Review of Sara Beaman’s Fluid Transitions: Drills and Combinations for Fusion Bellydance

If you’ve been dancing for a while you know: the right teacher is not necessarily the one who’s the most famous, the most experienced, or even, frankly, the best dancer. Often, it’s the person who can communicate to you in a way that makes sense to your brain and ultimately your body. This is important in live instruction, but essential when it comes to DVDs, where you can’t ask the teacher any questions, and she can’t respond to the way you learn.

This is why I get excited — really excited — when I see instructional DVDs that are crafted to work for different kinds of learners, that are more than just, “You do this, then you do this.” One of the exciting things about being a consumer of bellydance videos over the past decade has been seeing how creative producers get, with practice flows, the smart chaptering, innovative material and drills, you name it.

So, guess what? I was excited to work with my review copy of Sara Beaman’s Fluid Transitions: Drills and Combinations for Fusion Bellydance. From the first moment I thought, “Oh, she’s thought about this. She’s thought about how to make this usable and easy to learn from.” And my first impression was not wrong.

The focus of Fluid Transitions is pretty clear from the title, but it’s probably worth mentioning that Beaman does not give any theory or tips on transitions separately from the drills. The idea behind the program is to achieve fluidity by doing careful drills of combinations at multiple speeds. The DVD is aimed towards intermediate or advanced dancers — definitely not beginners! — and if you are one of these dancers chances are that you can take the tools Beaman gives you and apply them to whatever combinations you’re working on.

The most straightfoward way to work with the DVD is to play all the sections through, which is what I did. This way, you get a:

Warm Up of approximately 10 min. This is based on dynamic stretches and some shimmying, it starts up the muscles and joints you need to move, but it doesn’t get you really warm. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a little something extra to get the heart rate up too.

Isolation Drills, about 16 min. You can play this section right through, or choose single drills from a menu. Here, Beaman quickly but precisely covers the movements she’ll be using in the later combos. The drilling is brief — this is not mean to teach beginners how to do the moves, but to remind you of the correct executions of moves you already know. That said, Beaman also gives little tips on form.

Here’s one of the neat things about the DVD: each move is preceded by a screen that shows a written breakdown of the move. Being someone who learns best by reading, I loved this decision. It lets me internalise the idea visually, before I hear the oral breakdown and see how it’s done.

Sara Beaman tribal fusion DVD isolation breakdown screen
Breakdown of a sidewinder

This is followed by a brief, about 6 min, Isolation Practice Flow. You basically do the isolations, but all together. I think this part is great, as it gets you into the feeling of moving and putting isolations together.

Now we get into the meat. The first combination section contains combos 1 through 4 (about 30 min). Each combination has that great screen before it, quickly explaining what will come up. Then Beaman breaks it down veeeery slowly. As far as I could tell, for every single combo in the program, Beaman is equally thorough in breaking down and drilling both sides. It’s not only great to have both sides worked out equally, but I found that sometimes I will “get” a movement on one side faster than the other, so I’m glad to have both sides instructed too.

The combos themselves are quite short and focused on linking together moves using the torso, hips, abs, and arms. There are no traveling steps. These are small units you then drill like crazy to get your body moving smoothly from one kind of isolation to another. In some cases, Beaman will present an easier version and a tougher version of a combo — and then she has you drill both.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, she then has you drill the combos at three different speeds.  Often, she will have you drill something at half time and at full time for each of the three speeds, which means you’re actually drilling at six different speeds! All of the speeds and instructions segments are chaptered, so you can easily repeat, and they’re in the menus, so you can go directly where you like.

Needless to say, what this does to your body feels pretty wonderful. As much as it’s challenging for the brain to follow along, it’s such a fabulous, careful, thorough way of getting moves into your body. Even on the first play of the DVD, I was starting to “get” some of the combinations quite smoothly. I stopped and went to a mirror to practice sometimes, I did my own stretches in between the sections, but it all worked. It felt good. And I think doing the three speeds is brilliant, because while my first challenge was getting a combo down, my second was doing it slowly. Doing a combination slowly but still evenly and smoothly is harder than doing it fast, and a great way to pay attention to what the muscles are doing and to each component of the movement.

