Review of Aslahan’s Taming Your Zills

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!

Aslahan 1

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.

Aslahan 2

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.

You can find Taming Your Zills on Amazon, and you should also check out Aslahan’s site,!

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.

Dhavir 2

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.

Dhavir 3

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

Review of Heather Wayman’s Belly Dance for the Busy, Everyday Woman

Hmm…. I wonder who that busy, everyday woman in the title of Heather Wayman’s new DVD is? Look, dear readers, you know I try to write reviews that give you a sense of what it’s really like to work with a DVD. For a normal person. A regular, non-pro dancer, with a practice that goes up and down. But this time I went a little overboard with the method acting approach to bellydance DVD review. In the past while, I was so busy, and so everyday, that I could barely get to dance. Due to ongoing babysitting mayhem, one cold after another, and a husband working out of town, I’ve been missing my live classes, and often finding myself so pooped after a day of work and childcare that I can hardly bring myself to pop in a video. Heather Wayman, bellydancer So I’m the perfect test case. Heather Wayman’s Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman is designed for beginners, for women who don’t have a lot of time to devote to their practice, for women who can only do a little bit at once. And this is exactly how I worked with the program. I never did it all the way through. Instead, I made smaller programs for myself by combining the warmup, one or more segments of instruction, and the cool-down. Before I get into the details of the DVD, let me give you the big picture. I had two big question marks going in: would this program be accessible to beginners, and would it really work around a busy schedule? My answer to both is yes. If you have never taken a bellydance class, with a little concentration you could follow Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman. But while most beginner DVDs give you a lot of moves but don’t show you how to put them together, Heather shows you just a few moves, but puts them into a basic choreography you can dance. It’s a different approach to beginner instruction, one that incorporates music and transitions, but doesn’t give you every move in the book. As to the busy schedule, the fact that the segments are short did make me think that, okay, even though I was tired, I could just do the warmup and one segment and still have danced a bit that evening. Once I got my computer set up I tended to dance for longer than I intended, which was nice, but not always. But here was the surprise: even when I only danced a little bit, when I did make it back to class my movements were smoother, faster, better coordinated. This happened several times, and I was amazed to notice that even a short, well-structured program could make a difference to the dancing I did in class. In other words: you can do something, even when at your busiest, and most tired. Heather Wayman demonstrating beginner bellydance moves But now let’s get to the nitty gritty. Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman consists of an introductory sections, nine learning modules, and a closing section. Introduction Heather begins by describing the program, how to work with the DVD, and how the mirroring works. Mirroring is always important, but for a beginner choreography, even more essential. She then goes through proper dance posture. Her description is brief enough to remember, and she repeats it several times, and continues giving posture reminders throughout the program. One of the things Heather does that’s unusual for a beginner’s DVD is to explain why you should hold your knees or back in a certain way — either because it affects the look of the dance, or because it can prevent injury. Mirroring, posture, healthy movement — these things are, in my opinion, essential for beginner DVDs. This is followed by a short warmup. While it is not particularly long, it is also not just stretches. Heather does get you moving enough to raise your heart rate, so you’re actually warmup. What struck me about the warmup is that it’s all done standing, and even with the aerobic movements, can be done in a small space. Great for the home learner who doesn’t want to pull out the yoga mat or push the furniture around.

Heather Wayman demonstrates beginner belly dancing

The Modules Modules 1 to 6 help you build towards a choreography by introducing around three movements and putting them into a small combination. So, for example, module 1 introduces chest lifts, vertical chest circles, and shoulder rolls. The combo is then repeated with cues, with cues and music, then just with music. And every single one of these sections is reachable in a submenu, so if you want to practice in just one way, you can. Heather works through the verses of the song, and includes enough repetition of combinations that you wind up covering quite a bit of the song with a few basic patterns. The music is fun, and the moves are cute and go with the music in a clear, easy to grasp way.

