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.

 

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Review of Azhia’s The Dancer’s Companion: Preparation, Drills & Cool Down

I’m about to do something awful.

I’m about to review a DVD you can’t get.

Well, I’m sure you could try. Someone on Bhuz probably has it. But when I got the video Azhia was selling off her last batch. In fact, as far as I can tell, she’s retired as a dancer and focusing on her career as a makeup artist.

Which is a shame, because not only is she a beautiful dancer with great technique and a modern feel, but she has some cool ideas about how to put together a bellydance practice DVD.

Azhia doing lower abdominal work as preparation for bellydance

The Dancer’s Companion: Preparation, Drills & Cool Down is a modular program composed of a brief introduction, a 16-minute “Preparation” for dance, 24 minutes of drills, a “Beyond Basics” section that suggests ways to vary the drills, and a brief cool down. Ah yes, and two studio performances.

The Preparation is not so much a warmup as a series of yoga-inspired stretches and targeted muscle work. It won’t get your heart up, but it includes some good things, like grand plies to work on thigh strength and exercises to strengthen the foot muscles. This section could be used on its own to prepare for doing another program — in fact, this was the main reason I bought this DVD.

The drills begin with arm positions layered on an ongoing shimmy. These are a little like some of the exercises I loved in Aziza’s arms DVD. Then we get hip eights, vertical and horizontal, performed in both directions and varied. Azhia has you do them both with heels on the ground and bent knees, and with heels up and straighter legs. There are undulations, up and down, and the three basic hip circles — large, small, and omi/afro. The neatest part of the drill section is right at the end, when Azhia has you work on a combo of all of the movements practiced, at different speeds, with different foot work, in order to get the transitions smooth. This is most definitely the kind of thing I need.

Azhia demonstrates how to change bellydance movements with level change

There are a few things that are difficult about following. Not every movement is cued, though most are, and she doesn’t mirror. So eventually I found it easier just to mirror what she was doing rather than listening to her say “left” and “right.”

That said, there are really some neat things about this video. It’s designed for you to grow into. For example, at various points she gives you tips on how to change up the movements. You might take a different arm position, or work at a different speed. The little “Beyond Basics” section is a mini-tutorial on more things you can do to get even more nuanced movements, like adding a twist to the lower body while doing vertical figure eights, or doing an omi with one heel up, or adding a level change. The result, as it looks on Azhia, is delicious, and it’s worth working towards.

Finally, the neatest thing is that the entire instructional part of the video is filmed in three angles: front, side, and back. You can either choose an angle at the beginning of a section, or flip between angles if you have magical DVD remote control powers. I do not, alas, have the latter, but I did find that watching the DVD on my Mac’s DVD Player, I could go to the Features menu and choose “Angle” to pick my angle, and it would switch right in the middle of the video. This seems like it would be particularly good if you’re interested in seeing how those horizontal figure eights look from the side, or if you want to follow Azhia from behind as if she were a live teacher.

Azhia demonstrates the side view of a bellydance horizontal figure eight

This is explicitly not a beginner video — you need to know your basics. But Azhia still gives you a lot of tools to check up on how you’re doing even when you don’t have a teacher in the room, as well as ways to grow beyond the basics of what she demonstrates in the video.

And sometimes the universe tells you to dance

I try not to be too, too superstitious, but every now and then, the universe organizes its messages a little too neatly. Everywhere I turn I hear the same thing, and finally I start to think that maybe I should pay attention. Take breathing. Suddenly, everyone’s telling me to breathe! Alia Thabit, who tells me to prep for the 90 Day Dance Party by breathing in time to the music. Or I do Hala Khouri’s yoga DVD, and am struck by how much the breathing helps me unwind. Or my real life teachers are suddenly focusing much more on working with breath to create movement. Or I get an email from Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses Online Intensive, and she’s going on about…. well, you can guess.

Okay, so I’ve figured out I should take a breath now and then. Maybe even when I’m moving. But another little synchronicity got my attention lately too. First, it came my way from Life is Cake, in the form of a video in which several dancers talk about the evolution of their style. What really hit me was Autumn Ward’s contribution, which you can see here.

Autumn talks about a period in her life when she worked on a number of skills she thought would impress a nightclub crowd, and how she wound up returning to her own passion for intricate, lyrical dance. I thought it was so honest and vulnerable for her to talk about moments gone wrong (or at least awry) in her artistic path, and also so inspiring. It’s so easy when doing creative work to get caught up in what we can’t do, what other people can, and so on. And often that can be positive — as Autumn points out, it can lead to acquiring new skills. But sometimes it’s also key to remember where your passion is, what your strength is, what’s authentic to yourself. And really, that’s where the greater part of the effort needs to go.

