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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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,
I’m so very happy to announce that I have a new piece on the unexpected pleasures of taking adult beginner ballet up at Longreads. I write about my love-hate relationship with ballet, the fun of reading ballet memoirs, and the joys of imperfection.
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.
I 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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I only recently found out about Classical Stretch. Why? I don’t have a television set, that’s why. But a very nice woman I know only from the internet had sent me a copy of Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue internationally, and she refused payment, and so I managed to convince her to accept an Amazon gift certificate, and then she announced on Facebook that she had bought a Classical Stretch DVD with it. So of course, I was curious.
Essentrics kindly hooked me up with a review copy of Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility. This was in the spring. I really had no idea what to expect, even after reading descriptions on the website and various reviews online. It seems that the Essentrics DVDs are for younger, fitter people, while Classical Stretch runs on PBS and is more geared towards stopping aging. Would I be bored?
The answer was a resounding no! In fact, I’ve fallen a bit in love with Classical Stretch.
Here are the basics, for those of you who, like me, don’t go to PBS for your workouts. Classical Stretch workouts are led by Miranda Esmonde-White, a Canadian dancer and fitness trainer. Each one is about 22 minutes long, filmed in a gorgeous place, and consists mainly of flowing movements that get your muscles warm and flexible, use and extend your range of motion, and encourage you to stretch in all sorts of directions.
The movements are inspired by ballet, tai chi, and physiotherapy. They are surprisingly intense and dynamic. What you don’t have are twenty repetitions of the same exercise. Instead, you’ll be reaching down low with strong, sweeping stretches, then to the side, then up. You’ll spiral. You’ll be doing something with your arms while your legs are in a plie. Some movements are large, but then Esmonde-White will introduce a tiny variation that gives you a different feeling or a deeper stretch.
Imagine yoga, but with a thousand more directions.
Or modern dance, with less moving around.
Or pilates, with more stretching.
In short, the movements are intensely pleasurable, and I tend to break a sweat. Which is funny, because Esmonde-White talks encouragingly about how you can maintain or improve flexibility even in old age, and the entire time I am thinking: “Who are these eighty-year-olds doing Classical Stretch? I’m thirty-four and dripping wet here!”
The other thing to know is that there is a lot of variety. Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility contains four DVDs, with a total of thirty episodes. (About eleven hours of programming.) I haven’t done every last one of them, but over the last months I’ve tried to work with a range. Some are barre-oriented, either with a chair or simply balancing. Some are all on the floor, with combinations of strength training and stretching. And my favourite, because they’re the newest to me, are the standing segments with all their flowing, challenging moves. All in all, there are many, many exercises I found myself doing for the first time with these DVDs.
Also cool is that the back of the DVD case tells you the goal of each program. You can choose to work on “Back Pain Relief” or “Full Body Strengthening” or “Waist Slenderizing.” (A full list of the contents is here.) My one beef here is that it’s not always clear which episodes are on which DVD. That aside, it’s great to have a workout dedicated to whatever it is you need on a particular day. And all of the episodes I’ve tried have some kind of full body stretch, so all the particularly tight bits get loosened up.
But what I love the most about Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility is that this is a workout designed to get me doing it. I can almost always fit in twenty minutes. If I’m about to go to bed, but really want to get in some movement, or have some back pain, I pick one episode, do it, and go to bed happy. If I wake up in the morning, and I want to exercise just a bit, I do an episode.
The other thing that makes it really easy to do these workouts, and that I wish more DVD producers would keep in mind, is this: you need so little space. You need no special equipment. Not even a mat. You can use a chair for a barre, and books instead of yoga blocks. I’ve found this set of DVDs to be the perfect travel companion, because I can do them anywhere, and because they help me stretch everything out after sitting in planes or trains for a long time.
While Classical Stretch is aimed at anyone, really, I think it’s particularly great for dancers. I’ve been working, haltingly, on establishing my own dance practice, and I find that I can use an episode as the day’s warmup. The workouts get me properly warm, more flexible, and ready to move into a variety of directions. Then I can either do a dance DVD or just practice on my own.
