Private dance class with Badia Star

Last month, I did an unusually spontaneous thing. I was on Facebook when I saw a video of a dancer who had amazing fluidity and grace. And playfulness. You know, the exact qualities I want in my dance. When I googled her, I found out she lived in Toronto — and I was about to go there the next week. Well, in a matter of hours, we had gotten in touch, and I had a booking for my first private dance class ever with Badia Star, aka Brenda Bell.

I had no idea what to expect. We did talk in advance about the kinds of things I wanted to cover, but the whole structure of a private class was new to me. And because I hadn’t done any bellydance in quite a long time — and in a class, even longer — a lot of what we did involved trying out different movements and finding the spots where I could learn the most.

Badia/Brenda is such a warm, encouraging, spirited teacher. But she was also carefully watching me to give me tips on form and execution, which is exactly what I want in an instructor. I came away with a long list of notes on what we did, and ideas on what I could practice on my own. So here were some of the things the class made me pay attention to:

  • Oh my lord are my shoulders tight. I knew that I had lost some connection to my abs over the past years (ok a lot), but I didn’t realise how tight my shoulders had become. Really tight. Rock solid. This is a thing. Not a good thing.
  • For someone with a swayback, a strong core is really just as important in bellydance as it is in ballet. This has to be my number one concern, and I think it’s part of the reason ballet classes have often left my body feeling better than bellydance ones. (Despite how “artificial” ballet feels, it’s all about strength in the core and engaging every possible muscle.)
  • So much of my bellydance training has involved standing in a single spot and doing a move. Maybe doing a few moves. But definitely standing in that spot. Perhaps also pivoting on that spot, or doing one or two steps to the left and to the right. What has my bellydance training rarely integrated? Broad-ranging movement across the floor, learning isolations in combination with steps (not as things that have to be added to each other), really covering space. This was perhaps the big mind explosion in this class. The reason I am so static in my dance is that I have learned this dance in a static way. (I’ve taken classes with a few other teachers who put the steps first, and wonder if doing steps first might not be a better way to transition to actual dance.) Badia had me moving the whole time, walking around the room, linking movements together. And it was challenging, but gave me a sense of how to actually dance with these movements as opposed to presenting them.
  • This is perhaps the hardest realisation to articulate. Bellydance for me has always been about coming to terms with my feminine self, whatever that meant at a particular point in my life. As a 20-year-old, it meant finding a form of womanhood I could feel natural in. As a 30-something, it was part of adjusting to motherhood. But as I approach forty, working in a male-dominated environment, it’s really hard to know what that should look like at all. I just know that losing bellydance as a daily practice has gone hand in hand with other kinds of loss. And I want to change that.

There’s a lot more that I’m thinking about. I’ve been practicing a bit more since the private class, though sickness and work have kept me from doing so as much as I’d like. But I was so very glad I did it — it was precisely the kind of boost and inspiration I needed at this point. Now it’s time to figure out the next steps…

Review of Aziza’s Hands, Arms & Poses

Aziza’s oft-repeated wisdom is: “Be amazed.”

At one point while I was doing this video, I thought: “Dude, if I found my body doing what hers is doing, in the way that hers is doing it, I sure would be amazed!”

When you see the title of the DVD, namely Hands, Arms & Poses, you can be forgiven for thinking this video will give you ideas for things to do with your hands and arms while you dance. And it does. Aziza covers useful stretches for the hands, does drills to isolate your wrists, teaches lotus hands as well as beautiful positioning of the fingers. And while the arm work centers on the port de bras, there are good tips for moving with intention, and other arm pathways as well.

That said, I kept thinking the video (which I received as a review copy) should have been called something else. Because the real strength of this program is not in giving you a thousand hand or arm positions — it doesn’t — but in teaching coordination and control. And for that, you have some really fine drills.

After a quite dancey warmup of eight minutes, focusing on the arms especially, you have a variety of exercises. The section called “Drills & Exercises” with “Drills.” This 17-minute segment is a great standalone mini practice companion, the bulk of it being slow and steady arm flows layered on top of  rhythmic hip movements. This is the kind of thing that some instructors do have you practice early on (one of mine does), but not reliably, and it is challenging. When I did this section, I had to think that I should probably do it at least once a week. Seventeen minutes can’t be that hard, can it?

Aziza is looking to see if you’ve been doing your wrist isolations.

Next come two sections on foot patterns. In each, Aziza teaches a long combination, has you repeat it a few times in both directions, and then adds changing arm work to it. I’ve grown to love the teaching technique of drilling a combo with stylistic variations, and I think it’s a wonderful way to show what varying arms can do. The first combination is somewhat easier to get a handle on, while the second shows Aziza’s ballet training, and has rather more difficult leg work. Aziza doesn’t then explain every single arm moves, but you’re supposed to follow along and, probably, improvise a bit on your own.
The one thing that drove me absolutely nuts during this section is that once Aziza gets going with the arm stylizations, the camera focuses way too much on her lower body and feet. I found myself wanting to stick my hand through the screen and yank the view up to Aziza’s arms!

After some wrist isolations, we move on to the “Poses & Combinations” section. In a way, this is the hardest of all, though it looks the easiest if you’re just watching the video. There are three combinations of, well, poses, but the trick is that you’re supposed to move with incredible control from one to the next. Imagine a crazy hard tai chi. When I posted about doing Hands, Arms & Poses on Facebook, Lauren Zehara confirmed my suspicion that this is truly hard, but worthwhile, dance practice:

It’s very different from what most dancers study in their regular weekly classes. Aziza is assuming that we can do all the basics (hipwork, etc) and challenging us to do that while holding exquisite lines in the body and moving with grace and intention. THAT is challenging at any level, and great stuff to work on!

Why do this kind of work? I think if I’d run across this material a few years ago, I would have thought it pointless and boring. But in the meantime, I’ve worked with Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses, and I took a workshop with Heather Wayman in which she shared some of Nadira Jamal’s tricks for using poses to structure improv. Both Rosa and Nadira are well aware of Aziza’s work, I know, but through them I was prepped to see the value of this. It is very hard to slow down the way Aziza practices here, and to keep looking good. I found myself naturally checking in on my abs, to see if they were pulled in, because I needed that muscular support to control my movements. And, while I wouldn’t do all of the poses, a lot of them were quite beautiful and pleasurable. It became, dare I say it, almost meditative to repeat them with intention.

After a brief, also dance-based cool down, you’re done. But you’re actually not done. Hands, Arms & Poses includes three performances. One incorporates the movements into an actual dance, another offers a dance with veil, and a third is “vintage Aziza” in a powerhouse performance from 1994. Other extras include photos of Aziza as a young ballet student and beginning bellydancer, and an interview.

Production values are very high. The quality of the film is extremely good, and the video itself is shot in Le Windsor, a nineteenth-century Montréal hotel. Aziza uses real music, from Hollywood Music Center, track information is given, and the music is in time to the exercises, not just a vague backdrop. The one thing I wasn’t fond of was the fascination with the feet in the foot patterns (!), but in other sections of the video the camera knew where to look. This is a gorgeous video, and one I will return to again.

You can get Hands, Arms & Poses at Amazon or via Aziza’s website.