Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Dancing your way to a healthier new you.

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

I am going to make a confession here, so please be kind… I was once a terrible couch potato.

Actually I was more of a desk potato. Most of my free time was spent in my study, on my computer, gaming, chatting, writing. Despite having been fairly active in my teens and through my university life, once I was working I didn't seem to have the energy left at the end of the day to do anything active.

I know this is a common affliction. Finding time to fit in a workout can be a struggle for many of us. It's tough to get motivated, particularly in the winter months when it is cold and dark and all the best entertainment options involve being curled up under a blanket.

For me this changed very suddenly one September.

I rode my motorbike home from work, and noticed that my leather trousers were causing a really uncomfortable pressure on my right hand side. Over the weekend the pain worsened, and on the Monday, I was admitted to hospital with appendicitis. I left 5 days later following major surgery, as the infection had gone beyond the realms of keyhole surgery.

In less than a week I had gone from being capable, mobile and apparently healthy, to walking in an excruciating shuffle - via nearly dying from rotten insides. In my convalescence I reflected upon how fragile our health really is, and vowed that when I returned to full health, I would no longer take it for granted.

A couple of years previously I had taken bellydance classes. I didn't really get on with the class, despite being quite keen to dance, it wasn't the right teacher for me, or perhaps the right time, and as other commitments became more urgent, I stopped going.

This time I decided I was going to do better. I did some research and found a really great teacher. I bought a small library of practice DVDs.

I fell in love with the dance. So much that soon I was attending 2 or 3 classes a week. When I came home from work I no longer went straight to my computer. I would put on some music and practice my moves.

I was loving my new hobby so much, I barely noticed how it was challenging my body. I became stronger and fitter whilst having fun, getting out of the house and making friends.

As I improved my teacher asked me to join her performance troupe - so that was another class to attend! Tougher dance moves meant I had to raise my game, and soon I was putting in some intense yoga and pilates practice as well.

In less than a year my whole life had changed . I was out of the house more, I was more active, I was travelling all over the country to perform and train. Most of all I was healthier, happier and more confident.

Now I teach yoga and Arabic dance. I have come to see that mine is just one of so many similar stories. Dance is transformational. To anyone considering bringing more activity into their lifestyle, I would say, go for it. You will never regret giving it a try, and you could find a whole new lease of life.

ETA: When this was first published, the vast majority of comments on the article were regarding weight loss. For clarity I would like to add the following.

The focus of this article is health and fitness. Sometimes this equates to weight loss, or maintaining a slim figure, however this is not automatically the case. I am actually around 5kg heavier than I was before I started dancing, and a dress size larger. This is partly due to the 2 babies I have had, but the point is this: I have better cardiovascular fitness than before. My heart is stronger and healthier. My lungs are stronger and my asthma is better. My bum is undoubtably bigger, but it is made of solid muscle (that's where the sharp hip accents come from). My joints are less painful as they are stabilised and supported by dance muscle.

Being a bellydancer is about being strong and healthy and feeling good in your skin, not about how stretched your knicker elastic is (and if it is, just buy new knickers, it's just a number and you'll be comfier).

Saturday, 27 December 2014

10 reasons why bellydance is the best way to get fit and healthy this New Year

1 - It's fun

Learning to dance is just great fun. It's a skill that you can use in all kinds of situations, dancing around your kitchen, at parties, even performing on stage. Dancing has a purpose within itself, it isn't about mindlessly moving the muscles to achieve an aesthetic result. This means that you are likely to want to keep doing it. Why take up an activity you don't enjoy, just to get fit? Take up a dance class, learn new things, make new friends, keep coming to class for more reasons than just getting sweaty.

2 - It's engaging

Learning Arabic dance isn't just about learning the steps, you also learn about culture and music. There is a rich backstory to this art form and a good teacher will trickle-feed information and anecdotes to keep your brain  as engaged as your body.

3 - Motivation that's about more than fitness

You know when they say "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels"? Well, firstly, I am not convinced the person who came up with that had a very interesting diet, secondly, a distant, undefined goal of "be more healthy" isn't really all that motivating. It's a good intention, but I know that a warm sofa is a more appealing option on a January evening than a jog and that intention can feel a long way off.

When you are going to a dance class, you have progress to track, you may have learning goals for the term, a choreography to perfect for performance, there is always something to keep you turning up.

4 - The people

Some students turn up to their first class with a friend for "moral support", others find their friends there. Learning a dance that is appealing and accessible to people from all walks of life means meeting people who you might never have crossed paths with.

Through dance I have become close friends with people I would be unlikely to meet or get to know otherwise. Your dance path will cross with all kinds of people and your love of the dance provides an icebreaker. You can socialise with your dance friends not just in class, but also at dance events like haflas. Many new dancers find a whole new social scene. This keeps you motivated to stay dancing and active.

5 - Bellydance is for everybody

Going to a fitness class can be daunting, but most bellydance classes, especially beginner classes, are open and accepting of all kinds of people.

It doesn't matter if you are older or heavier, you CAN dance. There are classes available for pregnant women, disabled dancers and those who just want to go a little more gently; most teachers will offer gentle alternatives if the class is a little intense for your fitness level or ability.

Most classes are LGBT friendly. People of all genders are welcomed into my classes.

You don't have to bare your belly if you don't want to, a bellydance class should be a safe, friendly space where you can move, have fun and express yourself, no matter who you are or what you look like.

6 - Learn to love your body

We have already established that bellydance is great for your self esteem. Learning to move with grace and confidence, to walk taller has a knock on effect on how you feel about your body, no matter what size or shape you are.

I have focused on fitness here, rather than weight loss, very deliberately. Weight loss, should that be your goal, is about lifestyle balance, diet and activity, and dance alone is not guaranteed to shed pounds. It is also perfectly possible to be healthy, fit and active whilst wearing a larger dress size.

Regardless of size, negative body image is not helpful when you need to take care of your body. Crash dieting and inconsistent or binge exercising is not healthy for your metabolism, cardiovascular system or joints. When you love your body, you care for it better.

When I feel happy in my skin, I am more active, I eat healthier, I am more present in my own body and I gravitate towards healthier lifestyle choices.

Even if feeling better about yourself doesn't help your fitness regime, you're still feeling better about yourself, and that's never a bad thing.

7- It's a whole body workout

When you are learning bellydance you will find muscles in places you didn't know you had places! Dancing continuously through your class is a gentle cardio workout. Add in some extra shimmies and travelling and it can be a bit less gentle too!

Bellydance increases your core muscle strength, and your flexibility. It improves your posture and your coordination.

There comes a point in your dance career where you will want to cross train to complement your dance, but when you are starting out, bellydance gives a lot of fitness benefits for one class.

8 -  Dance is a gateway drug to cross training

Bellydance is great exercise in itself, but as you progress you will undoubtedly find that to improve your dance, you need to cross train. Swimming, yoga, pilates, some dancers run, some weight train.

I am not a fan of exercise for its own sake. I find it tedious, but when I have dance as the motivation behind it, I find myself wanting to do it. I started out doing Vinyasa flow yoga, which is common amongst bellydancers for strength, flexibility and alignment. Suhaila's beginner DVDs introduced me to pilates and now I mix fitness training in these styles with weights and drills as part of my daily dance conditioning. Datura Online has some fabulous conditioning segments. Ashley's Built for Bellydance series is challenging, but quite rewarding.

9 - We want you to succeed. 

Many of the fitness and weight loss industries rely on your failure for their profit. If any diet club, pill or product really worked, helped you lose weight and keep it lost, then it would cripple its own market. These products and services rely on you losing a little weight to begin with, to convince you that it "works" but hope that you put the weight back on, so that you keep coming back and spending more.

Many gyms operate on a model where there are more members than they have capacity. They know that a large portion of their members will not attend regularly, and they have no reason to encourage them to, as long as they pay the subscription.

When you attend a dance class, your progress should be important to your teacher. We want to see you healthy and fit, and able to progress in your dance. As dance students get better, they attend more classes, out of love, not obligation. They might even start performing, solo or in the student troupe, and that is great publicity for the dance school. A good teacher will actively encourage their students' improvements, not hope that they regress in order to start over.