Heather Wayman shows belly dancing moves

Especially when I began working with the program, I wondered: would a total beginner do okay with this? In a sense, it’s hard for me to tell. Heather’s descriptions of movements are very thorough, often even pointing out what muscles are used to drive a move. That can be helpful for some beginners, but others just need a lot of drilling, or more basic instruction. Shimmies definitely take a lot more time and work than they’re given here. But while this video does not offer a lot of individual drills, Heather does give a lot of tips on on typical beginner mistakes or “pitfalls”, which would allow you to self-correct. The thing that I thought was particularly clever was to offer a choreo that has changes of direction, level, and intensity. When we first learn bellydance, we tend to do a lot of “four of this, four of that” choreographies, usually facing forward (to the mirror). It’s hard, at the start, to see how you can do interesting things with the movements. While Heather teaches a limited number of moves, she’s implicitly teaching how they can be varied and built into a dance — and I think this is really important. The final three modules do not teach moves like the others. Module 7 focuses on Taqsim. In this section, Heather describes taqsim, and offers examples of how to dance to the taqsim beginning of the song. (The choreo lessons begin after the taqsim.) In Module 8, Heather goes through the choreography again, counting it out, then doing it with music and cues. And in Module 9, Heather goes through the combinations and moves already covered and suggests corresponding arm movements. Special Features Under the Special Features menu, you get a series of options. The first is a written list of the combinations. Next up is a mini-lesson on possible ending poses. From this menu you can also choose to dance along with a vide of the choreo taken from the back, or you can watch the dance as a costumed performance. And finally — a gag reel. But wait kids, that’s not all! Heather also offers bonus content on her website that I had a peek at. This is only available if you buy the DVD from Heather’s website. It’s material that didn’t make it onto the DVD for reasons of time, and it includes:

  • Choreography notation in an Excel spreadsheet
  • A stream of the edited music
  • Downloadable files of the individual combos from the back view into a mirror, in a loop for practice
  • The same videos, but watchable in the browser
  • A video with alternative arms and stylizations for the combos
  • A set of bonus taqsim demonstrations to other music

Heather Wayman's costumed belly dance performance

Other notes I’ve taken a live workshop with Heather and corresponded with her via email and Facebook. (And this was, by the way, a review copy I worked with.) She has a healthy dose of bellydance nerdiness, by which I mean that she thinks. This DVD shows the marks of her thinking about how to make the material useful and approachable to the beginner in every possible way — menu options for each little section, various ways to practice the full choreo, etc. I sometimes found this a bit confusing (I couldn’t quite tell why some things were modules and other things were special features), but overall, I think having a DVD with lots of different options is a Good Thing, and a great use of the technology. The other thing I really liked, and that I very much hope other DVD producers will note, is the kind of music used in the DVD. What do I mean? Heather uses three different songs — one for warmup, one for the choreo, and one for the cool-down. All of these songs are on the same CD, Raksa With Amir: Music for Bellydance. You only need to buy one. Oh yeah, and the CD is moderately priced, is available digitally (because is a beginner really going to wait for an obscure vendor to mail them a CD?), and if you don’t want to spend nine bucks on the whole CD, you can just buy the songs individually. And the music is good. The choreo Heather teaches does not take up the whole of Halim Mix, but it occurs at the beginning, so someone looking to perform it would not have to do complicated cutting. Is it for you? If you are beyond the beginner stage, or are looking for a comprehensive collection of moves presented in a systematic way, this is not the DVD to challenge you in the way you want. If you are truly a beginner, or have only done a bit of class… if you want to start putting moves together into a manageable choreography, or even learn how to modify basic moves to make them look interesting, Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman would be a good choice. You can get it at Amazon, but the bonuses are only available if you order direct from Heather at 10441961_10152095942980518_6287854576637646118_n

This style is my style: A Guest Post by Chantal Dos Santos

I met Chantal at the Randa Kamel and Ranya Renee workshops sponsored last May by my studio Hayal. Since of us are dancers from Canada living in Germany, we had quite a bit to talk about. One of the topics that kept coming up was the difficulty of finding one’s own personal style in a crowd of influences. I’m delighted that she’s agreed to write my very first guest post on this subject!

Chantal has been bellydancing since 2006, and has expanded her range with studies in a number of other dance forms, including flamenco, African dances, Russian Romany, and contact improvisation. She’s now based in Nuremberg, where she performs and teaches — among other things a course on bellydance combined with pelvic training, a course in which many women with traumatic experiences explore movement. You can learn more about her work at

Read Chantal’s post, and then let us know — how do you go about finding your personal style? What have been the challenges? What has helped you learn what to incorporate into your dance?

