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, www.aslahan.com!

Claudina Calligraveil double veil bellydancing

Review of Claudina’s Calligraveil: Single and Double Veil Dance Instructional

Readers of this blog may have noticed that it has spanned a few geographic locations. My very first posts were written when I lived in Connecticut, I then lived in NYC but didn’t write very much, moved to Dallas where I got pregnant and started writing about prenatal workouts during my leave, and I now live in Germany. (Are you tired yet? I’m tired.)

One of the goals I set for myself when I moved here and started taking classes from local teachers was to seek out and review more DVDs by European dancers. I know that many English speaking dancers are willing to get foreign-language bellydance instructionals, even in languages they don’t know, like Russian or Hebrew! But in fact, many dancers are now putting out videos in bilingual or even multilingual versions (like Meissoun of Zurich). And if you play the DVD on your laptop and it’s region free, you don’t have to worry about the PAL/NSTC issue that we used to have with VHS. It’s been my experience that there are some fantastic dancers and really great teachers here, and I’d very much like for them to be known more broadly.

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance performance

So, in keeping with that goal, today’s review is of a double veil DVD by the Weimar-based dancer Claudina, Calligraveil: Single and Double Veil Dance Instructional. Calligraveil is fully bilingual: menus and voiceovers (and there are only voiceovers) are done in both English and German. In fact, if you’re sick of language period, you also have the option of watching the tutorials with music alone.

The first thing to say is that this is an exquisitely beautiful DVD. Really, it’s one of the most gorgeous productions I’ve seen in any dance DVD. It’s also pretty challenging. There is an hour and a half of instruction alone, not counting the extras, so it’s really more of a reference work to learn from over a longer period than a workshop-type instructional. Because Claudina teaches every move first with just one veil, you can use it at the most basic level to learn or practice single-veil moves. However, you can also go beyond that and practice them with two veils. The DVD is thoroughly, carefully chaptered, so it would be easy to pick just one section and rehearse it over and over again (and I did some of that as I worked with it), or to skip over the harder, double-veil sections, until you’re ready for them.

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance performance

The DVD begins with two costumed performances by Claudina, one featuring Isis wings and matte, gauzy double veils, and another with shimmering veils. These are primarily spinning moves, and Claudina makes them look easy. As I discovered when I worked with the DVD they are not, in fact, easy. A short introduction tells you to warm up, and explains the props you’ll use to learn: tea cups, long silk veils, and a cane.

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance double veil props for instruction

The tutorial section, which is an hour and a half long, consists of ten lessons:

1. Introduction: Veil Selection, Arms and Posture, Warm Up
2. Veil Basics I: Handling Single Veil, Dervish Turn, Traveling Turn
3. Veil Basics II: Handling Double Veil, Isolate the Veils, Catch the Veils
4. Figure 8: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
5. Swirl: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
6. Circle: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
7. Serpentine: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
8. Butterfly: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
9. Moon: Basics, Single Veil, Double Veil
10. Final Tips: Cool Down, Improvisation, Experimentation

Basically, you have a few lessons teaching you how to hold one veil, how to do the fingers for two veils, where to grab the veil (and here Claudina showed a trick that will help me with single veil too!), how to switch fingers on the veil, and how to let go and catch both single and double veils in the air. She also quickly has you practice dervish and travel turns. The end has a small but nice cool-down, and there are a few dances in which Claudina gives suggestions on how to dance with the veil, how to improvise, how to experiment with veil materials. This woman is clearly a master of the veil!

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance double  veil instruction

The central lessons, numbers 4 to 9, each focus on a single veil technique. Claudina introduces the movement very gradually. She will do it first without any props, frequently changing position so you can see her from both front and side. Then she has you practice it with an appropriate prop, for example tea cups when the goal is to keep hands facing up, the bamboo cane when you need to keep your hands equidistant, and long white veils to help you see the shapes of moves. Then she teaches you how to perform the move with a single veil, and finally, she moves to the double veil version. All along, there are variations on each move.

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance double  veil instructionThe two things you need to know about these lessons are: they are very well taught, and they are pretty hard to do. Any single tutorial is more than enough for a day’s dedicated work. And although Claudina has a slender figure, I realised she must have an enormous amount of strength to handle so many different kinds of veils with such grace and power. I managed to do quite a lot of the DVD, but I realised at one point that my shoulders wouldn’t be happy with me if I pushed myself any further. I need to get better at single veil first, and develop some arm strength. However, if you are willing to take it more slowly than I was, and really work with each tutorial, the sections themselves are really taught thoroughly and from the ground up, and because of the chaptering, should be easy to practice. I also loved the idea of using different kinds of props to practice before actually handling the veil, and am now wondering where I can get those long strips of silk.

