Review of Aslahan’s Taming Your Zills

You get a zills DVD. Or you go to class. And suddenly you are learning ten different rhythms, trying to layer them onto movements, and feeling that it’s all impossible.

At least, if you’re me.

I’ve done a bit of both, and most of the time, I can’t figure out how I’m going to get from here (no zill ability) to there (dancing with zills in a non-monotonous and coordinated way). I have a tough time with learning rhythms. Over various drum workshops and drum DVDs I’ve realised that it gets better with practice, but I need to learn things slowly. I certainly can’t jump into full rhythms and dancing.

Enter Aslahan. Her DVD, Taming Your Zills, is something different. She does not try to teach you a dozen rhythms and a choreography to go with them. The goal of her DVD is to get you to internalize some basic zill building blocks and be able to move while playing with them. That, frankly, is already a lot. She’s an improvisational dancer, and so it’s no surprise that her lessons and drills are particularly valuable if you want to be able to move freely to the music and still accompany yourself by playing zills.

Taming Your Zills is a smart DVD, and a must-have for anyone starting out on zills, as well as for anyone who has begun but doesn’t feel comfortable with them yet. In sixteen lesson, Aslahan takes you from the basics of holding the zills and playing what she calls the gallop (often called a triplet), to moving various parts of your body while playing increasingly harder patterns, and even to dancing to your own zilling!

Aslahan 1

It’s not a DVD to do in one go. Aslahan explains in the intro that you should really take time to work with each lesson and internalize it before doing the next one. The lessons themselves are brief, but they are followed by substantial drills or “exercises”. Here’s something I like: not only are the lessons and drills chaptered, so you can easily repeat an exercise, but you can also reach the exercises directly from a separate menu.

Here’s something I really, really like: the drills are not all the same. Aslahan has exercises in which she has you practice patterns. She has a series of drills for you to learn to move your arms or your hips with different patterns. In some exercises, she will play a pattern and you repeat it, thus teaching you to recognize patterns by their sound. There are a few improvisational drills too, at basic and advanced levels.

Along the way, Aslahan offers a wealth of useful tips: how to know which hand you’re using when you’re just starting out; good ways to incorporate zilling into particular songs; how to dance a whole show while keeping your zills on; dealing with zills in hair; and how to vary the volume of the zills by holding them differently (and when you might want to do so).

Because of its organization into lessons, Taming Your Zills is a great DVD to incorporate into a practice routine. In about ten minutes, you can complete one lesson and its exercise, so you can also work on the rest of your dance. I also like that the exercises vary between full-body dancing drills and ones that can be done with arm movements only, or even just with hands. This means that when I’m a little lazier or tired, I can practice a bit without getting out of my chair.

Aslahan 2

While Aslahan only covers three actual rhythms, she gives you the tools to build on what she shows. I really like being able to play along with someone or with a video, but I also found myself pausing the video and practicing on my own at different paces. It’s a DVD to use for a while. You could do the drills along with her but substitute different dance moves, or you could take the patterns she uses and practice them with other rhythms you learn.

Aslahan’s Taming Your Zills is a pedagogically smart and very useable instructional DVD. She makes me even me feel that, little by little, I could learn to dance with zills! Two performances round out the video and offer inspiration.

You can find Taming Your Zills on Amazon, and you should also check out Aslahan’s site, www.aslahan.com!

Kyria bellydancer Netherlands

Guest post: Kyria’s top ten DVDs for intermediate and advanced bellydancers

Dear readers, I’m thrilled to bring you today’s guest post from Kyria, a bellydancer from the Netherlands. Kyria and I have chatted online about our shared obsession with bellydance DVDs, and I asked her if she could provide a professional dancer’s perspective on how and which DVDs to use for at-home training. 

This is the first installment: a guide to Kyria’s favourite DVDs and how they fit into her practice. Which of these do you use? Are there others you also recommend? 

Kyria bellydancer Netherlands

I started bellydancing fifteen years ago, when video instruction was practically unheard of in the Netherlands. At best, dancers who travelled to Egypt brought back bootlegged VHS videos of famous dancers. We played these over and over again and tried to copy the moves and figure out what the dancer was doing.

I learned to bellydance through weekly classes from various live teachers, which was invaluable because beginning dancers need corrections and feedback in order to learn correct form, posture and technique. And boy, did I need correction! I still do, that’s why I take weekly ballet classes and go to workshops. Being a professional dancer means being a lifelong student.

