Reflections on a ballet recital

Yesterday my ballet studio had its regular summer recital. My experience of it was different from all the others, and I wanted to capture that briefly here.

The background is that the past few months were busy and stressful — perhaps no more than my work usually is, but I had expected and badly needed a quieter summer, and was not prepared for it to be as hectic as it was. What that meant for my dance was that I attended regularly but not as frequently as I wanted (once a week instead of twice), and even then often had my mind on problems at work. As a result, I had trouble learning the barre program that we wound up doing for the recital. Even in the morning rehearsal, I realised I didn’t know what was coming for any given exercise. Conversely, I found it pretty easy to learn the choreography for our little dance at the end.

Usually I am nervous either before a recital or during it — or both. But a funny thing happened this time. I didn’t have it all down, and I knew it. And I also didn’t care. I was completely calm and relaxed throughout. Instead of thinking about what my feet should do, I focussed on having an integrated posture, on the quality of my movement, and on relaxing my face. I made mistakes, but I left them behind somehow. I truly did not care about the mistakes.

Now if you know me, you know I very much do care about mistakes. But I didn’t yesterday. It was such a peaceful, happy experience of dancing. I’ve wondered why this happened yesterday. Was it that I was so stressed out in the previous months that dancing was allowed to be an escape? Was it my new, beautiful Bloch leotard that made me more aware of my posture? Was it the five Tibetan rites I did for the first time that morning? Who knows! Physically, I was not at my best for a number of reasons, and yet I had a lightness and sense of beauty in the dance that I rarely do.

Playing with Khalida’s All About Arms (Hands Technique)

I think we’ve all been there in our dance lives, no? For whatever reason, we stop going to regular classes, or stop practicing on our own, and we feel further away from the dance than ever. I mean, that’s the frustrating thing with dance — although there’s muscle memory and all that, it takes so little to fall out of shape. Out of whatever shape you were in. In one of the ballet memoirs I read recently there was a line that went something like this: “Miss one day of class, and you notice. Miss two days, and your teacher notices. Miss three days, and the audience notices.”

Well, you’d definitely notice my bellydancing, because I haven’t taken regular classes in almost two years.

khalida hands 2

have been taking ballet, which I’ve grown to love, but I miss oriental dance, all its variety, all its wonderful music, the way it feels so natural to my body. So recently I complained on Facebook about how I didn’t really even know where to start anymore with bellydance, having been so long out of practice. I have DVDs to review too, but my poor shape makes them harder to take on — and more stressful too.

I got a bunch of advice, and Khalida offered to send me her new arms DVDs, a sort of hardcopy version of a class she offers by streaming and download. And I said sure, because I figured that even if the rest of my body was lazy, maybe my arms could play. They also tend to be pretty neglected in ballet.

Tonight, after four weeks — four weeks! — of just no dancing at all due to all the work and traveling I’ve had to do, I finally got my act together and did the first class in the series, “Hands Technique.”

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. It was pretty great though. After a brief posture check and warm-up, Khalida basically goes through about a million stretches and exercises for fingers and wrists. She even shows you how to do a massage of your own hands. This class is almost 50 minutes long, and the first 20 minutes are taken up with warming, stretching, and exercising hands and wrists.

khalida hands 4

I’ve never seen anyone do this on a video. It’s usually three stretches and then, “here are fifteen things you can do with your hands.” The reason I loved this is that I have major wrist problems from computer use, so even basic hand and arm work has become difficult for me in the last year. But my wrists are sooooo loose now, and I was able to move them freely after all those stretches. At one point as I was doing them I thought, “This is what everyone should do at the end of the week. Just spend an hour stretching the poor hands and wrists that got stiff at a computer.”

The rest of the class is dedicated to two sections, one on hand waves, and the other one on hand and wrist circles. In each case, Khalida shows multiple ways of performing the movement, often with very tiny variations. There’s a distinct Persian flavour to some of her movements too, which I love. For difficult movements, like lotus hands, she’ll explain the movement in several ways. At the end of each of these sections is a flowing practice section set to music.

