, of course, but sometimes I don’t feel like it, and it’s not necessarily aimed at the kind of flexibility one needs in dance.

Enter Lastics. It’s the creation of Donna Flagg, a former dancer, and advertised as “A Stretch Workout Like No Other.” I bought the DVD bundled with the book, since I wanted to know as much as possible about what made Lastics different. There are quite a few stretch DVDs out there, and many of them seem just to offer the same stretches most active people already know.

I’m happy to report that Lastics is quite different from all other stretch programs I’ve done. One major difference is that Donna Flagg has you extend muscles, then stretch them. I’m not a physician, and can’t tell if she’s right that it’s pointless to work on flexibility on an unextended muscle, but I do know that doing that hasn’t brought me much. Another aspect of Flagg’s program is using, as much as possible, internal force to stretch muscles, rather than external objects or devices.

The DVD itself has an intro on Common Stretching Mistakes, and then moves on to four sections:

Stretch in Motion (15 min)
Get into Your Body (19 min)
Feel the Rush (14 min)
Body Meets Mind (9 min)

The idea is that any one segment will stretch all of your body, but that you can do more if you want. This is true, but the names of the sections have no real relationship to what’s covered. I’ve done the program twice all the way through, and I think it works well that way, but I do like the option of doing a smaller program if I have less time.

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Donna Flagg demonstrates Lastics stretch with a modification

Donna’s instruction is excellent. Every single breath and move is cued, directions are clear, and every move is done equally on both sides. As good instructors do, she often anticipates your mistakes and corrects you. She also often shows adjustments for people with less flexibility.

So does it work? And is the DVD worth it? Well, I’m not sure if it works. I haven’t seen any increase in my flexibility in the days after using the program, though it’s probably expecting too much for one hour to make a noticeable difference. I think it would be more effective to do this program after some other kind of movement or warmup, instead of stretching cold — which is what I did both times.

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Donna Flagg demonstrating a Lastics psoas stretch

I am, however, very happy with the purchase. There are a number of stretches in this program I haven’t seen elsewhere, and still others that I haven’t seen directed quite in this way. Lastics targets certain areas that other programs don’t, like the psoas muscle, and its in intense focus on stretching hamstrings with a straight leg, it’s particularly useful for students of dance or ballet. Dancers might wish for more stretches that aim towards turnout or straddle splits, but the program stands on its own as it is.

And while I can’t tell if the program really improves flexibility, it certainly is a delicious and deep way to stretch, one that I suspect prevents quite a bit of pain. I think Lastics is particularly great after travel or long days of sitting at a desk, as it works on the quads, neck, and arm muscles. Lastics offers a deep stretch comparable to a yin yoga practice, one that is perfect if you don’t want to do yoga,

Playing with Khalida’s All About Arms (Hands Technique)

I think we’ve all been there in our dance lives, no? For whatever reason, we stop going to regular classes, or stop practicing on our own, and we feel further away from the dance than ever. I mean, that’s the frustrating thing with dance — although there’s muscle memory and all that, it takes so little to fall out of shape. Out of whatever shape you were in. In one of the ballet memoirs I read recently there was a line that went something like this: “Miss one day of class, and you notice. Miss two days, and your teacher notices. Miss three days, and the audience notices.”

Well, you’d definitely notice my bellydancing, because I haven’t taken regular classes in almost two years.

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have been taking ballet, which I’ve grown to love, but I miss oriental dance, all its variety, all its wonderful music, the way it feels so natural to my body. So recently I complained on Facebook about how I didn’t really even know where to start anymore with bellydance, having been so long out of practice. I have DVDs to review too, but my poor shape makes them harder to take on — and more stressful too.

I got a bunch of advice, and Khalida offered to send me her new arms DVDs, a sort of hardcopy version of a class she offers by streaming and download. And I said sure, because I figured that even if the rest of my body was lazy, maybe my arms could play. They also tend to be pretty neglected in ballet.