Then things get even more interesting. Beaman takes apart combos 1 and 2, and puts them together into one longer combo. Same for 3 and 4. And you drill those. Here’s what I loved about this. While she doesn’t say it in so many words, she’s really teaching you how to get smooth transitions in your own movement. You break it down into the smallest possible combinations, drill those like crazy, then combine them in creative ways, and drill those together.

The next section features combos 5 and 6 (about 17 min), and these work a little differently. These are layering combinations, and what Beaman eventually has you do is to do one of the layers, then all of the layers together, then another of the layers alone, then all together, and so on. What part of my brain was still working at this point was fried by these drills, but I also found them really cool. It’s basically a pattern for creating movement that’s interesting to the eye, adding and subtracting layers in turn.

Sara Beaman tribal fusion DVD layered combination with sidewinder
Drilling different parts of a layered sidewinder

Finally, you have a satisfying Cool Down that stretches everything out from a standing position. It’s about 6 minutes long, so I added some of my own stretches too.

The menus are really smart, really detailed. I love this, I love it when a producer really thinks about how to make the work usable. Moreover, in a separate section Beaman has four practices set up ranging from 23 to 32 minutes, each of which begins with the warm up, takes you through some of the combos, and ends with the cool down.

Fluid Transitions really, really, badly made me want to do more tribal fusion. But I don’t think you have to be a tribal dancer to get a lot out of it. This morning I was already thinking about how some of the combos could be modified — with something as simple as a heel up, for example — to give them a more raks sharki feeling. One thing I can’t judge however is how much of the material or method would be new to dancers already steeped in TF. Who wouldn’t like it? Well, if you’re a beginner, you might find it moves too fast for you. Also, if you’re looking for transitions between traveling moves, you’ll find nothing here.

That said, there’s a lot to grow with Fluid Transitions. She gives some tips at the beginning for how to modify or add to the drills. But the real point is, this DVD doesn’t just teach you to string together a few moves, it teaches you how to think about putting moves together and then drilling them. You learn to take out an element from an isolation to make it work with another move, you learn to take combinations apart and put them together in creative ways, and you learn how to play with layers to make cool-looking dance. What’s not to love about that?

Fluid Transitions is available as a print-on-demand DVD from Amazon. It worked flawlessly on my MacBook Pro.

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.

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.


Stream(lin)ing my practice with Datura Online

Today I hooked up my computer to my projector and tried something new: doing an entire practice using streaming online programs. I’m used to live class, I’m used to just popping a video in and working with it, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’m working on a comprehensive review of Datura Online (and have review access for a month for that), but I wanted to work with the offerings out there to customize my very own practice session, just the way I want it. So here’s what I did:

I scrolled to the “topics” section of Datura Online, selected the “Warmup” option and picked a basic little warmup with some ab exercises for toning; in a second tab, went to “Movement” and then “Shimmies” because I’d seen a basic tutorial on layering 3/4 shimmies onto traveling steps; opened up another tab, pulled up RAQStv and loaded Maria Sokolova’s mini-class from Project Belly Dance so I could get a bit of dancing in; and in a final window, got a quick cool-down with yoga focused on the lower back from Datura. I had everything opened in its own tab, and I organized the tabs in order, so that I wouldn’t have to pause too long between segments.

I’m going to talk about Maria’s lesson in a different post, so I can focus on the Datura offerings here.

Warmup: Ab Warm Up + Conditioning: #1 with Colette Todorov (12:22 min)

To warm you up, Colette has you do slow, deliberate high steps, adding a few arm moves and twists to add a bit of challenge. It’s the kind of thing that looks very easy, but if you’re holding your stomach in as she instructs, becomes more challenging — especially at the end of a long day.