This style is my style: A reflection

Chantal Dos Santos

Years have gone by since I’ve taken up bellydancing and in that time I’ve seen rounded arms and soft knees straighten out into right angles and muscular accents; I’ve seen ballet training become a prerequisite as pirouettes and arabesques have found a home in the basic footwork and travelling steps of oriental dance (next time you are at a Randa Kamel workshop, count how many times you hear these two terms. I dare you to try and keep track!) Thanks to our modern world full of YouTube videos, blogs, social networks, Skype, and the relative increased mobility of people, one who is fascinated by bellydance does not have daydream of a exotic world far away. Everything you need is a couple of clicks away. But how does one sort through all of this input, and organize it into one unique personal style? This is the step that I’ve reached in my dance practice.

I’ve found I’ve reached a point where the learning curve is very steep. A lot of teachers have left their mark on my dance style, so now I’m at the critical point where I’m sifting through what seems to be a mountain of moves and distilling them into one cohesive set of movement vocabulary. Kind of like trying to create a palatable 3-course meal out of a random assortment of ingredients in your kitchen. Thankfully there is more than half an onion and a shrivelled old pepper among the ingredients in my cupboard, but even the most luxurious dark chocolate will leave a bad taste in your mouth if you sprinkle it with caviar.

For a bellydance enthusiast, I watch an embarrassingly low number of bellydance videos and rarely attend shows. Ever since I’ve relocated to Germany, I’ve kind of observed the bellydance scene from afar, taking the opportunity to engage in other dance forms and somatic movement workshops. I’ve carefully avoided becoming part of the scene. Being part of a “scene” has its positives and its negatives for sure….too much input can be as bad as not enough input. When is enough enough? Fifi’s Jewel, Dina’s large hip circle, the floats of American Cabaret …where does a girl who just wants to dance fit in? Honestly if someone else has done it before, I don’t really want to do it. When I look at a good dancer, I don’t see just the movements, but rather the joy in movement. The way the movements flow together, the character and emotion they bring to a performance, the nuances that make them unique and memorable.

Technique training is and always will be the cornerstone of a dancer’s practice. Without it we can’t reach the level where we are free to express ourselves. I look at it like any spoken language: you first need a certain amount of vocabulary in order to communicate, and continuing to acquire vocabulary increases your ability to express yourself.

I’m thankful for teachers who push students to be their own dancer, and give students the tools needed to get past any fear and discomfort and hone their own style. This past Summer I went to an amazing 6-day Feldenkrais / Contact Improv retreat (hugs and kisses Thomas Kampe and organizer, Sicularte!). The most important point I took away from it were two simple sentences: “You are the expert of your own body. Everything you need to know is inside of you.”

So, I am much more selective now about which workshops I pay for. I have no more qualms about saying “He/She is a great dancer but that topic is not what I need right now”. Now when I choose a workshop, I am focused on what I want to get out of it and also open to the possibility of a pleasant surprise: maybe be I will hear a word of wisdom, or learn a move that gives me a great feeling in my body. That’s what bellydance has to be for me: a great feeling in my body. Whether I find that feeling in straight and muscular, or soft and earthy will play a big role in what comprises my personal style. I’m on my own now, armed with stacks of DVDs, a bellyful of training and a pinch of courage, on the journey to find what feels great, and eventually my personal style. Let the discovery begin!

Review of Galit Mersand’s Bellylicious

Humour and bellydance don’t often seem to mix. I don’t quite see the reason why. We bellydancers use as many false eyelashes as drag queens, and easily beat them on glitter and sequins. So why don’t we have their talent for not taking things too seriously?

These probably sound like fighting words. In fact, I appreciate how much effort it takes to help the general public understand that oriental dance isn’t just shaking booty. But I think it’s ironic that a dance with so much lightness and flirtatiousness — and joy! — should be talked about in such serious terms.

Galit Mersand performing shisha dance, bellydance, with melaya leff costume
Galit doing her shisha dance

Enter Galit Mersand. And Bellylicious, a one-hour cabaret show that combines stand-up, dance, and, once everyone’s warmed up nice and good, a bit of cultural background about the dance itself. Galit wrote the show to explain oriental dance to the general public, but to her credit, it doesn’t feel particularly teacherly. Well, until she dances raqs al assaya as a disciplining headmistress. Did I mention Galit is in the U.K.? Some parts of her show, you really need a public school education to understand.

This gives you a clue that the show, in the tradition of cabaret, doesn’t shy away from playing with the sexy, cheeky side of the dance. Galit starts out by describing herself as a “serial flirt,” and bellydance is, of course, the perfect artistic outlet for someone who likes to tease. Now, it just so happens that I come from a very, how shall I put it, flirtation-rich culture. It may be the case that I can go on for hours about how underflirty and misflirtatious North American society can be. (Don’t get me started on Germany…) I am so happy to have someone acknowledge that this is a big part of the dance. 

