ballet with constanze janssen

Movespiration weekend with Khalida

Months ago, I decided my end-of-summer treat would be a weekend of workshops at Khalida’s studio called Movespiration. I knew Khalida a bit, through her DVDs and from online conversations. I’d reviewed her Shimmies DVD and worked a bit with her All About Arms program, and over email we geeked out a bit on dance and movement. So when she said she wanted to bring her favorite movement teachers into her studio for two days, I thought it would be worth going along for the experiment.

I also liked the idea of easing into bellydance by trying it again along with other dance and movement forms. And frankly, after so much stress this year, I thought it might be great just to focus on my body, no matter what the practice was. These were my two goals for the weekend.

What I knew was that we would do some taekwondo with Master Chae Seung-Eun, ballet with Constanze Janssen, and bellydance with Khalida. In fact, the two days I spent in Würselen were even more varied. Master Chae is also an expert in Haidong Gumdo, Korean sword fighting, and one of our classes with him was devoted to this art. Constanze did ballet barre exercises and centre work, but she also led us through a modern-inspired floor barre.

Sandra van Frankfoort-Mamentu, who was in the workshop as a participant, took the lead on Sunday morning and led us through a tai-chi warmup. Even Khalida’s own classes were varied: we did do a bit of bellydance movement and technique, but Khalida also introduced us to a wealth of exercises and body techniques: lymphatic drainage, tricks to improve alignment or release certain muscles, practices for increasing turnout and flexibility and reducing pain. (She taught us so many things, in fact, that at one point I had to sit down after a session and just write them all down as fast as I could.)

My biggest surprise of the weekend was how much I enjoyed the martial arts we practiced with Master Chae. Now, I’m not a very high energy person, nor do I think of myself as particularly strong, so I was a bit nervous about what taekwondo would be like. The exercises we did were exhausting, but in the best possible way. I found, to my surprise, that I loved punching and kicking. I had the good fortune to work with a partner (Lou of Brussels) who practices taekwondo, and she pushed me hard. It was wonderful. With every kick and punch I felt I was getting some of the year’s stress out, felt like I was cleansing myself of negative emotion and frustration. And at the end, although I was sweaty and had pushed myself to the limits of my energy, I actually felt revitalized.

The same was true for haidong gumdo, which we practiced using foam-covered swords for the most part, and blunt wooden swords for cutting paper. This required more precision and speed than I could muster, but also had that element of force. It felt like something I desperately want to do again. Later, as I was telling Master Chae how therapeutic I found it, he said calmly, “It looked like you had some things to get out.”

Atisheh cutting paper with korean sword

Cutting a newspaper with a blunt sword takes a bit of practice

Ballet was a learning experience too, though in another way. I’ve been taking beginner ballet classes for a couple of years now, and figured I knew the basics. In Constanze’s class, I found so much to improve just in my posture and pliés that I was sweating from the first minutes. It was such difficult work (even keeping my stomach in is still a challenge), but so important in terms of how it felt to work with that strength. My balance and turns are still terrible, and I think part of that is that I’m still not pulling my muscles in the way I need to to rice up out of my legs. On the other hand, floor barre, while challenging, was a lovely release, with lots of stretching and flowing movement.

It will take a number of weeks to work through what I learned during the Movespiration weekend. There are a few things though that I want to reflect on:

  1. Sometimes it’s great to go really far out of your comfort zone. I would never have thought that I’d enjoy taekwondo as much as I did. But not only was it great psychologically, it also felt good as movement. I wonder what it would be like to take that knowledge that I actually enjoy putting maximum energy into something and bring it to dance.
  2. I think it would be a fun exercise to take a similar type of move and practice it in two or different ways, switching between movement traditions. Like: doing a tai chi walk, a ballet walk, and a bellydance walk one after the other. Or alternating taekwondo kicks with grands battements. Or playing with tai chi, ballet, and bellydance arm paths.
  3. I love stretching programs that are intense and feel like something is really happenig, but I need to learn more about the ways smaller movements and alignment changes can affect flexibility.
  4. So much of what we learn in bellydance has to be drastically unlearned for ballet. I knew about legs — we practice keeping legs slightly (sometimes very) bent in bellydance, while ballet is all about the straight leg. Then there’s the stomach, which needs to be flexible for bellydance, and pulled in tight for ballet. But I was surprised to see how useful it can be to keep the glutes really tight too in ballet, which of course would be harder to do in bellydance. I’m not sure if there’s a good solution to switching, other than consciously practicing both.
  5. It might be worth incorporating some journaling into dance: thinking more clearly about what I want out of any given class or practice session, and articulating for myself what kinds of things I want out of the dance itself.

