Review of Sara Beaman’s Fluid Transitions: Drills and Combinations for Fusion Bellydance

If you’ve been dancing for a while you know: the right teacher is not necessarily the one who’s the most famous, the most experienced, or even, frankly, the best dancer. Often, it’s the person who can communicate to you in a way that makes sense to your brain and ultimately your body. This is important in live instruction, but essential when it comes to DVDs, where you can’t ask the teacher any questions, and she can’t respond to the way you learn.

This is why I get excited — really excited — when I see instructional DVDs that are crafted to work for different kinds of learners, that are more than just, “You do this, then you do this.” One of the exciting things about being a consumer of bellydance videos over the past decade has been seeing how creative producers get, with practice flows, the smart chaptering, innovative material and drills, you name it.

So, guess what? I was excited to work with my review copy of Sara Beaman’s Fluid Transitions: Drills and Combinations for Fusion Bellydance. From the first moment I thought, “Oh, she’s thought about this. She’s thought about how to make this usable and easy to learn from.” And my first impression was not wrong.

The focus of Fluid Transitions is pretty clear from the title, but it’s probably worth mentioning that Beaman does not give any theory or tips on transitions separately from the drills. The idea behind the program is to achieve fluidity by doing careful drills of combinations at multiple speeds. The DVD is aimed towards intermediate or advanced dancers — definitely not beginners! — and if you are one of these dancers chances are that you can take the tools Beaman gives you and apply them to whatever combinations you’re working on.

The most straightfoward way to work with the DVD is to play all the sections through, which is what I did. This way, you get a:

Warm Up of approximately 10 min. This is based on dynamic stretches and some shimmying, it starts up the muscles and joints you need to move, but it doesn’t get you really warm. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a little something extra to get the heart rate up too.

Isolation Drills, about 16 min. You can play this section right through, or choose single drills from a menu. Here, Beaman quickly but precisely covers the movements she’ll be using in the later combos. The drilling is brief — this is not mean to teach beginners how to do the moves, but to remind you of the correct executions of moves you already know. That said, Beaman also gives little tips on form.

Here’s one of the neat things about the DVD: each move is preceded by a screen that shows a written breakdown of the move. Being someone who learns best by reading, I loved this decision. It lets me internalise the idea visually, before I hear the oral breakdown and see how it’s done.

Sara Beaman tribal fusion DVD isolation breakdown screen
Breakdown of a sidewinder

This is followed by a brief, about 6 min, Isolation Practice Flow. You basically do the isolations, but all together. I think this part is great, as it gets you into the feeling of moving and putting isolations together.

Now we get into the meat. The first combination section contains combos 1 through 4 (about 30 min). Each combination has that great screen before it, quickly explaining what will come up. Then Beaman breaks it down veeeery slowly. As far as I could tell, for every single combo in the program, Beaman is equally thorough in breaking down and drilling both sides. It’s not only great to have both sides worked out equally, but I found that sometimes I will “get” a movement on one side faster than the other, so I’m glad to have both sides instructed too.

The combos themselves are quite short and focused on linking together moves using the torso, hips, abs, and arms. There are no traveling steps. These are small units you then drill like crazy to get your body moving smoothly from one kind of isolation to another. In some cases, Beaman will present an easier version and a tougher version of a combo — and then she has you drill both.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, she then has you drill the combos at three different speeds.  Often, she will have you drill something at half time and at full time for each of the three speeds, which means you’re actually drilling at six different speeds! All of the speeds and instructions segments are chaptered, so you can easily repeat, and they’re in the menus, so you can go directly where you like.

Needless to say, what this does to your body feels pretty wonderful. As much as it’s challenging for the brain to follow along, it’s such a fabulous, careful, thorough way of getting moves into your body. Even on the first play of the DVD, I was starting to “get” some of the combinations quite smoothly. I stopped and went to a mirror to practice sometimes, I did my own stretches in between the sections, but it all worked. It felt good. And I think doing the three speeds is brilliant, because while my first challenge was getting a combo down, my second was doing it slowly. Doing a combination slowly but still evenly and smoothly is harder than doing it fast, and a great way to pay attention to what the muscles are doing and to each component of the movement.