Watching a full show of bellydance might be a test of patience for the non-initiated. However, the dances themselves are not just plopped into the dialogue. In fact, they continue the themes of Galit’s jokes in a kind of bellydance-standup fusion. (It reminds me quite a bit of Cihangir Gümüstürkmen‘s work.) They are therefore all a bit experimental, and some work better than others. I could have done without the transformation of yoga positions into bellydance moves that starts the show off. But the “headmistress with stick” shtick was wonderful, and the drum solo that ends the show — mostly straight dancing, but with small comic bits that nevertheless fit the music perfectly — was a stroke of brilliance. And anyone who’s tired of “overacted” dancing, the kind with way too many gestures and literal interpretation of a song nobody present understands, will enjoy Galit’s sendup. 
Galit Mersand bellydancing with stick, cane
The thing that’s necessary for the comedy to work, the one element without which it would all flop, is dancing so good that even an audience member utterly new to oriental dance would be able to recognise as excellent. If a dancer made jokes about bellydancing and then performed with anything less than professional polish, the whole show would be an exercise in diminishing the art. 
And Galit’s dancing is excellent. Really, really excellent. She combines varied and precise technique with incredible lightness: everything looks easy and floaty and fun. I have seen so many technically brilliant dancers lately who make it look like hard work, and there’s something about that that’s exhausting to watch. But some dancers — Ranya Renee and Maria Sokolova come to mind — give you the sense that they’re having the time of their lives, and in doing so allow you to take pleasure in the music and movement too. And Galit is one of them.
It also makes you want to learn. While watching Bellylicious, one part of my brain was enjoying the dancing, and the other was thinking, “Oh, that’s a cool combination! Oh, that’s another one! I should look these up again. Oh, what a nice way of combining those moves!” Of course, Galit has instructional videos too (and I will be reviewing one of them), but I also expect I’ll turn back to Bellylicious for inspiration on movements, combinations, and general styling.
I received a review digital copy of Bellylicious from Galit — she sells her videos both on DVD and as downloads at (At the time of this writing, the latter are quite affordable, even once you convert from British Pound to whatever currency you’re playing with.) The video is spliced together from different shows she did, and sometimes the splices do show. Film quality is a little fuzzy, though you can see everything, especially when it comes to the dancing. And usefully, the credits include all the songs she used. 

In which Nadira Jamal hits a home run

Nadira Jamal sent an email out to her list this week, and it was one of those things — well, quite frankly, it was one of those moments when it seems someone you’ve never met read your mind and decided to give you a good talking to. It’s called “Everything Else is Gravy: Why we need mere competence, not excellence,” and before you read further, you should just watch it here:

My confession: only a few days before this video came out, I had posted something a bit negative on facebook about my dance talent, or rather, my lack of dance talent. The truth is, I don’t even think I’m the worst. But I don’t have those years of ballet training, and there are certain things in dance — like staying on beat or learning choreos — that take so much work. Listen, I’m human. Sometimes when I look at the stretchy thin people who can already layer a shimmy onto a basic step in releve, I start to wonder what it is I’m doing.

The thing that was really new to me in Nadira’s talking to was this: she points out that sometimes, being too much of a perfectionist can keep you from learning and becoming better. The example she gives is thinking you need to be a top-notch performer before you perform, when really there are many performance skills you have to learn on the stage, by doing. I had to wonder how Nadira got in my head. I’ve taken classes for years, but only had my first real, proper, not just futzing around performance a few weeks ago. And you know what? As Nadira pointed out, it went okay for what it was. It was a student performance, I magically remembered the choreo, I had a big dumb grin on my face for most of it — I need to learn to appreciate that and feed off of it for the next time.

Years ago, I had a Tim Gunn bobblehead doll that stood on my desk and said “Make it Work” when I needed a little more motivation in my work. I think now I need a Nadira Jamal doll that says “It’s Gravy!” when I bring it along to dance class!

Review of Bettina May’s Bombshell Basics: Pinup Modeling Secrets Revealed

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When I received my review copy of Bombshell Basics: Pinup Modeling Secrets Revealed, with Bettina May, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Who was the audience for this, I wondered? Who wants to dress up like it’s the 1950’s? What in the world is it for?