I enjoy learning new things and believe that regular practice and exercise not only make me a better dancer, but they also keep me sane and healthy. However, due to work and life I sometimes don’t have the opportunity to follow classes with a live teacher. That’s why I build my instructional bellydance DVD library. Not dancing or not learning is simply not an option for me.

Streaming, downloading and the good old hardcopy DVD

Lately the market is expanding into streaming live classes and services that allow subscribers to download or stream instructional classes. This is a great way to try out classes, and it is very flexible and suited to individual needs. For me streaming doesn’t work as I hate it when the connection falters, but if your internet connection is fast and flawless, it’s a great service. I am also pretty hardcore in the sense that I like to own material. If the mood strikes me and I want to practice or research, I want it to be available and in my possession. That’s why I prefer DVDs.

What DVDs I would recommend for practice at home for an intermediate to advanced dancer? Here are my criteria for regular practice:

  1. I pick DVDs that are intermediate level or up. I have a need for speed and quality and want my practice to be as effective as possible;
  2. I like to shop around in (belly)dance styles so sometimes I use an Egyptian DVD, other times ATS. Don’t get me started on my fitness DVDs!
  3. I like to go through a DVD at least 5-7 times, to really absorb the concepts, technique and choreography. It’s like following a semester of real classes: one class is not enough to fully understand and learn the material. I revisit my DVD collection as often as I can;
  4. Sometimes I have fifteen minutes, sometimes I have 90 minutes. I like DVDs that offer me flexibility to create a session that fits my time schedule.

My DVD recommendations for at-home practice:

Jillina – Shape Up n’ Hip Out!

This is my go to DVD if I want to do some cardio, dance and be challenged by some combinations. The brilliance of this DVD is that it contains three twenty-minute work-outs: beginner, intermediate and advanced. All three are good. When I am in a hurry I do the intermediate and advanced one. Jillina is a very generous and warm instructor and I’ve taken multiple workshops with her through the years. She delivers every time with exciting and interesting choreographies and has excellent didactic skills.

Rachel Brice – Serpentine

This dancer knows how to teach! I hope to do a weeklong with her someday. In the workshops I took with her in the past she hadn’t advanced yet to where she is now as an instructor. The two-DVD set contains drills, choreography and some talks and information on several subjects like the backbend. This kept me busy for months. Easy to pop in and choose what you want to do for the day. My only minor negative point is that the yoga warm-up and yoga cool-down are too long for my taste.

Jenna – The Heartbeat of Bellydance

Rhythms, a couple of choreographies and live drumming. What’s not to like about this one? The performances are taped in a cramped studio so I don’t think they convey well on this DVD. Great for intermediates to get to know rhythms and dance to the different rhythms. As a professional dancer, repetition of rhythms is always a good thing. The choreographies are not that complicated but Jenna has a personal style that is different from mine (so lots to learn) yet similar in musicality that I keep coming back to it because it is fun.

*my personal pet peeve is that I am big on musicality. DVDs that use awful music, that are edited with the dancer being out of sync with the music or dancers that have a musical interpretation that opposes mine are not on this list. I grind my teeth and put up with blegh music if the quality of the instruction is high or the content is awesome)*

Ranya Renee – The Baladi

The elusive baladi is captured on this DVD set. It is hard to videotape, explain and show baladi on a DVD but Ranya does an excellent job. She shows the instruments, explains the progression in the music, and offers nifty visual explanations on what muscles to engage and on to the actual dancing. I love that this is an instruction for improvisation and the baladi is one of my favourite styles. I have to be in the mood for this DVD and let the material simmer a while to get results, but it is one of the few DVDs that aim to create a strong connection between dancer and music. Improvisation and musicality are essential for a professional bellydancer.

Aziza’s Ultimate Bellydance Pratice Companion

Buy it. Now. I’ve been using it for over seven years and I enjoy it every. Single. Time. Aziza is engaging, charming and knowledgeable and makes a 21-minute shimmy drill fun. This DVD can be used by beginners, intermediates and advanced dancers, making it rather unique in the world of instructional DVDs. Her workshops and Dreamcamp are also amazing and I highly recommend her. I took my first workshop with her in 2009 and I still go as often as I can as she keeps on working on new material and concepts.

Suhaila – Bellydance for Beginners 4 Volume Set

Suhaila Salimpour’s style might be your cup of tea, or it might not. This DVD set gives you a taste of her philosophy, in bite-sized work-outs. Each one contains a bit of drilling, combinations, and a short choreography. I did a three-day intensive with Suhaila which is much more focused on her method and philosophy. But, as a dancer with limited time, this set gives me a taste without needing to emerge completely in her concept. Even if Suhaila’s dance style is not your thing, her ideas about drilling, muscle isolation and layering are fascinating and quite useful. Plus glute squeezes can be done anywhere! Her glute squeeze technique has brightened up many long meetings at work.

