Roundup: How (and why) to learn bellydance online for free – Updated

We all know (well, most of us) that the best way to learn to dance is with a live teacher. And there really is no substitute for someone who can guide you in person. But there are some good reasons to use video instruction, and the free dance resources I mention below are perfect for this kind of thing:

1. You want to review a move you learned in class.

2. You didn’t understand your teacher’s explanation, and want to see how another dancer introduces the movement or idea.

3. You want to drill movements, and you’d like some guidance as you do so.

4. You need some inspiration, something fresh to make dance exciting.

5. You don’t have a lot of time, and you just want to incorporate five or ten minutes of dance into your day, maybe even in the office!

6. You’re on the go, and want to watch someone teach a move on your phone or mobile device.

Now, there are some truly bad teachers offering their “services” for free online, and every now and then one of those videos makes the rounds. But the truth is that there is also some good instruction out there. None of these will replace live teaching, and in most cases the free stuff isn’t even as comprehensive as DVDs or longer structured instruction. They can, however, make a wonderful adjunct to your regular classes.

Totally Free, but High Quality Instruction Online

Tiazza Rose: Amazing, amazing, amazing treasure trove of videos. Not only does Tiazza go over many basic movements, but she also has videos featuring veil moves, cane, folkloric moves, about a million small combinations and some longer choreos.

Mahin’s Daily Bellydance Quickies: You have to sign up for the Daily Quickies email list. What you get is not basic instruction, but a potpourri of little daily hints, tips, and lessons in your inbox. One day it’ll be an email with ideas on how to keep your drilling fresh, another day it will be a stretch useful for dancers, and yet another day you’ll get a combination to do with a particular rhythm.

My Bellydance Workout: Coco of Berlin has a variety of basic movement lessons and really useful drills. Everything is filmed clearly in a bright studio.

Bellydance Boulevard: The website connected to this YouTube account is defunct, and I suspect the videos aren’t being updated anymore. But what’s there is really neat. First there is a series of videos on basic bellydance moves taught by a single instructor. Then follows a variety of focused mini-workshops by a variety of teachers around the world. You want Soheir Zaki hips? Here they are!

So, what about you? Have you used any of these programs? Is there a wonderful secret source of free online bellydance teaching I’ve missed?


Reader LadyDeyrdre adds a few more useful contributions, and in looking them up I am reminded (how could I forget?) that Neon also has a series of quickie bellydance move instruction videos on YouTube. So, the additions:

Anthea Kawakib: A short playlist of basic zill instruction on YouTube.

Neon: At latest count forty-two videos, going from basics to traveling moves.

Irina Akulenko: Also a pretty solid series of beginner instructional videos, with some good tips. These are on the Howcast website, but are also available on YouTube.


The truth about bellydance as a workout

I’ve always been skeptical about the claims that bellydance alone can be the way to a toned and fit body. Now, there are a lot of producers of bellydance-based workout DVDs, and their ad copy tends to make the big claims: lose weight, be hot, and so on. The thing is, unless you’re doing it at a very high level — i.e., high energy performances, rehearsals and classes for hours a day — bellydance is just not that intensive.

That’s why I was delighted at the fresh candour of a video on the topic posted on Life is Cake, a WDNY facebook page with interviews and random thoughts:

In it, Neon, Tanna Valentine, and Andy Troy talk about bellydance as a workout program, and they all come to pretty much the same conclusion: it’s wonderful as a way to get moving, but to get to a certain level of fitness, you pretty much need to be doing some extra exercise, to say nothing of watching your diet.

Now, I do think bellydance-based workouts can be intensive. I’ve occasionally broken a sweat or felt the satisfying results of serious abdominal work using DVDs. But, as Neon suggests, that often comes at the cost of some of the “danceyness” of the workout. Some DVDs also have a separate pilates or yoga component, as does one of the live classes I am currently taking. I think this is a fantastic way of getting two workouts in one, as it were.

The real point though, in my opinion, is that the light exercise offered by bellydance is just as, if not more important than hardcore gym ratting. Neon, Andy, and Tanna all note that it’s better to get some movement done than none at all, and that bellydance is accessible and pleasurable to (mostly) women who might not otherwise do weights or heavy cardio. For one thing, there is some preliminary evidence suggesting that regular light exercise can be even more effective for weight loss than hard workouts, as it is energizing rather than exhausting. More importantly though, accessible exercise is the most realistic option for most people, and it’s the most sustainable too. There are certain forms of movement — yoga and swimming also come to mind — that are gentle enough to do till ripe old age, and that can be varied enough to be maintained through many injuries or poor health. Bellydance can be done at a high level of professionalism, but it’s also just a deeply pleasurable way of moving for all of us. And it has an advantage over yoga and swimming, namely, really good music.

Finally, there’s an advantage that dance classes have over gym exercise. Neon seems to hint at this when she talks about incorporating the artistry of the dance into workouts. The thing is, the precise focus of a dance class makes it deeply absorbing. For me, at least, it makes the rest of the world disappear for 60 to 90 minutes. (Yoga has some of this precision of movement too.) If I’m on an elliptical, I can’t really shut the rest of the world out. The best I can do is listen to some music or look around at usually rather hideous surroundings and try to ignore the pain. I love swimming laps, but the monotony of swimming makes it hard to escape my own thoughts. (Though I do think it’s wonderful for achieving a zen-like attitude to my thoughts!)