Burlesque dancer Medianoche with vintage hair
This is Medianoche, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s Deeta

Looking back, some of the answers should have been obvious. Between the fame of Deeta von Teese, the popularity of burlesque and striptease workouts (of which World Dance New York has produced a bunch), the Mad Men craze, and hipsterdom’s tendencies to fetishize the past, there must be a lot of people looking for this kind of video.

You know what I forgot about though?

I forgot that I spent my teenage years adoring Rita Hayworth, that I basically wanted to be her, that I dyed my hair various subtle shades of red in wary attempts to get the look, that I played with my hair constantly to get those Golden Age movie star curls cascading down one side… at some point while watching the bright red-headed Bettina May do her thing on Bombshell Basics, this started coming back to me.

I also forgot that for a long time, a toned down 1950’s look was my makeup ideal.

How did I forget that stuff?

So, before I get into the nitty gritty, let me tell you what Bombshell Basics did for me. I didn’t dye my hair, and I didn’t set it in rollers. Nor did I purchase a vintage corset and lull about on a Victorian sofa, though if I wanted to, I would have known exactly how to do it. What I did do, however, was pay very close attention to the makeup instruction. And believe it or not, even though I’m no stranger to the ways of liquid eyeliner, the tips Bettina gave really solved some problems for me. I would even go so far as to say they revolutionized my eye-lining.

Then I went to my friendly local MAC store, meaning business. I got a Superslick Liquid Eye Liner, their Brick lip pencil, and after some very determined testing, selected my first Russian Red and the exquisite Viva Glam I. I have to tell you that I am not a MAC fangirl, and it had been years since I found anything to excite me in their store. (I’m way too old for Nikki Minaj’s face to part me from my money.) But I knew that for just the right red lipstick and deep black eyeliner, that’s where I’d have to go.

And then I started wearing it. And I’ve now switched from wearing pencil eyeliner most of the time to wearing liquid black almost as often. And I wear red lipstick. In the daytime. Just like that, because it feels good. And I adore it, adore how it makes me feel. I can’t find any way to write this without being cheesy, but you know what? I’m a grown woman with a job and a man and a child, I’ve earned my red lipstick.

Burlesque dancer Bettina May showing vintage makeup instruction

What’s that? You would like to know what’s on the DVD? Well, ok.

Bombshell Basics begins with two sections on hair, one demonstrating how to set and style short hair, and another on very long hair. Bettina May offers a number of styling ideas, product suggestions, and little old school tricks. (“Grandma’s secrets.”) I was quite confused by this at first, since I didn’t understand why mid-length hair wasn’t being showed, and since we’re not shown how to set the entire head. Since I really don’t know how to put hair in rollers, I thought this would be useful information. I later figured out that a lot of this is covered in Bettina May’s earlier DVD, How to be a Pinup Model. I can understand the urge to avoid repetition, and a lot of the short/long hair ideas can be adapted to a variety of lengths. Still, I would have liked the full hair curling tutorial here.

The next section focuses on step-by-step pinup makeup. This is a guide to one look, a clean, rosy-cheeked, 50’s style look. The actual application is occasionally a bit rushed, but as I already mentioned, I found it contained some really great tips.

Burlesque dancers Bettina May and Sake Fevah showing modeling poses
Sake Fevah models underwear new and old

The final section begins a plaidoyer for vintage undergarments and what they can do for your figure. Sake Fevah models for us, and then demonstrates a number of poses that could be used if someone is taking your picture, or if a flirt-worthy individual happens to be in the room. Duly noted.

So who is this for? I think if you’re into the retro look, you’ll get a lot out of this, especially if you have long and thin hair, or short hair, and want to work the curls anyway. Bombshell Basics is not really a complete course in any one of the topics. Rather, it’s like a workshop, with ideas in every area — hair, clothing, makeup, posing. In this sense, I think it’s also rather nice as general style inspiration. You don’t have to look like a midcentury pinup, but you can still get a little of Joan Holloway’s charm in your everyday life.

Veil and Drum Solo Workshops with Aisa Lafour, and other dance notes

My dear readers, I’ve been a busy dancer. I had an incredibly intense week about a month ago — lots of work, lots of kid, lots of dancing in the evenings, either in class or with a video or doing improv, and then on top of that, a super Saturday of workshops with Cihangir Gümüstürkmen. (I will write about this soon.)