The real goodness is in the ab exercises. I loooved this bit. It’s short and sweet, but involves doing four different kinds of pilates ab exercises. However, instead of repeating each one for a long time and then switching, Colette has you do combination sets — first four slow, controlled reps of each move, then two. There was burn. It targeted the obliques and the lower abs too. Not the kind of thing that will give you washboard abs, but fun to do, and easy to work into a bellydance practice.

Drills: Basic Traveling with 3/4 Shimmies with Ashley Lopez (20:16 min)

This is a standalone section of a longer workshop on the 3/4 shimmy. I was drawn to it because the preview showed Ashley doing a simple, unaccented 3/4 shimmy. This is what I’m learning in one of my live classes, but is pretty different than what I have on most of my videos, and, indeed, from what I’ve learned in other classes.

Surprisingly, Ashley begins by getting you to do a regular shimmy, then try walking with it, then try smoothing it out. At my level, this is a bit easier said than done, and I had trouble figuring out how I was supposed to do that. Then she goes back to basics — phew! — talks about driving the shimmy from the obliques, and does it very slowly. Once the slow shimmy is going, you start walking forwards and backwards with it. And eventually, Ashley has you walk in a large square doing the shimmy at full speed, then try the shimmy on releve. Finally, she does the 3/4 shimmy on the down, and goes through the drills again.

What I liked: Ashley explains and demonstrates why this shimmy is useful. I find it a less exciting shimmy to watch and do than the “hip up hip out” kind of 3/4 shimmy, but her point is that once you get it down, you can accent whatever you like. She has helpful tricks, like clapping on the “1” before you even start lifting your foot. And, she gives pointers on form, as well as occasional tips on what to focus on if you’re just starting.

What I still wanted: I think it would be helpful to have an exercise to isolate the obliques in the movement, and the rev up to full speed was too fast for me. (Mind you, since I didn’t watch the entire workshop, I don’t know if she does a slower breakdown elsewhere — but I’m reviewing the videos as I find them.) I think this video would be a great drill for someone who already has a 3/4 shimmy going, but wants to polish her form and work on layering it onto traveling moves.

After I was done with the video, I wound up going to a full-length mirror and just working with the shimmy. I found that moving away from the screen was actually useful, maybe even necessary. Once I took Ashley’s tips but just watched myself, trying to get the form right, I started to see and feel improvement. Eventually, I got faster, and I was even able to walk a few steps with it. So I will most likely return to the video, but after I’ve drilled the shimmy for a bit on my own.

Cool Down: Basic Short Yoga Sequence with Rachel Brice (9:07 min)

This is a quick way to stretch out and relax your back after a practice. The exercises Rachel chose here are for both the upper and lower back. They resemble some of the moves in my Viniyoga back videos, but with an extra twist or two. Basically, the cool down is composed of slow motion stretches and movements, timed with inhalation and exhalation, and the result is a delicious feeling of relaxation. Simple, sweet, a winner.

So, it was a good time this evening. It was amazing what could fit into each short segment. The beginning and closing videos were very handy as-is, while the 3/4 shimmy drills needs some, well, preliminary drilling on my part to be do-able. (I will most likely work with the entire workshop for that, so I can get a sense of how Ashley builds up to full speed.)

Review of Sarah Skinner’s Bellydance Shimmy Workout for Beginners

Sarah Skinner’s The Bellydance Shimmy Workout is a really smart, useful program, and one that could be adapted to a number of different dance practices. At its core are five shimmy drills of five minutes each. The idea is that you could do one a day if you were pressed for time and wanted to get a bit of regular practice in. In fact, the very last drill incorporates all kinds of shimmies, so you can work on a bit of everything in just five minutes. The drills include upper and lower body shimmies, basic bellydance moves and traveling steps, layering, and traveling with shimmies. While this isn’t a video a beginner is likely to be able to do, I do think The Bellydance Shimmy Workout is a great tool to go from beginner-level shimmies to advanced beginner and further.