Jillina – Instructional Bellydance with Jillina 3 DVD Set

For the choreography junkie in me, Jillina delivers excellent material that satisfies my hunger for surprising combinations, music interpretation, and footwork. Her footwork patterns are influenced by ballet, modern, jazz, and the Reda Troupe style of dance. Footwork is what I need to create my own improvisations and choreographies and beginner DVDs usually include a very basic level. If you are at a point where you want more, try this DVD set.

Jenna – Bellydance – The Next Level

I like this DVD because the warm-up is perfect for my body and Jenna is very good in explaining concepts. The drills section is great for an oriental style drill, and there are two choreographies I can work with to internalize the material. The drum solo is fun. My only comment is that the music is hard to come by as a European dancer, so I stream it from a Spotify playlist for my own practice.

Zoe Jakes – From A to Zoe

Lots of drills and classes with Zoe Jakes, with great tips on flutters and abdominal isolation. The nice thing about Tribal Fusion is that it has a different way of using and combining moves, and the stylisation is completely different compared to bellydance. When I feel like going out of my comfort zone, this is a good one.

Michelle Joyce – Killer Ziller

I didn’t include specialty DVDs in this list because I wanted to give a general list. I am not going to include DVDs on veilwork, assaya, khaleegy, Turkish, etc. I make an exception for zills as they are not specialty but a basic piece of knowledge for a professional bellydancer. They are a musical instrument that need to be trained as often as possible while dancing. I like to slip on my zills during regular DVDs and play basic zill patterns to get them into my system. This DVD offers a range of zill drills, combined with dance moves. It is perfect for regular practice and increasing awareness of playing zills while dancing.

Interesting links

Learning to bellydance from video – Shira

Eight dvds for home practice– Ananke

Learning bellydance by DVD – Jade

Online bellydance classes that I used, liked and recommend

Datura – Good stuff, from various teachers. Includes video’s in different styles, and you can choose between renting one video or subscribing for full access.

Suhaila Salimpour school online (if you are into her format. if you don’t know what her format is, try her DVD set first!)

Cairo Bellydance – For the experience of a workshop in Egypt from the comfort of your own home. Mostly juicy Egyptian bellydance, straight from a dancer living and performing in Egypt.

Sources for DVD’s

RaqsTv – Hard copy or digital download

Cheeky Girls Productions – A huge collection of instructional and performance DVDs (sometimes available in download). By dancers, for dancers.

World Dance New York – Plenty of bellydance instructionals, world dance dvds and pilates/yoga. Great value for your money.

Hollywood Music Center

About Kyria:

Kyria is closing in on celebrating her first decade as a professional bellydancer. Her (Dutch) dance website is at www.buikdansereskyria.com.  She lives in Utrecht, The Netherlands with her husband and dog and eagerly looks forward to a new addition to the family at the end of 2015. She is a member of two belly dance troupes: Sense of Bellydance (Utrecht) and the Dalla Dream Dancers (The Hague), teaches weekly classes at the Utrecht University and enjoys making belly dance costumes. She blogs about her costuming projects and all things belly dance at kyriascostumes.com.

Khalida dancing drum solo with Issam

Review of Shimmies with Khalida

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One thing I’ve learned? It makes a difference when a dancer is as obsessed with DVDs as I am.

Khalida is a Belgian bellydancer living in Germany. She’s a gorgeous dancer, and, like us amateurs, works with a lot of DVDs. I frankly kind of love that — I always imagine the pros are getting private lessons in Cairo all the time, but in fact, many of them also like to take advantage of the incredible wealth of knowledge and instruction you can get on DVDs, at a fraction of the price of a workshop.

So I had high hopes when I opened up Shimmies with Khalida. I also really wanted to work on my shimmies, which are just kind of okay — I can do what I need to for a choreo, but they could be much stronger. What did I think? The DVD is… how to put it? Brilliant.