Then Alia posted a quote from Seth Godin on her Facebook wall:

The ability to say, “It’s not for you,” is the foundation for creating something brave and important. You can’t do your best work if you’re always trying to touch the untouchable, or entertain those that refuse to be entertained.

“It’s not for you.”

This is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. You don’t have much choice, though, not if you want your work to matter.

Now, that’s pretty great stuff right there. I have no idea who this Seth Godin fellow is, but I’d buy him a cup of coffee if I saw him just because of that one blog post. What a wonderful line to keep in mind, not just for the living critics, but the imaginary critics who populate my head? “This is not for you, babe. Move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

Anyway, long story short, I put one and one together and figured the universe was telling me the following: first, however frustrated I sometimes get with myself in my dance classes, with the fact that I’m not further along than I really am, I needed to chill out, and also realise that at some point I’ll have to figure out what kind of dancing I most want to do, even if my skills and technique still have a lot of developing to do. And second, in my real life work, which is also creative, I needed to care a lot less about what people might think if I were to carry it out precisely as I want to. And that latter bit was much more important. Because in way, the dance world was telling me what I had to do at work.

The result? This week I finished an important chunk of a long project, and in fact, the hardest section so far — one I’ve been fighting with for more than a year. I rewarded myself by going to the wonderful local bellydance store, Saidi, and buying my first bedlah. It’s turquoise, so much louder and more revealing than what I went in looking for, and just unapologetically glittery. I’m a big believer in spending money on instruction and not on costuming, but in this case, I had earned it.

And my dance classes were filled with all sorts of little moments of joy. First, in ballet, having our teacher ask us to do a flat back, and actually getting it right. I have struggled with the flat back for ages, so having her come by, take a look at me, and say “it’s perfect” was like finishing a long hike. Or noticing that some of the armwork I did in the Aziza DVD was seeping its way into my bellydance class work. Or today, practicing those killer Soheir Zaki hips at home and finding that it actually made a difference when we drilled them.

Hmmmm…. I hear you wondering. Is there a moral to this long, rambling post? Basically:

1. Do what your passion tells you to do.
2. Enjoy small victories.
3. Try breathing once in a while.

Review of Aziza’s Hands, Arms & Poses

Aziza’s oft-repeated wisdom is: “Be amazed.”

At one point while I was doing this video, I thought: “Dude, if I found my body doing what hers is doing, in the way that hers is doing it, I sure would be amazed!”

When you see the title of the DVD, namely Hands, Arms & Poses, you can be forgiven for thinking this video will give you ideas for things to do with your hands and arms while you dance. And it does. Aziza covers useful stretches for the hands, does drills to isolate your wrists, teaches lotus hands as well as beautiful positioning of the fingers. And while the arm work centers on the port de bras, there are good tips for moving with intention, and other arm pathways as well.

That said, I kept thinking the video (which I received as a review copy) should have been called something else. Because the real strength of this program is not in giving you a thousand hand or arm positions — it doesn’t — but in teaching coordination and control. And for that, you have some really fine drills.

After a quite dancey warmup of eight minutes, focusing on the arms especially, you have a variety of exercises. The section called “Drills & Exercises” with “Drills.” This 17-minute segment is a great standalone mini practice companion, the bulk of it being slow and steady arm flows layered on top of  rhythmic hip movements. This is the kind of thing that some instructors do have you practice early on (one of mine does), but not reliably, and it is challenging. When I did this section, I had to think that I should probably do it at least once a week. Seventeen minutes can’t be that hard, can it?

Aziza is looking to see if you’ve been doing your wrist isolations.

Next come two sections on foot patterns. In each, Aziza teaches a long combination, has you repeat it a few times in both directions, and then adds changing arm work to it. I’ve grown to love the teaching technique of drilling a combo with stylistic variations, and I think it’s a wonderful way to show what varying arms can do. The first combination is somewhat easier to get a handle on, while the second shows Aziza’s ballet training, and has rather more difficult leg work. Aziza doesn’t then explain every single arm moves, but you’re supposed to follow along and, probably, improvise a bit on your own.
The one thing that drove me absolutely nuts during this section is that once Aziza gets going with the arm stylizations, the camera focuses way too much on her lower body and feet. I found myself wanting to stick my hand through the screen and yank the view up to Aziza’s arms!

After some wrist isolations, we move on to the “Poses & Combinations” section. In a way, this is the hardest of all, though it looks the easiest if you’re just watching the video. There are three combinations of, well, poses, but the trick is that you’re supposed to move with incredible control from one to the next. Imagine a crazy hard tai chi. When I posted about doing Hands, Arms & Poses on Facebook, Lauren Zehara confirmed my suspicion that this is truly hard, but worthwhile, dance practice:

It’s very different from what most dancers study in their regular weekly classes. Aziza is assuming that we can do all the basics (hipwork, etc) and challenging us to do that while holding exquisite lines in the body and moving with grace and intention. THAT is challenging at any level, and great stuff to work on!

