Review of Belly Dance Drum Solos with Mariyah and Faisal Zedan

Belly Dance Drum Solos: Concepts for Dancers and Drummers is an intermediate/advanced level instructional DVD put out by dhavir productions. It also happens to be very, very good. It is rich in material, innovative in its pedagogy, and will give the intermediate or advanced student tons to work with.

But let’s get one little thing out of the way. If you are a beginner dancer who does not have a lot of moves in your repertoire, or if you are the kind of person who likes to have a teacher explain every little thing before you feel comfortable following along (nothing wrong with this, it’s a legitimate learning style), your enjoyment of this DVD will be limited. You might still get value out of watching it, but it will be harder for you to use it actively.

Belly Dance Drum Solos is aimed at students who already know a few steps (a screen at the beginning invites you to modify the moves according to your own ability), and who, more importantly, are comfortable doing a bit of follow-along and interpretation. If you are familiar with the bellydance scene at all, you know that the dance is taught in different ways depending on region and teacher. Typically, “Western” students tend to like choreographies and step-by-step instructions, whereas Middle Eastern teaching is often done by example, or “follow the bouncing butt,” and works more with improvisation. But here’s the neat thing: this DVD does both: some sections are designed for you to follow along as best you can, but the DVD also includes a full choreography that is broken down step by step. It’s the best of both worlds.

After a brief written introduction to the DVD, we have a brief warm up routine (primarily for dancers, but drummers are also invited to use it) led by Mariyah. This is not a full, thorough warm up, but rather an exercise in centering yourself using breath. Mariyah talks about how staying centered and connected to your breath is what helps you have energy for an entire drum solo (which I didn’t know), and the movements are indeed delightful. My one criticism here is that the instructions are only written on the screen, which makes it difficult to follow them during the frequent forward bends. Faisal Zedan follows with a brief discussion of the importance of posture and warming up for drummers.

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The following section introduces a number of rhythms and movements that can be done to them. Included are masmoudi sagheer, maqsoum, saidi, falahi, malfouf, and ayoub. Each rhythm is shown first in notation, and then performed while Mariyah demonstrates the kinds of moves and move combinations she might do to them. The rhythms are not introduced slowly the way rhythm DVDs for dancers usually do — rather, the focus is on how they sound in an actual drum solo and how to move to them. On the one hand, I had trouble recognizing the rhythms at full speed, even though I know many of these in their slower, class versions. At the same time, I appreciated the exercise in reacting to real music, and loved seeing how Mariyah explored and varied both basic and more advanced bellydance moves. This is, I suspect, the part of the DVD I will return to most often.

In the section on “The Beat, Tempo, and Changing Rhythms”, Faisal plays two alternating rhythms while Mariyah claps along to the underlying beat. It’s an exercise in listening, and it’s one that I’m glad to have, because finding the beat is a real challenge for me. The next level would be to play close attention to the rhythms themselves, but simply holding the beat was enough for me on the first go.

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Another favourite section is “Putting the Sounds of the Drum into Movement,” a kind of bookend to the rhythms section. Here, Faisal plays the “Doum” repeatedly, and Mariyah shows the sort of big, dramatic movements she would use for it. Same for Tek, Suk, and Tuq. In what follows, Faisal plays longer riffs, and Mariyah dances to them. In all of these, I simply followed along with what Mariyah was doing. It was generally pretty easy to tell what she was doing, and what I liked about not having instructions was that I could focus on different aspects of her dance — the main accents, embellishment with the head or hands, ways of moving the upper body — and try to follow along with that aspect of the dance. The “follow me” kind of pedagogy is perfect for this kind of exercise, because it’s all about getting these moves and reactions into your body in an instinctual way, not about training you that there are one or two patterns to do when you hear a saidi. It’s training in improvisation, and the more you pay attention to the details of how Mariyah interprets the music, the more you can get out of it.

As if all this weren’t cool enough, yet another section follows, this one on the structure of solos. Faisal and Mariyah demonstrate how dancer and drummer communicate at various points in the drum solo, and again, you get multiple examples of: Introductions, Phrases over a rhythm, Free or arhythmic phrases (typically in the middle of a solo), and Endings.

