Nadira Jamal's roller coaster

Nadira Jamal’s Rock the Routine — reflection and a special offer

The first time Nadira Jamal ran her Rock the Routine course, I was there.

I was also the mother of a three-month-old baby and had just moved to a new country, but I was there.

So it was unlikely from the start that I would see it through, but I did work with the program as long as I could.

Nadira’s just announced that she’s running the program again, and this time, alumni can join — both to do it, and to be a resource for new participants. And I’ve signed up. Here is why.

Rock the Routine is a course designed to teach you how to perform a full, traditional six-part routine. You know, old school Am-Cab. You go through strategies for the Introduction, Veil, Middle Section, Chiftetelli, Drum Solo, and Finale. You not only learn how to keep an audience’s interest throughout an entire show, but improvisation strategies for each individual section, along with music tips — the whole deal!

Now, I’ve only done troupe performances, never a solo of my own. So it’s pretty unlikely I’ll be doing a full six-part routine on a stage anytime soon. But for me, it’s not really about the routine per se.

What I liked about Rock the Routine were all the little, manageable assignments. Nadira basically teaches you how to improvise dance in a structured way. Or how to structure choreographies, perhaps with some give built into them for improv. I do want to perform solos this year, and since I don’t really like to perform other people’s choreographies, I need some help. I need to know how to start.

Some of the exercises are five minutes long. Some are fifteen minutes. They’re doable little bits that are practice in putting moves together into a dance, and in a way that’s effective, interesting for an audience, and establishes a certain mood. This is what I want.

My one criticism of Rock the Routine when I first did it was that it moved way too fast for me. I suspect I wasn’t the only one, because Nadira took our feedback and slowed down the pace of the course. So I’m also looking forward to doing the course at a more reasonable tempo.

So that’s me. What about you?

Well, if you’re interested in doing Rock the Routine too, you can sign right up at:

As with many online courses, you can do a basic version or a premium version that includes participation in a Facebook group for support, and the full routine playbook as a download.

This year, you can get an upgrade to the premium version for free. All you do is add the PREMIUM package to your cart. Then you enter the coupon code ATISHEH in the shopping cart and hit Apply. After that, you continue the checkout process.

If you do, I get a small commission, and you get the upgrade for free. (Sneaky Nadira is getting us alums to spread the word, you see. But everyone wins if we do.)

So that’s it. I’ll be there, working on my improv skills. Will you join me?

(The header image is from Morguefile!)

Atisheh's practice dance space/home studio

Reflecting on Nadira Jamal’s How to Build a Sustainable Practice Habit

I paid 109 dollars for an online course.

I never finish online courses.

I did not finish this online course.

Was it worth it?

Hell yeah.


I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t sure about it at first. When Nadira Jamal, a.k.a. The Belly Dance Geek, advertised her online course for developing a practice habit, I knew it was the right thing for me, but worried about starting another online course I wouldn’t finish.

Then again, it was a bit of a catch-22. My biggest problem in dance is the discipline to practice. Would I have the discipline to stick with a course that would teach me discipline?

The other issue is that I knew, before I even signed up, that the coming months would be insanely difficult and busy. Lots of international travel, lots of deadlines. Lots of things more important than dance in my life.

But I decided to go through with it anyway. Part of the reason was that I knew Nadira (from email, from facebook, etc.) and I knew she’d done a lot of research on habit formation. And I’m interested in good habits for reasons beyond dance — I want to write every day, and I want to cook more often. So I thought of the course as a way of getting Nadira’s research instead of doing it myself.

Nadira talks about this concept of the “hilariously low minimum.” The idea is that you set a goal that is so laughably small, that it’s truly easy to achieve. It gets you to show up. If you still want to quit after that, you can, and the deal is you don’t get to feel guilty about not doing enough. But often, showing up is the hardest part, so you keep going.

Well, I decided when I began that I would stick to that idea like white on rice. My goal would not be to practice an hour a day, but 20 minutes max. And I would keep my hilariously low minimum. If I only danced 2 minutes a day, that would still be a quarter of an hour a week of dance I otherwise would not have had.

So what happened?

As I predicted, a strong takeoff, and sputtering in the middle. But that was okay. I saved all of Nadira’s audio lessons (which I did listen to), and all of her worksheets (most of which I didn’t wind up doing), and I know I can always go back to them. Nadira also had an option to join a Facebook support group, and that kept me going even when I faltered with the homework — and it is still running now.

But that didn’t matter. Because in the time that I did stick with the program, something happened. I changed. I changed from a person who couldn’t even imagine practicing (that’s for professional dancers!) to a person who just plain did.

