Review of Ruby Beh’s Pilates for Bellydancers

I’ve been traveling lately, and it hasn’t left much time for dance, or for any kind of working out. It’s pretty terrible, going from pretty regular movement to nothing. So tonight, after I put the kiddo to bed, I decided to try out Ruby Beh‘s newish instructional on RAQStv, Pilates for Belly Dancers. I wanted to dance, but even more, I wanted to give my abs a little attention.

Ruby Beh showing pilates hundred

What I found is an answer to a lot of my dance problems of the past year. One of my challenges lately has been moving from the idea that bellydance is totally “loose” (I’m not really sure where I got this, except by some dumb opposition to ballet), and building up abdominal strength, learning how to keep my core engaged, and hardest of all, learning how to breathe with all of this. I don’t think there’s a single dance class I attend where the teacher is not constantly on me to keep my core “zipped up.”

Well, that’s what Pilates for Belly Dancers is all about. Ruby starts out slowly, really slowly, with posture and practice breathing both standing up and lying down. I loved the meticulous tiny movements that at least started giving me a sense of how the breathing and muscular contractions should feel. She then guides you through some classic pilates movements (the hundred, roll-ups, etc.) but interweaves exercises that help you gain control of the specific muscles useful for bellydance.

After a workout that is challenging if done attentively, Ruby has you practice some basic bellydance moves with special attention to the core. Finally, she teaches a short combination. In both of these segments, she explains what effects can be achieved with a strong, controlled pilates foundation — the fast spin that can stop on a dime, the quick-changing footwork that doesn’t make you bob up and down.

The video is 1 hour and ten minutes long. There was a brief but satisfying stretch to cool down with in the bonus content material, which also included the pilates section from Ruby’s Flawless Floorwork: The Lost Art of Belly Dance Floorwork DVD. The filming is clear throughout, though there is one blooper that was not edited out and a few camera cuts are confusing. Think filmed class, not pro DVD. Still, I had no problems following along.

In short, I was thrilled with the program. Ruby’s generous with pointers on form, and she will sometimes give modifications. She has the experienced instructor’s ability to know, magically, through the screen, just what I’m doing wrong and to correct it. She also has a knack for coming up with lots of illustrative similes to help conceptualize a movement.

All in all, it was so good for me to spend an hour really paying attention to what my core was doing at all times, how all other movements, whether exercise or dance, related to it and drew on its strength. Like Ranya Renee, Ruby talks about engaging the kegels too, though I haven’t heard this talked about in my classes. I haven’t been as delightfully concentrated during a pilates program in a long time. I wish I could buy this on DVD, but at least it’s being offered as a two-month rental on RAQStv.

Veil and Drum Solo Workshops with Aisa Lafour, and other dance notes

My dear readers, I’ve been a busy dancer. I had an incredibly intense week about a month ago — lots of work, lots of kid, lots of dancing in the evenings, either in class or with a video or doing improv, and then on top of that, a super Saturday of workshops with Cihangir Gümüstürkmen. (I will write about this soon.)

Then I was tired. Just exhausted. I didn’t want to dance anymore, I took about a week and a half off. You know the feeling — not inspired, not motivated? I really just wanted to go home in the evenings and spend time with my family, and not be in the studio. I also felt a little sick. I thought, what’s wrong with going to bed ridiculously early for a while? (Answer: nothing. Nothing at all.)

I read my emails from Alia Thabit and Rosa Noreen, and felt guilty for not doing my improv or my Delicious Pauses homework.

I watched a bit of a few videos. Ranya Renee’s Baladi DVDs, and Autumn Ward’s Beautiful Technique. Listened to baladi songs while going about my business, and practiced taking apart the music. Realised that I have a ton of music, but not enough baladi. One night after work I wrote a little piece for the RAQStv essay contest. The prompt was to write about our practice, about how we fit dance into our lives. I wrote about how I try, but so, so often fail.

But you know what? Sometimes taking a break is good. I actually felt re-energized when I went back to classes. A few things clicked that I had been struggling with before. I won the RAQStv contest. And this past Saturday, I took part in two workshops with Aisa Lafour sponsored by Hayal Oriental Moves.

The first workshop was veil technique for beginners, along with a choreo to the gorgeous song “Yearning” by Raul Ferrando. I have very little experience of veil in class (or, well, anywhere else), so I was glad for the opportunity to do a workshop on veil that assumed nothing. Aisa had us start at the very beginning, walking back and forth with the veil, watching how it moves, and learning how to arc it up above us to get it behind or in front. Then we moved on to technique for a few traveling moves, and the rest of the technique was done in the course of the choreo. What I particularly appreciated — and want to remember — are the little performance details Aisa put in. Things like moving softly down as the veil falls, so as to mimic the veil’s movement with one’s own body. I adore these kinds of details, the refinements that make dance really beautiful and more than just a bunch of movements.

While this was all going on, I had Realization of the Day #1: bellydance, oriental dance, however you want to call it, is so ridiculously complex, involves so much training, attention to the tiniest muscle movements, practice with props, learning music, and yet most of the general public thinks it’s nothing more than hoochy mama butt grinding.

And then my veil got caught on one of the ceiling lamps.

The second workshop was a drum solo to “Drum On” by Ali Darwish. This was a really peppy, fun routine, with a number of different shimmies, some fast spins and travel accents, and a few cute Latin elements. I particularly enjoyed a funny butt shimmy Aisa described as coming from Brazilian dance, and which she called the “rabbit.”

It was above my level, but I love having a sense of what I might learn, review, try again work on. Here in Berlin, a lot of workshops are pretty explicitly geared to levels, which I’m not as used to from the US. There, people just went to workshops. On the one hand, it makes sense, since instructors can teach advanced material to advanced dancers. But I also think there’s a lot to be gained from doing workshops a bit above one’s level, since they give you an understanding of where you have to push yourself to get to.

Then I had Realization of the Day #2. Readers of this blog know I’m not a huge fan of learning choreos. I’m a slow learner, and I often get frustrated trying to remember and keep up with everyone else. But I realised on Saturday that learning choreos is not just about a certain approach to dance, or even about learning transitions. It’s also that certain moves are just not so likely to pop up in drilling or technique lessons, but somehow do make their way into choreo instruction. These might be transitions, or traveling steps, or stylizations, or they just might be somewhat lesser-used moves that the “home” instructor hasn’t covered yet.

Anyway, the point was, for once I found myself really enjoying the process of learning a choreo. Some parts of the song really clicked for me, others I had a lot of trouble with (and believe me, I know those are precisely the ones I need to practice!). But all in all, there were just a lot of really delicious movement combinations that were fun to do. And the more we rehearsed them, the sweatier we got, and the looser the muscles did too, so some of the passages also became easier to perform.

When we were working on a particularly tricky bit, Aisa mentioned that she’d had a hard time at first with the combo, and had to practice to get it. This kind of thing is so good to hear when you’re struggling to pick up a phrase. She then talked about how she often choreographs above her dance level, so as to challenge herself. I thought this was also a wonderful reason and way to do choreography. If improv is about finding your safety moves and working with them, why not choreograph to bring more moves into that repertoire?

So now, some classes, workshops, DVDs, and writing later, I am once again a happy dancer. And I know precisely what I need to work on.

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.

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.)