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

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

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

Bendy Body 4

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

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

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

Bendy Body 3

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

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

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

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

Bendy Body 2

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

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


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 Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee

Tara Lee’s Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation is meant to be a grounding practice. As Tara explains in her introduction, it’s supposed to help you let go of the stresses and anxiety of daily life, to find a balance and connection to the earth.

Tara Lee, yoga instructor

I tend not to get excited about the symbolic poetic effusions of yoga instructors, but I will say this. I worked with Earth Foundation after a period of no yoga at all. (Isn’t this always the case somehow?) I had been traveling a lot, my body was stiff, tired, inflexible… I wanted a yoga program that would stretch me out nicely without making me fall over. I wanted something that wouldn’t be too painful. In short, I wanted something forgiving. And this DVD hit the spot.

Tara Lee doing upward dog yoga position
What, did you expect blue skies and a tropical beach?

Earth Foundation is divided into three practices of about twenty minutes each, plus a 5-minute shavasana. In fact, the sections really build one well-constructed hour-long practice, though I guess you could do just one if you were pressed for time. Practice 1 starts out gently, with breathing to get centered, and continues with a series of slow, delicious dynamic stretches that get your body warmed up. Plenty of pauses in between too, with more breathing and relaxation. A number of the movements in this section were similar to exercises I know from Gary Kraftsow’s excellent Viniyoga programs, and since those have basically saved my back, I was inclined to trust the usefulness of this section. I may be getting you warmed up without too much trouble, but it also carefully strengthens the back muscles.

Tara Lee doing thigh work in her yoga DVD

Practice 2 begins with soft twists and forward bends, and moves into a long sun salutation. While it is not painfully challenging, I did feel myself working, getting warmer and even a bit tired. There are some deeper stretches like pigeon, and some delicious strength work. It’s all a bit more challenging, but still doable on a quiet evening. The third practice is more vinyasa flow, this time with warriors, triangles, and lunges. The latter part of this practice is another nice sequence of exercises and stretches for the back and hamstrings.

All in all, this is an approachable, but still satisfying, program. It’s marketed to beginners, and while you do need to know a bit about the poses, you don’t have to be in top shape to keep up. Nor do you need any uncanny flexibility. Someone very stiff could just do practice 1, and someone looking for a full workout should do the whole hour.

What I found particularly charming was the Englishness of it all. Tara has the accent of course, but even more delightfully, the “exotic” background is English countryside! It rather reminds me of a park I used to live near, and because it looks like a lot of places I’ve lived, it makes the yoga more approachable. I don’t get to practice yoga on a lot of Tahitian beaches, so why should I watch others do so?

The bonus features include three segments around ten minutes each: a more advanced balancing sequence for this “earth” program, along with a breathing segment for “air & water” and a difficult core workout for “fire.” I haven’t looked at the other DVDs, but I’m assuming they all have the same bonuses. Finally, there is a 17-minute interview with Tara, in which she describes how she found yoga and became a teacher. She also explains how her studies in shiatsu led her to focus on the elements, which became the basis of her DVD program. She comes across as thoughtful and intelligent. I should admit she really won me over with her description of yoga as a tool not only to deal with stress, but to get a sense of yourself as you, separate from the roles you inhabit in the world. Both yoga and dance do that for me (dance perhaps even more so), and it’s good to be reminded of how important that is.

I received a review copy of Beginners Yoga and Beyond: Elements of Yoga: Earth Foundation with Tara Lee.

Review of Bombshell: Dramatic Make up for the Stage, Photos & Glamourous Occasions

“If you look like the love child of a clown and a hooker, then maybe you have enough makeup on for the stage.”

Princess Farhana’s description of a dancer’s war paint sums it up pretty nicely. Bombshell: Dramatic Make up for the Stage, Photos & Glamourous Occasions is not about subtlety, appropriateness, or painstakingly blending taupe into beige. It’s about glamour, colour, glitter, and having a hell of a lot of fun with your face.

A bit of background about myself: I’ve never thought of myself as particularly girly, and I don’t wear much makeup on a regular basis. I like the look of fresh skin, so I almost never wear foundation, and I work in a slightly conservative field, so purple mascara is out for daytime. Well, I’ve described Dr. Jekyll to you, but there is also Ms Hyde. Lurking deep inside me is not a girly girl, but a full-blown drag queen just dying to come out.

