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.

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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.

Doumbek follies continue: it’s time to take off the wedding ring

I recently started working with Carmine Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop, a super basic and gentle introduction to the doumbek. As I wrote in the earlier post, I don’t think it makes sense to try and learn all these rhythms in a day: for beginners as rhythmically-challenged as myself, that’s a hopeless proposition!

Cross training the ring fingers!

Although I only popped the video in for the second time yesterday, the Doumbek Workshop has been with me constantly in the intervening time. Part of this is due to the brilliant idea to write down the rhythms on the inside cover of the CD. I was a fan of this from the start, and I’m even more enthusiastic now. Because, while I began working with the video by learning the maqsum and baladi basic forms, as I practiced on my own I noticed that the saidi basic form has beats on all the same accents. Pretty soon, without even getting further in the video itself, I was switching back and forth between the three rhythms, speeding them up, slowing them down, and so on.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that for the first time, I really am starting to identify rhythms in the Middle Eastern music I listen to. Not all of them, and not all of the time, but every now and then my ear will tune in and pick one out. And once I do, dancing to it becomes even more natural. This is precisely what I hoped for, and I don’t think it would have happened just watching bellydance rhythm instructionals. 

My husband, who is musically gifted, hearing me practice, picked up both the doumbek and the rhythms in a moment flat, and started filling them in. He hasn’t even watched the video, but he doesn’t need to! We’ve now had a few lovely sessions of him drumming, both Middle Eastern and other beats, and me improvising some bellydance moves to it. Needless to say, I am thrilled. I, who have never really performed in public, now get to practice improv drum solos with my own live musician!

I returned to video practice by running the maqsum, baladi, and saidi segments, the last of which felt like a repeat due to my intervening practice, although I hadn’t actually watched it yet. And then came the time, the time for… the dreaded ka.

Carmine demonstrates how not to do the ka.

My first doumbek classes were in a world drumming course, so half the students had djembes, and half had doumbeks. We learned our first rhythms holding the drums between our legs, which effectively also meant that I learned to do the ka with a few fingers of my left hand, pretty much like the tek. And that was fine, except I could also see that most doumbek players don’t do it that way. Carmine teaches a version in which the ring finger of the left hand produces the sound.

Now this is hard. I was very glad that when he introduced the ka, and most of the students in the drum circle could do it right away, he pointed out that they were repeat students and that getting any kind of ka sound on the first try was a triumph. He gives quite a few tips for placement of the hand and arm, and how relaxed they should be, that do increase my ka batting average. To my surprise, however, learning the dancey ayub rhythm actually helped me get the sound more frequently. Even though once Carmine sped that one up, I got lost again. Well, now I know what my homework is!

Mala on setting up a dance practice

If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, do go and take a look at Mala’s post on setting up a dance practice:

http://malabhargava.com/belly-dance/your-kind-of-practice.html

This is something I’m obsessed with, since I have so many videos, so much enthusiasm, and so little time. The best thing I’ve done for my practice is starting this blog and trying to review videos more often — it motivates me to work with new programs and revisit old ones.

But what spoke to me most about Mala’s post is this: sometimes we amateurs want to be super-organized and ambitious about dancing, especially when we fall, and fall hard, for something as enchanting as bellydance. But the thing is, it’s sometimes good to remember that we’re not professionals. That doesn’t mean not taking dance seriously, but it does mean that we have to remember to have fun with it, because nobody is giving us a grade or a cheque at the end of our dances. We’re doing it for ourselves.

Review of Rosa Noreen’s Delicious Pauses

Belly dance videos have come a long way since I made my first purchase, over ten years ago, of a Veena and Neena video that consisted mainly of them hopping side to side for what seemed like an eternity. We got better “basics” videos… then we got better workouts, and better drills… videos focused on all kinds of specialized forms of the dance (can you say “tribal style iranian-texan fusion with double feather poi and an isis tail”?). But one of the most inspiring innovations in the industry, from where I sit as a consumer and lover of dance, has to be the videos that deal with high-level dance concepts: how to refine movements, the tricks of performing, and how to convey a feeling or tell a story with dance. Rosa Noreen’s new DVD, Delicious Pauses: Negative Space in Movement, is just such a program.

Now let me start by saying that I have my biases when it comes to bellydance. While there are many fabulous dancers who practice forms of it, the ones that make me happiest to watch — and who most make me want to dance — are those who dance with a certain kind of simplicity. Now, that doesn’t mean simplicity is easy to achieve, but rather that they imbue the most basic movements with expression, fluidity, tension. And this is actually hard work. So right from the start, I was drawn to the concept behind Delicious Pauses: using drawn out movements, dramatic stops, and “negative space” to keep the audience engaged and interested.

The DVD itself has three sections. The first is a theoretical introduction, in which Rosa Noreen describes the kinds of pauses she will teach later in the DVD, along with some other principles of her methodology. I won’t give away the whole bag here, but I will say the most interesting for me was her use of breath to aid either a sense of calmness or a dramatic move. I’m used to thinking about breath in yoga, but have never managed to do it much in dance, and this video really made me see how integral a part of dance conscious breath (and not just remembering to breathe) can be.