Khalida bellydance solo

The first thing to say is that Shimmies with Khalida features almost two hours of content. Sure, you could work with everything all the way through, and I did that one evening for what was a fantastic workout. But you can also adapt it in all sorts of ways. There are many different types of instruction here, including conditioning for shimmy work, technique instruction (with mini-drills) in a variety of shimmies, and a 21-minute shimmy drill. You can basically pick and choose what you want to work on. And here’s where you can tell that Khalida is an avid DVD user: not only is everything chaptered and available via the menus, but she gives you the amount it takes. For everything. So if you have twenty-five minutes, you can do squats conditioning and the long shimmy drill for example. Or if you want to do a shorter cool-down, you can choose one of the sub-chapters instead of both. And if you just want to brush up on 3/4 shimmies, that’s easy to do too!

Shimmies with Khalida typical menu

So let’s go through the program. After a brief introduction, you have a detailed posture explanation and a short but effective dancing warm-up. After that, you have one of the coolest sections of this DVD, and something that really sets it apart, about 19 minutes of conditioning exercises for shimmies. These include squats conditioning, a beautifully intense mini-workout with port-de-bras, soothing standing stretches, a brilliant seated shimmy drill in which Khalida teaches you tricks to keep shimmies even, followed by yoga-inspired seated stretches (though actually these include lunges and standing moves too).

khalida2

The sitting conditioning exercises — my favourite way to practice!

The Technique and Exercises section covers eight shimmies:

Basic hip shimmy
Egyptian shimmy
Shiver shimmy/freeze
African shimmy/bounce
Shoulder shimmy and twist
Choochoo shimmy
3/4 shimmy “up”
3/4 shimmy “down”

Khalida’s instruction is clear. She begins from scratch, though I don’t think this is really a DVD for beginner dancers, as she tends to build up quickly. In most cases, she doesn’t go to maximum speed though — an exception being the 3/4 shimmies, which I couldn’t even dream of keeping up with. Usually, her focus is on even movement, something I found useful as I’m usually just trying to speed up. In a number of cases, Khalida offered tips that I’d heard nowhere else, like moving your hips like a steering wheel for the basic hip shimmy. The choo-choo is a problem shimmy for me, but her instruction for this got me further than I’ve ever been before. What’s neat is that these instructional sections also include mini-drills, which might have you layering the the shimmy on hip work or doing arm moves while shimmying.

Khalida demonstrates choo-choo shimmy

Khalida demonstrates choo-choo shimmy

The next section shows the Aziza connection — Khalida has her own extended shimmy drill, in which she revisits all the shimmies she taught, but combines them into a long practice flow. Again, she layers them, adds arms, and adds movement across the floor. And here’s the thing I noticed when doing the whole DVD in one go — the drills she provides in the extended drill are not the same as in the instructional sections. They are new. So if you do both together, you are doing new, challenging drills all the time. I found I could follow along with most of it, though there were points — 3/4 shimmies again — where I was lost. But that also means it’s a program to grow into.

Khalida's extended shimmy drill

I’m relieved Khalida has also worked up a sweat in the extended shimmy drill

The workout part of the DVD closes with a soft cool down, and a delicious dancerly stretches session.

I love this DVD, not only because I think the instruction is excellent, but because there’s such attention to detail. Khalida has a friendly, cheerful, but not over-perky demeanour. She gives frequent tips to keep the shoulders down and chest up, as though sensing what I need. Many dance or workout instructors doing more complex patterns might neglect one side in favour of another — what struck me about Shimmies with Khalida was that in almost two hours of instruction, that happened once, maybe. If the right side works, so does the left. And the production itself is beautiful and clear, filmed in a large, bright studio, with a big mirror behind Khalida showing you how things look from the back.

Finally, the special features. These include two performances by Khalida, one of them with Issam on drums. There are behind the scenes pictures, an interview with Khalida, and some promotional material.

I received a review copy of this DVD, and I’ve also chatted with Khalida on Facebook. All that aside, Shimmies with Khalida is a truly excellent DVD, and frankly a great workout too. I love the conditioning section, and also that you can customize practices using the DVD. And there are simply so many different drill ideas here. You could do an instructional section a few times over for good practice, or you could take a drill and then do it to music on your own. Or you could just do the extended shimmy drill once a week to keep everything smooth. There is lots to work with.

You can get Shimmies with Khalida at http://khalidashop.com/, and there is also a listing on Amazon. You can also now stream and download the DVD at https://gumroad.com/khalida, which loses the chaptering magic, but adds the convenience of working with it wherever you are, on a computer or tablet.