10 - We have the best workout clothes

Sure you can turn up to class in a vest and a pair of leggings without too many holes, but I can almost guarantee that as the dance bug grips, you'll be sporting jingly hip scarves, sequinned cholis and diamante studded pants. What other fitness regime supports the wearing of body glitter?

So if you are looking for a new, fun way to keep active in the New Year, why not find your local bellydance class? And if you happen to be in Glastonbury or Bridgewater, you would be welcome at mine

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Diva inspiration - beat that mug.

[A note to the uninitiated: "Beating your mug" is drag-speak for putting make-up on. In no way do I wish to encourage violence against crockery]

Continuing on my Drag Queen inspired series, today we are moving on to one of the most important things a bellydancer can learn from Drag Divas: Stage makeup!

Putting your game face on. Make up to dazzle your audience.

A really common issue for new performers, and many experienced ones, is learning how to create a stageworthy make-up look. I teach a workshop to help dancers create their performance face, but it's not something that usually comes into regular bellydance classes.

I developed my make up skills from a mixture of theatrical make up, character make up for LARP and fancy dress, inspiration from performers and sheer experimentation. Then I started looking more closely at not just the finished looks, but the process by which the look is created. There are literally thousands of tutorials on YouTube, with everything from subtle tricks to dramatic transformations. Drag queens are a brilliant resource for this. There are a lot of drag tutorials out there and they are useful to performers because:

  • The make up is usually styled for performance, not everyday wear
  • The make up is designed to last through sweating under lights
  • It has to disguise superficial flaws (like skintone and 5 o' clock shadow) flawlessly
  • It also has to adjust face shape and structure, emphasizing key features
  • Facial expressions are highlighted and exaggerated 

A lady knows how to wear make up tastefully for daytime, dramatically for evening, and theatrically for the stage" - Dita Von Teese

Many dancers do great daytime or evening make up, but are not sure how, or nervous to ramp it up for the stage.

It's really important to adjust your make up for the setting. Daytime, evening, photography, close up performance and stage faces need to be adjusted to give the best result for the medium.

Everyday make up will wash out and disappear completely under stage lighting, or even just in subdued evening light, but close up and under natural lighting, stage make up can appear over the top or even clownish. It takes practice, judgement and nerve to do a good stage face when the lighting necessary to apply it is not the lighting it will be viewed under.

Beat for the back row
Image from
So here is your first Diva tip. It comes from Alyssa Edwards, who made her name of the pageant circuit.

It's no good if your make up is fabulous, but only the people sitting at the very front can see it. If you are dancing, and emoting with your face, you need your expressions to be clear, right to the back of the room. This means strong brows, open eyes, strong lips and deep contours.

Add a little extra if you need it to translate to video. It will feel like too much. If it feels like too much, it's probably almost enough.

Always do your 'brows

So carrying on from that, brows are compulsory. Always.

I have always done my brows, I have to because mine are white-blonde and as soon as I put on any make up they become invisible and I look like an alien, but even if you have good brows for daylight, you need extra for photos or stage.

It helps if you have a head start by shaping your brows well. If you are scared to take the tweezers to your face, get a beautician to, even just once, then maintain the shape yourself. If your brows are pale, you can dye them a little darker too.

Queens usually glue down their brows. Yes, with actual glue stick. Then they draw them on higher. Doing this gives a more open expression, allows you to really exaggerate the socket line of your eye make up. It also re-proportions manly facial features. You can try raising your brow level and see how it works for you. I usually draw my brows to the higher part of my natural browline, and I maintain a pretty high arch regardless. Go careful on this though, you want expressive eyes, not permanent surprise.

You can do your brows with pencil (sharp, little strokes to look like hairs) and/or powder pigment (narrow, angled brush, slightly damp). Powder is great for filling in brows that already have good shape.

Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's contouring

Image from
Ongina's contouring, pre-blending
People are catching onto this more now, but the right shading can do wonders for your face. You can use contouring to completely change key features like jawline and nose shape, or just to enhance your natural bone structure so that it doesn't get "lost".

Flash photography or stage lighting will wash out the natural shadows in your face, making you look like a pale pancake. You can counter this by constructing artificial shadows and highlights that restore the 3 dimensional nature of your face. Take a look at these images if you aren't convinced yet.

It can be a case of applying a subtle, non-sparkly/shiny bronzer in the right areas, or going full on "cutting" lines with a dark pigment. Most queens seem to use several shades of panstick to create their contours from the foundation up. You need to highlight the areas that need to look "raised" and darken the areas that are in shadow.

It is usual to contour the sides of the nose, cheekbones, jawline and hairline. There is a tonne of resources on the internet to help you learn about contouring, but it also takes practice. Every unique face needs to be contoured differently, so you can gather tips and experiment, or book an appointment with a make up artist who can show you what works on you.

Let it cook

Cooking was something I had never heard of before Drag Race. Well, I knew that make up behaves differently at different temperatures, and often kept my pencils near my body heat prior to application, but the queens take it a step further by letting their make up sit on the skin to adjust before blending and shading, as in the image above. It makes it a bit easier to work with and gives it staying power. I have found it works for creams and powders, give it a try.

Flutter those lashes

"If you think you look good without lashes, imagine how good you will look with lashes" - Courtney Act

Image from
Courtney is right, false lashes are amazing. Even if you have amazing natural lashes, and mascara, remember, you are beating for the back row. You don't need to go as far as Bianca here, who tends to wear at least 5 pairs.

Lashes come in all kinds of styles, you can get tiny bunches to just add a few extra, natural looking lashes, winged lashes that get longer to the outer corner (my favourite), thick lashes, spikey lashes, coloured lashes, lashes with gems or sequins built in.

It takes a bit of practice to get them right, but I bet you have a dance-friend who uses them already and can show you how. Pre-glued lashes are a bit easier to use, but be careful when you get them out of the packet as you can accidentally separate the lashes from the adhesive tape. Lash glue isn't too hard to get used to, if you have sensitive eyes though, be aware that most lash glue contains latex, but alternatives are widely available.

Adding the sparkle

Glitter and gems are part and parcel of the bellydancer's loadout, don't leave your face behind. In season one of Drag Race, I was immensely impressed with Shannel's ability to apply a large number of crystals to her face, in a relatively unobtrusive manner. The make up she designed for her team in episode 2 was beautiful and included around 10 AB gems, carefully positioned to add subtle sparkle as they performed. It's a good episode to watch because you get to see the process of designing make up for a group of performers.

If you aren't sure about gluing things on yet, try a little glitter to really bring out your highlights or eye make up. Use proper cosmetic glitter, not craft glitter though!

Now go and practice

Hopefully this has given you a bit of an idea where to start, but ultimately you need to go and do your homework now. Don't try a new look out an hour before a big performance, play about at home and do some practice runs until you are comfortable with your look.

If you are looking for inspiration, and arn't sure where to start, I'm going to recommend James St James Transformations, for some fabulous and often downright wacky makeovers, which allow you to see the process and get tips from some great make up artists.

Now, go beat that mug!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Telling your story. Why artistry and technique will always be dance partners.

Dance is a language, it is a way of communicating through movement and gesture, the most basic and primal of our communication pathways.

Learning dance techniques, gives us *our* language, it allows us to expand our vocabulary, weave together ideas, emotions, to tell our own stories.

This is why I believe teaching good technique, along with the ability to string together movements, improvise and create your own choreographies is so important. This is why I teach it from the very beginning, and why I refuse to take shortcuts.

When you tell your story, you don't want to mumble, you want to be clear and articulate.

When you tell your story, you don't want to have to rely on other people's phrases, or perspective.

When you tell your story, you should be free, not caged by unnecessary technical limitations.

Public speakers, actors and singers do voice exercises, dancers drill.

I know that it can be a slog, working hard at the techniques until they are right, it can take years to get out of the beginner phase. Part of the reason why I teach in the Concepts and Context format, is to break out of the potential teaching rut, where every class is a similar pattern of learning and drilling 2-3 new moves, and sometimes combinations. I try to bring in musicality, improvisation, different moods and styles, to actually dance, every lesson; but it is all held on a foundation of strong technique. 