Tonight, after four weeks — four weeks! — of just no dancing at all due to all the work and traveling I’ve had to do, I finally got my act together and did the first class in the series, “Hands Technique.”

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. It was pretty great though. After a brief posture check and warm-up, Khalida basically goes through about a million stretches and exercises for fingers and wrists. She even shows you how to do a massage of your own hands. This class is almost 50 minutes long, and the first 20 minutes are taken up with warming, stretching, and exercising hands and wrists.

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I’ve never seen anyone do this on a video. It’s usually three stretches and then, “here are fifteen things you can do with your hands.” The reason I loved this is that I have major wrist problems from computer use, so even basic hand and arm work has become difficult for me in the last year. But my wrists are sooooo loose now, and I was able to move them freely after all those stretches. At one point as I was doing them I thought, “This is what everyone should do at the end of the week. Just spend an hour stretching the poor hands and wrists that got stiff at a computer.”

The rest of the class is dedicated to two sections, one on hand waves, and the other one on hand and wrist circles. In each case, Khalida shows multiple ways of performing the movement, often with very tiny variations. There’s a distinct Persian flavour to some of her movements too, which I love. For difficult movements, like lotus hands, she’ll explain the movement in several ways. At the end of each of these sections is a flowing practice section set to music.

When I say this class was not what I expected, it’s because I didn’t think there would be so much material, and such a level of detail, in what is basically just one of four classes. While you can definitely do this video in one go, and I mostly did, I still found myself stopping it sometimes so I could go to the mirror and check out how things looked, what a difference small variations made. I think this would be good for a dancer who is past beginner level and who wants to work on strengthening and varying her hand work. I also think it would be very good for teachers looking for new exercises and ways of explaining movement.

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Khalida’s class made me, personally, realise two things: one, my arms don’t have that much endurance anymore (man, I got tired during the practices), and two, hands and arms were one of the things that made me fall in love with bellydance in the first place. If I want to go back to the dance, this may be just the way to do it.

You can find out more about the All About Arms class series at Khalida’s website.

 

Review of Aslahan’s Taming Your Zills

You get a zills DVD. Or you go to class. And suddenly you are learning ten different rhythms, trying to layer them onto movements, and feeling that it’s all impossible.

At least, if you’re me.

I’ve done a bit of both, and most of the time, I can’t figure out how I’m going to get from here (no zill ability) to there (dancing with zills in a non-monotonous and coordinated way). I have a tough time with learning rhythms. Over various drum workshops and drum DVDs I’ve realised that it gets better with practice, but I need to learn things slowly. I certainly can’t jump into full rhythms and dancing.

Enter Aslahan. Her DVD, Taming Your Zills, is something different. She does not try to teach you a dozen rhythms and a choreography to go with them. The goal of her DVD is to get you to internalize some basic zill building blocks and be able to move while playing with them. That, frankly, is already a lot. She’s an improvisational dancer, and so it’s no surprise that her lessons and drills are particularly valuable if you want to be able to move freely to the music and still accompany yourself by playing zills.

Taming Your Zills is a smart DVD, and a must-have for anyone starting out on zills, as well as for anyone who has begun but doesn’t feel comfortable with them yet. In sixteen lesson, Aslahan takes you from the basics of holding the zills and playing what she calls the gallop (often called a triplet), to moving various parts of your body while playing increasingly harder patterns, and even to dancing to your own zilling!

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It’s not a DVD to do in one go. Aslahan explains in the intro that you should really take time to work with each lesson and internalize it before doing the next one. The lessons themselves are brief, but they are followed by substantial drills or “exercises”. Here’s something I like: not only are the lessons and drills chaptered, so you can easily repeat an exercise, but you can also reach the exercises directly from a separate menu.

Here’s something I really, really like: the drills are not all the same. Aslahan has exercises in which she has you practice patterns. She has a series of drills for you to learn to move your arms or your hips with different patterns. In some exercises, she will play a pattern and you repeat it, thus teaching you to recognize patterns by their sound. There are a few improvisational drills too, at basic and advanced levels.