I am personally unlikely to get my workout clothes on and the computer set up just to do five minutes of dancing. But I’m thinking maybe I should change that. And I could imagine incorporating one or two of the five-minute drills into a longer practice, perhaps with another technique or choreo video.
What I like even more is that if you play The Bellydance Shimmy Workout all the way through, it’s more than just a collection of workout segments. You have a warmup and cool down, a great strength-building drill for dance, and oh-so-necessary stretches between each of the shimmy drills. Do the full hour, and you have a real workout, but done in beautiful, dancey, WDNY-style: cardio, stretching, strength, coordination, balance, dance technique, all in one package.
In fact, I think you could even take the warmup, strength drill, and one shimmy drill and use them as a solid prep for some improvising… now that would be a fun dance practice.

The quality is, as is to be expected with WDNY, high. Sarah Skinner and her two backup dancers are beautifully dressed and well filmed. Sarah’s voice cues are right on and encouraging, with good reminders to breathe. The music is upbeat and gets your energy going for some serious shimmying – some new agey stuff, some Balkan, some clearly Middle Eastern. You also have the option of doing the workout with music and no voice cues. The variety of shimmies covered is really good – it’s not just about a knee-driven shimmy and a choo-choo, but you get to practice ¾ shimmies and the Arabic hip walk.

I do have one beef with this otherwise excellent video, though, and that’s right in the title: “for Beginners.” The Bellydance Shimmy Workout for Beginners is not for beginners. I’m not saying a beginner couldn’t work with this video and have fun, but if she expects to be able to follow along with much of it, she will be disappointed. Shimmies are hard to get. While some dancers pick them up fast, many take years to really learn the more challenging ones. They really are not a matter of watching them a couple of times and following along.
The “cutesy butt” shimmy!

The video includes a brief (circa 15 min) tutorial on the basic moves and all the shimmies used during the workout. This is great as a review of shimmies, but it’s not lengthy and detailed enough instruction for someone who doesn’t know a shimmy at all. Sarah’s teaching is clear and beautifully filmed, but you’re really not going to learn to layer a ¾ shimmy on a traveling step in a minute’s instruction. It’s just a matter of packaging. I know in the world of live bellydance courses beginner classes can go on forever and cover truly difficult material, but I think expectations are different with a video.

If you’re not an absolute beginner though, and you want a shimmy drill, this video’s the thing. I’m thinking of putting The Bellydance Shimmy Workout on high rotation. It’s exactly what I need to progress in my dance, it’s short enough to do on a regular basis but long enough to get good and warmed up, and, well, it makes me happy!

I received a review copy of The Bellydance Shimmy Workout

Back to basics with Neon’s Instant Bellydancer

Every now and then you just have to go back to the basics.

What’s the context? Well, there’s a bunch of context.

I recently signed up for the launch of Nadira Jamal’s online program, Rock the Routine. It’s what she calls a “home study” course, and I’m doing it at my own sweet pace — which is to say, at the pace permitted by an international move and a baby. Although I’m unlikely to perform a full cabaret bellydance routine anytime soon, I’m finding it great. Part of what’s so valuable about it is that following along with the program makes me see what I need to work on. While Nadira teaches improvisational strategies, as I try to work with them I start to notice which moves come really easily, and which bellydance moves have become, well, flaccid due to lack of practice.

I’ve become frustrated enough with this that I decided I needed to go back to the basics. Not just basic choreo or easy drills, but the fundamentals. I didn’t want something with long explanations, but I wanted the chance to focus on the movements, to work on everything from the ground up. So I thought of Neon’s Instant Bellydancer.

Now, the two Instant Bellydancer DVDs were among the first items in my bellydance video collection. (I bought the individual videos, Instant Bellydancer 1 and Instant Bellydancer 2 back then, and years later was sent a copy of the two-DVD set for review). Although it’s really more of a movement catalogue, not a thorough program of dance instruction, I loved it. And I loved the little geometric shapes used on the screen to indicate how movements should be performed.

The videos are not set up the way a basic bellydance course often is — the easiest movements first, and then harder ones — but by geometric shapes. And so the first video, for example, features:

Horizontal circles
Vertical circles
Horizontal semicircles
Vertical semicircles
Horizontal infinity loops (aka figure 8’s)
Vertical infinity loops
And two practice sessions.