Claudina9

Calligraveil would be good for advanced beginner and intermediate dancers who want to improve even just their basic veil skills, and great for intermediates and up who are looking for the challenge of double veil.

You can order the DVD at www.claudina.de, and it comes in a neat, environmentally-friendly, cardboard pop-up case that my toddler son finds irresistible. And: I received a review copy of this DVD.

Claudina Calligraveil bellydance double  veil instruction

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.

Roundup: How (and why) to learn bellydance online for free – Updated

We all know (well, most of us) that the best way to learn to dance is with a live teacher. And there really is no substitute for someone who can guide you in person. But there are some good reasons to use video instruction, and the free dance resources I mention below are perfect for this kind of thing:

1. You want to review a move you learned in class.

2. You didn’t understand your teacher’s explanation, and want to see how another dancer introduces the movement or idea.

3. You want to drill movements, and you’d like some guidance as you do so.

4. You need some inspiration, something fresh to make dance exciting.

5. You don’t have a lot of time, and you just want to incorporate five or ten minutes of dance into your day, maybe even in the office!

6. You’re on the go, and want to watch someone teach a move on your phone or mobile device.

Now, there are some truly bad teachers offering their “services” for free online, and every now and then one of those videos makes the rounds. But the truth is that there is also some good instruction out there. None of these will replace live teaching, and in most cases the free stuff isn’t even as comprehensive as DVDs or longer structured instruction. They can, however, make a wonderful adjunct to your regular classes.

Totally Free, but High Quality Instruction Online

Tiazza Rose: Amazing, amazing, amazing treasure trove of videos. Not only does Tiazza go over many basic movements, but she also has videos featuring veil moves, cane, folkloric moves, about a million small combinations and some longer choreos.

Mahin’s Daily Bellydance Quickies: You have to sign up for the Daily Quickies email list. What you get is not basic instruction, but a potpourri of little daily hints, tips, and lessons in your inbox. One day it’ll be an email with ideas on how to keep your drilling fresh, another day it will be a stretch useful for dancers, and yet another day you’ll get a combination to do with a particular rhythm.

My Bellydance Workout: Coco of Berlin has a variety of basic movement lessons and really useful drills. Everything is filmed clearly in a bright studio.

Bellydance Boulevard: The website connected to this YouTube account is defunct, and I suspect the videos aren’t being updated anymore. But what’s there is really neat. First there is a series of videos on basic bellydance moves taught by a single instructor. Then follows a variety of focused mini-workshops by a variety of teachers around the world. You want Soheir Zaki hips? Here they are!

So, what about you? Have you used any of these programs? Is there a wonderful secret source of free online bellydance teaching I’ve missed?

Update:

Reader LadyDeyrdre adds a few more useful contributions, and in looking them up I am reminded (how could I forget?) that Neon also has a series of quickie bellydance move instruction videos on YouTube. So, the additions:

Anthea Kawakib: A short playlist of basic zill instruction on YouTube.

Neon: At latest count forty-two videos, going from basics to traveling moves.

Irina Akulenko: Also a pretty solid series of beginner instructional videos, with some good tips. These are on the Howcast website, but are also available on YouTube.

In which the writer performs at a wedding (sort of)

Another recent highlight was, as you might have guessed by the headline, performing at a friend’s wedding.

Now, this wasn’t a big formal thing, nor was it a real gig. The couple wanted their friends to put on little skits and the like, and I knew this was just my chance to pull out the ol’ hip scarf and foot undies and embarrass someone. Preferably not me.

Factors working in favour of this momentous event actually taking place included working with Nadira Jamal’s Rock the Routine and taking Cihangir’s workshops last weekend. What I wanted to do was to get my husband to play the doumbek and do a short improvised drum solo, and then go around and get everyone up to dance. I thought if we kept it short and sweet, there would be less time to screw up, and it would be obvious that we were amateurs doing something out of love for the couple.

It also helped that Cihangir mentioned during one of the workshops that the audience doesn’t notice much of the dancing anyway for the first bit of a dance, as they’re looking at you, checking out your costume, and so on. So I thought a stately, showy entrance would get me halfway there, and that already allayed some of the nerves.

The key was getting something sparkly to wear. I didn’t think the full bellydancer getup would be appropriate, especially given that I wasn’t doing a proper performance. But a friend and I went to the Saidi boutique here in Berlin, and after an hour or so of dedicated attention managed to find a gorgeous saidi dress, black with silver vertical stripes, and a light peach, translucent hip scarf to match. I may also have picked up a saidi cane on the way out. The golden goddess saidi dress I also fell in love with stayed in the store, hopefully for a future visit. As you can imagine, trying on the sparkly stuff was tough, grueling work. But I’m just that kind of person.

As the day approached, my love and I did some drum and dance improvising, and I reviewed Nadira Jamal’s notes for the drum solo.