As a preteen, Kevyn Aucoin’s Making Faces was my makeup bible: I studied the pictures and descriptions, and wondered where in the world one could get the cream eyeshadow he used so often. I would do outrageous looks with my friends and photograph them. I began to acquire a perversely large makeup collection, with probably every shade of glitter and eyeliner imaginable. In the year I was finishing my dissertation, as a full-fledged Serious Person, I would interrupt the tedium by painting high glamour makeup looks on myself, running and showing my boyfriend, and then taking them off. In grad school I even wrote a seminar paper on anti-cosmetic rhetoric, and did a bit of makeup of student theatre. And my secret plan B has always been to go to cosmetology school and run off to Milan.

So this is to say that I’m passionate about makeup, I know a lot of tricks, even if I haven’t tried them, but because I don’t wear huge amounts of the stuff on a daily basis, there are also quite a few things I don’t know. For example, although I own several sets of false eyelashes, I’ve never managed to put them on.

I’ve secretly always wanted to do a Cleopatra look

But I was, you can imagine, extremely eager to take a look at Bombshell. Princess Farhana kindly hooked me up with a review copy, and I’ve been watching it bit by bit over the past month. It’s a massive two-DVD set that covers some makeup basics such as tools, foundation and contouring, false eyelash application, and lips, and then proceeds to focus predominantly on eye looks: retro, movie star, smokey eyes, sixties’, Cleopatra-style, Arabic, modern colour-blocking, and mature makeup. (These are partly my names for the looks.) In a final chapter, Princess Farhana discusses the use of, what else, glitter!

What I was particularly curious about was this: when there are so many makeup how-to videos on YouTube (Lauren Luke famously used her YouTube channel to rise from rags to discount-makeup-riches), what would a DVD offer that would be new? Why shouldn’t I just watch a dozen YouTube videos instead?

Here are my answers to this:

– Video quality. Bombshell is professionally filmed, and it’s easy to see DeVilla and the Princess at work. This is not someone sitting in a darkened living room.

– Diversity. The models have different eye types, are of different races (there is an Asian and an African-American model), and ages. The Princess devotes one of the chapters to making hooded or small eyes look big. So while the instruction is nominally about how to do a variety of dramatic eye looks, all along there are tips and tricks for adapting makeup to different kinds of faces.

– Expertise. This is the big one! Princess Farhana, a bellydancer, and DeVilla, a bellydancer and makeup artist, bring their showbiz experience to bear on this. They teach a lot of techniques that are specific to the stage or to photography, skills such as: contouring for the stage, what colours look good in black and white photography, what looks bad in photography or in a small restaurant, how to use glitter to get glossy lips without the dangerous stickiness of gloss, how to use white makeup or crystal appliques to open up the eyes, and so on.

Throughout the videos, they differentiate between stage and everyday makeup looks, often suggesting how one look might be toned down or played up for a different context. They also give specific advice for performing in a restaurant or on a small stage vs the big theatre. This is the kind of expertise you won’t get on YouTube! I even liked the fact that, in the section on lashes, DeVilla demonstrates a painstakingly precise way of applying them, and Princess Farhana shows a quick and dirty showgirl version.

While I’m unlikely to be on a large stage anytime soon, I did learn a few things I can take away. For example, I’d used dots of white goo in the corners of eyes when doing stage makeup, but I didn’t know the more subtle ways this could be adapted to everyday wear. Princess Farhana shows some faster ways to blend, using her finger or glitter, that I might try when in a rush. And I’m much more likely to experiment with colours or combinations I don’t usually use. Such as lavender. Who uses lavender?

Is it still an objective review if I want to hang out with these two?

My favourite aspect of Bombshell is the way its two stars come across as completely chill and playful. I took a workshop with Princess Farhana ages ago, and I love her wacky sense of humour. She’ll be working on a look which looks completely ridiculous, but she’ll acknowledge that that particular step in the process looks weird, or that she’s making a stupid face to put on eyeliner. Then again, her little quips — she describes one makeup look as hanging out in an opium den with Rudolph Valentino — also show her range of references. (I have to think of those moments on RuPaul’s Drag Race or Project Runway when contestants don’t know what the 1940’s or 1970’s looked like! I always sound a deep, melancholic sigh.) In a final scene, DeVilla and the Princess wipe each other’s war paint off, laughing away. It’s just the right spirit: makeup is fun, a way to be outrageous, and always forgiving. After all, in what other part of life can you always wipe away your mistakes and try again?

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.