Each shape is performed with various parts of the body: the hips, the chest, the head, and then the movements are put together into basic drills.

What is it like to work with Instant Bellydancer years later? On the minus side, the lack of a warmup really stood out for me. Given that it’s for beginners, it should have a warmup, especially since the moves start to really push your muscles if done correctly. There is also a section with head and upper body circles that is potentially dangerous. Neon gives multiple, and I mean multiple, warnings to avoid these sections unless you are warmed up and have strong neck muscles, but I suspect that some people might go ahead and do them anyway.

On the plus side, Instant Bellydancer is a fantastic way to review the basics if you already really know them but are out of practice. Some videos aimed at beginners introduce movements really slowly, which can be frustrating for review. Moreover, doing these now-familiar moves again, I was able to focus on subtle instructions I had missed the first time, like Neon’s hints for hand, arm, and head movements. And finally, I noticed how lopsided I am. Clockwise, I can do everything with ease, but counterclockwise, I really have to struggle! (You can bet that when I was doing the dishes today, I had Nancy Ajram on and was doing counterclockwise circles like crazy!)

I only made it through the horizontal circle section last night, but it was quite a bit to work with. More interestingly, I thought it would go wonderfully with Nadira’s tips on making friends with your safety moves, that is, with the moves you tend to resort to when out of ideas anyway. Some of Nadira’s instruction, on her blog and on Improvisation Toolkit Volume 1: Movement Recall, involves taking a basic move and doing variations of it. And in a way, this is precisely how the mini practice sessions on Instant Bellydancer work! One program is very basic, while the other is quite advanced and sophisticated, but their methodical approaches to dance make them work well together.

Review of Myra Krien’s Anatomy of a Hip Circle

One of the great things about working with DVDs is that you can always get exactly what you need. Want a quick yoga workout? You’ve got it. Want a long bellydance choreography? It’s there. My only problem is — and I blush to admit it — that I’m such a video addict that I often don’t know what I have. There are so many videos I haven’t really worked with yet that it’s hard to know which to pick. So I look over them and choose one, and sometimes, karma smiles on me and gives me exactly. what. I. wanted. that day.

Myra offers safety tips for the Jewel

This was the case for me yesterday. One of the things I noticed when attending Sunday’s workshops was how completely and utterly out of touch with my core I am now, post baby, post c-section. This is, of course, tragic for a bellydancer. So I knew that I wanted something basic today, but something that would get me in touch with my long-lost abdominals, teach me how to feel them again. Enter a karmic smile, in the form of Myra Krien‘s Anatomy of a Hip Circle.

Despite being a regular on various online forums dedicated to discussing bellydance and bellydance videos, I hadn’t heard of Krien’s videos until I found them by accident, while poking around on the internet. And in fact, she has a whole series of them. When I started my review copy of Anatomy of a Hip Circle, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Was this a beginner DVD? It is the first in a series of three videos ostensibly dedicated to hip circles, but what exactly would be included?

The video begins with a brief introduction to Krien’s Pomegranate Studio. Krien then goes over proper bellydance posture, reminding us to check in on our posture as we practice. And, in fact, like a good teacher she really does remind you to protect your lower back and keep your upper body lifted throughout the following exercises.

The posture check

In the section on Anatomy, Krien goes over the muscles used to create hip circles, focusing on the psoas, the glutes, and the obliques. She also includes a few brief exercises to get in touch with these muscles.

The 17-minute section with Support Exercises starts to get really meaty. Here are a series of wonderful exercises and drills meant to help you become aware of the different muscles key in bellydancing and practice using them in releve and with different foot positions. This is great stuff, exactly the kind of drills you need to take the abstract discussion of muscles into dance practice. The exercises targeting the psoas were particularly difficult and, for that reason, most valuable. As a beginning bellydancer, it’s not hard to learn to use your obliques; it’s more challenging to get to your glutes (especially individually); but it’s hardest of all to target the psoas. This video is the best resource I have found so far for targeting the psoas that is aimed at bellydancers.