Then I was tired. Just exhausted. I didn’t want to dance anymore, I took about a week and a half off. You know the feeling — not inspired, not motivated? I really just wanted to go home in the evenings and spend time with my family, and not be in the studio. I also felt a little sick. I thought, what’s wrong with going to bed ridiculously early for a while? (Answer: nothing. Nothing at all.)

I read my emails from Alia Thabit and Rosa Noreen, and felt guilty for not doing my improv or my Delicious Pauses homework.

I watched a bit of a few videos. Ranya Renee’s Baladi DVDs, and Autumn Ward’s Beautiful Technique. Listened to baladi songs while going about my business, and practiced taking apart the music. Realised that I have a ton of music, but not enough baladi. One night after work I wrote a little piece for the RAQStv essay contest. The prompt was to write about our practice, about how we fit dance into our lives. I wrote about how I try, but so, so often fail.

But you know what? Sometimes taking a break is good. I actually felt re-energized when I went back to classes. A few things clicked that I had been struggling with before. I won the RAQStv contest. And this past Saturday, I took part in two workshops with Aisa Lafour sponsored by Hayal Oriental Moves.

The first workshop was veil technique for beginners, along with a choreo to the gorgeous song “Yearning” by Raul Ferrando. I have very little experience of veil in class (or, well, anywhere else), so I was glad for the opportunity to do a workshop on veil that assumed nothing. Aisa had us start at the very beginning, walking back and forth with the veil, watching how it moves, and learning how to arc it up above us to get it behind or in front. Then we moved on to technique for a few traveling moves, and the rest of the technique was done in the course of the choreo. What I particularly appreciated — and want to remember — are the little performance details Aisa put in. Things like moving softly down as the veil falls, so as to mimic the veil’s movement with one’s own body. I adore these kinds of details, the refinements that make dance really beautiful and more than just a bunch of movements.

While this was all going on, I had Realization of the Day #1: bellydance, oriental dance, however you want to call it, is so ridiculously complex, involves so much training, attention to the tiniest muscle movements, practice with props, learning music, and yet most of the general public thinks it’s nothing more than hoochy mama butt grinding.

And then my veil got caught on one of the ceiling lamps.

The second workshop was a drum solo to “Drum On” by Ali Darwish. This was a really peppy, fun routine, with a number of different shimmies, some fast spins and travel accents, and a few cute Latin elements. I particularly enjoyed a funny butt shimmy Aisa described as coming from Brazilian dance, and which she called the “rabbit.”

It was above my level, but I love having a sense of what I might learn, review, try again work on. Here in Berlin, a lot of workshops are pretty explicitly geared to levels, which I’m not as used to from the US. There, people just went to workshops. On the one hand, it makes sense, since instructors can teach advanced material to advanced dancers. But I also think there’s a lot to be gained from doing workshops a bit above one’s level, since they give you an understanding of where you have to push yourself to get to.

Then I had Realization of the Day #2. Readers of this blog know I’m not a huge fan of learning choreos. I’m a slow learner, and I often get frustrated trying to remember and keep up with everyone else. But I realised on Saturday that learning choreos is not just about a certain approach to dance, or even about learning transitions. It’s also that certain moves are just not so likely to pop up in drilling or technique lessons, but somehow do make their way into choreo instruction. These might be transitions, or traveling steps, or stylizations, or they just might be somewhat lesser-used moves that the “home” instructor hasn’t covered yet.

Anyway, the point was, for once I found myself really enjoying the process of learning a choreo. Some parts of the song really clicked for me, others I had a lot of trouble with (and believe me, I know those are precisely the ones I need to practice!). But all in all, there were just a lot of really delicious movement combinations that were fun to do. And the more we rehearsed them, the sweatier we got, and the looser the muscles did too, so some of the passages also became easier to perform.

When we were working on a particularly tricky bit, Aisa mentioned that she’d had a hard time at first with the combo, and had to practice to get it. This kind of thing is so good to hear when you’re struggling to pick up a phrase. She then talked about how she often choreographs above her dance level, so as to challenge herself. I thought this was also a wonderful reason and way to do choreography. If improv is about finding your safety moves and working with them, why not choreograph to bring more moves into that repertoire?

So now, some classes, workshops, DVDs, and writing later, I am once again a happy dancer. And I know precisely what I need to work on.

Refining the Dance with Maria Sokolova

This is the one hundredth post on Atisheh Dance! Here’s to a “century” of me futzing around my living room in yoga pants and a hip scarf and then writing about it for the internets!