Review of Heather Wayman’s Belly Dance for the Busy, Everyday Woman

Hmm…. I wonder who that busy, everyday woman in the title of Heather Wayman’s new DVD is? Look, dear readers, you know I try to write reviews that give you a sense of what it’s really like to work with a DVD. For a normal person. A regular, non-pro dancer, with a practice that goes up and down. But this time I went a little overboard with the method acting approach to bellydance DVD review. In the past while, I was so busy, and so everyday, that I could barely get to dance. Due to ongoing babysitting mayhem, one cold after another, and a husband working out of town, I’ve been missing my live classes, and often finding myself so pooped after a day of work and childcare that I can hardly bring myself to pop in a video. Heather Wayman, bellydancer So I’m the perfect test case. Heather Wayman’s Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman is designed for beginners, for women who don’t have a lot of time to devote to their practice, for women who can only do a little bit at once. And this is exactly how I worked with the program. I never did it all the way through. Instead, I made smaller programs for myself by combining the warmup, one or more segments of instruction, and the cool-down. Before I get into the details of the DVD, let me give you the big picture. I had two big question marks going in: would this program be accessible to beginners, and would it really work around a busy schedule? My answer to both is yes. If you have never taken a bellydance class, with a little concentration you could follow Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman. But while most beginner DVDs give you a lot of moves but don’t show you how to put them together, Heather shows you just a few moves, but puts them into a basic choreography you can dance. It’s a different approach to beginner instruction, one that incorporates music and transitions, but doesn’t give you every move in the book. As to the busy schedule, the fact that the segments are short did make me think that, okay, even though I was tired, I could just do the warmup and one segment and still have danced a bit that evening. Once I got my computer set up I tended to dance for longer than I intended, which was nice, but not always. But here was the surprise: even when I only danced a little bit, when I did make it back to class my movements were smoother, faster, better coordinated. This happened several times, and I was amazed to notice that even a short, well-structured program could make a difference to the dancing I did in class. In other words: you can do something, even when at your busiest, and most tired. Heather Wayman demonstrating beginner bellydance moves But now let’s get to the nitty gritty. Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman consists of an introductory sections, nine learning modules, and a closing section. Introduction Heather begins by describing the program, how to work with the DVD, and how the mirroring works. Mirroring is always important, but for a beginner choreography, even more essential. She then goes through proper dance posture. Her description is brief enough to remember, and she repeats it several times, and continues giving posture reminders throughout the program. One of the things Heather does that’s unusual for a beginner’s DVD is to explain why you should hold your knees or back in a certain way — either because it affects the look of the dance, or because it can prevent injury. Mirroring, posture, healthy movement — these things are, in my opinion, essential for beginner DVDs. This is followed by a short warmup. While it is not particularly long, it is also not just stretches. Heather does get you moving enough to raise your heart rate, so you’re actually warmup. What struck me about the warmup is that it’s all done standing, and even with the aerobic movements, can be done in a small space. Great for the home learner who doesn’t want to pull out the yoga mat or push the furniture around.

Heather Wayman demonstrates beginner belly dancing

The Modules Modules 1 to 6 help you build towards a choreography by introducing around three movements and putting them into a small combination. So, for example, module 1 introduces chest lifts, vertical chest circles, and shoulder rolls. The combo is then repeated with cues, with cues and music, then just with music. And every single one of these sections is reachable in a submenu, so if you want to practice in just one way, you can. Heather works through the verses of the song, and includes enough repetition of combinations that you wind up covering quite a bit of the song with a few basic patterns. The music is fun, and the moves are cute and go with the music in a clear, easy to grasp way.

Heather Wayman shows belly dancing moves

Especially when I began working with the program, I wondered: would a total beginner do okay with this? In a sense, it’s hard for me to tell. Heather’s descriptions of movements are very thorough, often even pointing out what muscles are used to drive a move. That can be helpful for some beginners, but others just need a lot of drilling, or more basic instruction. Shimmies definitely take a lot more time and work than they’re given here. But while this video does not offer a lot of individual drills, Heather does give a lot of tips on on typical beginner mistakes or “pitfalls”, which would allow you to self-correct. The thing that I thought was particularly clever was to offer a choreo that has changes of direction, level, and intensity. When we first learn bellydance, we tend to do a lot of “four of this, four of that” choreographies, usually facing forward (to the mirror). It’s hard, at the start, to see how you can do interesting things with the movements. While Heather teaches a limited number of moves, she’s implicitly teaching how they can be varied and built into a dance — and I think this is really important. The final three modules do not teach moves like the others. Module 7 focuses on Taqsim. In this section, Heather describes taqsim, and offers examples of how to dance to the taqsim beginning of the song. (The choreo lessons begin after the taqsim.) In Module 8, Heather goes through the choreography again, counting it out, then doing it with music and cues. And in Module 9, Heather goes through the combinations and moves already covered and suggests corresponding arm movements. Special Features Under the Special Features menu, you get a series of options. The first is a written list of the combinations. Next up is a mini-lesson on possible ending poses. From this menu you can also choose to dance along with a vide of the choreo taken from the back, or you can watch the dance as a costumed performance. And finally — a gag reel. But wait kids, that’s not all! Heather also offers bonus content on her website that I had a peek at. This is only available if you buy the DVD from Heather’s website. It’s material that didn’t make it onto the DVD for reasons of time, and it includes:

  • Choreography notation in an Excel spreadsheet
  • A stream of the edited music
  • Downloadable files of the individual combos from the back view into a mirror, in a loop for practice
  • The same videos, but watchable in the browser
  • A video with alternative arms and stylizations for the combos
  • A set of bonus taqsim demonstrations to other music

Heather Wayman's costumed belly dance performance

Other notes I’ve taken a live workshop with Heather and corresponded with her via email and Facebook. (And this was, by the way, a review copy I worked with.) She has a healthy dose of bellydance nerdiness, by which I mean that she thinks. This DVD shows the marks of her thinking about how to make the material useful and approachable to the beginner in every possible way — menu options for each little section, various ways to practice the full choreo, etc. I sometimes found this a bit confusing (I couldn’t quite tell why some things were modules and other things were special features), but overall, I think having a DVD with lots of different options is a Good Thing, and a great use of the technology. The other thing I really liked, and that I very much hope other DVD producers will note, is the kind of music used in the DVD. What do I mean? Heather uses three different songs — one for warmup, one for the choreo, and one for the cool-down. All of these songs are on the same CD, Raksa With Amir: Music for Bellydance. You only need to buy one. Oh yeah, and the CD is moderately priced, is available digitally (because is a beginner really going to wait for an obscure vendor to mail them a CD?), and if you don’t want to spend nine bucks on the whole CD, you can just buy the songs individually. And the music is good. The choreo Heather teaches does not take up the whole of Halim Mix, but it occurs at the beginning, so someone looking to perform it would not have to do complicated cutting. Is it for you? If you are beyond the beginner stage, or are looking for a comprehensive collection of moves presented in a systematic way, this is not the DVD to challenge you in the way you want. If you are truly a beginner, or have only done a bit of class… if you want to start putting moves together into a manageable choreography, or even learn how to modify basic moves to make them look interesting, Belly Dance For the Busy, Everyday Woman would be a good choice. You can get it at Amazon, but the bonuses are only available if you order direct from Heather at www.bellybyheather.com. 10441961_10152095942980518_6287854576637646118_n

Mistakes to avoid when producing a dance or exercise DVD

Maybe you’re producing your very first video, maybe it’s your fiftieth. Chances are, you’re going to make some mistakes… mistakes that have been made before by other people, and that you could have avoided. Mistakes that will lead either to customers ignoring your DVD, or to them being unhappy with it.

Wouldn’t you like to make a DVD that your customers will buy, and then be so satisfied with they’ll leave positive reviews online and recommend it to their friends? In writing this blog, I’ve looked at a lot of videos, and I see the same problems come up. I sometimes wonder why producers don’t think of these things, but I suspect it’s because those of us who use dance and workout videos have a different perspective on them than the people who make them.

This checklist is primarily intended for producers of dance DVDs, but quite a few of the tips apply to general workout videos too.

Content

Quality and Length of Content

Think about what you have to offer: are you covering ground that’s already been covered by a million other videos, or do you have something new to offer? Do your research, whether on Amazon, or by reading reviews in blogs and magazines. Moreover, do you have enough content? I’ve loved some shorter DVDs because they had a unique approach or taught me something truly new, but there is a line below which it’s not really decent to ask someone to pay full price for a DVD. Don’t count performances or non-instructional extras when you figure out what you’re offering.

Content in DVD Sets

If you’re putting out multiple videos, make sure the overlap between them is minimal, so your most loyal customers — those buying more than one — will not feel ripped off. If the sets build on each other, make it easy to see that. If they work independently, make it easy to figure that out too.

Skill

Your technique should be perfect. This should go without saying, but alas, it doesn’t. If you don’t have amazing technique, you probably should not be demonstrating moves for instruction on a video. In a class environment, you can correct mistakes you see even if you still haven’t mastered the move, but with a video you can’t. And if you have special knowledge you want to share, either make a lecture video, or get someone with better technique to do the demos. But here’s another thing: if you choose to have backup dancers/yoginis/etc. doing the moves with you, make sure their moves are also carried out exquisitely, even if they’re modified for difficulty. We learn what we see, and if we see you do bad technique, we’ll absorb just that.