Drilling the psoas every which way

What follows is a four-minute section on the Jewel, one of those moves dancers are always trying to define and find instruction for (or so it seems). Krien acknowledges that there are different ways of teaching and even doing the Jewel, and that hers is just one — again, her version is very psoas-centered.

Next is a twenty-minute Technique Practicum that contains a short warmup, and uses a variety of horizontal and vertical hip circles, building up into more complex and interesting patterns. Circles build into figure eights, and these are varied upon in turn. Sections of circles become horseshoe-shaped movements. Movements are done up and down, backwards and forwards, each time giving a different feel.

The video closes out with a seven-minute Stretching section that serves as a delicious cool down.

So what is Anatomy of a Hip Circle, after all? I think the best way to think of it is as an information-dense one-hour workshop on using anatomical awareness to improve bellydance from the ground up. The information is way too detailed for a true beginner. Most beginners, unless they have a background in dance or movement, just want to learn the shapes and some hand and arm work. It’s really when you advance a bit in the dance that you start caring about using specific muscles to drive movements. An advanced dancer might find this a good review of material, and will probably pick up a few tips, but is unlikely to be challenged. So I think the best audience for this video would be advanced beginners and intermediates.

The entire program is about an hour, and on the surface, the material looks simple enough. Just a bunch of hip circles and figure eights, right? But I think it will bear repetition. A lot of the drills I could fake my way through, but I knew I wasn’t really “grabbing” the movement with the right muscle the way I should. After all, that’s what the drills are for. This is a video to return to when I want efficient, targeted technique practice. It’s like going to a great drills workshop, but being able to take it home with you as well for further work.

The video is shot in a bright studio with a live drummer. Myra Krien is filmed facing a mirror, and the image and sound are clear at all times. I like her affect — she speaks with the authority of an experienced teacher, is friendly, but not perky in an annoying way. Everything is drilled on both sides. But my favorite aspect of the program is Krien’s attention to safe movement. She is careful to point out movements that might tempt dancers to move in an unsafe way, and gives tips for avoiding muscle strain or injury. I wish more videos gave this kind of attention to safety, especially as dancers at home, without a teacher to watch them, are at even greater risk of injury.

The major con is that the structure is confusing. There is no warmup at the beginning, though a screen tells you to do so on your own. But the Technique Practicum begins with a slight warmup, as if you had not been doing the Support Exercises. And I would have liked a few words at the beginning explaining why the video was set up as it was, and how best to use it. The stretching segment at the end is really effective and relaxing, and Krien also offers a stretch to do when you don’t want to get down on the floor at a workshop. A warmup would have made the program perfect.

All that said, I’m still delighted with the video. A day later, and I already feel more control over my abdominals (and is it my imagination, or are they a little more pulled in?). It’s clear that these drills will be key to getting wonderful, gooey, Egyptian-style movement. In other words, I have my work cut out for me!

Anatomy of a Hip Circle is available at Persephone Store.

Review: Michelle Joyce’s Drills! Drills! Drills!

First things first. Drills! Drills! Drills! is not a DVD for people who have not learned the basic posture, movements and isolations of bellydance. If this describes you, go directly to a beginner’s video, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

The drills Michelle offers here are, for the most part, not strenuous, but you do need to have ingrained at least some basic bellydance movements to the point where you can do them without thinking: shimmies and hip bumps should be second nature.

The second key point is that the movements are, in general, geared towards helping you define your isolations, layer movements, and even use different parts of your body at different rhythms. Michelle points out several times that you may not like the moves you’re drilling, and you may not want to use them in a choreography, but that they’re helping you build dance skills.

That said, if you *do* have bellydance experience, and you’re looking for a video which will help you train for bellydance (or get some light exercise) in a “dancey” way, this is it. The video begins with a few strengthening exercises for the quads and abs, and then moves on to a seemingly endless series of varied drills. There are drills which will have you practicing your isolations with different foot and arm positions, drills done while dancing a grapevine, drills where you do a zig zag shape with your hips, pelvis and chest.