Along the way, Aslahan offers a wealth of useful tips: how to know which hand you’re using when you’re just starting out; good ways to incorporate zilling into particular songs; how to dance a whole show while keeping your zills on; dealing with zills in hair; and how to vary the volume of the zills by holding them differently (and when you might want to do so).

Because of its organization into lessons, Taming Your Zills is a great DVD to incorporate into a practice routine. In about ten minutes, you can complete one lesson and its exercise, so you can also work on the rest of your dance. I also like that the exercises vary between full-body dancing drills and ones that can be done with arm movements only, or even just with hands. This means that when I’m a little lazier or tired, I can practice a bit without getting out of my chair.

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While Aslahan only covers three actual rhythms, she gives you the tools to build on what she shows. I really like being able to play along with someone or with a video, but I also found myself pausing the video and practicing on my own at different paces. It’s a DVD to use for a while. You could do the drills along with her but substitute different dance moves, or you could take the patterns she uses and practice them with other rhythms you learn.

Aslahan’s Taming Your Zills is a pedagogically smart and very useable instructional DVD. She makes me even me feel that, little by little, I could learn to dance with zills! Two performances round out the video and offer inspiration.

You can find Taming Your Zills on Amazon, and you should also check out Aslahan’s site, www.aslahan.com!

Lauren Zehara Haas teaches

Guest Post from Lauren Zehara Haas: Bringing the Joy of Movement to Medical Populations

I’m delighted to introduce a guest post from Lauren Zehara Haas, a writer and dancer who is organizing the upcoming Global Hafla for Humanity international fundraiser and building an informational site at www.bellydanceu.net. Lauren is the author of the Belly Dance Journal and of the DVD Stage Presence. I hope you’ll enjoy and share Lauren’s reflections on teaching movement to people going through or recovering from illness.

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The first time I taught a belly dance program for breast cancer survivors, I was a bit intimidated. Teaching movement practices in medical situations always feels like both a great privilege and a tremendous responsibility; I hoped I could give this group whatever they wanted from my class.

I arrived early and the director showed me to a carpeted room with chairs around the perimeter. I set up my sound system in one corner, sat on the floor, and started unpacking the veils I’d brought with me. Soon the first pair of women peeked into the room.

“Are you the bellydance teacher?” they asked with a giggle.

“I am, come on in! What are your names?” Turning a room full of uncomfortable strangers into a room full of laughing friends is what a belly dance teacher does best. The more women arrived, the more comfortable I felt.

About 10 women had trickled into the room and we were getting along beautifully when the first truly sick looking participant came in. She had a scarf tied over scalp and deep shadows under her eyes. She entered slowly, seeming very unsure of herself, which immediately alerted me that she was new here, and the others, so much more comfortable in this room, must be further along in their recovery.I got quite a shock when I realized I knew this woman.

“Liz? How ARE you? I’m so happy to see you, I’ve been so worried!” This woman had quietly disappeared from one of my yoga classes six months ago. Liz indicated her headscarf in response; no words were needed. I hugged her gently and told her I was so happy to see her and was looking forward to teaching her a little bellydance. My heart was filled with the honor of being allowed to teach these women who had all so recently danced with death. The purpose of this program was not to teach them to dance, but to help them reconnect with life.

Over the next hour, I gently guided the women in moving their hips and following Middle Eastern rhythms. We kept our arms below our hearts to accommodate their lower energy levels, and when I handed out the veils I taught low, one-armed movements so those who were recovering from mastectomy incisions could adapt to whichever side suited them. We sat down to practice finger cymbals halfway through the hour, so they could catch their breath. We laughed a lot, and they were all smiling when they left the room. No one had a bigger smile than me; mine felt like it was bubbling up from the soles of my feet.