Guidance

Don’t leave your students in the lurch — give them some advice about how to use the video, what they need to make it work, how to plan their practice sessions. This is especially true if you have a lot of material, if it’s especially difficult, or if you’ve made a complicated DVD menu. This is also an opportunity for you to teach them how you approach practice, which is often just as valuable as technique.

Warmup and Cool Down

People disagree on this one — not everyone thinks there needs to be a warmup and cool down on every video. I get that. But I will say that I think it’s pretty great if there is one, and if it’s easy for me to press “play” and get a full practice session, with warmup, instruction and/or drills, and cool down.

Space and Supplies

Imagine yourself buying your video, and trying to use it. What does it require? Does someone need lots of special props and supplies to do it? You’re probably filming in a studio — are you doing large traveling moves that someone might not be able to do in a small living or rec room? I’ve often seen cardio workout videos that require you to cover lots of room, which is possible in a gym, but difficult in the space I’ve cleared out in my living room. What about flooring? If you have a lot of spins or moves on the floor, have you thought about the fact that your audience’s practice space might be carpeted? It doesn’t mean you can’t include them, it just means you have to deal with that issue, either by suggesting a hardwood floor, or by providing a variation of the move.

Music

Please, please make sure your movements match the music. This is as true for exercise videos as it is for dance instructionals. It’s just that much easier to follow along if everything is in time. And if you’re teaching dance, dancing to the music is something you’re also teaching whether you address is explicitly or not, so make sure that part of things is perfect. Perfect.

More Music

If you’re teaching a choreography, please for the love of God choose music that’s currently available, and ideally, available without too much effort. Your customers should not have to order a CD from abroad to get the track — try to choose things they are likely to be able to buy online, or at least in the same country. Then provide credits, so your customers can find that music easily. If you’ve cut the track to make it fit the choreography, then give your customers easy-to-follow instructions to edit the track, or make it possible somehow for them to get a legal edited version.

Mirroring

I think of this as the mark of the pro. Either film yourself (or the talent) facing the audience, but move your left arm when you say “right” so they can follow along, or film yourself from the back facing a mirror. Bonus points if you’re teaching dance for showing a move both from the front and the back, and drilling it both ways.

Formatting and Production

DVD chaptering

The first rule is to do DVD chaptering, unless you really just mean for the program to be done as a single workout or practice session. But even better is sitting down and thinking about how someone might use the DVD the first time around, and how they might use it a second, or tenth time. Make it easy to skip the introductory bits. Make it easy to do all the drills without the instruction. If you can provide different built-in programs so they can choose a short version or a long one, even better. I’ve even seen dancers include different angles of the same program.

More chaptering

Have frequent chapters, it makes it easier for us to repeat a section. Put all of them in the menu, or in submenus, so we can get to them easily.

Timing

Write down the exact length of each section/program/workout both on the DVD cover and in the menu. Make it easy for people to see if they have time to do the DVD, or if they can fit one section of it into their day. Make sure this timing is accurate — on many DVDs I see it’s not.

Visibility

Ahem, cough, cough. If you’re wearing green, don’t film yourself against a green background. If you’re wearing black, don’t film yourself against black curtains. I’ve seen both of these, from dancers I adore. Again, this is a matter of putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. Maybe she has weird lighting in her practice room, or is using a laptop that doesn’t show contrasts as well from a distance. Maybe she’s using a projector, and the contrasts are also not that strong. Maybe she’s taken off her glasses, and can still see pretty well without them, but not every detail. (Maybe all of these examples are from my own experience…) Make it easy on her eyes, please. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while I think black backgrounds look cool and modern up close, they should be avoided for the home video market altogether. Put your dancer against a bright, light background, either a studio or plain white, and have them wear clothes that make movements easy to see.

More Visibility

Camerapersons are wild creatures, and need to be led with a firm hand, lest they go astray. You’re teaching a choreography, and there they go focusing just on your abdomen. You’re demonstrating hands, and suddenly the camera is pointing at your feet. Did he get tired? Did his head and arms droop and bring the camera downwards? I don’t know. But look, during this complicated traveling move, suddenly the camera has become intensely interested in your facial expression! Discipline your cameraman — or woman — and make sure that camera is pointing where it needs to at every single moment.