It's possible to get by with a phrasebook, but it is only by sticking at it, by learning the vocab, the grammar, the subtle nuances and wordplays, that you can write poetry.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Diva inspiration - performance lessons from drag queens

Those who know me will be aware that I am quite an enormous fan of the art of drag. Bellydancers and drag queens have a lot in common, we suffer from glitter dandruff and are among the few professions where gluing gems to your face it not only acceptable but considered very positively. If I want to share the joy of my new wig storage system, then I'll talk to a queen.

I am a huge fan of RuPaul's Drag Race, and its various spin offs, and I have found so much inspiration in terms of make up, costuming and performance skills. Being inspired by our dance idols is great, but sometimes the elements that turn us into great entertainers and unique performers, come from quite different places. So I have decided to start a series of blog posts to share the love.

Part 1 - Nerve

When I decided I wanted to put together a workshop to help shy dancers find their stage mojo, I realised I had to turn to the greatest divas for inspiration, and Fierce and Fearless started to fall into place.

Never let a b**** see you sweat - Bianca Del Rio

Ru often says that when a man puts on a wig and a dress and leaves the house, he's already a hero. It takes nerve. Are you scared to get up on stage and dance your first solo? How about a dose of whatever tonic it takes to do that when simply stepping outside the door in costume is a scary prospect?

What happens when you a criticised? It's really hard to hear someone telling you that your performance, something you are passionate about and worked hard to achieve, isn't hitting the mark - no matter how well intended or gently presented.

I know that for me, the wrong kind of feedback has knocked me for six, left me unmotivated to keep working and even made me consider giving up performing altogether.

Water off a duck's back - Jinkx Monsoon

Everyone has their own way of dealing with this. Ultimately I think it comes back to you. Decide whose opinion matters to you, work on the constructive feedback, but everything else, toss it aside. Use your passion for your performance to drive you on. Not everyone will "get" you. Do your best, train, find out about the roots of the dance you love and do it justice as best you can, but work to your own aspirations and expectations with the support of people who care about your goals more than their egos. Be true to yourself, in fact, let Ru say it (this is marginally sweary):

It's worth remembering here that your critic might not even be someone else. Is it ever? How you respond to criticism, whether it is genuine shade, tactless criticism, a backhanded compliment ("that was brave") or a standoffish audience, is your choice. But our worst critics are usually ourselves. We see an audience member with a sour face, and we assume we aren't good enough. Don't forget you are fabulous. You put in the work, you give your best performance, keep striving, but do that because you are passionate and dedicated and want to give your best, not because you need someone else's approval. Don't forget to appreciate how awesome you are, because if you don't believe it, how are you going to persuade an audience?

Sometimes a comment or a slip up really throws you. You forget your choreography, or your music messes up, or your costume malfunctions. It is very easy to stew on that, and make it very hard to get back up on stage again. When I get into a funk like that I watch this video. This is Alyssa Edwards. She is a FIERCE queen. In her season of Drag Race she had the misfortune to be competing alongside her arch nemesis (because clearly, if you are that fierce, you have a nemesis). Oh the shade of it all! Alyssa's competition was blighted by arguments, backbiting and humiliating criticism. In the first episode she was cruelly called out by another queen for her figure and costume choice, she snarks back, but you can see that it cut her. So what did she do when she was invited back as a warm up to a later season finale? She dances to music mixed with soundbites from her on-screen altercations. And she nails it.

So there it is. Know that you are fabulous. Be fabulous. But if the sound tech puts on the wrong music, or your hairpiece falls off, or your act is poorly received, don't get down, get drop dead gorgeous.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Exciting news for Bridgwater, Somerset.

I am so very excited to be able to share my news for the New Year with you.

I actually have 3 separate New and Exciting Things (TM) going on, and I have been exploding with the need to tell everyone, but waiting for final confirmations, so this is number 1!

From January 2015, I will be teaching a new class at Bridgwater College. Tuesdays, 7.30pm.

It's a great venue, a purpose built, mirrored dance studio in the Sports centre, easy to access form the M5 and right on the A39 (Bath Rd) in Bridgwater, with parking and everything.

The first term begins on the 6th of January, it's 11 weeks of Fundamentals, which means lots of bellydance technique for new and returning dancers. And yes ELEVEN weeks, not 10, which gives us an extra lesson for an end of term party!

You can book this term, the whole term, 11 glorious hours of bellydance, for just £50! You should do this now on my website. It would make a great Christmas present for someone you clearly love very much. Or you can buy a 5 lesson card, for £25. OR you can just roll up on the evening, all casual-like at about 7.25 and pay me £6 for the hour.

This is a brand new class, not just for me, but for Bridgwater, which a dancer on Facebook described today as "a bellydance blackhole", so tell your friends, spread the Raqs love and lets get Somerset shimmying!

More details of the class are on my website, or the Facebook event page. 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Why "beginner" bellydance is for everybody

A man ceases to be a beginner in any given science and becomes a master in that science when he has learned that he is going to be a beginner all his life. Robin G. Collingwood

When I started dancing, I was told that it was usual to be at beginner level in bellydance for around 2 years. At the time that seemed immensely limiting. I wanted to be good! I wanted to be doing all the fancy flashy steps and being awesome like the dancers who inspired me to learn. Graduating from the beginner group felt like a great achievement, and I felt glad to be leaving my "baby dancer" days behind.

Now it is true that I do very much enjoy the flashy stuff, but I have gained a greater appreciation of the basics of the dance, and quite how much work there is to do there.

Simplicity can be beautiful, and challenging.

Watch some videos of great dancers in the history of Raqs and take note of how "technically simple" their dance is. Try this one for size, and try not to get too distracted wondering what is going on with that skirt:

There is something special here, the moves here aren't hard, but this dance isn't basic. There is a quality to her movement that means that even in a simple figure 8, you can see she is a great dancer. You can learn to execute a figure 8 in under an hour, but not like that. Her musicality while we are here, is soft, effortless but  skilled.

My favourite dancers to watch are not those who can layer 6 movements on top of each other, hitting every accent and choreographing every facial expression, my favourite dancers are those who can captivate me with a hip drop, who turn the music into a visual that moves me. Dance is a language, having something to say and making yourself understood is more important to me than a huge and complex vocabulary.

Technique must be mastered only because the body must not stand in the way of the soul’s expression - La Meri

The foundations are just that, everything is built upon the basics.

If you work on your basic movements, get them really strong, really controlled, improve your range, your flexibilty; that will show through when you start layering, travelling, compounding those movements.

In addition, when the technique becomes second nature,  only then does adding on the musicality, stage presence and subtle nuances become really possible.

There is always more work to do, no dance step will ever be perfect

I often go back to beginners' classes. I might be going to another teacher, to see what they offer or to learn from their teaching methods. It might be digging through my dance DVDs and working through an instructional I haven't tried in years, or on a day when I don't feel up to much, going for something easy on Datura Online. Every time I learn something new. Every time I find ways to make it challenging.

For example, a few days ago I was feeling a bit indifferent, but I knew I needed to fit some practice in, so I chose a 30 minute shimmy lesson. About half of the content was very similar to the drills that I do at least a couple of times a week, but sometimes having a virtual teacher helps to bring out that extra bit of effort.

I didn't have to think about how long I had been drilling for, or what to do next, because the instructor was doing that, so instead I focused on something I had been working on elsewhere - the engagement of my deep lower abs in my dance posture. I realised that in doing this, concentrating on maintaining optimum posture in the shimmy, the weight changes and the layers, I was working really hard, and learning loads. This was not just a basic move I know well, but one of my best, and I realised there is still a lot of work and refinement I can do.

I have found in dance, as with many other things in life, that the more I study and the better I get, the better I can see how much more study and practice there is ahead. So it's a good job I like dancing really.

My advice to other dancers would be that no matter how good you are, how long you have studied, keep going back to the basics. Not just drilling on your own, or teaching them to your students, but taking classes, getting feedback, listening to how other dancers break down the technique. If you find you aren't working very hard, take a look at your posture, or your breathing; break the movement up even more, go slower and feel every muscle controlling the movement. Make it sharper, make it smoother. Use your core muscles to make it deep and internal, test your flexibility and make it bigger.