I’m not any more disciplined now, really. But that was the magic of Nadira’s program — it wasn’t about building discipline, it was about making practice an easy decision. She advises trying morning practice, because we have the most willpower in the morning. I resisted this for a while, but when I kept being too tired to dance in the evenings, I switched to mornings. Mornings are much, much better. Mornings make everything possible, it turned out. It also — to my massive surprise — turns out that I don’t mind going to bed at 10 pm and getting up at 5:30 am so I can dance. Is your mind blown? Mine is.

One of the exercises Nadira had us do early on had to do with figuring out the importance of dance in our lives. I realised that dance is very, very important to me, but that it still comes way after family and my career. That made it clear to me that I had to make space for dance in my life, but also that it was okay if it made space for the other priorities. I would still like to be dancing more, especially in class, but I’m not as frustrated as I would be if I weren’t dancing at all (which was the case for so many years).

Changing the way I see myself — from a person who can’t practice to one who can — has also made it easier to get back on the wagon after sickness and travel. There is a kind of mental block that isn’t there anymore. I don’t have to tell myself I can do it. I just put on my dance clothes and practice.

I discovered that a personal practice brings joys that are different from class. Class is often more intense physically, because I don’t get as lazy. Personal practice is more creative. Even when I did drills or worked with videos, I almost always wound up breaking off from the “program” to improvise to some music. I found myself inventing all kinds of little moves and combos. I found myself dancing.

My only regular dance classes these days are ballet, and those began just before Nadira’s course. So part of the fun of my practice time is seeing how much even a few months of ballet has changed the way I move, my ability to stay on relevé, my ability to spin or do arabesques. My practice time is fun, and it’s skill-building, but it’s also a way to check in with myself, to see what moves and skills have become sloppy, and what has become strong.

I will go back to the course and redo it at some point. I will probably also “do” the course with other habits in mind — like writing. But for now, it was worth $109 to become a person who practices.


How about you? How do you build your practice habit?

In which Nadira Jamal hits a home run

Nadira Jamal sent an email out to her list this week, and it was one of those things — well, quite frankly, it was one of those moments when it seems someone you’ve never met read your mind and decided to give you a good talking to. It’s called “Everything Else is Gravy: Why we need mere competence, not excellence,” and before you read further, you should just watch it here:

My confession: only a few days before this video came out, I had posted something a bit negative on facebook about my dance talent, or rather, my lack of dance talent. The truth is, I don’t even think I’m the worst. But I don’t have those years of ballet training, and there are certain things in dance — like staying on beat or learning choreos — that take so much work. Listen, I’m human. Sometimes when I look at the stretchy thin people who can already layer a shimmy onto a basic step in releve, I start to wonder what it is I’m doing.

The thing that was really new to me in Nadira’s talking to was this: she points out that sometimes, being too much of a perfectionist can keep you from learning and becoming better. The example she gives is thinking you need to be a top-notch performer before you perform, when really there are many performance skills you have to learn on the stage, by doing. I had to wonder how Nadira got in my head. I’ve taken classes for years, but only had my first real, proper, not just futzing around performance a few weeks ago. And you know what? As Nadira pointed out, it went okay for what it was. It was a student performance, I magically remembered the choreo, I had a big dumb grin on my face for most of it — I need to learn to appreciate that and feed off of it for the next time.

Years ago, I had a Tim Gunn bobblehead doll that stood on my desk and said “Make it Work” when I needed a little more motivation in my work. I think now I need a Nadira Jamal doll that says “It’s Gravy!” when I bring it along to dance class!

Review of Aziza’s Hands, Arms & Poses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blogging Project Belly Dance: Season 2, Episode 2: On your toes, ladies!

The second episode of this season of Project Belly Dance was a grab-bag of reality show tricks and twists. You will dance — but not to your own music! Some people will be eliminated, but one will be voted back in! Another will be voted all the way to the finals! And, oh yeah, how about memorizing this long script and performing it in front of a camera? In Russian!

Well, ok, to be fair, the Russian script went to Dalida, a Russian speaker. But, you know, this show had more turns than an old-fashioned telephone cord. (And if you still get that reference, or even remember phones with cords at all, go pour yourself a martini and stare a little into space with me.)

Lara cuts a fine figure on the stage

Where were we? Ah yes, the gala show after the first elimination ceremony. The eliminated contestants, sweat still glistening on their brows, now get to perform in front of an audience.
This part goes by pretty quickly, and Lara is brought back into the competition.