Honestly, it’s like these people sat down and thought to themselves, “what is every possible way we can teach how to dance to a drum solo?” and then gave you exercises for every single level. Single sound? Check. Riff? Check. Rhythm? Check. Section of the dance? You got it. And never just one exercise for each — multiple ones, so you get lots of ideas and practice. You could also just watch these and analyze, or note down moves or combos you like for your own practice.

Okay, so at this point we’re about 53 minutes into the program, your intrepid, out-of-shape reviewer is tired and sweaty, and feeling pretty satisfied with the whole thing. But — lo and behold, a choreography!

And this is what I mean about different learning styles. If the first half of the DVD encourages you to follow intuitively, analytically, improvisationally, now you get a classic choreo instruction. Mariyah shows you each section slowly and describes every single step, then she runs you through it again slowly and with guidance. Then you practice it twice at full speed following her, and another two times following her in costume (which looks a little different). Every single little section is chaptered and easy to repeat. She does no movement instruction per se, but if you are intermediate you should be able to follow along, at least at half speed. Full speed may take a bit more practice. Here is my second and last criticism: this section is not mirrored, and at one point it became quite challenging for me to follow Mariyah’s left with mine.

Because of the way my brain works, choreo tends to be something I like less than technique instruction. In this case, however, I felt the choreography was a real addition, a completion of the previous teaching, if you will. I treated it not as a dance I would personally perform, but as a series of combos that were mini-lessons in how to respond to rhythms. So I noticed that she’ll sometimes do three moves, and vary on the fourth, or the way she’ll move the movements from the lower body to upper and then back down again. Mariyah’s instruction also helped me figure out some moves which I wasn’t able to discern precisely from the previous sections. After you are done all the individual segments, there is a clip of Mariyah dancing the whole thing in costume. Your intrepid reviewer was, alas, too tired at this point to try and dance along.

The choreography is the kind that’s jam packed and complex, but lest you think that’s the only kind of drum solo there is, the last section of the DVD — about twenty minutes long — offers you five entire improv performances. I watched these while stretching, and while I was a bit tired, I could already see how different they were from the choreographed drum solo. Movements were simpler, you could see Mariyah and Faisal watching and interpreting each other’s intentions. Not only did it have the magic of improvisation, but after all the previous exercises, you could analyse these performances, see what choices each of them was making, see the little moments where things didn’t quite fit, and so on. I know some dancers go directly to the performances on a DVD, and this will be a special treat for them. Five. Five.

The production value of Belly Dance Drum Solos is very high: quality filming, in a bright, modern studio. Mariyah’s costumes make it easy to see her movements even on a small screen. The chaptering is heroic — every single little thing is chaptered, so you can repeat a section at the press of a button, and every section and most sub-sections can be reached through the menu.

Belly Dance Drum Solo DVD disc

Mariyah is, incidentally, an absolutely lovely dancer. Graceful, energetic, musical. She has great technique, but it looks like it comes out of her spontaneously, not out of a desire to show off what she can do. There is a robotic kind of festival choreography we are all familiar with, and which I tend to find rather depressing, but Mariyah’s dancing just makes me happy and hopeful about the art form. For a DVD like this, where so much of the learning happens by watching and imitating, it was really essential that the teacher be a beautiful dancer, and not merely a competent one, because you look to her for style, spirit, interpretation, not just to copy a bunch of moves.

All in all, Belly Dance Drum Solos is an excellent program for dancers who are past the beginner stage and ready to be active in their dance education. It is just under 1 hour and 52 minutes long, but it feels like much more than that because of all the different segments and exercises. I did it all in one go, but you can take the different sections on their own and study or practice with them — certainly the choreography would be worth working with in a more dedicated way to get it up to speed. I think it would also be a fantastic tool for teachers or troupes, since you have built in demonstrations and variations that you could analyse and discuss.

You can get the DVD or a streaming rental at dhavir productions, which also provided me with a review copy.

Belly Dance Drum Solos DVD cover

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