If you’re like me, the theory will leave you interested but confused. This is where the second section comes in, a series of detailed exercises in which Rosa Noreen has you practice the different kinds of pauses. Now, this is very methodically done: for, say, undulations, she reviews all the principles, shows you how different pauses might work with an undulation, has you practice them in a follow-along drill (no talking, just on-screen text), and then has you improvise using the same movements.

I loved how incremental this strategy was, and how it kept building up on itself. Rosa Noreen repeats the concepts a lot, but it turns out they mean different things when applied to different movements. Having the theory and then showing all the ways it can be applied using practical exercises is just excellent teaching, in my opinion. And while only the main sections are in the DVD menu, the chaptering is detailed enough that I could easily skip to a certain section or repeat what I needed.

What I found was that once I hit the “improv” segments, my body started taking over… but it also started almost unconsciously incorporating the different kinds of pauses into other moves as well. This is really superb training for improv, because it’s not about doing a million moves, but about being able to vary the basic moves in interesting ways. By the end of this video, you can do six variations on a horizontal hip figure 8 without really even thinking about it too much!

The final section includes two combinations that have you practice the pauses and concepts, this time in a slightly different way — for example, with a languorous sweep of an arm, or a intentful pose. To be honest, they didn’t look like much when I watched them, but I did find when doing them that they also “taught” in a different way than the theory and exercises. The combos are presented and drilled in super small increments, then added together, re-explained, and drilled. For someone who has an easy time learning choreography, this would probably be tiresome. I am not that person, so I happen to be happy for very slow choreo teaching, and kind of wish every teacher did it this way!

Delicious Pauses is only about 75 minutes long, but it contains material that will be worth going over repeatedly. Although all the instruction is with bellydance moves — and you do have to know the moves already — the concepts could be more generally applicable to dance. I’ve watched it through once and then worked with the exercises and choreo once, and already I feel different performing the same moves. I have a better sense not just of what it’s like to slow down (and in fact, it’s harder to slow down than to speed up), but the kinds of effects and sensations I can get from varying regular speed, staccato, and slow movements.

This is really smart stuff, and lot of thought and care has been put into the making of this DVD. We’re light years beyond Veena and Neena’s “genie hop.”

Delicious Pauses is available at Amazon via the link, and from http://rosanoreen.com/. I received a review copy of the DVD from Rosa Noreen.

Review of Kaeshi Chai’s Expressive Bellydance Veil

Years ago, when I lived briefly in New York City, I managed to catch a few bellydance workshops and classes here and there. I took classes at Serena Studios (I think I still have my card with a few unstamped spots on it), and took a veil-oriented class with Elena Lentini in which I managed to wind up more tangled and dazed than I care to admit. During one of the workshops I took, I remember noticing Kaeshi Chai quietly doing her thing at the side of the room, and being impressed that a dancer who was already well known was continuing her training with us plebes. So when I saw Kaeshi begin her veil video by acknowledging her influences, among them Serena Wilson and Elena Lentini, it was a full-blown dose of New York nostalgia.

Kaeshi Chai’s Expressive Bellydance Veil is a compact introduction to a range of veil moves. I approached it as a beginner in things veilish, having had very little veil work in class (hence my confusion in Lentini’s studio), and not having worked with any other veil DVDs yet. Kaeshi begins by describing different kinds of veils available and explaining how to steam it. (Useful!)

As for the rest of the video, I think it’s best to think of it as a sort of movement encyclopedia. She introduces basic veil moves (like “around the world” and “butterfly”) in one section. This is followed by six combo sections, three with veil moves that begin from the front of the body, and three beginning in the back. In each combo, Kaeshi actually presents another three veil moves, and then puts them together into a small combination, which she repeats a few times.

The instruction is careful, but quick. Kaeshi will often show how a move looks, then demonstrates it slowly, often setting the veil down to explain the hand or arm paths without it. Then she has a few more practices, sometimes giving little tips along the way. A couple more sections after the combos show you how to move into a vertical hold on the veil, and show veil ropes, turbans, and whips.

My experience was that I was surprised by how quickly I got some of the moves, and how frustrated I got with others. The DVD doesn’t have a lot of drilling, so I think to make it work you really have to focus on little bits — take it one move at a time — and just practice, practice, practice. I’ll clearly need quite a few tries to get a sense of the weight of my veil and how not to get it in my face every time I do the butterfly. I would also suggest doing a warmup focused on the upper body before beginning, since your arms, shoulders, and neck will benefit from being loosened up, and then ending the practice by stretching these muscles.

The final segment of the DVD is a costumed performance by Kaeshi that uses all of the moves she presented in the DVD. It’s very lively and peppy, not the sort of romantic and languorous dance one often expects with veil, and it was nice to see that the veil can be used for a variety of effects.