Factors working against this performance? The fact that our son gave us about three hours of sleep the night before the celebration.

But the show must go on. As it happens, I wound up doing my best moves in the bathroom, as I grossly underestimated how slowly the evening’s festivities would progress. I wanted to be ready — with full makeup and warmed up — in time for our appearance. However, we were last on the program, and the precise nature of the performances was meant to be a surprise. Effectively, this meant that I spent about an hour hiding in the bathroom, stretching and practicing a variety of combos. Let me tell you, there’s nothing to combat stage fright quite like the prospect of escaping the smell of a public loo.

The dance itself was incredibly fun to do, if ultimately a bit messy. (There’s no video, and my memory is a bit blank of what I actually did, so the details cannot be reconstructed…) I had the DJ follow it up with Alabina’s Lolole which, since it has the same melody as “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” seemed like it would be an approachable, arabic-sounding but still hummable tune to start dancing too. Then I went around and started pulling people from their chairs and onto the dance floor.

The results? It was fun, I have a saidi dress and cane that are patiently waiting to be brought out again, I overcame a fear of mine, and all sorts of people asked me where I took classes. Somewhere, out there, there are photos. My husband and I proved to ourselves that we could still do zany things despite being kept up by a baby most of the night.

And from now on, no celebration is safe. I have a hip scarf and I’m not afraid to use it.

Review of Kaeshi Chai’s Expressive Bellydance Veil

Years ago, when I lived briefly in New York City, I managed to catch a few bellydance workshops and classes here and there. I took classes at Serena Studios (I think I still have my card with a few unstamped spots on it), and took a veil-oriented class with Elena Lentini in which I managed to wind up more tangled and dazed than I care to admit. During one of the workshops I took, I remember noticing Kaeshi Chai quietly doing her thing at the side of the room, and being impressed that a dancer who was already well known was continuing her training with us plebes. So when I saw Kaeshi begin her veil video by acknowledging her influences, among them Serena Wilson and Elena Lentini, it was a full-blown dose of New York nostalgia.

Kaeshi Chai’s Expressive Bellydance Veil is a compact introduction to a range of veil moves. I approached it as a beginner in things veilish, having had very little veil work in class (hence my confusion in Lentini’s studio), and not having worked with any other veil DVDs yet. Kaeshi begins by describing different kinds of veils available and explaining how to steam it. (Useful!)

As for the rest of the video, I think it’s best to think of it as a sort of movement encyclopedia. She introduces basic veil moves (like “around the world” and “butterfly”) in one section. This is followed by six combo sections, three with veil moves that begin from the front of the body, and three beginning in the back. In each combo, Kaeshi actually presents another three veil moves, and then puts them together into a small combination, which she repeats a few times.

The instruction is careful, but quick. Kaeshi will often show how a move looks, then demonstrates it slowly, often setting the veil down to explain the hand or arm paths without it. Then she has a few more practices, sometimes giving little tips along the way. A couple more sections after the combos show you how to move into a vertical hold on the veil, and show veil ropes, turbans, and whips.

My experience was that I was surprised by how quickly I got some of the moves, and how frustrated I got with others. The DVD doesn’t have a lot of drilling, so I think to make it work you really have to focus on little bits — take it one move at a time — and just practice, practice, practice. I’ll clearly need quite a few tries to get a sense of the weight of my veil and how not to get it in my face every time I do the butterfly. I would also suggest doing a warmup focused on the upper body before beginning, since your arms, shoulders, and neck will benefit from being loosened up, and then ending the practice by stretching these muscles.

The final segment of the DVD is a costumed performance by Kaeshi that uses all of the moves she presented in the DVD. It’s very lively and peppy, not the sort of romantic and languorous dance one often expects with veil, and it was nice to see that the veil can be used for a variety of effects.

Because I’m almost an utter beginner, pretty much all of the veil moves were new to me. There were no veil wraps, which I actually have done in class, but there were to-me-unexpected moves like whip and rope that used the veil for a fast, dramatic effect. Will you like the video? The DVD is well chaptered, and Kaeshi is personable on screen. At 50 minutes, it moves very quickly through a lot of information, so you have to be willing to stop and drill on your own. And while there is a bit of attention to how certain veil moves or arrangements might work with particular bellydance moves or steps, the focus here is clearly on what you can do with the veil itself rather than on creating a whole dance.

I think this video would be good for someone who would like a manageable introduction to holding and using the veil, or who wants to add some new veil moves to their repertoire. I don’t think it would satisfy someone looking for a long, everything-about-veil video with lots of drills and choreography. As for myself, I really enjoyed it because I was able to fit it in at the end of a long day, and can imagine returning to practice individual moves, which is my level right now. But it also made me curious for more on how to put a dance together!

Expressive Bellydance Veil is also available from Hollywood Music Center (from whom I got a review copy).