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.