If you’re ever asked to teach a movement class to a medical population, I urge you to say yes. You may never have a more rewarding experience. But you also need to take responsibility for managing these populations responsibly. Here’s how:

  • Do your homework. Start by asking the person who is hiring you “What should I know about this group’s physical limitations to teach them safely?” but also do independent research on Google. Use search terms like “How to adapt exercise instruction for people with ______.” The yoga literature offers a lot of information on adaptations, and you can usually extrapolate this to other movement forms. Ace Fitness also offers good resources, even if you’re not an ACE certified instructor.
  • Present yourself as authoritative but open. Tell the group “I’ve done some research, and I’ve brought a lot of ideas. But you are the experts on your recovery and limitations, so please stop me if there’s something I need to know.”
  • Be awkward. Uncomfortable subjects will come up in medical groups. Push through them anyway. If you avoid talking about body functions and other tough topics, they will avoid it too, so be open and create a no-holds-barred environment for them. Laugh at your own awkwardness. They will love you for it.
  • Warm up slowly. Give your students time to talk, to laugh. This is a social experience for them even more than it is an exercise class.
  • Keep it fun. Your job is not to rehabilitate, or even to give them a great workout or teach them how to dance properly. Your job is to help them reconnect with the bodies that have betrayed them. Help them have fun in their bodies. Give them laughter, and encouragement, and lots of success experiences. Measure your success by how much joy you feel in the room.
  • Encourage adaptation. It’s not enough to start the class by saying “feel free to rest at any time, or adapt the movements to suit you.” You have to prove to the group that you mean it. Humans are social animals, and they will push through pain in order to stay with the group and do what the leader asks. When you see someone sit down for a moment, or change the move to suit them, give a verbal reward like “I really like how you’re taking care of yourself right now” or “That’s a brilliant adaptation, I like that. Would anyone else like to try it that way?”
  • Continuously offer adaptations. If there are three ways to do a movement, show them all, but then return to the simplest variation for the rest of the drill. Students who feel competent can do the move without a model more easily than people who are struggling. Ask questions like “Would anyone prefer to do this move sitting down?” or “Is this move causing any discomfort for you?”
  • Monitor their energy level. Keeping arms below heart level and not lifting the feet very high will reduce the workload on their bodies. If the group seems tired, bring them back to a simple drill and talk with them for a while, or offer a water break.
  • Ask for honest feedback. You are going to love working with these groups, and you’ll want to keep getting better at it.
Ali MacGraw's yoga

Review of Ali MacGraw’s Yoga Mind & Body

Ali MacGraw’s Yoga Mind and Body has been around for a long time. I knew it as a VHS tape, but picked up a DVD version of it years ago in Half Price Books. Today my body was complaining in all sorts of ways, and I knew I needed some yoga, so I finally decided to try it.

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MacGraw is not the instructor — Erich Schiffmann is. First, let’s cover the most obvious part: this is one of the most gorgeous exercise DVDs you could ever imagine. Forget pilates by the beach, MacGraw and several other practitioners are filmed in some kind of insane desert full of platinum-white sand, while dramatic New Age music plays in the background. If there were a yoga video to watch while getting high, this is it.

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The less obvious thing? One of those practitioners is older (well, two are, if you count MacGraw), and two are of colour. Yoga has a race problem, as we now know, and one of the issues is that it’s difficult even to see images of people of colour doing or teaching yoga. I thought it was pretty cool that MacGraw’s DVD did, despite its aesthetic otherwise being so literally white. 

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But you probably want to know about the workout. Yoga Mind and Body is a great morning workout — around 45 minutes in length, beginning with practice in breathing and very gentle cat stretches, and working up to a good basic practice.

It’s a good DVD for people with experience in yoga, and who can modify to suit their ability. The movements are well-cued, and build up through repetition. There are a few challenging poses, and these have no modifications offered. (Guess they didn’t bring blocks to the desert!) But most of the video is really quite doable.

And that crazy New Age music? Even though I tend not to like that kind of thing, it fit the pace of the movements quite well, and I found it gave me energy during the sun salutations and helped me relax at the end. Or it would have, if a certain toddler hadn’t decided to sit between me and the computer and engage me in a discussion of what it was I was doing.

Ali MacGraw yoga