When I say this class was not what I expected, it’s because I didn’t think there would be so much material, and such a level of detail, in what is basically just one of four classes. While you can definitely do this video in one go, and I mostly did, I still found myself stopping it sometimes so I could go to the mirror and check out how things looked, what a difference small variations made. I think this would be good for a dancer who is past beginner level and who wants to work on strengthening and varying her hand work. I also think it would be very good for teachers looking for new exercises and ways of explaining movement.

khalida hands 1

Khalida’s class made me, personally, realise two things: one, my arms don’t have that much endurance anymore (man, I got tired during the practices), and two, hands and arms were one of the things that made me fall in love with bellydance in the first place. If I want to go back to the dance, this may be just the way to do it.

You can find out more about the All About Arms class series at Khalida’s website.


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 Neon’s Sensual Goddess

I have been following Neon and her work for going on a decade now. She may seem on the surface to be just a glamorous New York City bellydancer, but in fact she’s an innovative dance pedagogue, always experimenting with new ways to teach dance through video.

I say this because it’s easy to overlook her double DVD, Sensual Goddess – Belly Dance for Total Beginners (which I received a review copy of). It’s marketed as a beginner DVD, which might make it seem like it’s going to be a list of moves. But it’s really quite a bit more than that.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

The concepts behind Sensual Goddess: that you can teach a beautiful, manageable choreography to beginners by incorporating a lot of striking poses, and that dance moves are best taught in the context of real dance. In a way, it’s the utter opposite of Neon’s Instant Bellydancer! DVD set, which taught moves separately and mechanically. Those are DVDs I love and return to, by the way, but I think she’s right that dance moves mean more in the context of, well, dance.

So what is in the DVDs?

The first DVD is made up of lessons. After a brief welcome by Neon, you can work your way through eight lessons. Each one begins with instruction: Neon slowly and carefully teaches the moves in that particular section, and includes some quite effective drills. Her teaching really is aimed at beginners: she breaks down the moves to their components, or teaches a basic or slow version of a move first, then building up complexity and speed.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

After each lesson there’s a “combination & choreography” section. First you have Neon and her backup dancers, Angelys and Jenna Rey, demonstrating a slightly longer combination. You get to practice this several times. Then the dancers appear in a different, glitzier costume, and they do the choreography version of the combo — this is usually very similar, but at full speed, and with minor changes for transitions.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

This is very smart dance teaching here. You are learning moves, but then practicing them in all sorts of ways. The practice and the choreography segments are set to different music (the moves really only go with the choreo music), so you get the feeling of doing them to different tunes.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

The best part is that Neon maintains a running commentary throughout the practice and choreography segments, and even though the combos repeat, her advice does not. She’ll remind you to maintain your posture or abdominal tension, she’ll tell you how to move your arms more fluidly, she’ll tell you which way to look for a certain effect. She notes where making eye contact with the audience works or doesn’t, and she describes her own little stylizations. Basically, it’s like having a live teacher who is guiding you to perform the moves more beautifully as you practice.

Sensual Goddess covers an admirable amount of basic territory: hip work, figure eights, two kinds of turns, arabesques, undulations. But without a doubt, it is arm heavy. There are many beautiful arm patterns here, most of which I hadn’t seen anywhere else. Neon draws on poses a lot for both dramatic effect and in order to make the choreo accessible. And let me tell you — it winds up being a workout for the arms!

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

Is this really a beginner DVD? I think yes, with qualification. A gifted beginner — perhaps with other dance experience — could learn a lot from it and have a lot of fun with it. A student who is just learning to control their movements would do better with a much slower program.

I’m not a beginner anymore, but I enjoyed working with Sensual Goddess anyway. I’ve been practicing in the mornings lately, and I did one or two “lessons” a day for a while. These were about 17-20 minutes each, so I either combined them with yoga or some other cardio, or with each other. It was great, light workout — and the drills really made me sweat sometimes.