Why do this kind of work? I think if I’d run across this material a few years ago, I would have thought it pointless and boring. But in the meantime, I’ve worked with Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses, and I took a workshop with Heather Wayman in which she shared some of Nadira Jamal’s tricks for using poses to structure improv. Both Rosa and Nadira are well aware of Aziza’s work, I know, but through them I was prepped to see the value of this. It is very hard to slow down the way Aziza practices here, and to keep looking good. I found myself naturally checking in on my abs, to see if they were pulled in, because I needed that muscular support to control my movements. And, while I wouldn’t do all of the poses, a lot of them were quite beautiful and pleasurable. It became, dare I say it, almost meditative to repeat them with intention.

After a brief, also dance-based cool down, you’re done. But you’re actually not done. Hands, Arms & Poses includes three performances. One incorporates the movements into an actual dance, another offers a dance with veil, and a third is “vintage Aziza” in a powerhouse performance from 1994. Other extras include photos of Aziza as a young ballet student and beginning bellydancer, and an interview.

Production values are very high. The quality of the film is extremely good, and the video itself is shot in Le Windsor, a nineteenth-century Montréal hotel. Aziza uses real music, from Hollywood Music Center, track information is given, and the music is in time to the exercises, not just a vague backdrop. The one thing I wasn’t fond of was the fascination with the feet in the foot patterns (!), but in other sections of the video the camera knew where to look. This is a gorgeous video, and one I will return to again.

You can get Hands, Arms & Poses at Amazon or via Aziza’s website.

 

Back in the Groove

Sunday was a red-letter day for me — I went to my first dance classes in almost a year. The North Texas Middle Eastern Dance Association held a nifty fundraiser: seven local teachers volunteered their time to teach a series of “Cheap Thrills” workshops, at ten bucks a pop for non-members. I thought that this would be a perfect way to get back in the groove of dancing, so I hauled myself to Grapevine despite a sleepless night and rather a good deal of laziness.

My abs are still feeling a bit sore from the surgery, so I decided to pick two workshops that seemed like they wouldn’t be core intensive: “Dancing With Emotion” with Rivkah, and “Arms, Frames & Transitions” with Heather Wayman. The workshops may have been inexpensive and brief, but each was packed with material.

Rivkah had us do exercises to express sadness, anger, and joy. I found the first two, but especially sadness, incredibly difficult. I’ve never taken an acting class, and all the stagework I’ve done was in rather silly college theatricals in pretty absurd roles. At the same time, despite how vulnerable this kind of work left me feeling, I also think it is one of the most important things to work on in dance. I really can’t stand busy, overly-athletic dancing with no emotion behind it. It’s boring, it gives me no pleasure to watch. But when a performer can really embody an emotion — Zari’s dance in Secrets of the Stage Volume One comes to mind — the result is entrancing.

When we practiced dancing to a fun song and conveying the sense of delight in the music, I couldn’t help but remember a scene in Wim Wenders’ documentary Pina in which one of the dancers has the same task. I found myself emulating his moves, albeit with a bellydance vocabulary. Focusing on emotion made me dance in a completely different way, looser, less worried about variation, less hung up altogether. I’m not sure it looked good, but it certainly felt good.

Heather gave us a full program of arm poses, ways to move from one frame to another, and exercises for structuring and experimenting with dance. She introduced us to some of the tricks she’d picked up while doing Nadira Jamal‘s Mastery Mentoring Program. My favourite exercise of the class was picking three poses and then improvising the movements between them. This seemed like an excellent way to introduce more dramatic punctuation into a dance that would otherwise have rather boring arm work.

Doing these workshops, I remembered one of the things I love so much about dance class, proper dance class instead of videos. The whole world outside the studio disappears. There’s nothing like focusing on the tiniest detail — the pointing of a foot, the precise way of lifting a hand — for wiping all the tedious everyday worries from my mind.

Review of Patricia Friberg’s Belly Beautiful Workout – Prenatal

Patricia Friberg’s Belly Beautiful Workout – Prenatal Fitness for a Beautiful Pregnancy is an excellent addition to a prenatal workout collection. While most prenatal workouts are yoga-based and focus on stretching, Belly Beautiful Workout is Pilates-based and will make you feel some burn, but it is also gentle and precise enough to be done even by a seven-month pregnant woman!

