Mariyah performs a drum solo

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

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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 www.bellybyheather.com. 10441961_10152095942980518_6287854576637646118_n

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.

Against Rigidity: Some Inspirations for Improvisation

Lately, I’ve been dealing with some challenges. How to navigate being a mom — even though my expectations of myself are not high, somehow they’re still too high for the reality. How to embrace my dancing where it is, skill-wise, rather than mourning the skills I don’t have. And in my own, real-life, for-money work, how to focus on and enjoy the work I’m doing now, rather than regretting what I didn’t do before.

And so I was inspired by some recent reading. The first comes from Alia Thabit, whose 90 Day Dance Challenge I’ve been doing for the past week, and actually even managing to keep up on. (Five days out of six!) In one of her recent “love notes,” Alia writes:

Why are so many classes so deadly serious? Drilling (I hate drilling), combos, choreo, all work, work work. Why do we always have to do what we’re told? Why do we so rarely get to dance?

Students, play in class. Embellish, reinvent, enjoy yourself. Do the drills differently. Make the combos your own. Reinterpret the choreo. Stand in back, be respectful, and explain your mission to your teacher so they don’t feel the need to correct you :). But quietly get your groove on–don’t ignore the class, just give yourself permission to add your own sauce.

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to shout “YES” and pump my fist into the air. Because here’s my dirty little secret… I hate choreos. I mean, I’m not very good at picking them up anyway, though lately I have begun to see the point of learning how someone else interprets the music. But whenever I see an ad for a workshop being offered with a choreo, I think to myself, “Why would I want to dance like someone else? Would I ever really perform someone else’s choreography?”

But when I think these things, I always tend to suspect that I do so because choreos are a weak point for me. It’s also good to hear someone who is a teacher confirm that it is, in the end, about making the dance your own.

The next bit comes from an article called “Letting Go of Perfectionism and Embracing Motherhood,” by Hala Khouri. I ran across it because I’m preparing to review Hala’s DVD, Yoga for Stress Reduction. Hala describes how having children forced her to modify her perfect ecowholegrainyogaeverydaynosugarorpolyester lifestyle:

As I was faced with birthday parties with “regular” cake (i.e. the white flour and sugar kind), crying babies with high fevers, and my boys’ insatiable appetite for superheroes and dinosaurs, I had to surrender to the fact that being rigid wouldn’t serve anyone. I noticed that sometimes fighting for my ideals felt unhealthy. It came from my own fear and need to feel in control. The last thing I want to do is dump my fear and neurosis onto my children. I have had to start discerning when I’m clinging to my idea of what’s right simply because I want to feel right (and make others wrong so I feel better about myself). I’m finding a middle ground that feels balanced.

Although I have no pretensions to the kind of perfection Khouri had before, I recognize bits of this in myself. My obsessions have to do with the baby’s sleep and with nursing. I resisted supplementing with formula for months, even though I was exhausting myself with round-the-clock nursing, because I was secretly proud that the baby hadn’t touched those chemicals. And yet, once I started supplementing a bit and wasn’t so exhaused, I found I also wasn’t so resentful of the nursing, and able to do it longer. The perfect was the enemy of the good.

As different as these examples are, both are about improvisation. After all, isn’t that what we’re doing when we take on a new role? And it helps to remember — it helps me at least — that improvising is what’s most fun. Cooking teachers and food writers have started to talk about the value of improvising in the kitchen rather than following recipes slavishly, and that’s really what I love about cooking. Why would I expect myself to follow a preset model in other parts of my life?

Review of Jennifer Jiménes’ Let’s Dance Together – Prenatal Dance Fitness

While it’s been a lot of fun trying different prenatal workouts — and a lifesaver in terms of how I feel — the analytical side of my brain also enjoys seeing how many different kinds of programs are out there. I’ve already reviewed several prenatal prep DVDs with dance components. In fact, Naia, Sera Solstice, and Amira‘s programs all use bellydance, which I’m increasingly convinced is just perfect for both pregnancy and labour movement itself. Earlier today I took a Lamaze class on natural comfort measures near Dallas, and almost all the moves the instructor suggested women do in labour — hip bumps, pelvic tilts, hip circles — are basic components of bellydance. She even suggested a kind of shimmy for helping with back labour, or with a baby that is malpositioned!