When I describe my "Fundamentals" course, I always say it is not just for new dancers, or dancers who are new to me, but something that any student at any level would benefit from attending. Going back to those classes at a later level, you have a head start on getting right into the guts of the movements. Taking time to explore the most basic foundations of the dance will always serve you well.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Dance, injury and a new relationship with shoes

In my day job, I have a uniform. Not an actual uniform, but like most professionals I make choices about how to present myself in order to get a step ahead.

I am a Secondary School Teacher, I have to be dressed to deal with the practical side of classroom work, but also to create the right impression in my students, I mean business, but I am also a bit relatable. Nowadays I work ad hoc, supply teaching to fit around my dance and family commitments, and that means the uniform needs to be stronger. There is a moment when I approach a classroom, the students outside ask “Are you our teacher today Miss?” and before they even ask that, it has to be very clear that I am. Otherwise I have to work twice as hard to prove myself, before we can even begin a lesson.

I always wear my glasses when I am teaching, never contacts, I’ve done that a couple of times and I find it quite unnerving, the barrier is quite tangible. It’s like a Clarke Kent disguise, by day I’m a geeky Science teacher, by night I’m a bellydancer.

For years I have also worn high heels, shoes or boots. I remember as a child accompanying my mother, also a teacher, to work when I was on school holidays. She wore stilettos that brought forth an echoing drumbeat as she marched along the corridors. She told me it was because she is only small, but the shoes made her sound big and frightening.

I couple of months back I started reading Princess Farhana’s Belly Dance Handbook. It’s a great read for any bellydancer, and almost every page resonates with me, but a particular passage really hit home.

In the book Princess Farhana talks about injury, and how injury impacts on a dancer. For most people, a twisted ankle is an inconvenience, a - literal - pain, but it can be worked around. For a dancer it is devastating.

Like most (all?) bellydancers, dance isn’t just my job - not being able to work is a blow in itself. Dance is my hobby, my passion. I dance because I have to, because it feeds my soul. To not be able to dance for a few days, let alone weeks, is a horrifying prospect.

I am especially aware of this as I am naturally prone to joint pain and injury. Dance, and dance conditioning, keeps me strong and aligned. It actually prevents injury, but it also highlights for me when things aren’t quite right. I notice more when a joint is a little weak, or when the pain changes from the dull background I am used to, and starts to niggle.

I have noticed especially that my heels, my defence against tall teenagers, the announcement that yes, I am here, and I am serious about it, are aggravating that weakness. I read Princess Farhana’s account of how she had given up pursuits like horseriding, because of the risk to her dance career and I realised that every day I was in heels, I was knocking myself back, taking myself a step closer to another fall down the stairs, or just a stumble that could knock me off my dance feet for a month.

So I boxed up the heels, and bought a pair of smart biker boots. Flat with arch supports. Happy feet, happy knees, happy dancer. I’ve lost a bit of height, but I’m steadier on my feet, and more confident as a result. Without the strain of precarious footwear in the day, I am able to train harder for dance. Level change that little bit deeper, complete a few more squat repetitions before I reach my limits.

Once again I am reminded of how easy it is to hold on to something that we think we need, even when it is harming us, and how letting it go, taking a leap into a new chapter often seems like much less of a sacrifice from the other side.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Getting better at bellydance without leaving the sofa.

Part 5 - Using other people's performance videos to improve your dance

Are you exhausted from all those classes, drilling and conditioning? Are you perhaps recovering from an illness or injury but still craving some bellydance? The good news is, that even when you can hardly move a muscle, you can still keep working at improving your dance! This is a real thing as neuroscience is showing us that trained dancers' brains have the ability to simulate movement while observing other dancers, how cool is that?

I really love YouTube, for the vast variety of, well, everything it has on there. For a dancer it can be a really valuable resource, allowing us to catch up with the happenings of events we couldn’t get to, or see our idols perform without leaving our armchairs. I am constantly updating my playlists of dance material for my students and other dancers.

YouTube can also be a great training tool. I’m not talking about those “learn to bellydance online” videos. Forget those. Although learning from DVDs and video streaming can be a worthwhile option, YouTube is full of dancers with no credentials teaching wrong and potentially damaging technique, without the feedback or detail you need to really master the dance.

What I am talking about is performance videos. There are literally thousands of examples of bellydance performances on YouTube, some are highly polished productions, some a home camera footage from small events, but you can learn and improve your dance with all of it.

Getting out and watching live performances will always be the aspirational option, however unless you are in an extremely busy dance community, you won’t be doing that every night, or even every week. If you are, you are still missing out on amazing performances happening all around the globe, you can’t physically get to everything!

Whether the dancer is highly accomplished, or inexperienced, whether the performance resonates deeply with you or not, there is always something to take away from watching a dancer. You can optimise this by taking time to consider and reflect upon your observations.

I like to watch a video through twice. The first time I let it wash over me, I just enjoy the performance as it is, trying to avoid critical eyes. I think it is important to retain the ability to simply experience a performance. Dance is communication, listen, don’t drown out the soul of the dancer by analysing every minutia, not yet.

After the first watch, take a moment to reflect upon your impressions. It can be worthwhile to write them down. If you are a bit stuck, think about these questions:
  • What was the dancer trying to convey?
  • What was the mood of the piece?
  • Is this a character piece? Who is the character, do you feel you know them?
  • Did you like the dance overall?
  • Does anything stand out as being particularly good or particularly distracting?
The next viewing is the time to start analysing, you might even want to watch in short sections, repeating anything you feel needs another look.

Try and identify what it is exactly that you liked about the performance, and if there were elements that you didn’t feel so great about, why was that the case? There are a huge number of things you could focus on. Try to pick a few based either on something you are personally working on, or something that struck you about this particular piece. Why not start by choosing just one of these elements and the example questions here?


When we look at presentation we are taking in many different elements, from setting and costuming to audience engagement. Good presentation will vary to suit the venue and audience.

The look
Costume, make up, hair and jewelry, look at the visual the dancer has put together.
  • Is the image authentic or suited to the style? If so how? 
  • If there are unconventional elements, do they work in your opinion? Why?
  • How does the costume and make up reflect the audience and setting?
  • How does the aesthetic compliment the mood or message of the dance?
  • Does the dancer use their costume for artistic effect, or dance in a way that shows off the costume?
The setting
What is the dance space like? Small restaurant or large theatre? Is the dancer on a raised stage or on the same level as the audience?
  • How does the setting affect the relationship between the dancer and the audience?
  • Does the dancer use the setting to its full advantage?
  • What does the dancer do to overcome the limitations of the venue?
  • How does the dancer move into the dance space?
  • How do they use stage lighting to facilitate the entrance and mood?
  • Do they use all the dance space available?
The presence
Stage presence is key to how a performance comes across, but it can appear quite intangible when you are trying to cultivate it yourself.
  • Does the dancer hold your attention, and that of the audience?
  • Can you identify something that makes them compelling to watch?
  • How would you classify their on-stage persona, dramatic, flirtatious, friendly, intimidating?
  • What do they do to reinforce your impression of their persona?
  • Do they interact with the audience, even subtly? How?
  • Are they unable to interact with the audience, if so, how do they keep a connection?
  • If there is a band, how does the dancer interact with them?


If you are working on a particular style of Middle Eastern dance, like Saiidi, Melaya Leff or Khallegi it is worth watching a range of performances to see how the style can be interpreted. The same goes in fact for all categories of bellydance.
  • What style is the dance in?
  • Is it true to the tradition of the style?
  • How does the music choice reflect the dance style?
  • What elements of the convention of this style have they incorporated?
  • What have they done that is innovative?
  • How do they convey their personality or individuality within the framework of this style?


  • How does their music choice reflect the style of dance they are portraying?
  • Which part/parts of the music are they dancing to?
  • Do they respond more to the rhythms, the melody, or mix it up?
  • Does the choreography fit a beat count? Obviously so? Or is it more fluid?
  • How do they interpret strong accents? Every time? Which movements? Which is more effective?
  • On what part of your body do you see the music interpreted? Is this consistent or varied?
  • How do they dance to repeated phrases? In the same way, a similar way, or completely differently?
  • Are there times when the dancer does something “unexpected”, like dances slow to a fast section of music? What effect does this have?