This is where I am right now. I took this week to rest and let things settle — and have a bit of fun — but tomorrow I return to ballet. I’m curious to see how what I learned affects my approach, and eager to start experimenting with some of the adjustments I learned in class. I’d also love to do more taekwondo. I’m not sure I have time for another regular commitment, but I’ll see if there are any introductory lessons close to me.

And what I will definitely try to do is attend Movespiration again. Given how much we did and learned, it was an incredible value. The variety of practices we tried out took so much concentration that it felt like a real mental vacation from daily life — and that was just what I needed.

Atisheh and Khalida

Me with Khalida, who gave me an impromptu lesson on posing!

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Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Bendy Body: A Flex-Stability Workout

Ever since I’ve started taking ballet classes, I’ve been on the lookout for really great flexibility programs. Ballet does help with a certain amount, but one or two classes a week don’t make up for being in my thirties’ and sitting at a desk all day. And when I can’t go to ballet for a few weeks, my flexibility decreases dramatically.

A while ago I reviewed Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training DVD — you can read the review here. It was a program I enjoyed a lot, but it was definitely intense and split-heavy, which meant I wasn’t likely to turn to it when feeling particularly stiff. Now Kristina has a new DVD out, Bendy Body – A Flex-stability Workout. Look, this was a review copy as was the other one, but I’ve worked with a number of stretching programs lately, and this one is the answer to my dreams.

Bendy Body 4

So what makes Bendy Body different? First, it incorporates three different kinds of stretching: passive stretching (using an external force to increase the stretch), resistance stretching (in which you contract the muscle for a few seconds and then release), and active stretching (using the strength of your own muscles).

It’s a video that can be used to work on increasing flexibility, but it’s also a fantastic program for when you’re tight. (I’ve used it while taking ballet classes, but also on break and after a lot of traveling.) It takes very little space and equipment, since it’s all basically on a mat. You can use two straps, but I’ve also just done it on a bed with towels instead of the straps. It’s also mostly done lying or sitting, so it’s easy to do when feeling low-energy.

My favorite thing about Bendy Body though is that instead of having you hold one stretch for a very long time, Kristina shifts the stretch slightly in a number of small ways so that you don’t get bored, and stretch any given muscle from more angles. Because of all these little variations, I’ve found a number of delicious stretches that were new to me. There were a few more mobile stretches too, some of which were quite challenging (one beyond me), but it was easy enough to modify.

Bendy Body 3

Bendy Body begins with a useful introduction, then moves on to four sections:

  • Stretching the Legs and Hips
  • Releasing the Lower Back
  • Opening the Shoulders
  • Backbends

You can choose any of these sections from the DVD menu, or do the entire program as one — it takes about 70 minutes. The bulk of Bendy Body is dedicated to legs and hips, which makes it particularly useful for dancers, but I found the entire program therapeutic when my back or knees start to complain.

The other interesting thing about Bendy Body is that it doesn’t hurt the next day, the way I’ve experienced with a few other deep stretching programs. It makes pain go away, in fact, and feels more like a workout than like a deep stretch. Basically, it feels good. I haven’t done it often enough to speak to whether it is effective at increasing flexibility in the long term. What I would say is that it’s a DVD I’m very likely to turn to again and again, simply because of the ease of use and pleasure of doing it — and that’s likely to help more than a very intense program I do once a year.

Bendy Body 2

What Bendy Body is not is a splits program. While it works on building flexibility necessary for both kinds of splits, you never practice splits per se. Because I’m very far away from that anyway, I don’t see this as a loss. That’s what Get Bent is for. But I should say that while Get Bent is more intense, I find the quality of instruction on Bendy Body far superior. Given the focus on really good form and active stretching, it’s also a better choice for dancers.

Production quality is excellent, and Kristina narrates the program in a calm, encouraging voice. In short: Kristina Nekyia’s Bendy Body is a new favorite, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in general flexibility, stretches useful for dance, contortion, or simply improving the strength and health of their shoulders, back, and knees.

 

Kristina Nekya does splits

Review of Kristina Nekyia’s Get Bent: Circus Style Flexibility Training

Alright, admit it: I cannot be the only person to look around during the cool-down part of dance class and compare my flexibility to the dancers near me. It’s not that I’m much competition to anyone, not counting a few joints in my arms that allow me to perform East European circus tricks to the horror of all around. And it’s not that I’m planning on doing the splits in the foreseeable future. But there are so many times I come up against the limits of my flexibility — a back bend here, a plie there — and I wish those limits were a little further.