Then things get even more interesting. Beaman takes apart combos 1 and 2, and puts them together into one longer combo. Same for 3 and 4. And you drill those. Here’s what I loved about this. While she doesn’t say it in so many words, she’s really teaching you how to get smooth transitions in your own movement. You break it down into the smallest possible combinations, drill those like crazy, then combine them in creative ways, and drill those together.

The next section features combos 5 and 6 (about 17 min), and these work a little differently. These are layering combinations, and what Beaman eventually has you do is to do one of the layers, then all of the layers together, then another of the layers alone, then all together, and so on. What part of my brain was still working at this point was fried by these drills, but I also found them really cool. It’s basically a pattern for creating movement that’s interesting to the eye, adding and subtracting layers in turn.

Sara Beaman tribal fusion DVD layered combination with sidewinder
Drilling different parts of a layered sidewinder

Finally, you have a satisfying Cool Down that stretches everything out from a standing position. It’s about 6 minutes long, so I added some of my own stretches too.

The menus are really smart, really detailed. I love this, I love it when a producer really thinks about how to make the work usable. Moreover, in a separate section Beaman has four practices set up ranging from 23 to 32 minutes, each of which begins with the warm up, takes you through some of the combos, and ends with the cool down.

Fluid Transitions really, really, badly made me want to do more tribal fusion. But I don’t think you have to be a tribal dancer to get a lot out of it. This morning I was already thinking about how some of the combos could be modified — with something as simple as a heel up, for example — to give them a more raks sharki feeling. One thing I can’t judge however is how much of the material or method would be new to dancers already steeped in TF. Who wouldn’t like it? Well, if you’re a beginner, you might find it moves too fast for you. Also, if you’re looking for transitions between traveling moves, you’ll find nothing here.

That said, there’s a lot to grow with Fluid Transitions. She gives some tips at the beginning for how to modify or add to the drills. But the real point is, this DVD doesn’t just teach you to string together a few moves, it teaches you how to think about putting moves together and then drilling them. You learn to take out an element from an isolation to make it work with another move, you learn to take combinations apart and put them together in creative ways, and you learn how to play with layers to make cool-looking dance. What’s not to love about that?

Fluid Transitions is available as a print-on-demand DVD from Amazon. It worked flawlessly on my MacBook Pro.

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Stream(lin)ing my practice with Datura Online

Today I hooked up my computer to my projector and tried something new: doing an entire practice using streaming online programs. I’m used to live class, I’m used to just popping a video in and working with it, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’m working on a comprehensive review of Datura Online (and have review access for a month for that), but I wanted to work with the offerings out there to customize my very own practice session, just the way I want it. So here’s what I did:

I scrolled to the “topics” section of Datura Online, selected the “Warmup” option and picked a basic little warmup with some ab exercises for toning; in a second tab, went to “Movement” and then “Shimmies” because I’d seen a basic tutorial on layering 3/4 shimmies onto traveling steps; opened up another tab, pulled up RAQStv and loaded Maria Sokolova’s mini-class from Project Belly Dance so I could get a bit of dancing in; and in a final window, got a quick cool-down with yoga focused on the lower back from Datura. I had everything opened in its own tab, and I organized the tabs in order, so that I wouldn’t have to pause too long between segments.

I’m going to talk about Maria’s lesson in a different post, so I can focus on the Datura offerings here.

Warmup: Ab Warm Up + Conditioning: #1 with Colette Todorov (12:22 min)

To warm you up, Colette has you do slow, deliberate high steps, adding a few arm moves and twists to add a bit of challenge. It’s the kind of thing that looks very easy, but if you’re holding your stomach in as she instructs, becomes more challenging — especially at the end of a long day.