I have just one criticism of some of the programs. While I find most of the workouts highly accessible and very careful about bodily safety (knee alignment is cued, etc), I think some of the barre work is really hard to follow along in proper form. In fact, in one case even the instructor has trouble keeping the hips even while she shoots her leg up. A modification should have been offered for this.
That said, Classical Stretch Season 10 – Strength and Flexibility has become, in the past months, my go-to for moving, stretching, getting warm, getting relaxed, toning my waist, soothing my back, and working my quads. I’m still not quite sure I understand what it is, but for me, it hits the spot.
It always just sneaks right up on you, doesn’t it?
Well, alright, it isn’t just that. I’ve been taking ballet, and I’ve been trying to think through what makes adult ballet so pleasurable, while childhood ballet was so dispiriting. And in the process, some fellow dancers and dance-lovers have been giving me book recommendations.
I am eating these books up like there’s no tomorrow. Seriously, last night I sat on the steps beside my bedroom at 1:30 am, hall light still on, because I wanted to finish one of the books I was reading.
Winter Season is Bentley’s journal over one season in which she was a member of the corps du ballet of the New York City Ballet. Bentley is at a low point in her career. She has an inkling that she isn’t going to be one of the ballet’s stars. Still, she is obsessed with beauty, and most of all, the beauty of dance. What this means for her is that she is happiest when sitting behind the side curtain, watching one of the principals dance.
Bentley is also torn between life and dance. Life, in this case, means everything outside of dance: friends, parties, food, love. There are some dancers who treat dance as a job, she says, but many are completely wrapped up in the world of the theatre, and she is one of them. How much harder, then, to see women younger than her moving into the top roles.
Still, she is generous towards the young ones, still in love with the sheer beauty of it all. I looked her up and she wound up spending about a decade with the NYCB, so she must have reached her peace with it.
The unmaking of a dancer is a very different kind of beast. First, it’s really the story of a very eventful life, one that happened to a woman who just happened to be a ballerina. Joan Brady had two brilliant parents, brilliant but impossible. Her father was an economist at Berkeley who attempted suicide and later had a debilitating stroke. Her mother was an overbearing and jealous woman, though as brilliant as her husband. She twice sabotaged her daughter’s career (at least in Brady’s telling of the story). What did Brady do? Marry her mother’s former lover of course.
Brady was also a budding ballerina, competing at the San Francisco Ballet School with her friend Suki Schorer, who turned out to have a successful career in ballet and became a noted teacher of Balanchine’s style. After missing out on a company job in San Francisco, Brady went to New York and studied — where else? — at the School of American Ballet, which feeds into the NYCB.
The difference between Brady and Bentley is that Brady doesn’t seem to like dancing much at all. While Bentley is still in love with the ballet, if not with herself or her own dancing, Brady seems not to enjoy the art at all. Ballet seems to have been an escape from home for her, one she was reasonably good at and kept going on with, despite not having a real passion for it. She seems more wrapped up in jealousy and criticism of other dancers than in the dance.
And yet it is so important to her to know that she could have excelled at the dance, if her mother had not intervened. The book ends with her in her late thirties, auditioning for European companies, having dyed her hair and lied about her age. She gets into one, or so it seems. And she tears up the acceptance. I kept thinking that this wasn’t a woman who wanted to dance — it was a woman who wanted to be good enough.
The major presence hovering over both memoirs is B — George Balanchine, of course, the utterly charismatic choreographer and co-founder of the NYCB. Bentley’s memoir is suffused with an intense feeling of admiration for and obedience to Balanchine. She’s not sure if she’s good enough for the religion, but she certainly still believes in its god. Brady is taught less by Balanchine, and so has less experience of him, but her memoir does include some fascinating reflections on the development of Balanchine’s style, which became associated with American dancers.
I tend to expect memoirs, especially art memoirs, to be written by the winners — those who were passionate enough, dedicated and disciplined enough, to excel beyond anyone else. But it’s almost more interesting to read the stories of the almost-theres: women who would have been exceptional in most places in the North America, but were only so-so in the context of the New York City Ballet. I’m fascinated by the stories of women who realised their best would simply not be good enough, or, worse, that they were not capable of giving their best at all.