This is a long intro to Jennifer Jiménes’ Let’s Dance Together – Prenatal Dance Fitness, but that’s because I want to explain what makes this program different. I received a review copy of the program, and Jennifer included a note in which she explained that it’s more about developing “inner trust” in your body than typical dance fitness. The difference begins with the staging. Instead of a single instructor facing the camera, or, say, three different practitioners modeling trimester variations, this video has a group of pregnant women, dressed brightly, sitting, standing, and dancing in a circle. Already doing the video feels less like instruction and more like participation. In fact, this is one of the few videos I’ve done which I felt encouraged me not even to look at the screen — and this is a good thing. It’s hard to relax and turn inward when you’re looking up at a screen.

The program begins with a gentle warmup that stretches out every bit of your body, with some really nice seated exercises for the legs and a variety of flowing movements done on all fours to relax the lower back and pelvis. The latter chapters include a labour prep section, including an exercise to help you maintain stamina through pain, and a meditative cool down. But what I really want to talk about is the dance segment.

Now, when I go to a dance class or watch a dance instructional, I want to be taught something. When I’ve been to dance classes where students were asked to free dance at the end of class, I was invariably stressed out by the experience — not because I don’t like to improvise, but because I feel too self-conscious, especially when others are there. If you’d told me that this video had a significant portion devoted to free dance, I would not have been excited. But in truth, I wound up loving it.

Why? Well, first of all, it’s not totally free dance. You’re invited to explore movement, but Jennifer calls out different parts of your body to focus on, as in “dance with your shoulders!” Both times I did this video, I was amazed at how creative I could be with that amount of prompting — I found my body performing moves I’d learned formally in dance classes, moves I’d seen other dancers do, or just totally new motions I invented because they felt good. It was, cheesy as it sounds, liberating.

The bright colours strike a Merce Cunningham vibe…

It feels wonderful to be heavily pregnant and realise that your body still can do things that feel so lovely. But I think this kind of exercise could be great beyond pregnancy too — how much better would those stressful improv moments in dance class have been if the teachers had guided the movement like this? A lot of dancers love choreography but are scared of improv, and I think a gentle practice like the one in Let’s Dance Together is a perfect way of breaking out of the choreography box. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the second dance segment, which was a kind of circle dance with scarves, but the “Free Dance” portion was enchanting and made me want to do it again and again.

Did the program lead me to trust my body more, or to feel better prepared for labour? I think it’s hard to answer that question before actually giving birth. I will say this: I think the workout, and especially the free dance section, are excellent at giving you practice at figure out what kinds of movement make your body feel good. The fact that you’re not following someone else’s count or precise movements, but taking each of the exercises and doing them in a way that stretches and strengthens your muscles in the best way for you, is, I suspect, good practice for labour, when you have to set your own pace and figure out what works in easing the pain. And if labour is a dance, as I’ve sometimes heard it described, it has to be improvised.

Jennifer Jiménes’ Let’s Dance Together – Prenatal Dance Fitness is available on Amazon via the link, or from Jennifer’s website, Let’s Dance Together.

Continuing choreography with Jillina

A few days ago I wrote about my fear of choreography. I realised that part of what I needed to do was to slow down. I may not be one of those people who can watch someone at the front of the classroom do a series of complicated steps and repeat them immediately (and I have, to my horror, been in rooms of dancers who can), but I can learn if I take my time. The ability to learn fast is different from the ability to learn at all. What came out of this were some good discussions on Bhuz and OrientalDancer.net, in which I got to hear about other dancers’ experiences learning to perform, being afraid of advancing in the dance, and learning how to learn choreography.

A few days ago I took advantage of Christmastime leisure and returned to Instructional Bellydance With Jillina – Level 1. My first time around, I had worked with the movement instruction section and arduously learned the first three combinations. Before beginning the second session, I ran through the first three combos from memory, to see how much I could recall on my own. (All of it!) I then repeated the sections for those three combinations, which gave me a really wonderful feeling — the transitions that had felt unnatural earlier now came easily and organically, and I barely had to think anymore.