  • Is the piece choreographed or improvised?
  • Are there repeated sections in the choreography? How do you enjoy these as an audience?
  • How does the dancer use stillness or poses in their dance?
  • Is there a story or journey being conveyed through the dance
  • How does the dancer use the performance space? 
  • Are there any major shifts in mood or style? How are these handled?
  • How does the dancer deal with getting on and off stage?
  • Are there changes of dancer or group within the performance? How are these carried off smoothly?
  • What range of techniques does the dancer use? Are there lots of different steps, or a smaller number? What is the proportion of simpler movements to challenging ones? 
  • How does it finish? Is there a false finish (such as a change to a new music track), how does the dancer differentiate between these and the true finale?

The technical bit

I remember watching a gorgeous dance by Frank Farinaro, and exclaiming to myself out loud “what WAS that, it was BEAUTIFUL”. So when I had finished the first viewing, I rewatched that section and identified the step, it was a fairly commonplace layer, but travelling on a turn in such a way that it looked so fluid and otherworldly.

If you are working on, perhaps, your arms, watch the video through, concentrating on what the dancer does with their arms. What do you like about how they use them? The same could go for hipwork, footwork or facial expressions. Concentrate on one aspect at a time and you will process it better.

Sometimes you will see a movement, or a combination that you love, so why not break it down and work out what they are doing.

Even if you don’t like the dance as a whole, the dancers persona or even the style of dance, you may well find a gorgeous snippet that you can learn and remodel into something that you can incorporate into your own dance. Changing the timing, the emphasis or the size of the movement can make it into something completely new.

Watch the section a few times over.
  • Observe where the feet are falling. Does the step travel, turn or otherwise? Does it need to?
  • Is the movement sharp or smooth, which parts are moving and which are still?
  • Which plane are the hips/torso etc moving in? Is that a horizontal or a vertical 8?
  • What are the possible ways the movement could be generated? A hip movement could be driven by the obliques, legs, glutes or some combination of the 3. Can you tell from the movement? Does it make any difference (if there are layers it likely will)?
  • If you are looking at a series of steps, how does the dancer transition from one to the next?
Hopefully this has given you some ideas that will improve the value you get out of watching dance performances on video. It's just a starting point, I am sure there are many things I have missed, but I am also sure that you will discover all kinds of benefits from watching and properly reflecting upon dance videos, once you get started. Don't forget to do some actual dancing inbetween! 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Dancing with Hypermobility.

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

The mums at my baby group are planning a 5K road run. It's a frequent topic of conversation, and naturally, there came the part I had been dreading. "You should run with us" said one of the mums. "No thanks" said I with the affectation of a committed couch potato. "I don't do running." She continued to attempt to convince me, and I was forced to admit it, "I'm sorry, I just cannot run."

The secret is out. I'm a dance and yoga instructor, I am fit, strong and healthy, but if I tried to run, I would last less than 100 metres before the excruciating pain set in. Not long after my knees would give way and it would all be a bit embarrassing. I have an 'invisible condition', Ehlers Danlos Syndrome - Hypermobility Type (EDS-HM) with recent campaigns aiming to raise awareness, I am going to share my experience of living with and despite the condition.

EDS is a genetic mutation that causes the sufferer's collagen to be more elastic than it should be. EDS-HM is relatively mild, and characterised by extremely flexible joints; sadly flexible also means unstable; sufferers are prone to regular sprains and dislocations, the joints wear and take damage more easily than most, because the movement tends to be erratic and outside the "safe" range. EDS-HM sufferers often have other health problems as all our soft tissues are affected.

I was around 11 years old, when I started to get pain in my knees, and it escalated from there. Growing up with hidden health issues is never a smooth ride. I can recall vividly being shouted at, and called a liar by my PE teacher, because I was limping on the other leg that day.

I spent my teenaged years in an environment where sporting achievement was prized above all. I was the girl who wore supports on both knees, long socks instead of tights so I could more easily adjust the straps that held my kneecaps in place, this did not work out well for me socially. On the other hand I missed double German every week to for physiotherapy.

As an adult I adapted to my personal capabilities. I'm in pain every day. My knees creak and rattle from the damage caused by the joint surfaces mashing together at awkward angles. I have a running joke about how I fall down the stairs. There is a particular point where my knee is bent and it just can't hold anymore, it collapses, and down I go! I always cling to the bannister to take the weight off at that crucial point. Occasionally I find myself approached by someone ascending the stairs, and awkwardly have to choose between facing them down and appearing rude, or letting go of the rail and falling on them!

I have instability in my wrists, ankles, feet and hips, which means I get sprains quite a lot. My hands are always stiff and sore - the medical advice on that was to use my hands less! I bruise easily which does not combine well with the clumsiness that results from wobbly joints. I am very grateful however, that for the most part I can move quite normally within the boundaries that have become second nature to me. As a teen I was told I could expect a wheelchair in my future, but although I use a stick on a bad day, it happens rarely enough that people ask me what I have "done".

It's not all gloomy. As a dancer my natural flexibility serves me well, provided I support it with strength. The right kind of regular training actually eases my condition. Here are my tips for exercising with hypermobility.

- Alignment is crucial. I love gentle yoga for achieving strength in good posture. When you practice regularly you carry those good habits into your everyday actions.

- Impact and load bearing in exercise are tough on joints. I am able to do Arabic dance but I could not dance ballet.

- I always warm up properly, mobilising all the joints, locating the muscles that support them, and establishing good posture. I start my movements small and explore the limits of my safe range of movement safely.

- It is really important to have symmetry in strength training. Poorly balanced muscled drag joints out of alignment.

- Good footwear is essential, as hypermobile feet are prone to fallen arches. All of my footwear is supportive or equipped with insoles.

- I listen to my body and I am aware of my limits. If I get injured, I rest. I understand that I will never run, or do star jumps; but I am at peace with that, as long as I can dance.

More information about EDS can be found here

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Getting even better at bellydance

Part 4 - Steepening the learning curve.

So far we have looked at how your regular practice can help make you a better dancer, but what happens when that isn't hitting the spot?

Every dancer finds that they learn in fits and starts. It seems to be really hard for a bit, then you get it, then it feels easy, then it feels like you are coasting. You can sit in that happy place where the dance feels easy and you are learning few new elements. It's a good thing to do so sometimes, consolidate, let things stew, put some polish on it. After a while though, you will get the itch, the dissatisfaction that says you could do more, or just a touch of boredom because you want to do something new.

Breaking out of those plateaus means a change of approach, so lets look at what you could do.

1. Inspirational education

Plateau or no plateau, I think every dancer needs to have their dance training peppered with different experiences to keep things fresh.

Take a workshop. Lots of dance teachers regularly invite other dancers to come and teach workshops, often as a precursor to a hafla or show. Last year I invited Gwen Booth over for a workshop and hafla, this year we hosted Michelle Manx. I do this because I recognise that even though I am a scintillating teacher, something different, a different style, a different teaching approach, can really inspire student dancers. That builds strength and enthusiasm in the dance community and it is great for everyone.

Keep your ear to the ground, get on mailing lists, find out who is coming to your area, or travel to another area and make new dance friends.

If you are really up for a kick in the dance motivation place, then book into a festival. Do it anyway, I always go to at least one a year, more if I can. Majma is one of my regular favourites, I attended my 6th Majma this year, but they happen all over the country. Some are mixed styles, some focus on particular styles, some are like a little holiday with dancing. Whatever you choose, I can guarantee that you will come away brimming with new ideas, new things to practice and loving the dance more. At some point soon I will write a whole blog on making the most of festivals.

Speaking of holidays, there are also dancers who run overseas dance excursions, often to the Middle East where you can learn from the greats on their home soil. If you are stuck for inspiration, that has to be a way to find it.

So there it is, whether it's a £15 workshop or a £500 holiday, learning from a new source is a great way to get out of a dance rut.

2. Get focussed feedback

Feedback from teachers and other dancers can be an invaluable way to add a new perspective on your dance training.