But when I’m in bellydance or ballet, there is nothing outside the studio. Whether I’m focusing on pressing against the floor when executing a tendu, or on achieving the gooey, internal movement of an omi, I am exquisitely present, in the moment, and at one with my body. And this feeling is what makes me go back to class even when my body is tired from a long day, protesting that it doesn’t want to move anymore. It doesn’t get more sustainable than that!

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.

Working with Love Potion: The Bellydance Workout – Day 1, Tutorial

I’m always inspired by the way Mala works systematically with a DVD. I tend not to be like that. I’m more of a butterfly — I see something interesting, I do it once, and then forget it on the shelf for a while. But I wanted to get back into dance, and I wanted to see what it might be like to do the same program, whether a workout, a choreography, or some mixture of both, repeatedly over a few days. Would I notice an improvement?

The perfect candidate for this experiment seemed to be Love Potion: The Bellydance Workout. Like other recent offerings from World Dance New York, it has an insane amount of material, a full 140 minutes of it. The DVD case advertises a 50 minute instructional section for beginners, which intersperses guidance on movements with segments of flow, a 5o minute practice flow, and the workout itself, which is 40 minutes long. I thought I’d commit to three days, and do one section on each day, progressing in difficulty as I go.

Sounds easy enough, and after watching the intro, I got ready to dance. What I didn’t realise was that the 50 minute instructional section is not actually 50 minutes long. It’s over an hour and a half. I suspect they mean that the instruction itself is 50 minutes long, if you put it all together, but there are enough segments from the flow section that doing the whole thing takes a long, long time. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into, or I might have been too lazy to start!
A couple of observations on this first day: the moves are quite basic, but putting them together in combinations, with footwork, armwork, and all at full speed, is not so basic. It kind of reminds you how much bellydance can do with just a few simple movements. The footwork is covered quickly, but it would be worth learning well. I love, as usual, Neon’s gentle accent and the way she explains the principles behind movements. I also love that she gives pointers on head position and hand accents. This kind of attention to finesse has been a real focus in WDNY videos lately, and it’s most welcome. Also, in her introduction to Love Potion, Neon advises experienced dancers not to skip over slow movements, and she’s right: these are truly difficult to do smoothly.

Oh yeah, and I really need to work on my three-quarter shimmies.

After an hour and a half, I had to do some serious stretching. I can feel all my abdominal and back muscles (in a good way), to say nothing of my arms and shoulders. At one point during the instruction, my arms were really tired and drooping, and I felt that I must be really out of shape. I now realize this was probably after 80 minutes of keeping my arms up! Neon says in the introduction that this is not meant to be an aerobic workout, but a muscular one. This is truth in advertising — this is probably not the best way to spend your time if your goal is to lose weight, but a great way to practice sharp or gooey movements, footwork, coordination, grace, and musicality.

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this DVD from World Dance New York.

Review: Neon’s Luscious: The Bellydance Workout for Beginners

Did we really need another bellydance-based workout? I wouldn’t have thought so, but Neon, as usual, has gone and proven my expectations wrong.

Luscious – The Bellydance Workout for Beginners is an exquisitely made program, with more good qualities than I can enumerate. The costumes and setting are gorgeous — nothing like the typical brightly-lit aerobics studio — and Neon advises you at the beginning to dress up for it and join the three dancers here in making the movement special. This is the kind of thing that sounds cheesy, but I did it, and it makes sense: how will you forget about bad body image or those extra pounds if you’re wearing ugly workout wear? Dressing up makes you feel like you’re dancing, not punishing yourself.

The instruction itself is taught in sections themed “Circles,” “Infinity Loops,” “Undulations,” “Hip Accents,” “Shimmy,” and “Body Line.” Each dancer leads two of the sections: she stands at the front and her voiceover describes the movements to be done. What I really like about this is that the sections weren’t assigned randomly; instead, each section bears the particular dancer’s imprint, and showcases her strengths. It’s subtle, but you start to notice that Neon leads complicated, quick-changing combinations, Blanca shows her wonderful, large, and sensuous movements, and Sarah Skinner adds an upbeat Turkish feel to the shimmy section. This made the instructors seem much less like exchangeable dancing bodies, and much more like teachers with particular areas of expertise.

On-screen graphics show you the move

The movements are varied, and quite a few combinations are introduced and repeated from two to six times. This is not a “four of this and four of that” drill. In fact, I would suggest that complete beginners start with a different video. This would be great for advanced beginners like me, who are not expert enough for a complicated choreo with tons of layering, but get bored when everything comes in fours and is repeated ad infinitum.

All along, the dancers offer tips on putting emotion into the steps, on maintaining form, and on making movements deeper and stronger. While the dancing is rarely fast-paced, the slowness of the movements is often more challenging and grueling. The workout made me sweat (though it might not make everyone), but more importantly, it challenged me to maintain grace, form, and muscle control while learning the combinations. I couldn’t believe it when the forty-five minutes were over — it felt like fifteen!

If you have weak knees, you might want to be careful with some of the lunges and plies; on the other hand, there aren’t a lot of them, and they’re done slowly enough that you can be careful. I’ll also repeat the warning that this might be a little hard for complete beginners who aren’t already good at picking up choreography. However, the video does have a well-indexed instructional section which describes all the movements used in the workout. As a step up, there’s a version of the workout with music alone, and no voice over.

In case my enthusiasm wasn’t clear enough, I really think WDNY has a winner with this video. It’s simple, but also simple enough to do regularly and to grow into. At the same time, even once you have learned the step combinations, adding graceful arm and handwork (to say nothing of being aware of facial expressions, head positions, and dancer’s poise) poses an extra layer of difficulty. And finally, the movements are, quite simply, beautiful. You will be happy to be dancing.

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