I loved the variety. The drills are well-thought out and clearly organized, but they don’t follow the same pattern. This required me to use both my body and my mind in different ways, and kept the movements from being dull. I loved the fact that Michelle puts in little reminders about proper form as you’re doing it. There isn’t a lot of arm work, but there’s definitely greater use of the lower abdominals than I’ve seen in other videos.

If you’re like me, you will find that some things come easily to you, some take a while to click, and some things seem impossibly hard at the first go. This is absolutely a DVD to grow into. At nearly two hours of running time, there’s a wealth of material, and you can always do only one part of a layering drill if you’re not at Michelle’s level yet. After the section on finger cymbals, the drills are also done with zill accompaniment — this was impossible for me, but it was a great chance to repeat the drill I had just done.

Most importantly, the program was fun, despite its slightly military name! The section on 3/4 shimmies is a lot looser than the early drill sections, and I found myself improvising to the beat. In other words, the drills started to become dance. My advice to dancers using this program is add your own warm-up and cool-down, but also to put on a song or two of music you really like after you’re done drilling and just let go. You may just find your body reacting to the music much more readily than before, and with a greater variety of movements.

(Full disclosure: I received the DVD through one of Michelle’s generous giveaways on the bellydancevideos yahoo group.)

Review: Asharah’s Modern Tribal Dance

I need to say to begin with that I’m really not fond of the dancing on Asharah’s Modern Tribal Bellydance. I’m not that crazy about tribal fusion anyway, but I’ve definitely seen tribal fusion I’ve liked a lot more than this.

So, weirdly, as much as I don’t like the dancing here, I think the video itself is pretty well done, and can actually foresee myself using it. The main reason for this is that its “Warmup & Conditioning” section is actually a 45 minute exercise and stretching video for dancers, and it’s pretty much the answer to my dreams. Seriously, I’ve imagined what I’d like in a program (often because of exercises I’ve had in live classes), and this is it.

This section alone could stand alone as a full-priced DVD, and would be worth the money. It’s a combination of movements from three groups: yoga, ballet (i.e., the kind of stretches you have at the start of a ballet/ballet- inspired class), and Suhaila-type seated abdominal and chest work. Nothing terribly new, but having them all together in one place is incredibly cool. There’s deep plie work, thorough leg stretches in every possible direction, the shoulders and neck are not ignored, and neither is the back. Asharah also gives frequent knee placement reminders, so although the practice is challenging, it won’t kill your back or knees.
The next section is a Technique & Isolations section of 55 minutes. In this section, Asharah goes over pretty basic movements in bd/tribal fusion vocabulary, but explains them in detail with the appropriate muscle contractions. She’s very Suhaila-based (and, in fact, thanks Suhaila in the credits). Here she covers:

– Shoulders and arms
– Chest squares
– Chest circles
– Glute contactions
– Glute contactions – up
– Glute contactions – down
– Vertical hip 8s down-to-up
– Vertical hip 8s up-to-down
– 3/4 shimmy up
– 3/4 shimmy down
– interior hip squares
– interior hip circles

These are pretty basic moves (I know the last one as an “omi”), but it’s good to have the breakdown and practice, especially for those of us who are far from being experts anyway.

Next comes the “Modern Tribal Movement” section (30 min), in which Asharah teaches how to break down a single movement into three or four smaller segments, so as to achieve a strobing or robotic effect. She does this with: shoulders & arms, chest slides, chest locks, undulations, and vertical hip 8s up-to-down. I haven’t watched this section all the way through, and like I said, I don’t really like how the result looks in dance, but it did strike me that some of the exercises were similar in concept to those on Aziza’s Pratice Companion. So, weirdly, although I don’t want to dance like Asharah, I can imagine using this section as a drill and exercise tool.

Finally, there is Combination instruction of 30 min, which you can also play with practice music. And an 8 min yoga-based cool-down. And performances.