The real goodness is in the ab exercises. I loooved this bit. It’s short and sweet, but involves doing four different kinds of pilates ab exercises. However, instead of repeating each one for a long time and then switching, Colette has you do combination sets — first four slow, controlled reps of each move, then two. There was burn. It targeted the obliques and the lower abs too. Not the kind of thing that will give you washboard abs, but fun to do, and easy to work into a bellydance practice.

Drills: Basic Traveling with 3/4 Shimmies with Ashley Lopez (20:16 min)

This is a standalone section of a longer workshop on the 3/4 shimmy. I was drawn to it because the preview showed Ashley doing a simple, unaccented 3/4 shimmy. This is what I’m learning in one of my live classes, but is pretty different than what I have on most of my videos, and, indeed, from what I’ve learned in other classes.

Surprisingly, Ashley begins by getting you to do a regular shimmy, then try walking with it, then try smoothing it out. At my level, this is a bit easier said than done, and I had trouble figuring out how I was supposed to do that. Then she goes back to basics — phew! — talks about driving the shimmy from the obliques, and does it very slowly. Once the slow shimmy is going, you start walking forwards and backwards with it. And eventually, Ashley has you walk in a large square doing the shimmy at full speed, then try the shimmy on releve. Finally, she does the 3/4 shimmy on the down, and goes through the drills again.

What I liked: Ashley explains and demonstrates why this shimmy is useful. I find it a less exciting shimmy to watch and do than the “hip up hip out” kind of 3/4 shimmy, but her point is that once you get it down, you can accent whatever you like. She has helpful tricks, like clapping on the “1” before you even start lifting your foot. And, she gives pointers on form, as well as occasional tips on what to focus on if you’re just starting.

What I still wanted: I think it would be helpful to have an exercise to isolate the obliques in the movement, and the rev up to full speed was too fast for me. (Mind you, since I didn’t watch the entire workshop, I don’t know if she does a slower breakdown elsewhere — but I’m reviewing the videos as I find them.) I think this video would be a great drill for someone who already has a 3/4 shimmy going, but wants to polish her form and work on layering it onto traveling moves.

After I was done with the video, I wound up going to a full-length mirror and just working with the shimmy. I found that moving away from the screen was actually useful, maybe even necessary. Once I took Ashley’s tips but just watched myself, trying to get the form right, I started to see and feel improvement. Eventually, I got faster, and I was even able to walk a few steps with it. So I will most likely return to the video, but after I’ve drilled the shimmy for a bit on my own.

Cool Down: Basic Short Yoga Sequence with Rachel Brice (9:07 min)

This is a quick way to stretch out and relax your back after a practice. The exercises Rachel chose here are for both the upper and lower back. They resemble some of the moves in my Viniyoga back videos, but with an extra twist or two. Basically, the cool down is composed of slow motion stretches and movements, timed with inhalation and exhalation, and the result is a delicious feeling of relaxation. Simple, sweet, a winner.

So, it was a good time this evening. It was amazing what could fit into each short segment. The beginning and closing videos were very handy as-is, while the 3/4 shimmy drills needs some, well, preliminary drilling on my part to be do-able. (I will most likely work with the entire workshop for that, so I can get a sense of how Ashley builds up to full speed.)

Review of Sera Solstice’s Goddess Dance: Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation

As much as I tend to hate anything with “goddess” in the title, especially with combined with “pregnancy” or “bellydance,” I love Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation and by the end of it, have a bit of a girl-crush on Sera Solstice. This is the first prenatal bellydance program that leads you through what feels like real dancing. Moreover, the aesthetics of it are simply delightful.

This woman’s dancing is perfection

I’m going to review this from two perspectives — as a prenatal workout and as a dance instructional. The video also has two meditation segments, but I’m not quite into that right now.

Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation as prenatal workout:

Sera is eight months pregnant during the filming of the video, and she explains that she has chosen movements based on what she has found satisfying for her pregnant body. She doesn’t mention consulting any medical literature on safe movements for pregnancy, but nothing she does contradicts any indications I’ve seen. Her backup dancers demonstrate the moves for early pregnancy and postnatal, but there really isn’t too much difference in most sequences.

The beginning warmup is dancey, smooth, but quite minimal — I suggest complementing with your own basic movements like cat stretches, leg stretches, and neck and shoulder rolls. The dance combos themselves are great for a woman who’s growing. Yes, they push a little further than the very basic movements of other prenatal workouts, but it ultimately feels very good. Although Sera often talks about the need to lower awareness to the hips and pelvis, I think the real strength of this program is in what it does for the upper body. I’m in my sixth month of pregnancy, and I end every day feeling pain in my upper back and rib area. While my yoga videos do provide good side stretches, there really is nothing like bellydance to stretch upper abdominals, upper back muscles, and obliques.

The workout as a whole is not heavy on the cardio, but you will feel it, especially if you have been doing lighter, pregnancy-type exercise. I added a necessary cool-down and stretch on my own. There is one hilarious section in which Sera explains the most complicated Kegels I’ve ever heard of, and then guides you to do them along with a series of bellydance movements. This was too much for me! Look, if you want me to move all those muscles separately and precisely, muscles I have never been asked to control to that extent in my life, then I had better be sitting on the ground thinking about that and only that. It’s not gonna happen during an omi.

Prenatal Bellydance & Meditation as dance workout:

I loved the video as a dance workout. I don’t think it would be the right thing for someone trying bellydance for the very first time. Although Sera does give quite lengthy explanations of the movements, using good visuals, you have to pick them up pretty quickly to be able to move along with the video. It takes most women a bit of time to learn a flat-footed maya or an omi or even a chest circle. However, if you have some experience of the moves, her instruction is great for improving your execution of them. The combinations are manageable, but not boring, especially if you also think about getting the hands and arms right.

Most importantly, Sera is a really beautiful dancer. I tend not to get as excited about tribal fusion, since it often seems to lack the fluidity and grace I love about more traditional bellydance forms. Sera is the person to prove me wrong. Her movements are an education in grace, and it’s saying a lot that following her makes you feel like you are dancing.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this DVD from World Dance New York.

Returning to Bellydance Arms & Posture

Today, in an attempt to begin my resolution (actually made after I finished this video), I worked again with Rachel Brice’s Bellydance Arms & Posture.

I did it, in short, because of pain. Shoulder pain. Upper back pain. Stiff neck. I have a great DVD for yoga-based shoulder work by Jill Miller, and it really is great, but I wanted a bit of dance too. Just in case you’re wondering how bad my shoulders are: there is enough loud cracking in my upper back every time I roll my shoulders that I know whether I’m keeping time with the music or not. (I know: you really needed to know that.)

Rachel Brice performing shoulder exercises
The rope pulling exercise

On the one hand, I was stiff, my shoulders were weak, and I still see no point in the knee-hurting level changes she covers that have nothing to do with the rest of the workout. On the other hand, I was much more inspired by Bellydance Arms & Posture this time around. Although Brice doesn’t have you do a lot on posture per se, working so much on the shoulders just has that effect. The practice periods for moves like sidewinder are long enough to actually *get* it. And there’s a cute little combination at the end that, done enough times, is something you can adapt to other kinds of dance.

Rachel Brice tribal fusion dancing

I also really appreciated the soothing, yoga-based warmup and cool down. The video is a cohesive unit, and if it’s not as comprehensive a source for arm work as dancers might want, it’s easy to commit to fifty minutes and just do it. And the neck stretches — Brice didn’t forget the neck stretches! Bless her.

After it was over, and to my surprise, I found myself just dancing. For some reason, loosening up the shoulder area (and live dance teachers are always telling me to keep my shoulders down) was strangely liberating for the rest of my body. Wonderful!