You could take a private lesson with your regular teacher, or any other teacher. A private lesson means that you can concentrate on exactly what you need to be working on, and you get 100% of your teachers' attention. This can feel a little daunting, but a good teacher will put you at ease and soon you will just be focussing on working hard. In my experience a private lesson will leave me with enough material to keep me busy practising for several months.

If you are going to a workshop and would like to get some extra mileage and personalised training, you can ask if the teacher is available for privates while you are there. Some teachers even offer tuition via Skype, meaning you can train with teachers from all around the world.

Another option for getting feedback is to ask other dancers to appraise your dancing, usually in video form. There are a variety of online forums such as Bhuz, or specific groups on Facebook where many knowledgeable dancers are prepared to cast an eye over videos and give you pointers.

3. Set yourself challenges

I find that I work harder when I have something to work towards. You could book yourself in to perform at a hafla, or if you are feeling brave, a competition. If that feels like a big step, then how about preparing a piece just to show your teacher or class?

Sometimes it's fun to set a creative challenge, perhaps just a minute of dance a week, on a series of themes, video them and watch them back. Try doing short samples of different styles, different moods, try things you wouldn't usually dance, take yourself out of your comfort zone. You might surprise yourself.

Smaller challenges you could try might be mastering a new step every week or completing a set of drills on a regular basis. Give yourself a target and work hard at it.

4. Try something new

Sometimes taking yourself out of the pressure cooker is just what you need to relax into yourself and find your inspiration.

Recently I started attending a new dance class. I initially trained in Egyptian Classical Oriental style, and I have done quite a lot of Tribal Fusion, I teach both, but I had never trained in ATS, apart from a couple of workshops which I really enjoyed. ATS is at the roots of Tribal Fusion, and I like to know about roots. I came across my nearest Fat Chance Belly Dance Sister Studio, Kalash Tribal, at a hafla in Somerset, so I took the plunge and decided to go to class.

I know that I am not going to be performing this style anytime soon, much less teach it, and as a result I feel freed up to be a beginner. I am really enjoying the challenge of a sudden, steep learning curve, and the freedom to make mistakes, or to not get something straight away, because I am the newbie here.

As a result going to this class has given me a new drive and a new sense of joy in my dance, I really can dance like no one is watching. But I am still dancing, I am still keeping fit, the movements will creep into my Tribal Fusion, and will make it better, deeper. I am also being forced to play zills while I dance, which is great, because I always find excuses not to drill with zills when I am on my own!

So why not take some folkloric classes to inform your Orientale? Or adult ballet? Or Streetdance for the fusionistas? Put yourself back in beginner's shoes and fall in love with dancing all over again, with no pressure.

I hope this has given you some ideas for when you feel ready to launch your dance up another level. Remember this is all about inspiration and fun, it's the exciting new discoveries that keep the fire in your belly and the passion in your dance.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Bellydance and body image

A study came out recently that demonstrated what those of us in the bellydance community have known for some time: Bellydance is great for body image and self esteem.

Body positivity and body acceptance is often born out of an appreciation for the function of the body. A mother may come to terms with her postnatal body by considering the amazing function it has performed. A bellydance student learns to love her body because she knows that when she dances, it can do beautiful things, or she appreciates the joy that moving her body in dance can bring her.

I am ceaselessly amazed at how those who come to this dance blossom, over time as they grow in confidence, poise and grace; in the moment as the music starts and they transform from their everyday self, into the dancer, into a vision of the music itself.

One of the things I love about this dance is its inclusiveness. Bellydance is available to people of all genders, races, ages, shapes and sizes. None of these is a barrier to learning, or performing, everyone has the opportunity to express themselves, and to share their dance in the safe, accepting environment of the dance studio or halfa. Bellydance, is for every body.

When news of the above research came to light, there was a murmer in the background. Some experienced dancers were asking “what about the professional performers?”

For while it is true that a student or hobbyist is surrounded by encouraging peers and supportive audiences, the same cannot be said for those who choose to become entertainers for the general public, where employers and audiences, unaware of our more accepting (and dare I say, realistic) aesthetic demand and expect a dancer who fits within a narrow, “conventionally attractive” image.

When I was a fledgeling dancer, in a student troupe, our teacher related to us an enquiry she had had for a party booking. The organiser had specifically asked that she sent only the “young, slim” dancers. Our troupe was made up of dancers between the ages of roughly 18 and 60, dress sizes 8-20. Our teacher politely declined, and explained that this request was contrary to her dance ethos, and the spirit of the troupe itself.

I was reminded of this recently, when Shira reshared an old article from her site. It was based around a question from a dancer whose teacher had asked her to cover her stretchmarks for a performance.

The reaction to this was incredibly powerful. A few dancers agreed with the teacher, citing professionalism, client/audience expectations etc. Some moderate responses stated that the teacher was correct, but only to spare the dancer from the judgement of the audience. An overwhelming response, from dancers and dance teachers, was in support of the student, stating that it should be the individual dancer’s choice what to cover and what to reveal (within the bounds of culturally appropriate costuming).

My stance on this, was that as a teacher or mentor, I would avoid exposing students to a toxic environment where they might be judged according to their appearance rather than their dancing in favour of a safe opportunity to express themselves as they choose. As a performer I know that a critical audience can have a horribly negative impact, even on those who do “fit the mould”, because none of us will ever be “perfect” in the eyes of every observer. Striving for that perfection is not a route to happiness, but perhaps self-acceptance and appreciation of our reality might be.

I am left considering how this goes forward. In our insular community we have happy, well adjusted dancers. People who step out of their everyday lives to be together, to appreciate each other and learn to appreciate themselves. These people leave the studio and take that attitude with them, they walk taller, dress more adventurously. They model self-acceptance to their children and their peers. Little ripples. Can we make waves?

What happens when an older dancer, or a plus sized dancer goes out to perform professionally? What happens if the public audience doesn’t see the “young, slim, pretty” dancer they were expecting? Do they fall in love with the performance and broaden their perspective on beauty, or is the dancer ridiculed as an oddity. Sadly the latter is all too common and sadly this means that the less thick-skinned dancers find themselves having to cherry-pick their performance opportunities. If I had a pound for every time I heard the “oh she has the belly for bellydance” comment (and I am sure you can imagine my geektastic rebuttal regarding the misnomer, you don’t need a belly, just hips, bone ones or titanium ones, or not even, I’ve seen some lovely chair dancing too)

But if we could get out there, just a little more. Share our art and show people the power, grace, joy and beauty in out dance. Maybe we could inspire more people to be a little more comfortable in their skin.
Finding the bellydance joy - Kash performing with Doum Tekka on darbuka, photo credit: Jenny Balkam

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

How bellydance changed my life

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

If you had told me once that I would dance for my living, let alone that this would come when I was already in my thirties, I would not have believed you. Here I am though, rhinestones and sequins everywhere (the homes of bellydancers have the most glamourous dustbunnies), an MP3 player full of Arabic music, planning my schedule around performances and classes.

Arabic dance is an excellent way to bring regular exercise into your life. Originating from folk dances, it is danced by people of all ages and physical abilities. The movements work with the body's natural motion and, as long as the posture is correct, puts very little strain on the joints. The dance builds core control with flexibility, grace with strength. As a long-term sufferer of joint problems with a taste for the exotic, bellydance seemed like the perfect, fun way to keep fit.

Little did I know it would become so much more than that.

My first class was actually a technique workshop with a famous dancer from out of town. The venue was huge, and I arrived to find a large number of women, in bright and jangly attire, catching up on news from their various circles. I believe I was the only raw beginner there. I struggled a little to follow the teacher from the midst of a large ballroom surrounded by my sparkling peers, but even as I fought for the compliance of my reluctant hips, I was falling in love.

I started regular classes, and I really mean classes, I attended two to three lessons with my teacher every week. I grew stronger, more flexible; I gained stamina, isolation and control. Stiff movements became gooey and smooth, stilted shimmies evolved into fast, effortless energy. The more I danced, the more I could dance, I progressed in a spiral of joy and beauty.

My joints became more stable, and less painful; I grew a full inch in height as my improved posture lengthened my spine. I became more poised and graceful, more confident and comfortable in my body - I became a dancer.

