Refining the Dance with Maria Sokolova

This is the one hundredth post on Atisheh Dance! Here’s to a “century” of me futzing around my living room in yoga pants and a hip scarf and then writing about it for the internets!

Yesterday I wrote about putting together my own customized dance practice using Datura Online. However, since I’m not a fan of boundaries, I used Datura for the warmup, drills, and cool down, but got my dance in from RAQStv. And namely, from a video I was reeeeeally excited about, Maria Sokolova’s 15-minute lesson from Project Belly Dance.

Kick it!

I actually already worked with this video once while I was on holiday, albeit with minimal warmup, so this was my second time doing it. There is quite a bit of material crammed into this little instructional, so it’s the kind of thing that’s worth repeating — and thankfully, RAQStv has it for a month-long rental.

Maria starts by teaching a basic combination facing the camera, then with her back to the viewer. After repeating it for a bit, she starts to go through each section, showing how to add nuance, contrast, and expression to each movement. It might be a particular twist of the torso, a way of moving the arm through space, a lovely variation on a spin, or the quality of expression during a movement.

I adore Maria’s performance style, this is the video I hoped she would make, and I’m so glad she made it. (And I’m just hoping even more that this is exactly what she does for her eventual Cheeky Girls instructional video, but slower, and more.) I think that for anyone who wonders how to get from the basic moves you do in class to a gorgeous performance — sometimes soft and feminine, sometimes assertive and dramatic — this video shows some of the ways to modify movement.

The material is tricky to get on the first time through, which is why it really does bear repeating. The second time I worked with the video, I had already internalized more of the combo, so focusing on the “extras” became easier. And because it is a quick video — it was, after all, the challenge to make a 15-minute instructional — Maria presents some material faster than she probably would in a regular class, especially right at the end. I will definitely do this at least once or twice more so as to learn as much as possible before the rental expires!

My one beef with this video had to do with production: Maria is wearing a green costume, and her background is green curtains! When I projected this, the lack of contrast made it a bit difficult to see her. (It was easier the first time around, when I was working from a large computer screen.) I suspect this is just because Project Belly Dance was being filmed on a time crunch and in the available space, but I still would have preferred a white background.

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Stream(lin)ing my practice with Datura Online

Today I hooked up my computer to my projector and tried something new: doing an entire practice using streaming online programs. I’m used to live class, I’m used to just popping a video in and working with it, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. I’m working on a comprehensive review of Datura Online (and have review access for a month for that), but I wanted to work with the offerings out there to customize my very own practice session, just the way I want it. So here’s what I did:

I scrolled to the “topics” section of Datura Online, selected the “Warmup” option and picked a basic little warmup with some ab exercises for toning; in a second tab, went to “Movement” and then “Shimmies” because I’d seen a basic tutorial on layering 3/4 shimmies onto traveling steps; opened up another tab, pulled up RAQStv and loaded Maria Sokolova’s mini-class from Project Belly Dance so I could get a bit of dancing in; and in a final window, got a quick cool-down with yoga focused on the lower back from Datura. I had everything opened in its own tab, and I organized the tabs in order, so that I wouldn’t have to pause too long between segments.

I’m going to talk about Maria’s lesson in a different post, so I can focus on the Datura offerings here.

Warmup: Ab Warm Up + Conditioning: #1 with Colette Todorov (12:22 min)

To warm you up, Colette has you do slow, deliberate high steps, adding a few arm moves and twists to add a bit of challenge. It’s the kind of thing that looks very easy, but if you’re holding your stomach in as she instructs, becomes more challenging — especially at the end of a long day.

The real goodness is in the ab exercises. I loooved this bit. It’s short and sweet, but involves doing four different kinds of pilates ab exercises. However, instead of repeating each one for a long time and then switching, Colette has you do combination sets — first four slow, controlled reps of each move, then two. There was burn. It targeted the obliques and the lower abs too. Not the kind of thing that will give you washboard abs, but fun to do, and easy to work into a bellydance practice.

Drills: Basic Traveling with 3/4 Shimmies with Ashley Lopez (20:16 min)

This is a standalone section of a longer workshop on the 3/4 shimmy. I was drawn to it because the preview showed Ashley doing a simple, unaccented 3/4 shimmy. This is what I’m learning in one of my live classes, but is pretty different than what I have on most of my videos, and, indeed, from what I’ve learned in other classes.

Surprisingly, Ashley begins by getting you to do a regular shimmy, then try walking with it, then try smoothing it out. At my level, this is a bit easier said than done, and I had trouble figuring out how I was supposed to do that. Then she goes back to basics — phew! — talks about driving the shimmy from the obliques, and does it very slowly. Once the slow shimmy is going, you start walking forwards and backwards with it. And eventually, Ashley has you walk in a large square doing the shimmy at full speed, then try the shimmy on releve. Finally, she does the 3/4 shimmy on the down, and goes through the drills again.