Before I dive into my lengthy love story with instructional DVDs, let me start by saying that although I’ve been a professional bellydancer for ten years, I will never have much of an international career, be part of the Bellydance Superstars (whatever happened to them?) or believe I am the next best thing. I have regular breakdowns when I critique myself on practice and performance videos, after which I pick myself up and make a plan to work on my weak points. At times, I wonder why I still bellydance because it is so much work to keep up and maintain good form and consider giving it all up. And then a student tells me how she looks forward to class every week, I browse through pictures of the friends I made and the events we organized and I fall in love with bellydance all over again.
Let me introduce myself
I meet up with dance friends, I organize haflas and perform for a small and intimate audience. I get hired for private parties, sometimes in a castle, most often in someone’s living room or a party center. I went on dance trips to Egypt, Turkey, or less exotic locations like Belgium, Great-Britain and Germany where I met wonderful women who all love to dance. I see my students grow week after week and doing research for my classes is one of my favorite ways to fill my lunch breaks at work.
I am part of two troupes: the Dalla Dream Dancers, a troupe dedicated to offering high quality group performances in Folkloric and Oriental Style. We came to be after working together on several theater projects and thinking ‘this is neat, let’s make this a regular thing!’. We also work on performances for theater shows and such. The second troupe consists of teachers in my area. We’ve connected over our mutual interest and have created a fair share of haflas, workshops and performances in the past six years or so. Sometimes we meet two times a month, sometimes we meet once every two months depending on what’s cooking.
My main dance style is Egyptian/oriental and though I take weekly ballet classes and have a background in jazz ballet, I prefer to dance to Arabic music with the bellydance movement vocabulary.
Welcome to my life.
One of the biggest challenges of being a professional dancer is how to continue my education. I love going to workshops but due to constraints in time and finances I can only attend a limited amount of workshops per year. Early on I discovered the wonderful world of instructional DVDs, helping me to keep on learning on a tiny student budget. An added bonus is that instructional DVDs contain excellent examples of teaching styles and different methods and technique that I can use to shape my own practice and the classes that I teach. It took me a while to get the hang of it though.
Getting started with instructional DVDs
Let’s go back in time to when I was a bright-eyed intermediate student, looking for a challenge. I was taking two bellydance classes a week and was on a budget. Through eBay I bought my very first instructional DVD: a four-DVD set by Dolphina.
Putting the DVD in the tray of my computer (I didn’t own a DVD player at the time) in my student room, I was excited that I could practice in my own home. It wasn’t long until I realized that from the four DVDs, I really liked one (warrior) and some of the others contained material that I disagreed with or didn’t work for me. Let’s just say that I am not the type to imagine goddess-like scenes during my practice. Some of the advice on technique and posture also didn’t work for me. If you want to try Dolphina’s instruction, go to her YouTube channel. She recently put some of her DVDs on YouTube for you to practice with.
How I got hooked
In my country, we weren’t big on credit cards or online shopping at the time. A local Arabic music shop in my street carried several instructional DVDs and I bought copies of Veena & Neena’s instructional DVDs. Yes, I know that those DVDs are not aimed at bellydancers but in 2003, it was hard to find affordable instructional DVDs. The IAMED DVDs were great, but they cost over 40$ a piece, plus international shipping and import taxes. I had to start small.
The Veena and Neena DVDs worked well for me, going over most basic moves and a couple of combinations. I can honestly say that at the time, I had no clue about my own dance skills or if I made progress or not. All I knew is that I loved bellydance and that these DVDs got me hooked on practicing at home. The great thing about not being a professional is that I was still able to take weekly classes with various teachers, receiving corrections on posture and technique. When I turned professional in 2006 (as usual in retrospect too soon and lacking in technique and various other skills) I signed up for a two-year course on becoming a bellydancer. I also knew that I couldn’t take classes with other local dancers anymore due to conflicts of interest (teachers were afraid you’d copy their classes or choreography and teach them as your own). By profiling myself as a professional, I needed to show that I had the skills to teach my own class, create my own choreographies and work on solo performances. Thus I entered the workshop scene and started investing in more expensive instructional DVDs.