Not every individual who takes bellydance classes wants to perform, and that's just fine. A good class will offer every participant an opportunity to exercise, socialise and have fun, whilst still breaking down the movements and give feedback so that students learn to dance both safely, and beautifully. This allows them to ascend to a stage-worthy standard, should they choose to.

Tips for picking a good bellydance class:

Look for a local organisation. Or a not-so-local one, and ask about teachers. Failing that, seek out a reputable teacher further afield and ask for a recommendation. It is good for a teacher to be known by and involved with the wider dance community, that way they bring more opportunities for their students.

Speak to people already taking the class, but beware of bias. A personal recommendation is excellent, but if that person has only been exposed to the dance via their teacher, they may have a distorted view of the quality of the class.

Go to a local hafla (bellydance party) or showcase. Watch the teacher perform, watch the students perform, how do they compare with other groups at the show? Do you enjoy the style that they teach?

Ask your potential teacher about their training/qualifications. There is no governing body for bellydance in the UK, but there are a number of smaller schools with official training for bellydance teachers. I would also expect any decent teacher to be constantly working on her own dance, attending workshops, possibly even working under the mentorship of a master teacher. How a teacher trains will impact seriously on her students.

Talk to your teacher about their ethos and attitude to the dance. A good teacher will be passionate about the dance, music and culture. They will love to talk about it with you, and they will take great joy in infecting all their students with the same enthusiasm

Kash now teaches and performs as Scarlet Lotus, in South West England.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Fitting your workout or dance practice into your busy routine.

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

Are you struggling to keep up your daily exercise regime? Is life getting in the way of your good intentions? Do other people seem to be managing while you simply cannot? As a yoga and dance teacher I regularly speak to students who tell me that they simply cannot maintain their commitment to regular practice and conditioning. Here are some ideas to get you out of that rut.

1. Understand your sticking point

Why are you unable to find the time to exercise? Is it a true logistical lack of time, rather than a lack of motivation, or too-high an expectation of what you feel you should be doing? Be honest with yourself. Ultimately, your friends, your personal trainer or your teacher are not deeply affected by your practice regime, this is for you, and you need to appreciate that.

2. Working out is a necessity, not a luxury

Often it is a matter of priorities. We all (usually) find time to eat, wash, dress and suchlike. When your workout is viewed as another important task to aid your daily function, time can be found to incorporate it. If you aspire to a more healthful lifestyle, fitness should take priority. A morning run, circuit or yoga session will leave you just as prepared for the day as a sit down with a cuppa, it just requires a slight alteration in mindset to accept that choice.

3. Living your yoga practice

Pranayama can be practiced pretty much anywhere. Just the same as pelvic floor exercises! Sitting on the bus, or locked in a toilet cubicle at work for 5 minutes. Any time I feel tense, stressed or overwhelmed is a good time to take a short break, and focus simply on the breath. Taking lunch in the park and putting aside a few minutes for some quiet breathing to centre is a lovely way to break up the working day and recharge for the afternoon.

Also good posture can be practiced at all times. A general mindfulness of balance and posture when standing or seated is vastly beneficial, and in my mind more valuable than the occasional long session of asanas. This can begin by simply asking oneself "how am a sitting right now? Am I upright, are my feet on the floor? Does anything ache?" and making a habit of "checking in" regularly, to catch bad posture habits in the act!

4. Honour your workout window

Regularity and routine will help any form of exercise, become more of an automatic part of your life. Just like remembering to brush your teeth at certain times of day, a short practice can be part of the daily routine.

It's good to keep your practice at the same time of day, studies have shown athletes perform better if their race is at the time of day when they usually train, our bodies come to expect it.

My advice would be to try and fit in an early morning session, first thing when you wake, before you are awake enough to come up with a reason not to. If this means getting up slightly earlier, the vitality provided by the practice will make up for it. Drink a glass of lukewarm water, get straight into your workout clothes, then start with some simple asanas with pranayama. A sequence of asanas in earnest can follow (alternatively another preferred physical activity), then a brief relaxation. This can take between 10 and 30 minutes and is adaptable to each day. Actually practicing something, rather than skipping it because a full 30 minutes is not available, is vital to maintain the routine. If one day all you can manage is a few deep breaths and a sun salutation, that's fine, you are still working.

I actually practice in the evening, because my children are early risers, sometimes I don't start until 10pm, but I sleep better afterwards.

If you are unable to complete your workout, perhaps due to illness, fit in an alternative practice, whether it be breathing exercises, meditation or study. Never simply allow you sofa time to intrude on your workout time, it will become habit.

5. Something is always better than nothing

Long practices are great but 10 minutes a day is better than nothing. Equally a short fast run, or intense circuit set can easily be completed in less time that it takes to catch up on your favourite soap. It is much less of a trial to find time for, and accomplish, this, than holding out for an hour long workout.

Once you establish your regime, and adjust your mindset to accept that this will be a part of your day now, it is much easier to stick to, and expand upon your exercise programme.

Monday, 25 August 2014

The ecology of the bellydance community.

Why do you dance?

I have been writing a lot about pushing for improvement in your dance lately. I understand that although those posts are aimed at any dancer who wants to improve, whether they aspire to perform, or dance for their own satisfaction, I feel that a really important bunch of dancers are being overlooked, so this post is about/for them.

Our world is closed and mysterious to those on the outside, I try to do what I can to open our doors and let the general public see the awesomeness within, but most who are not part of it, are not aware of the richness and diversity of our members and their niches within the community.

I often get calls asking if my lessons are just for performers and the answer is absolutely not! If that were the case I would only ever teach private lessons, because there are just not that many aspiring bellydance stars about! More importantly I don't want that to be the case. I know from my experience, that of other dancers and from my own students, that learning to dance can be an awesome, transformative, healing and empowering process (the concept from where my Red Goddess course evolved). I want that to be available to everybody. I also know that the world of bellydance would not flourish as it does without a whole host of different kinds of contributors.

The lifeblood of the bellydance community.

The bellydance community is filled with all kinds of people, who dance or participate for all kinds of reasons, some are very immersed in the dance and community, some dip in and out as they will. We have:

  • Students who go to a regular class, for social reasons and/or exercise
  • Students who like (or aspire) to perform at haflas or in a student troupe
  • Students who have a healthy obsession with the dance and want to learn as much as possible and train hard to get as good as they can be.
  • Professional dancers, who may, or may not also teach.
  • Teachers and troupe directors.
  • Choreographers
  • Partners of dancers who support events 
  • Musicians
  • Vendors and costume makers
  • Events organisers
  • Techy people like DJs, lighting techs, photographers and videographers
  • Webmasters and forum moderators

And many more, I apologise if I have left you out!

All of these people working together is what makes our community so special. You don't have to get any more involved than simply doing the dancing you want to, but if you do want to immerse yourself in the world of bellydance, you don't need to be performing, or even dancing, to be a valued and loved member of our community.

Casual doesn't mean mediocre

One of the challenges I encounter when writing about dancers who dance as a hobby, or "just for fun" is avoiding the false implication that this is a "lesser" pursuit than taking on an ambitious training schedule or being a "serious" dancer.

The rewards of bellydance are not dependent upon your skill level, and although a greater commitment usually means greater rewards, the dancers who cannot put in an enormous amount of time are still having a valuable experience and make a valuable contribution.

There are many dancers who go to the same class every week for years and gradually become lovely dancers, but rarely, if ever, perform. There are dancers who begin with the intention of having a laugh with their mates for a term or so, then get hooked and throw themselves headlong into everything about the dance - they become mines of information about dance culture, Arabic music etc. There are dancers who become accomplished and will perform at the drop of a hat, but aren't interested in teaching, or performing professionally. Many of these become familiar faces and well-loved personalities in our circles. There is no "just" about it.

A heartfelt thanks

So I would like to honour the "casual" dancers and dance fans. The dancers who turn up regularly to lessons and book workshops - you are the ones that make these events possible. The students who sit on the door at haflas and take the money, or stage manage - your teacher/event organiser couldn't do it without you. The partners who drive us to events. The shy students who take the plunge and share a little of themselves on the hafla dance floor - you are an inspiration. The vendors who tirelessly seek out the best and shiniest baubles for us. All the people in this vast and beautiful community, I salute you.