Marketing

Trailer

If you have enough time to make a video, you have enough time to make a trailer for it, and make it widely and easily available. Put it on your site, put it on YouTube and on Amazon. Oh, and in the trailer, I don’t want to see you dancing or see shots of you looking pretty — what I want is to get a sense of what material is covered by the video and see a clip of how you teach or demonstrate. This should be the substance of the trailer, not the performance or your general thoughts on the dance, because the instruction is what I’m going to love or hate when I use the video.

Title

Make sure the name of your DVD really fits what it offers. Don’t call it a beginner DVD when the moves are advanced, or when you only have a very fast breakdown of them. Save the word “beginner” for people who have never done whatever it is you’re teaching in their entire lives, ever, and are now standing in their sweat pants in front of their tv learning their first steps from you. Use “advanced beginner,” “intermediate,” etc., as appropriate, if you’re expecting a bit of background.

Promises

Don’t make BS promises. Look, I know maybe it’s good business sometimes to make them, but please, just for me, don’t. Don’t tell your customers they’ll lose weight doing your program when they almost certainly won’t. Don’t promise them enlightenment or goddess-hood, unless you can guarantee it. Don’t tell them they’ll be a perfect dancer after one DVD. Because you know what will happen? They’ll find out that you were lying, and will leave unhappy comments all over the internets. Maybe you were offering something of value, but you misrepresented it, and so you didn’t do your own work justice either. You can promise them fun, you can promise them a new experience, or quality instruction, or a great tool to use in their practice. You can promise them relaxation, and you can even say, “if you do this x number of times a week, and pay attention to your diet, you’ll have positive results.” You can promise them a challenge. But be honest.

Your Thoughts?

Consumers of dance and workout DVDs, have I missed any big mistakes? What do you wish producers knew?
Producers and artists, what are the big mistakes you learned from? Anything here you disagree with? What do you wish customers knew?

photo credit: GS+ via photopin cc

Review of Elena Brower’s AM & PM Yoga for Beginners

When it comes to yoga DVDs, I go through phases. For a while, I was looking for something that would give me an experience similar to class, a long, intense practice that would leave me utterly mellowed out and exhausted. I was frustrated with all the 60-minute DVDs, wondering where I could find a “proper” 90-minute practice that would be like the real thing.

Now it’s harder. If I do yoga at all, it’s on stolen time. I steal some time from my work, because I know the yoga will refresh me and help me to concentrate better and with less caffeine. Or I steal some time from my sleep, because my back is already hurting and I want to wake up feeling better, not worse.

Elena Brower does pigeon pose

I recently dipped into my collection, and found just the right thing for the place where I am these days: Elena Brower’s AM & PM Yoga for Beginners. It’s incredibly straightforward: no sitting through long shots of foliage, no lengthy introductions. You get a menu, and you choose one of the workouts, or both. AM. Or PM.

The morning practice is about 36-minutes long. It’s slow-paced, geared more towards waking up your body and opening it into the positions than towards working up a sweat. You have a modified sun salutation, a lot of downward dog and back-soothing cat-cow combinations, a warrior series. Some twists and balances, and a little abdominal work. Elena offers modifications to increase the challenge in some of the poses. And it does the trick, leaving me rejuvenated, but not so tired I can’t work anymore.

The evening practice is 28-minutes long. I like the AM program, but I love the PM program. It has a lot of breathing, and deep, wonderful stretches. While many of the poses look quite basic, it’s the quality of the instruction that stands out. There will be a little variation, like a twist added to the pigeon pose (as in the image). Or she will guide you to do an asana with precise muscular awareness. I always thought that staff pose is easy, but now I see that doing it right takes a lot of attention. This is the kind of teaching that affects how I do other video yoga programs too. Last night, for example, I was working with a yoga app, and found myself remembering the instructions from Elena’s DVD.

What struck me most about AM & PM Yoga for Beginners was the way Elena works with breath, and this is where I think it gets interesting for dancers too. Instead of directing you to breathe into the stomach, she will have you breathe into the back, even curving the upper back in a little and straightening on the exhalation. All of the breathwork I have ever been taught in yoga, in class or on video, has been into the stomach, then chest. This is wonderfully relaxing, but it has meant that when I’m in dance class, and have to keep my abdominals engaged, I don’t know how to breathe anymore. I know that I’m supposed to breathe both into my chest and into my back, but my back muscles are tight and won’t budge. One of the reasons I’ll return to AM & PM Yoga for Beginners is this breathwork, which is also, in fact, practice in relaxing the muscles of the back to let more air into the lungs. It may just be the trick to breathing and dancing at the same time!

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.