Review: Asharah’s Modern Tribal Dance

I need to say to begin with that I’m really not fond of the dancing on Asharah’s Modern Tribal Bellydance. I’m not that crazy about tribal fusion anyway, but I’ve definitely seen tribal fusion I’ve liked a lot more than this.

So, weirdly, as much as I don’t like the dancing here, I think the video itself is pretty well done, and can actually foresee myself using it. The main reason for this is that its “Warmup & Conditioning” section is actually a 45 minute exercise and stretching video for dancers, and it’s pretty much the answer to my dreams. Seriously, I’ve imagined what I’d like in a program (often because of exercises I’ve had in live classes), and this is it.

This section alone could stand alone as a full-priced DVD, and would be worth the money. It’s a combination of movements from three groups: yoga, ballet (i.e., the kind of stretches you have at the start of a ballet/ballet- inspired class), and Suhaila-type seated abdominal and chest work. Nothing terribly new, but having them all together in one place is incredibly cool. There’s deep plie work, thorough leg stretches in every possible direction, the shoulders and neck are not ignored, and neither is the back. Asharah also gives frequent knee placement reminders, so although the practice is challenging, it won’t kill your back or knees.
The next section is a Technique & Isolations section of 55 minutes. In this section, Asharah goes over pretty basic movements in bd/tribal fusion vocabulary, but explains them in detail with the appropriate muscle contractions. She’s very Suhaila-based (and, in fact, thanks Suhaila in the credits). Here she covers:

– Shoulders and arms
– Chest squares
– Chest circles
– Glute contactions
– Glute contactions – up
– Glute contactions – down
– Vertical hip 8s down-to-up
– Vertical hip 8s up-to-down
– 3/4 shimmy up
– 3/4 shimmy down
– interior hip squares
– interior hip circles

These are pretty basic moves (I know the last one as an “omi”), but it’s good to have the breakdown and practice, especially for those of us who are far from being experts anyway.

Next comes the “Modern Tribal Movement” section (30 min), in which Asharah teaches how to break down a single movement into three or four smaller segments, so as to achieve a strobing or robotic effect. She does this with: shoulders & arms, chest slides, chest locks, undulations, and vertical hip 8s up-to-down. I haven’t watched this section all the way through, and like I said, I don’t really like how the result looks in dance, but it did strike me that some of the exercises were similar in concept to those on Aziza’s Pratice Companion. So, weirdly, although I don’t want to dance like Asharah, I can imagine using this section as a drill and exercise tool.

Finally, there is Combination instruction of 30 min, which you can also play with practice music. And an 8 min yoga-based cool-down. And performances.

I suppose it figures that if you put three freakin’ hours of material onto one DVD (runtime is 180 minutes, no joke), you’re going to please a lot of people. Asharah is relaxed and straightforward on the video, and there is really just so much material to work with, at such different levels, that it’s an incredible value. I think people who are actually *into* tribal fusion will probably adore this video, although they might find the isolations section a little basic. However, even people who are not can use this DVD as a dance training video, rather than a dance instruction video. The actual dance section makes up 30 minutes out of 3 hours — the rest is really a conditioning program for dancers.

(Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this video from WDNY.)

Review: Rachel Brice’s Bellydance Arms and Posture

Rachel Brice’s Bellydance Arms and Posture is a good, self-contained practice for arm and shoulder work with a distinctly tribal flavour.

What it’s not:
It’s not a thorough guide to tribal bellydance arm work, nor does Brice go over hand movements. The important distinction to draw is that this video is actually not instruction in using your arms to dance, although it includes some dance components. There are two aspects to arm movements: what the muscles and joints should be doing (pull arm up, rotate elbow, shoulder down, etc.) and what you should be visualizing or feeling in order to get the look right (feel as though you’re pressing, pulling molasses, moving your hands through water, etc.) Rachel covers the first part, the muscles and joints, very well for the moves she shows, and I was able to “get” some tricky moves after her explanation. She doesn’t explain how to get her “look”, that is, her way of moving her arms through space veeeery slowly and deliciously and graciously. If you’ve had some dance instruction, you can probably imagine visualizations for yourself, but this DVD is not a key to that.