The real surprise, though, was the fact that I sped through the next four combos. (There are only seven total.) For some reason, even though I was really tired when doing this practice, my body could just pick up the combinations this time around. I did have a little trouble with footwork, and I probably wouldn’t recollect as much of them now, but I was able to get up to full speed much, much faster than in the first practice session. This still involved a few repetitions of each combination’s instruction and practice segment, but I did not have to stop these quite as often. This was completely unexpected!

Again, Jillina’s video is nothing fancy — she uses just a few basic movements in combinations that are simple but lovely. But to me mastering them still felt like an achievement. By the end, the many spins had made me dizzy (I am pretty pregnant, after all!), but I did a run-through of all the combinations again and did some cool-down stretches on my own. I then reviewed the final section of the video, in which Jillina adapts the combinations into a choreography to “Alf La Waila Waila.” For the next practice, I’m planning to review all the combinations again as a warm-up, and then tackle the choreo to the song. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with having the patterns changed, but at least the music will now be a help. This whole choreography thing is starting to seem… doable.

The Eternal Beginner; or, Beating the fear of choreography with Jillina

Bellydance has been a source of joy and frustration to me. Joy, because it’s the dance that really speaks to my soul, the dance that feels right on my body, the dance that helped teach me to feel comfortable as a woman when I was just becoming one. Frustration, because the intensity of my studies and work, the frequent moves during my twenties, and my own fear and self-consciousness have kept me from progressing beyond beginner.

I took my first bellydance class almost ten years ago in Toronto. In that time, I’ve taken classes and even quite intensive workshops in Connecticut, New York, Berlin, and Texas. But the longest I every stayed with one teacher was right at the beginning — since then I’ve had trouble finding classes in one city, in the next I had trouble finding a studio I liked, in another city I spent too little time, and the class I took this spring with a teacher I liked was cancelled without notice. Despite the fact that I’ve done much harder classes, when I go to a new teacher I describe myself as a beginner. There is so much I still don’t know, and I don’t want to be the annoying student who judges herself to be intermediate. But this does mean I’m always breezing through the basics, and never really learning to put things together.

(The funny thing is that when I put on music and just jam, I have no trouble improvising…)

My worst fear is of choreography. Maybe it’s due to the memory of trying out for arts school when I was ten, and a dance teacher running through complicated steps which everyone around me could magically pick up. They all turned left, while I was turning right! The truth is, choreography is not something I pick up quickly, especially if it’s not introduced with music or doesn’t really make sense with the music. I’ve never quite figured counting out. But taking regular classes this spring taught me something: I can learn combinations and choreography if I practice them really incrementally, and repeat them often. I’m not the person who can watch twenty-four counts’ worth of moves and repeat them afterward without a hitch, and perhaps I never will be — but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn if I’m willing to be more patient.

So, today, I decided to work on beating my fear of choreography. I searched my video library for a DVD that would have simple choreos with repetition, and came across a video I’ve had for ages: Instructional Bellydance With Jillina – Level 1. I thought the mix of quick review of the basic moves and small, manageable combos would be just right — and it was. Jillina first introduces the combinations slowly and then drills them 3-4 times with music. After teaching the seven combinations, she then goes through them again, but modifies them into a choreography to “Alf La Waila Waila,” and has you practice that.

Part of my resolution was that I would not try to do the whole video. My current condition (28 weeks pregnant) means it would probably be unwise anyway. But I wanted to see if I could really learn a few combos if I applied myself, rather than doing the program as a whole and always feeling that I can’t keep up. So today, after working with Jillina’s technique review, I just focused on the first three combinations. They were simple, easy, but lovely with the music. (I’m not one of those people who think bellydance has to be incredibly complicated to be beautiful.) When I found that a particular transition or movement was counter-intuitive, I paused, and kept rewinding and repeating the drill until it felt natural. And I added my own breaks to repeat everything from the top. Finally, after learning the first three combinations, I stopped the video and practiced all three together several times on my own.

I found slowing down like this really liberating. Jillina gives no instructions for arms and hands except when she’s choreographed snake arms, so once I had internalized the combinations I found I could follow her or improvise my own stylization. And, to my surprise, the process of learning combos and footwork was not as difficult as it usually is. I will probably do some pilates tomorrow and pick up the Jillina again in two days, and see how much has entered muscle memory, how much I need to relearn, and how things go with the next combinations. But for now, I’m excited, for the first time, about choreography.

What are your experiences learning choreography?