If you are thinking about dipping your toe into bellydance, or are taking lessons and want to do more, but aren't sure whether there is a place for you - there is so much we have to offer you and you are very welcome to join us.

Penny from Everything Egyptian 
providing dancers at the Scarlet Lotus 2013 Glastonbury Hafla with lovely shiny things.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Getting good at bellydance, good habits.

Part 3 - The daily grind.

In my first installment of this series we looked at how you can set yourself up for a fulfilling and productive bellydance journey with a great mindset and a resilient attitude. In this post, I am going to look at the practical measures you can take, to help you fulfil your dance potential.

For the most part, consistency and dedication are the cornerstones of your dance progression. Intensive study can be great, we will look at that in the next instalment, but nothing beats regular tuition and practice. So let's see what that might look like.

Regular bellydance classes.

The benefits of attending a good regular class are enormous, and I am not just saying that because I teach them! Choose the right class for you and you will be getting a regular lift, physically and psychologically, you will make friends and get to explore the world of bellydance with expert guidance.

There is something very useful about having an outside influence decide what you are going to dance today, it saves us from getting into the rut where we only dance the steps and styles we like best. Ideally your teacher will also be following some kind of progression, so simply turning up will take you on a good, structured and targeted learning pathway.

Go to as many classes are you can afford to. When I started I did 3 classes a week! If you have other considerations outside dance in your life, you might not go that mad, but make it regular, even once a fortnight is better than nothing, or an unpredictable schedule - it is too easy to fall out of the habit if you don't make it a regular priority.

Get the right class for you

Choosing your class depends on how you like to dance, how you like to learn and what you would like to get out of your dance. Some classes are about getting stuck in and moving. This is great for the social aspect, and for gently improving your fitness. If you want to improve your dance repertoire, or become a technically better dancer, you probably need to look for a class that has a more technical focus, at least for some of the time.

One of the biggest reasons a live class with a good teacher is so good for your dance progress, is feedback. A good teacher will help you adjust your technique, not just to make it aesthetically better, but also to make movements safer, more comfortable and more efficient (which helps enormously when you start layering them). This is vital, because every body is different, and even very experienced dancers are often blind to, or can't see a way out of small, but influential, issues in their technique. Feedback can be very individual, I like to do the rounds of a group to give each dancer a couple of adjustments, but it might also be general. I never call out an individual in a group class, but I might spot an issue with one dancer, and advise the class as a whole to "watch out for..." because often that helps the other students too.

A smaller class means that you will get more of your teacher's time and attention, and s/he will be watching you more in order to give you better tips - this might feel a little daunting at first, but you get used to it, honest!

Finally, you have to enjoy your class. You are going to be there every week, possibly more, so the format, teaching style, personalities, music etc. have got to work for you, don't be afraid to shop around a bit, which brings me to....

Mix it up a bit

I always encourage my students to take up opportunities to dance with other teachers, and I am a little suspicious of those who don't. It is wise to stick with the same style while you are a beginner, as there are differences in posture and technique that can be confusing until you are competent in one or the other. Some teachers use different terms, but you will learn quickly what they are referring to. I have had students who dance with both myself, and another teacher on a regular basis, and find our classes complemented each other.

Even with the same teacher you might have the opportunity to take separate classes for technique, choreography, and conditioning. Mixing up your tuition, whilst keeping an anchor in a regular class, makes you a more rounded dancer.

Doing your homework

If going to your dance class is your brief, weekly escape, then there is nothing wrong with turning up, dancing and forgetting about it for the week, however, if you want to make good progress you need to be practising in between times. There are a few ways you can go about this, and again, I suggest you mix it up.

Do the stuff you did in class.

Take notes. Not reams of notes, you are in class to dance, not write. At the end, make a quick list of the things you did, just to remind you. Then over the next few days, pop some music on, and practice the techniques or combinations you learned.


Pick some random steps. Roll back through your notes and choose something from a class a couple of months back, use my awesome drill generator, or use a DVD, and practice until your movements are stronger, cleaner, bigger and generally more awesome. One key thing though, is to make sure you have the technique down before you start drilling, ask your teacher to check, because drilling will write the movement into your muscle memory and you don't want to end up retaining a wrong move!

My favourite drill DVDs are Aziza's Ultimate Practice Companion (which sadly is quite hard to get ahold of now) and Michelle Joyce's Drills Drills Drills (which has finger cymbal drills too). I'd recommend checking onto Raqs TV for affordable streaming rental of dance practice videos, and you can also try out some of Michelle's DVDs on there. If you are a tribal dancer, Rachel Brice's Daily Dose session on Datura Online are a good, concentrated practice.

These sessions are generally fairly long and I know that it can be hard to fit dance practice in around family, work and other commitments, but you can always sneak in a little bit now and again....

Incidental dancing

What do you do while you are waiting for the microwave to ping, or the kettle to boil? How do you pass the time while you are on hold on the phone?

Dance. Dance all the time. Can you keep up a strong shimmy for as long as it takes the kettle to boil? What about a shimmy en releve? Did you just get up and walk when the doorbell rang? I didn't. I did a hagalla, or a travelling shimmy. In traffic jams I belly pop and beat out zill rhythms on the steering wheel. My babies have been shimmied and horizontal eighted to sleep.

How can you fit dance into your day today?

You're never too good for the basics.

It can be really tempting to keep pushing for bigger and better, fancier things. The sense of achievement from getting the hang of a tricky step is such a rush, but never forget your roots.

Keep drilling the basic, fundamental movements, do them slowly, do them in different poses, keep it precise. Good foundations will improve your dancing as a whole, but if sloppiness creeps in, that will show too.

Your regular class should be challenging, but it is an excellent exercise to visit a foundation level class fairly regularly too. I like to take beginner classes with other teachers, to hear how they break down the movements. You will always pick something new up.

Getting dance fit

Bellydance is a workout in itself, cardio, strength, flexibility, core control, plyometrics - it's all there! You can get fit for dance by just dancing, drilling moves makes you stronger and more flexible, the move gets better.

If you want a short-cut, targeted conditioning can really help by boosting your strength, control and flexibility in the right areas. For instance, if you are working on level changes, a good squat routine will give you a real boost. Many bellydancers teach classes, or have produced workout DVDs, specifically for bellydance conditioning. Datura Online has some really effective, and time efficient, conditioning videos that you can hire for a while to get that fitness boost. Or you could just join up to a regular fitness class that you enjoy.

My preference for dance conditioning is Vinyasa flow yoga and pilates. I didn't really enjoy fitness before I began dancing, but finding what works for me, and seeing how the results impact my dance has been really motivating.

Listen to the music

Arabic dance is all about musical interpretation, and all good bellydancers have a good ear for Arabic music. You can study the theory behind the music if you like, it is fascinating, but absorbing and quite hefty. I found the best way to become attuned to Arabic music is to listen to it. A lot.

To the Western ear, Middle Eastern sounds are a little alien, and sometimes jarring. It takes a while to learn to love the mizmar! I started with softer, popular music and Western fusion from easily accessible compilations, then gradually introduced more complex and challenging music as I became attuned to it. I am building music playlists for my students, one for general music theory and notable songs, one for some of the easier music I use in class. I also have some recommended compilations on the Amazon store on my site.

Listen to the music all the time, in the car, while you are washing up, let it seep into your brain quietly. Over time you will absorb the rhythms, without knowing what they are called, you will start to dance to fit those patterns because they will become familiar to you. The same goes for the phrasing and melody, the predictable structure of the music, you start to anticipate the direction of music you have never heard before, because you unconsciously recognise the pattern.

Dance too. Just throw on any track at random and see what you can do. Don't worry what it looks like, just feel the music and see what your body wants to do.

Musicality is a crucial part of a bellydancer's toolkit, and I believe it is most efficiently gained by immersing oneself in the music on an everyday basis.

So that's that. This is by no means comprehensive, and I am sure there will be dancers who feel that I have left things out, or included things that they did not find helpful, but I hope this gives you some ideas, and a little insight into the measures that I have found helpful in my own dance journey.