This is why when I heard about Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia, I was dying to try it. I didn’t know if I could dream of splits, but I did want to know what tools were out there to help. I received a review copy from Kristina, and have worked with it a number of times over the last while.

Kristina Nekya does dancer stretches

The first thing to say is that this video is definitely not for people who have not moved around in a while, or for the overambitious who cannot pay attention to what their body is telling them. Get Bent is an intense program, you go into stretches for relatively long periods of time, and it plays on the edge of discomfort. As Kristina explains in the introduction, you need to differentiate between good and bad pain, and she describes how to recognize which is which.

To be perfectly honest, the first time I worked with the video I wasn’t sure if I had pushed myself too far, and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to move the next day. In fact, I felt fantastic the next day, all kinds of aches and pains were gone. This has been true every time I have done the video — for me, it works like a really good yin yoga session. But I would still say that you need to be smart, careful, and aware using this DVD, as you will not have a live coach to watch over you.

The first section is a Warmup, which is more of a joint-loosening warmup than one to get your heart up very much. You systematically move all the joints of your body, from the wrists to the ankles, and start to practice some squats and leg raises. I was very glad to have this, as I would not have wanted to stretch cold, but I imagine that doing the video after a long workout would be even better.

Part 2 is Splits Preparation, which consists of forward and sideways lunges held for a good long time, followed by a series of yoga postures designed to relax the hamstrings. While some of the moves are yoga, the instruction isn’t. Kristina carefully guides you through dynamic stretches, using gentle movement and tensing and releasing of muscles to attain a deeper stretch. Everything is done equally on both sides. I find the little “tricks”, especially with tensing and releasing muscles, incredibly helpful.

Kristina Nekya does yoga

Part 3 is Splits. This was the hardest section for me, mainly because I can’t do anywhere near the splits. As much as it was difficult for me to levitate in the position that was as close as I could get, I did feel that I was stretching in a way that was beyond the lunges in Part 2. However, the middle splits are something one can practice even without too much of a range of motion. In this section, as through the video, Kristina gives you quiet encouragement and tips on saying nice things to your body. This sounds sort of funny at first, until you realize it works. So yes, I’ll admit it, I now say nice things to my body in my head when I’m stretching! The Splits section would be particularly valuable to people who can already do the splits, since there are also exercises for going beyond a 180-degree stretch.

Next comes the Shoulder Warm Up & Stretch. This was one of my favourite sections of the DVD, and perhaps the most generally useful. I sit at my computer a lot, for both work and fun, and it is not good for my shoulders and upper back. Kristina’s exercises really loosen the shoulders, and she also has some gorgeous stretches for the front of the shoulders and the chest. Again, this section would be worth doing as a break at the office, but would also be worth incorporating into a dance warmup. Really delicious.

The Backbends section will probably be most interesting to bellydancers. Kristina uses a mirror/wall to bend towards, but she also guides you to move from the upper back only, keeping the lower abdominals still. Again, this is one of those exercises I worry about when I’m doing, because I don’t want to hurt my lower back. But I’ve always been careful only to go as far as I could while still following Kristina’s instructions, and I’ve felt fine.

Finally, you get a short but satisfying yoga-based Cool Down. You have earned it. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably shaking at this point.

Throughout the DVD, Kristina is encouraging and funny. While she is clearly very fit, she is also curvy, and frankly, it made me very happy to see someone on the screen with a body similar to mine, but doing really cool things with it.

So the big question: does it work? I haven’t done the video the recommended three times a week, nowhere near it, so I can’t speak to the effects it would have if you really did it religiously. That said, when I did work with it, I noticed a difference in my classes afterwards. My muscles were remarkably looser, I felt more flexible, and I felt like I knew how to stretch better. I have to imagine that doing the video regularly would increase my flexibility even more.

You will like Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia if you have some experience with stretching or yoga, are aware of your body and can respect its limits, and are craving really deep, long stretches. If you can already do splits, you will probably use the video as a maintenance and extension program. All of the program is useful for dancers, but there are parts, like the upper body and shoulder stretches, that bellydancers will particularly enjoy. I also think you’ll like it if you want the feeling of having done a great yoga session — you know, that sensation of everything in your body having been pulled apart and put back together loosely — without all the yogic tralala.

On the other hand, you will probably be frustrated with the DVD if you are very inflexible; in that case, you might be better off with a gentle yoga program. You also should not expect contortionist circus tricks, despite the title. These are very straightforward, well-known stretches, guided well, and with some extra techniques thrown in to make them feel better. But don’t expect to be pretzeling your legs around your neck or anything.

Kristina’s website is The Nekyia. You can get Get Bent – Circus Style Flexibility Training with Kristina Nekyia at Amazon by clicking the photo below.