I suppose it figures that if you put three freakin’ hours of material onto one DVD (runtime is 180 minutes, no joke), you’re going to please a lot of people. Asharah is relaxed and straightforward on the video, and there is really just so much material to work with, at such different levels, that it’s an incredible value. I think people who are actually *into* tribal fusion will probably adore this video, although they might find the isolations section a little basic. However, even people who are not can use this DVD as a dance training video, rather than a dance instruction video. The actual dance section makes up 30 minutes out of 3 hours — the rest is really a conditioning program for dancers.

(Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this video from WDNY.)

Review: Aziza’s Ultimate Bellydance Pratice Companion

Aziza’s Ultimate Bellydance Pratice Companion is like nothing else. A self-contained, intense bellydance drill practice and workout, it will make you want to throw all your other dance and exercise DVDs in the closet and just do this everyday. No, really.

She’s as happy as I will be

First, the basics: the setting is a staged workshop, and you see Aziza over the heads of the participants, as it were. There are online clips of the video in which it seems as though Aziza might be hard to see — expanded on the larger screen, this is never the case. Aziza mirrors you, calling left as she moves right. The student dancers are a nice effect: while they are skilled enough to keep up with Aziza, they still need her encouragement and correction now and then.

The practice is composed of 6 sections: a warm-up, ribcage drills, hip drills, arm practice, an insanely lengthy, never-give-up, shimmy drill, and finally, a cool down.

The warm-up is thorough, involves a lot of breathing, parallel-foot plies, gentle head movements, bends and arm work, and really does get you ready to practice. (To give you a sense of it, Ava Fleming suggests you do this warmup before using her own DVDs, so it’s a keeper.) Posture is covered in detail, but relatively quickly. To jump to the end, the cool-down is even better, involving good leg and back stretches to stretch out the muscles you’ve just used. Aziza gives posture reminders throughout the program, and is careful to guide your knee placement and to encourage gentle movement of the head for safe exercise.

The ribcage and hip sections include what I find a very fun drill which involves moving the body part in question in six different directions, in a variety of different ways. You really have to use both your back muscles and (especially) your abdominal muscles to keep your posture and do the movement.

The arm section consists of a series of port-de-bras combinations. While still valuable, the arm section is the least unique and innovative part of the DVD. It does, however, have an exercise for learning to move your hands slowly while moving another part of your body quickly. I could imagine this being useful for flamenco dancers as well.

And then there’s the shimmy drill. Imagine shimmying. Now imaging shimmying some more. Now imagine doing all sorts of movements with your arms, head, and torso while you shimmy. Now imagine making all sorts of shapes with your hips while you shimmy. Now choo-choo shimmy. Now shoulder shimmy. Oh, now back to normal shimmying, with increased force! Now repeat all the exercises from the ribcage and hip sections while shimmying. After enough time, if you just keep on going, your body enters this zen space where all it knows how to do is shimmy: that’s where you start being able to layer things, and you almost don’t mind. You think it’s about to be over, and then Aziza makes you write the alphabet horizontally with your hips (while shimmying). And then vertically with your ribcage. And then you shimmy some more. And at the end, you find out you were shimmying for twenty minutes, and you can’t believe it, because you know you never would even have attempted such a thing if you knew what was in store for you.

In case I haven’t made it clear enough, this video is a gem: so is Aziza. She has charm and a sense of humour, and a kind of sadistic gleam in her eye when she’s promised one more repetition and says, “I lied! Another one on your right.” The two performances at the end are just the kind of flirtatious, playful Egyptian style bellydance I love, and it occurred to me as I watched them that trying to imitate those dances would be an entire other workshop! However, this video would really be good for anyone working on their drills, and Aziza’s focus on driving the movements with muscles would probably sit well with many tribal or fusion dancers.

After such a glowing review, I almost feel it necessary to say that I don’t know Aziza at all. I just think that this video has so much to give to so many different kinds of dancers that it’s an unregrettable buy. I tried for a long time to find it used, and now I know why I couldn’t: this isn’t something you let go.