I received a review copy of this program, and was excited to try it because of the props. Patricia uses a Swiss ball and an elastic band in her exercises, and suggests you set up on a sticky mat. Now, this could be annoying if you don’t have the items, though the mat is really optional and the Swiss ball can be replaced in most cases with a chair. But I was glad — for a while, every exercise DVD I bought came with a free elastic band, and I somehow have acquired two Swiss balls I don’t quite know what to do with. So I’m happy to play with a program that teaches me how to use them.

The workout is divided into several sections:

A segment on Pelvic Floor Work (separate from the full workout)
Warm Up
Upper Body
Lower Body
Stretch
Relaxation

There is also an intro and a section on Diastitis recti, and Patricia tells you throughout the workout which moves to avoid if you have the latter.

In general, this is the kind of video that looks super easy to do when you watch it on screen, and is in fact much more challenging. The warmup is probably the only one I’ve done on a prenatal video that really warmed my muscles. The upper body segment uses the elastic band. Most of its moves are not terribly strenuous, but you will definitely feel some of them. (And the upper body tends to be neglected on prenatal workout videos, so I think it’s valuable.) And the lower body segment has some moves performed leaning sideways on the ball that are very difficult by the end. Patricia makes leaning on that ball look easy, but I fell off multiple times while trying to perform the exercises! The one thing I would say is that if, like me, you have weak knees, you should be careful performing these exercises and the lunges in the lower body workout.

This is much harder to do than it looks

The stretch segment is short, but effective (it also uses the ball, to my surprise!), and it leads to what I think is the real gem of the program: the relaxation segment. Now, most programs, even the yoga ones, tell you to relax during shavasana, or in a best case scenario, tell you to picture something relaxing or to relax particular body parts. Patricia sets you up in a position safe for pregnant women and then guides you through a progressive relaxation that is very similar to one in Preparation for Birth: The Complete Guide to the Lamaze Method. It involves tensing each muscle for five seconds and then relaxing it, which is much more effective than just “trying to relax.” How effective? Well, let’s just say that by the end of the relaxation segment, I had relaxed right out of consciousness. Even though I had been awake and alert just a few minutes earlier! I wound up having a wonderful nap on the floor (yes, right on the yoga mat) and will use that segment again just to practice guided relaxation.

I only did parts of the pelvic floor segment, but exercises do teach you how to access the Kegel muscles in a slightly different way than I’ve seen elsewhere, and I can imagine them being very useful. Most of them could also be done sitting at a desk.

You will love this video if:
– you want a bit more of a challenge than prenatal videos usually offer
– you like using props
– you like Pilates-based movements
– you want to focus on your upper body
– you want to practice deep relaxation as recommended by some natural childbirth methods
– you want practice building your Kegel muscles

You will not love this video if:
– you are primarily looking for stretching
– you have weak knees
– you hate having to buy or use props

You can get the video at bellybeautifulworkout.com/.

Review of 10 Minute Solution Prenatal Pilates, with Lizbeth Garcia

I’ve been feeling pretty fit and pleased with myself lately, but 10 Minute Solution Prenatal Pilates pretty much kicked my butt tonight. Maybe it was my body telling me to take a day off, or maybe it was the fact that I was working with the video pretty late in the day. But while I meant to try all five prenatal segments (there is also one postnatal workout), I only did two full ten-minute parts and about half of two others.

Lizbeth shows how it’s done

Despite the fact that this program made me feel, well, weak, I think I’ll wind up a fan. It’s one of the most strenuous workouts I’ve tried so far, without leading to overheating. Both the “Standing Pilates” and “Total Body Pilates” segments have significant arm work, with light weights, which not only feels pretty good for the upper back but reminds you that you can work out more than my hips and back during pregnancy! The “Core Pilates” segment has you prop yourself up with pillows and then do modified pilates abdominal work, and trust me, you will feel this, especially if your other workouts have avoided the abdominal muscles. “Pilates for Buns & Thighs” will give you serious burn in the aforementioned regions, and “Pilates for Flexibility” offers some really delicious stretches. Basically, the pace is fast enough and the exercises challenging enough that you could do just one ten minute segment a day and feel that you had done something for your muscle tone. The DVD allows you to customize your own workout, so you can decide how much you want to do and in what order.

Pregnancy, it turns out, is no excuse to ignore your inner thighs

Lizbeth Garcia is visibly pregnant throughout the exercises — though also visibly buff! I’m easily annoyed by too-peppy workout instructors, but she is just cheery enough without grating. (And there’s something a little rough about her voice that I really like too.) And — I think this is kind of adorable — although the picture on the DVD has her perfectly styled, in the actual video her workout shirt is too short for her belly. I think pregnant women can sympathize!