What I liked: Ashley explains and demonstrates why this shimmy is useful. I find it a less exciting shimmy to watch and do than the “hip up hip out” kind of 3/4 shimmy, but her point is that once you get it down, you can accent whatever you like. She has helpful tricks, like clapping on the “1” before you even start lifting your foot. And, she gives pointers on form, as well as occasional tips on what to focus on if you’re just starting.

What I still wanted: I think it would be helpful to have an exercise to isolate the obliques in the movement, and the rev up to full speed was too fast for me. (Mind you, since I didn’t watch the entire workshop, I don’t know if she does a slower breakdown elsewhere — but I’m reviewing the videos as I find them.) I think this video would be a great drill for someone who already has a 3/4 shimmy going, but wants to polish her form and work on layering it onto traveling moves.

After I was done with the video, I wound up going to a full-length mirror and just working with the shimmy. I found that moving away from the screen was actually useful, maybe even necessary. Once I took Ashley’s tips but just watched myself, trying to get the form right, I started to see and feel improvement. Eventually, I got faster, and I was even able to walk a few steps with it. So I will most likely return to the video, but after I’ve drilled the shimmy for a bit on my own.

Cool Down: Basic Short Yoga Sequence with Rachel Brice (9:07 min)

This is a quick way to stretch out and relax your back after a practice. The exercises Rachel chose here are for both the upper and lower back. They resemble some of the moves in my Viniyoga back videos, but with an extra twist or two. Basically, the cool down is composed of slow motion stretches and movements, timed with inhalation and exhalation, and the result is a delicious feeling of relaxation. Simple, sweet, a winner.

So, it was a good time this evening. It was amazing what could fit into each short segment. The beginning and closing videos were very handy as-is, while the 3/4 shimmy drills needs some, well, preliminary drilling on my part to be do-able. (I will most likely work with the entire workshop for that, so I can get a sense of how Ashley builds up to full speed.)

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….

Blogging Project Belly Dance: Season 2, Episode 1

You would think, given that I have a blog dedicated to dance videos and everything, that I would be totally up to date with Cheeky Girls’ Project Belly Dance. I’m not. I somehow never managed to watch the first season — what can I say, not only is life busy, but my husband is more interested in Top Chef, Project Runway, and RuPaul’s Drag Race (sometimes too interested…), so those are the reality shows I watch regularly. In fact, I even bought two of the DVDs that came out of Season 1, Project Belly Dance – The Final 6 and Andalee’s Musicality Matters, with the bonus disc. But as is usual with my life, I haven’t even gotten to watch those.

Anyway, since today was my day home with baby, I decided I would start watching Season 2. You know, enjoy the tension and everything. Baby watched quite a bit of it too — he was trying to nurse, but would sit up and look at the computer screen frequently, entranced by the belly dancing. I am raising him well.

Some first thoughts? First, I can tell that the producers really worked at making this a positive program, one that would show bellydance in a good light. We all know there is cattiness out there, whether at the amateur level or among pros, but the structure and editing here are all about good dancing vibes. Yes, this does not have the same kind of entertainment value as good ol’ reality show bitchiness, but I think it’s the right choice for bellydance. In fact, I read online that Lotus Niraja and Michelle Joyce were inspired by RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that, at least in its first season, was also all about playing with reality show generic forms while keeping things warm and supportive.

The first episode has two sections. First, each contestant is introduced and performs a solo for the judging panel, and later, the contestants are challenged to produce a 1-minute group choreography and are invited to vote for the dancer who was best to work with.

While I was stunned by the level of choreography the dancers were able to come up with in such a short time — and by the fact that they made non-boring group choreo to boot — my favourite part was watching the solos and comparing the judge’s takes with my own. I found I often had similar reactions to some of the judges, but they had such better ways of explaining what I had seen — what looked captivating, what needed some work. And then there was a kind of attention to detail which is the hallmark of the pro. The judges noticed when a belt was off-kilter, when a facial expression was a bit too frozen, but also when the dancer had taken an artistic risk that was worth recognizing.

So which performance really stood out for me this episode? The sheer gorgeousness of LaUra:

One of the judges said LaUra is who she’d like to learn from, and this was totally my feeling watching her dance. It was sophisticated but felt natural, everything looked good, and I thought, “I want to learn to dance like that!” Also, great hands and arms. This dancer knows what to do with her extremities.

Also, let’s be honest. I love that dress.

What about you? Which performance was your favorite this time around?