The second DVD is what you use after you’ve gone through all the lessons. It lets you do the practice segments together, in a long practice session, or the choreography segments as a full choreo — or both. In both cases, you have the option of having Neon’s running commentary or just dancing to the music.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

I found that using the practice flow was a totally different experience. It was a nicely contained 50-minute workout that allowed me to get moving but also to pay attention to the movements, to focus on execution and nuance. Even doing the choreography with and without the commentary made a difference, as I could either focus on what Neon told me or on dancing to the music. In other words, the practice DVD is where I started making the movements my own.

Is Sensual Goddess for you? If you are a beginner who wants to start learning transitions and how to put it all together, it will be perfect. It’s also a great, “lighter” component to integrate into a dance practice — you have some drills, you get the arms involved, and the lessons are manageable length. The practice DVD is a great standalone workout — it won’t leave you breathless, but you’ll sweat a little if you do the moves carefully and with intention.

Neon's Sensual Goddess bellydance instructional DVD

Many of the combos and especially the arm moves taught are very much in Neon’s style. Some I loved and I found myself incorporating into my improv and just practicing on their own. Some were not to my taste. If you like Neon’s dancing, Sensual Goddess is definitely for you, as she gives lots of stylization tips. But I think even if you don’t want to dance like Neon, there will be some things you can take away from the video. She will definitely teach you how to be more aware of the emotional content of your dancing, and how to maintain gracefulness and form.

Sensual Goddess is a great practice companion and a superb beginner/advanced beginner class. I don’t usually comment on the price of DVDs, but I’ll note that it’s three-and-a-half hours on two DVDs for less than the cost of one live class.

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How to get the most out of at-home dance workouts

I’m delighted to announce my first guest post, at Fit Bottomed Mamas! It’s a blog I often read for useful and realistic (and non-shaming) fitness tips, so I was particularly glad to contribute to it. Here is the link to a list of tips for making your home dance workout a success:

How to get the most out of at-home dance workouts

And if you’ve found your way here from Fit Bottomed Mamas, welcome! Take some time to poke around and find the right DVD for you!

New Blog, New Look, Same Opinionated Me!

Anything looking…. just a little bit different

Dear readers, the blog has been on a hiatus for the past few months. I’ve been thinking about what to do with it, where it might go… finally, I decided I really wanted to have my own space online, and have it look comme il faut. So here we are at the new!

Some changes you’ll notice:

  • You can now see what I look like. Yes, it meant giving up some internet anonymity, but I want you to know that I’m not a robot.
  • The “Categories” list now lets you see at a glance the areas I cover, and navigate to your point of interest.
  • A lot of the menus and widgets are hidden under the icons at the upper-right corner of the screen. Want to see a calendar, tags, or more info about this site? That’s where you’ll explore.

I could not have done this makeover without the Facebook advice of many generous dancers. I’m still open to tips! Let me know what you think. 

New Look

I’ve been experimenting with the look of the blog lately, and for now have settled on Blogger’s new dynamic views. I did love my old header image, but wound up not so fond of the colour. For some reason, any scheme I picked to go with it wound up looking kind of… barfy. And “barfy” is not the best colour for a blog!

I don’t like that the dynamic views are not as customizable as the usual blogger templates, but I love that they make it so much easier to scroll through lots of posts. The Flipcard view is particularly good for that. So do play around with it, and tell me what you think!

Enough is Enough: A Resolution

A confession: I have a lot, and I do mean a lot of dance and workout videos. I wager the number is around a hundred, though I would fear to admit to more. And yet I haven’t danced — at least regularly — in ages, and as much as I love the yoga or pilates videos too, I don’t do those with any kind of regularity either.

So here’s my goal, and I won’t spend too many words on it: to try and do every one once, at least two videos a week. I think to aim for more than two would be too ambitious, and even two a week (or one) would be an enormous improvement. And then, because there’s nothing like bragging for motivation, to use this blog to track my progress.

What I won’t do is be methodical: I won’t work extensively with one video unless I really feel like it, and I won’t pay too much attention to balancing things out. If I feel like lots of silly cardio, I’ll do that, and if I’m in a bellydance mood for a while, I’ll do that. And I’m allowed repeats. Let’s see how this goes!