Now comes the really fun part. The remaining contestants are brought on stage, but then asked to improvise to someone else’s music. I found this part of the program particularly thrilling. Part of this is because I’ve been drinking Nadira Jamal’s improvisation kool aid, but part of it has to do with the fact that I think improv is so much more fun to watch. Choreos, especially when done by pros, can look impressive, but there’s often so little tension. What will happen? Well, whatever the dancer decided would happen, drilled and rehearsed and set in stone. Improv means liveness to me, because liveness has to include the possibility of disaster.

Not that you could tell when watching the first few dancers that they were improvising. Amanda Rose was all fluid perfection:

And Christina Gadea seemed to anticipate every beat:

As things went on, and after the music mixup, the dances were also impressive, if a little rougher around the edges. The main thing I noticed was that facial expressions became a lot more serious on average. That’s why when a dancer was able to communicate emotion and improvise, I tended to take notice. For example, check Maria out:

If this woman is stressed out by improvisation, she sure is doing a great job of hiding it. Her face is showing what I feel when I’m dancing, and that’s pretty exquisite.

The final challenge was a speaking challenge, because, after all, the winner is to star in one of Cheeky Girls’ DVDs. The results?

Sometimes it’s good to have a reminder that being on camera is not something that comes naturally. I have new-found respect for Snooki.

After this torture session was done, and the judges deliberated, the final six were announced: Ziva Emtiyaz (the audience pick for the final three), Tiffani Ahdia, Christina Gadea, Lara, Maria, and Sa’diyya!

So I’m thinking I want to see a bellydance version of RuPaul’s Drag U….

In which the writer performs at a wedding (sort of)

Another recent highlight was, as you might have guessed by the headline, performing at a friend’s wedding.

Now, this wasn’t a big formal thing, nor was it a real gig. The couple wanted their friends to put on little skits and the like, and I knew this was just my chance to pull out the ol’ hip scarf and foot undies and embarrass someone. Preferably not me.

Factors working in favour of this momentous event actually taking place included working with Nadira Jamal’s Rock the Routine and taking Cihangir’s workshops last weekend. What I wanted to do was to get my husband to play the doumbek and do a short improvised drum solo, and then go around and get everyone up to dance. I thought if we kept it short and sweet, there would be less time to screw up, and it would be obvious that we were amateurs doing something out of love for the couple.

It also helped that Cihangir mentioned during one of the workshops that the audience doesn’t notice much of the dancing anyway for the first bit of a dance, as they’re looking at you, checking out your costume, and so on. So I thought a stately, showy entrance would get me halfway there, and that already allayed some of the nerves.

The key was getting something sparkly to wear. I didn’t think the full bellydancer getup would be appropriate, especially given that I wasn’t doing a proper performance. But a friend and I went to the Saidi boutique here in Berlin, and after an hour or so of dedicated attention managed to find a gorgeous saidi dress, black with silver vertical stripes, and a light peach, translucent hip scarf to match. I may also have picked up a saidi cane on the way out. The golden goddess saidi dress I also fell in love with stayed in the store, hopefully for a future visit. As you can imagine, trying on the sparkly stuff was tough, grueling work. But I’m just that kind of person.

As the day approached, my love and I did some drum and dance improvising, and I reviewed Nadira Jamal’s notes for the drum solo.

Factors working against this performance? The fact that our son gave us about three hours of sleep the night before the celebration.

But the show must go on. As it happens, I wound up doing my best moves in the bathroom, as I grossly underestimated how slowly the evening’s festivities would progress. I wanted to be ready — with full makeup and warmed up — in time for our appearance. However, we were last on the program, and the precise nature of the performances was meant to be a surprise. Effectively, this meant that I spent about an hour hiding in the bathroom, stretching and practicing a variety of combos. Let me tell you, there’s nothing to combat stage fright quite like the prospect of escaping the smell of a public loo.

The dance itself was incredibly fun to do, if ultimately a bit messy. (There’s no video, and my memory is a bit blank of what I actually did, so the details cannot be reconstructed…) I had the DJ follow it up with Alabina’s Lolole which, since it has the same melody as “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” seemed like it would be an approachable, arabic-sounding but still hummable tune to start dancing too. Then I went around and started pulling people from their chairs and onto the dance floor.

The results? It was fun, I have a saidi dress and cane that are patiently waiting to be brought out again, I overcame a fear of mine, and all sorts of people asked me where I took classes. Somewhere, out there, there are photos. My husband and I proved to ourselves that we could still do zany things despite being kept up by a baby most of the night.

And from now on, no celebration is safe. I have a hip scarf and I’m not afraid to use it.

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.