I have been following Neon and her work for going on a decade now. She may seem on the surface to be just a glamorous New York City bellydancer, but in fact she’s an innovative dance pedagogue, always experimenting with new ways to teach dance through video.
I say this because it’s easy to overlook her double DVD, Sensual Goddess – Belly Dance for Total Beginners (which I received a review copy of). It’s marketed as a beginner DVD, which might make it seem like it’s going to be a list of moves. But it’s really quite a bit more than that.
The concepts behind Sensual Goddess: that you can teach a beautiful, manageable choreography to beginners by incorporating a lot of striking poses, and that dance moves are best taught in the context of real dance. In a way, it’s the utter opposite of Neon’s Instant Bellydancer! DVD set, which taught moves separately and mechanically. Those are DVDs I love and return to, by the way, but I think she’s right that dance moves mean more in the context of, well, dance.
So what is in the DVDs?
The first DVD is made up of lessons. After a brief welcome by Neon, you can work your way through eight lessons. Each one begins with instruction: Neon slowly and carefully teaches the moves in that particular section, and includes some quite effective drills. Her teaching really is aimed at beginners: she breaks down the moves to their components, or teaches a basic or slow version of a move first, then building up complexity and speed.
After each lesson there’s a “combination & choreography” section. First you have Neon and her backup dancers, Angelys and Jenna Rey, demonstrating a slightly longer combination. You get to practice this several times. Then the dancers appear in a different, glitzier costume, and they do the choreography version of the combo — this is usually very similar, but at full speed, and with minor changes for transitions.
This is very smart dance teaching here. You are learning moves, but then practicing them in all sorts of ways. The practice and the choreography segments are set to different music (the moves really only go with the choreo music), so you get the feeling of doing them to different tunes.
The best part is that Neon maintains a running commentary throughout the practice and choreography segments, and even though the combos repeat, her advice does not. She’ll remind you to maintain your posture or abdominal tension, she’ll tell you how to move your arms more fluidly, she’ll tell you which way to look for a certain effect. She notes where making eye contact with the audience works or doesn’t, and she describes her own little stylizations. Basically, it’s like having a live teacher who is guiding you to perform the moves more beautifully as you practice.
Sensual Goddess covers an admirable amount of basic territory: hip work, figure eights, two kinds of turns, arabesques, undulations. But without a doubt, it is arm heavy. There are many beautiful arm patterns here, most of which I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Neon draws on poses a lot for both dramatic effect and in order to make the choreo accessible. And let me tell you — it winds up being a workout for the arms!
Is this really a beginner DVD? I think yes, with qualification. A gifted beginner — perhaps with other dance experience — could learn a lot from it and have a lot of fun with it. A student who is just learning to control their movements would do better with a much slower program.
I’m not a beginner anymore, but I enjoyed working with Sensual Goddess anyway. I’ve been practicing in the mornings lately, and I did one or two “lessons” a day for a while. These were about 17-20 minutes each, so I either combined them with yoga or some other cardio, or with each other. It was great, light workout — and the drills really made me sweat sometimes.
The second DVD is what you use after you’ve gone through all the lessons. It lets you do the practice segments together, in a long practice session, or the choreography segments as a full choreo — or both. In both cases, you have the option of having Neon’s running commentary or just dancing to the music.
I found that using the practice flow was a totally different experience. It was a nicely contained 50-minute workout that allowed me to get moving but also to pay attention to the movements, to focus on execution and nuance. Even doing the choreography with and without the commentary made a difference, as I could either focus on what Neon told me or on dancing to the music. In other words, the practice DVD is where I started making the movements my own.
Is Sensual Goddess for you? If you are a beginner who wants to start learning transitions and how to put it all together, it will be perfect. It’s also a great, “lighter” component to integrate into a dance practice — you have some drills, you get the arms involved, and the lessons are manageable length. The practice DVD is a great standalone workout — it won’t leave you breathless, but you’ll sweat a little if you do the moves carefully and with intention.
Many of the combos and especially the arm moves taught are very much in Neon’s style. Some I loved and I found myself incorporating into my improv and just practicing on their own. Some were not to my taste. If you like Neon’s dancing, Sensual Goddess is definitely for you, as she gives lots of stylization tips. But I think even if you don’t want to dance like Neon, there will be some things you can take away from the video. She will definitely teach you how to be more aware of the emotional content of your dancing, and how to maintain gracefulness and form.
Sensual Goddess is a great practice companion and a superb beginner/advanced beginner class. I don’t usually comment on the price of DVDs, but I’ll note that it’s three-and-a-half hours on two DVDs for less than the cost of one live class.
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