I should also mention that the DVD is slightly misnamed. It should have been called “Arms & Shoulders.” Although Brice does give posture reminders, there is no longer discussion of or practice for correct posture.

 What it is:
It’s a great little practice you can do all in one go (and it lasts under an hour). (I did skip two leg-strengthening parts involving deep squats that would have killed my knees.) There are many exercises for improving shoulder mobility and strength, some of which I had not seen before. Some of the arm movements reminded me of the arm practice session of my flamenco class.

If you’re interested in tribal, you’ve probably already bought this video. However, it would be very useful for any dancer looking to work and stretch the shoulder region, bellydancers, yes, but if you’re learning flamenco this would be great too. This is also a video I’d file under “Great for People Sitting at Desks/Computers All Day Long” — if you’re even a bit curious about this kind of dance, this video will help you move exactly those muscles which are most damaged by sedentary desk work.

Other notes:
The video is also a really good deal for the price. I like Brice, but am not an acolyte, and her choreographies kind of all look the same to me (amazing, but the same), so I’m not in a position to judge the performance. There is a cute chit-chat segment between her and Miles Copeland in the “Extras” section in which she comes across as funny and down-to-earth. I would also add extra stretching to the end of the program.

Review: Sera’s Bellydance East Coast Tribal

I finally worked through Sera’s Bellydance: East Coast Tribal after owning it for a while, and I was stunned at how excellent it is. There are a few flaws (which I’ll get to later), but those aside, it’s a superb video.

First things first. This is not a beginner’s DVD. Sera neither gives the kind of explanations of basic movements a beginner would want, nor does she present all the basics of bellydance. No way. It is, however, a great DVD for intermediate dancers. Sera goes over some basic movements (especially in the warmup), but in such a way as to help you increase your flexibility and power.

The 20-minute warmup and the 10-minute drill section get you doing some basic stretches, focusing on your isolations, and quite importantly, working on powering moves from particular muscles. The dancers mirror your movements (so when she calls “left,” they actually move to their right) which I prefer. Sera is extremely thorough about calling out which muscle to use for a move, and always managed to remind me as soon as I forgot. I *was* worried about the neck stretch, since she moves the head all the way back, and some moves also seemed quite hard on the knees, so I modified them. In the choreography Sera is careful to point out which sections are knee-unfriendly, and sometimes offers a modification, but this is not the case in the workout. She does, however, tell you when certain moves are difficult for beginners, so you don’t get discouraged.

I would say that, considering how cheap the DVD is, the warmup is worth the price alone. I know I’m going to use this (with some extra stretching) as an introduction to other bellydance videos.

Next comes a demonstration of the combinations to be learned, and then very detailed instructions for each of six movement combinations. I had watched the video before, but only by doing it could I see what a brilliant teacher Sera is. She has that uncanny ability to know *just* when you’re relaxing a certain muscle, or doing a movement lazily, or forgetting about your posture, and to give a perfectly-timed reminder.

On the other hand, the combos themselves are challenging and, to my eye, beautiful. It’s not hard to get the basics of each, but to do them right, with the correct arm movements, good timing, and perfect form, is hard. This is a major strength of the DVD: you can grow into it a little. Both the warmup and the dance instruction are basically doable for an advanced beginner/intermediate, but they have enough layering and little details that you have a reason to go back and do the video again.

As you can probably tell by the length of this review, I am impressed! I do want to say though that it’s not the right DVD for you if you just want to pop something in the player and shake your hips around. Some of the muscular movements can be quite strenuous. You need to pay attention to the instructions, you need to listen to your body to avoid injury, and you may even need to pause it and practice a movement slowly and carefully on your own. And you need to stretch thoroughly at the end. But this is what makes it so good.