Because I’m almost an utter beginner, pretty much all of the veil moves were new to me. There were no veil wraps, which I actually have done in class, but there were to-me-unexpected moves like whip and rope that used the veil for a fast, dramatic effect. Will you like the video? The DVD is well chaptered, and Kaeshi is personable on screen. At 50 minutes, it moves very quickly through a lot of information, so you have to be willing to stop and drill on your own. And while there is a bit of attention to how certain veil moves or arrangements might work with particular bellydance moves or steps, the focus here is clearly on what you can do with the veil itself rather than on creating a whole dance.

I think this video would be good for someone who would like a manageable introduction to holding and using the veil, or who wants to add some new veil moves to their repertoire. I don’t think it would satisfy someone looking for a long, everything-about-veil video with lots of drills and choreography. As for myself, I really enjoyed it because I was able to fit it in at the end of a long day, and can imagine returning to practice individual moves, which is my level right now. But it also made me curious for more on how to put a dance together!

Expressive Bellydance Veil is also available from Hollywood Music Center (from whom I got a review copy).

Working with Carmine Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop

Take enough bellydance classes, listen to enough Middle Eastern music, and eventually you have to come to terms with a simple fact: you’re going to have to learn to recognize and dance to the rhythms.

DOUM!

Now, I’m guessing that for most people this is not a hardship. Then again, most people can clap in time with a crowd, whereas I was always the person who clapped exactly halfway between the beats. I’ve had people explain some bellydance rhythms in class, but that’s just way too little exposure to really learn. I’ve played around with the rhythm lessons on videos like Jenna and Raquy’s The Heartbeat of Bellydance: Rhythms & Belly Dance Combinations for Drum Solos, but although that kind of program is valuable for learning how to dance to rhythms once you know them, for me it was still too little.

Eventually I recognized that if I really wanted to improve my sense of rhythm, I’d just have to ahead and learn how to drum. And frankly, the doumbek is a pretty sexy musical instrument. Did I mention I’m also pretty unmusical? So an instrument where I wouldn’t have to worry about melodic pitch really appealed to me.
This is by way of introduction to Carmine T. Guida’s Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop, a DVD that starts at the beginning — at the very, very beginning — of learning how to play a doumbek. Which is great, since I think a lot of the material you can find assumes some facility at drumming, and goes at a pretty fast pace. But I’m not the only dancer who has wanted to learn a bit of doumbek, and the fingers we learn to move so gracefully are not always adept at making dums and teks!

Although I have a review copy from Carmine, I think it actually doesn’t make sense to watch the video once and review it. I do have a tiny bit of background: I took a world drumming class this spring, and whether we used doumbeks or djembes, we learned new rhythms very slowly, and were taught to practice them a lot. So I’ll work with the video gradually, and let you all know how it goes.

Some first reactions: 

The first cool thing you’ll notice is not even on the DVD — it’s the inside cover. Open up the cardboard DVD case and you’ll see all the basic rhythms taught in the main workshop. I think this is nothing short of brilliant. Simple, but brilliant. I’m a visual person, and I often need to see a rhythm written down as well as to hear it. However, files included on DVDs tend to be annoying to work with, since I’d have to print them or the like, and just having the rhythm pop up on the screen means that I can’t practice with it. Having a handy, portable guide to the rhythms is wonderful, because I can use it to practice without even putting on the video.

The instruction is a filmed workshop, and Carmine begins with the very basics: how to hold the drum, a relaxed posture, finger positions, and how to hit the drum with the dum and the tek. My previous teacher had us do our teks with more of a closed hand (or maybe I just followed incorrectly!), and following Carmine’s instructions gave me a nicer sound that was easier to achieve. A few basic drills (again, all different from what I’d done before) help students switch between dum and tek — trickier than it sounds at first.

I recognize that look of intense concentration…

The workshop context is actually really nice. This kind of thing can be distracting in dance instructionals, but with drumming, where so much is about getting into a groove with others, it really makes sense. Carmine jokes around with the students which makes the whole thing more fun, and when he corrects them I notice that I was making the same mistake.

The thing that was very different from my class was this: while we were taught to count out rhythms, Carmine teaches them by sound. I worked with the sections for maqsum and baladi to start with. In each, he plays the very bare bones of the rhythm a few times slowly, then has the group join in and repeat. Once they get it, he might embellish the rhythm a few times, regularly returning to the skeleton form. On the one hand, I’m used to counting and missed it a bit. On the other, I liked that this way of teaching taught a focus on the general shape and sound of a rhythm, rather than an abstract count. Some of the workshop members seem to be dancers, and certainly much of the audience of the DVD will be too, so it makes sense to teach a kind of instinctive feeling for how the rhythms sound.

So far, I’m already excited about getting up tomorrow morning and tormenting my neighbours with baby maqsum and baby baladi! Next time: saidi, and my personal nemesis, the dreaded ka.

Baby Beginner Doumbek Workshop is also available at http://www.carmine.com/.