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zaheeaBelly Dance by DVD: does it really work?

by Mala Bhargava
Mala's blog has DVD reviews, profiles of famous dancers and more www.malabhargava.com

Chances are, most discussions on learning to dance from instruction on DVD get into a DVD-vs-live classes deadlock.  In reality though, few people deliberately make a choice to choose videos over experience with an actual teacher. There will invariably be a lot of other factors at work.

  • Does the learner have access to live classes?
  • Is the dancer so constrained for time that she can’t get to classes without compromising something important?
  • Is the dancer keen on supplementing classes with what she can learn on video?
  • Is the learner not getting what she wants from the classes she goes to?
  • Are there any special reasons – disability, self esteem, illness, etc – why it isn’t comfortable to go to classes?
  • Is there stuff on DVD that’s just way too attractive to miss out on?

Yeah, so many of these overlap. But you know what I mean. It’s not just a matter of choosing one over the other.  

Almost all of these apply to me! I didn’t have access to classes and by the time the classes came around, I didn’t want to get into that intensely competitive atmosphere of classes in my part of the world. The favoritism by instructors, the inconvenience of getting back from work only to rush off to a class, the lack of proper attention to safety during classes, etc.  

So when I discovered belly dance videos, quite by chance, I ended up really loving the medium. Very slowly and very carefully, I was able to work my way up the isolations and end up, many years later, as an amateur dancer who can perform passably and informally for a small group and get gasps of admiration and many complements for all the effort.

I cannot –and I know that well- be a professional dancer.

So, it also depends a lot on how far you want to take that dancing. If your aim is to create a troupe,  perform as a job, teach, or compete – it obviously makes sense to learn from everything that comes your way, whether it’s classes or videos or reading or watching others or learning from other dances.

For those who want to keep it to the level of a hobby, DVD instruction is a total godsend. When I began belly dancing, I wasn’t thinking of how much I’d want to dance in the future. I was actually borrowing isolations to do better at salsa. Look how that turned out. I dumped the salsa class and never looked back.

But after a year or two of really working hard at the isolations (think tribal drills) I needed to know whether I was on the right track at all. I video’d myself, but went into shock at the results. Ouch. Bouncy movements, un-sharp isolations, no difference between a maya and a taksim eight, floppy arms… oh my god. And the worst was the stone cold look on my face. You see, I really wasn’t thinking audience because I was always alone in my dance room. That’s another thing to think about if you don’t go to classes or dance with anyone else around. You’ll need to actively imagine an audience. I learnt to do that and one time, after finally getting a choreography right, I even left the “stage” and came back for applause. Good thing my neighbors can’t see me from any cracks in the window!

My dance story could be a little different from others’ because I can’t see too well. Classes may just not have worked. I think I wasn’t doing that great at salsa because I was missing many visual cues and sometimes startling my partners by doing something they hadn’t cued me to do. No wonder they didn’t line up to dance with me. One of my instructors would yell at me often and say: you are dancing for yourself! You are dancing for yourself! It was a frustrating and often upsetting experience which I put a stop to when a close friend of mine (whom I’d dragged into the class for a few months) asked me if this wasn’t, after all, supposed to be fun. We both quit the class.

About four years into the belly dance journey, I finally had validation for all the hard work when a dear dancer friend of mine saw my entire repertoire of performances and said –wow, these DVDs really work. She even urged me to teach. I said no way, I’ve never even had a live class myself. I did however end up conducting a few workshops on request, and obviously had no trouble teaching a round of the basics.

So, for those hesitating to work with videos, I would say look at your overall dance-circumstances. If you can’t get to a class, videos can be an alternative provided you’re ever so careful about following instructions to the letter so you can avoid long term or short term injuries and avoid picking up sloppy dance habits. Following instructions carefully will also help you make progress faster – and that will only make you happier and get you to dance more.

Some tips on choosing DVDs:

1.       Work with more than one DVD. The age of working with one or two videos has totally gone. The choices are many and each producer and dancer gives you a wealth of different advantages.

2.       Don’t get bogged down by styles and authenticity: Egyptian dancing isn’t the only belly dancing there is. Get a good sampling of many styles without worrying about how close to traditional Egyptian it is, and enrich your learning experience.

3.       Choose instruction in line with how hard you like to work There are “crash course” videos and there are videos that painstakingly give you detailed explanations and take it slow and easy so that you learn the technique deeply.  Knowing yourself, choose something appropriate. Ask around or read reviews to get an idea of the depth of instruction.

4.       Watch performance DVDs. Include lots of performance videos on your list of things to watch because you take in a lot from doing so. You won’t know it immediately, but this will impact your dancing.

5.       Supplement your classes If you’re taking classes, choose something that complements your instructor’s style. Or choose drill DVDs that will help you make progress faster. Ot, get videos on hands and arms because this will always help in class as well.

But more than which DVDs you select, it’s how you work with them that matters. Some more tips:

1.       Warm up. Never ever skip the warm up part. If the video you’re working with doesn’t have a warm up, find one that does and make sure your muscles are ready to go. Don’t go from cold muscles to straight exercise – even stretches – because you will cause long term damage

2.       Watch the video a few times. You’ll always be able to dance along or practice along with the instructor if you don’t have to spend time peering at what she does or wondering what she’s taking about. Everyone uses different terms, as you’ll discover, so it’s a good idea to have a pretty good idea of what the program is about. This will also prevent having to stop and start too frequently.

3.       Mirror and video:  Watch yourself carefully. This will pay off in the long run. Also tape yourself, but not too soon.

4.       Learn to listen: Most injuries are prevented from becoming a good listener of your own body. Develop an awareness of how each move feels, of comfort and discomfort so that you know when to stop, when to adjust, and when to correct.

5.       Never skip the safety tips: At one time, instructors would gloss over the safety tips. But learners demanded them and today the best DVDs will spend a good amount of time on posture, reminders, safety instructions. It’s these that make it at all possible to rely on DVDs when you can’t or won’t go to a class.

6.       Don’t’ get ahead of yourself: In belly dancing, it’s all about the isolations and the isolations take a good long time. You just have to be real patient and do the moves slowly rather than rush and decide that one or two repetitions is all you can take.

 

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