Reiew of Julianne Hough’s Just Dance!

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.

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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.

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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.

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End-of-year thoughts

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.

Lucas Correia Freitag in Latin Dance Workout DVD

Be the shoulder shimmy you want to see in the world

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?

ballet with constanze janssen

Movespiration weekend with Khalida

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.”

Atisheh cutting paper with korean sword

Cutting a newspaper with a blunt sword takes a bit of practice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Atisheh and Khalida

Me with Khalida, who gave me an impromptu lesson on posing!

Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Bendy Body: A Flex-Stability Workout

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.

A while ago I reviewed Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training DVD — you can read the review here. It was a program I enjoyed a lot, but it was definitely intense and split-heavy, which meant I wasn’t likely to turn to it when feeling particularly stiff. Now Kristina has a new DVD out, Bendy Body – A Flex-stability Workout. Look, this was a review copy as was the other one, but I’ve worked with a number of stretching programs lately, and this one is the answer to my dreams.

Bendy Body 4

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 3

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
  • Backbends

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.

Bendy Body 2

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.

 

Magazine DVD challenge – Day 1

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.

State: relaxed, pleased with self

day 1 - cover.jpg

 

 

Freebie fitness

I have a secret addiction.

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.

So…. here goes.

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!