The next level
I highly recommend signing up for a longer program if you are interested in oriental dance. Even if you don’t want to be a professional dancer, it is great to get in depth knowledge in the various styles, rhythms, instruments and other facets of bellydance. By now I had ‘graduated’ from the Veena & Neena DVDs and was looking for a different challenge. I had to make a couple of wrong turns when it came to choosing bellydance DVDs before finding what worked for me.
The fitness type bellydance DVDs were the cheapest ones and I soon found out why. They barely contained bellydance! Instructors would string together a couple of moves and called it a workout. After a couple of errors, I bought a couple of second hand IAMED DVDs on Bhuz. What a relief to get high quality material in a neat package! Each DVD contained enough concepts and material to work on for weeks. I liked to run the DVD and press pause, then practice to make sure I got it before moving on. What I was lacking was regular, structured practice of the basic moves. I needed to keep my omi’s smooth and accents sharp. But how?
Getting my act together
The biggest influence on structuring my home practice came in the shape of three big names in the dance community. The first one was the 3-DVD set from Jillina that came out as the BDSS were rising to fame. The choreographies were challenging and different from what I had learned. It really helped me to look my own choreography skills and use of footwork and make changes.
The second one was also a BDSS DVD: Tribal Fusion with Rachel Brice. This DVD contained several drills with a fair amount of yoga. I got my mat out once or twice a week and started doing my asanas and breaking my moves down into smaller pieces.
The third was the fitness fusion DVD set by Suhaila. My earlier experiences with bellydance fitness DVDs in mind, I didn’t expect much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Suhaila’s method for breaking down movements and drilling (mixing it with stretches and a bit of yoga and Pilates) impressed me with the need to cross train. I couldn’t take local bellydance classes but I could join the local yoga school and a Pilates class!
I still like these dancers, though in the meantime they have developed even better DVDs that I like to use on a regular basis.
Meeting the instructors in real life
When Jillina and Rachel came to Amsterdam to teach workshops, I got a chance to experience their teaching method in real life. It was such a pleasure to see the dancers that I’ve been ‘training’ with on DVD in a big dance studio. Getting used to their training method helped me to make the most of the workshop and retain as much as possible. I got to ask Jillina for advice on how to keep advancing and she was adamant: take ballet classes. So I signed up for adult ballet classes in 2008 and continue to take these classes until this very day. She was absolutely right: I have learned so much from my wonderful ballet teacher. Footwork, arms, carriage, posture and lines. But ballet is not bellydance: sometimes the concepts conflict with each other.
With Rachel Brice there wasn’t time for me to ask personal questions, but she credited and mentioned Suhaila Salimpour in her workshops. This sparked my interest and I decided to purchase more Suhaila DVDs and if she ever taught workshops in my vicinity (read: Belgium, Germany, Netherlands) I’d go. I finally got my opportunity in 2015 to take a three day intensive with her in Brussels.
After taking workshops with Aziza in Duisburg at the annual festival organized by Leyla Jouvana, I was so impressed that I bought her practice companion DVD. The DVD is really, really good and her real-life workshops are even better. I like to take workshops with her whenever she is in the vicinity, every year or so. She keeps on adjusting and creating new material and ways to explain things that can keep me occupied for years.
Staying in shape
The last couple of years I have been noticing that I like to revisit DVDs that I worked with in the past. My vast collection now spans over three hundred DVDs and serves as a library that I can go to when I am looking for inspiration or have a theme I want to work with. To stay in shape I regularly use exercise DVDs like Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, power yoga, Yoga Booty Ballet (it’s wrong on so many levels yet very entertaining) and the New York City Ballet Workout.
Now that I am pregnant I finally have an excuse to buy prenatal bellydance DVDs and try those as I am going through the different phases of pregnancy. I am eager to see where my journey in dance will take me next but instructional DVDs will be part of it. Currently I am reorganizing the filing system for my DVDs and creating a schedule to stay in shape during my pregnancy and after the delivery. I work full-time and have little time left to attend classes, so DVDs are the perfect solution for me. I am exploring options like streaming classes but so far, I prefer DVDs or digital downloads as they are always available and are not dependent on a fast and smooth connection.