Yesterday I wrote about putting together my own customized dance practice using Datura Online. However, since I’m not a fan of boundaries, I used Datura for the warmup, drills, and cool down, but got my dance in from RAQStv. And namely, from a video I was reeeeeally excited about, Maria Sokolova’s 15-minute lesson from Project Belly Dance.

Kick it!

I actually already worked with this video once while I was on holiday, albeit with minimal warmup, so this was my second time doing it. There is quite a bit of material crammed into this little instructional, so it’s the kind of thing that’s worth repeating — and thankfully, RAQStv has it for a month-long rental.

Maria starts by teaching a basic combination facing the camera, then with her back to the viewer. After repeating it for a bit, she starts to go through each section, showing how to add nuance, contrast, and expression to each movement. It might be a particular twist of the torso, a way of moving the arm through space, a lovely variation on a spin, or the quality of expression during a movement.

I adore Maria’s performance style, this is the video I hoped she would make, and I’m so glad she made it. (And I’m just hoping even more that this is exactly what she does for her eventual Cheeky Girls instructional video, but slower, and more.) I think that for anyone who wonders how to get from the basic moves you do in class to a gorgeous performance — sometimes soft and feminine, sometimes assertive and dramatic — this video shows some of the ways to modify movement.

The material is tricky to get on the first time through, which is why it really does bear repeating. The second time I worked with the video, I had already internalized more of the combo, so focusing on the “extras” became easier. And because it is a quick video — it was, after all, the challenge to make a 15-minute instructional — Maria presents some material faster than she probably would in a regular class, especially right at the end. I will definitely do this at least once or twice more so as to learn as much as possible before the rental expires!

My one beef with this video had to do with production: Maria is wearing a green costume, and her background is green curtains! When I projected this, the lack of contrast made it a bit difficult to see her. (It was easier the first time around, when I was working from a large computer screen.) I suspect this is just because Project Belly Dance was being filmed on a time crunch and in the available space, but I still would have preferred a white background.

Blogging Project Belly Dance: Season 2, Episode 2: On your toes, ladies!

The second episode of this season of Project Belly Dance was a grab-bag of reality show tricks and twists. You will dance — but not to your own music! Some people will be eliminated, but one will be voted back in! Another will be voted all the way to the finals! And, oh yeah, how about memorizing this long script and performing it in front of a camera? In Russian!

Well, ok, to be fair, the Russian script went to Dalida, a Russian speaker. But, you know, this show had more turns than an old-fashioned telephone cord. (And if you still get that reference, or even remember phones with cords at all, go pour yourself a martini and stare a little into space with me.)

Lara cuts a fine figure on the stage

Where were we? Ah yes, the gala show after the first elimination ceremony. The eliminated contestants, sweat still glistening on their brows, now get to perform in front of an audience.
This part goes by pretty quickly, and Lara is brought back into the competition.

Now comes the really fun part. The remaining contestants are brought on stage, but then asked to improvise to someone else’s music. I found this part of the program particularly thrilling. Part of this is because I’ve been drinking Nadira Jamal’s improvisation kool aid, but part of it has to do with the fact that I think improv is so much more fun to watch. Choreos, especially when done by pros, can look impressive, but there’s often so little tension. What will happen? Well, whatever the dancer decided would happen, drilled and rehearsed and set in stone. Improv means liveness to me, because liveness has to include the possibility of disaster.

Not that you could tell when watching the first few dancers that they were improvising. Amanda Rose was all fluid perfection:

And Christina Gadea seemed to anticipate every beat:

As things went on, and after the music mixup, the dances were also impressive, if a little rougher around the edges. The main thing I noticed was that facial expressions became a lot more serious on average. That’s why when a dancer was able to communicate emotion and improvise, I tended to take notice. For example, check Maria out:

If this woman is stressed out by improvisation, she sure is doing a great job of hiding it. Her face is showing what I feel when I’m dancing, and that’s pretty exquisite.

The final challenge was a speaking challenge, because, after all, the winner is to star in one of Cheeky Girls’ DVDs. The results?

Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder that being on camera is not something that comes naturally. I have new-found respect for Snooki.

After this torture session was done, and the judges deliberated, the final six were announced: Ziva Emtiyaz (the audience pick for the final three), Tiffani Ahdia, Christina Gadea, Lara, Maria, and Sa’diyya!

So I’m thinking I want to see a bellydance version of RuPaul’s Drag U….