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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home for the holidays -- with belly dance fitness DVDs

Dear Ones --

Saturday morning, early -- Christmas week, 2008. For many of us, the holidays start now. Some of us will be on the road, some of us at home -- whether home is quiet or filled with guests. And perhaps you, like I, have realized -- no dance classes for at least two weeks! (Maybe even three or more!)

So what's a girl to do?

Perhaps we both rely on classes -- whether taking or teaching -- not only for choreography, but also for a regular schedule of practice drills and even fitness. So when our class schedule temporarily abates, we need to fill in the gap. It's either that, or get fat, out of shape, and lose both form and style! And since that is too harsh a future to contemplate, we may as well take on the alternative -- which is to practice on our own.

Sometimes, there is nothing like being by yourself, alone in your studio (or your living room, or the empty fitness room in the health club -- wherever!). Just you and your music, and an hour that you've blocked off. This can also be scary -- the "blank canvas" sort of thing.

So instead of making ourselves face an empty studio each day, let's mix it up. A little choreography time -- but also some basic workouts and drill.

I started my "official" holiday season this morning, at an hour too early to mention in public, with Rachel Brice's Tribal Fusion Belly Dance: Yoga, Isolations, and Drills: A Practice Companion with Rachel Brice. A great way to start the day! (DVD on loan from Sabira, thank you, Sabira!)

Note: You'll always be find out more suggestions for practicing at home, including links to Rachel's and other cool DVDs, along with neat collections of YouTubes and other support materials, at Alay'nya's Recommendations - Practicing at Home (Intermediate).

Rachel's DVD is really more suited for intermediate-to-advanced students than for pure beginners. She does give instruction, and she does break each technique down beautifully, and guide you through with pointers. She also repeats each move several times -- so there is not too much of a "cognitive" challenge in following her. Still, this is not really the place to learn the technique -- it is more like having Rachel in for a private coaching session.

Today, I selected the 45-minute option (Rachel presents 15-, 30-, and 45-minute sessions). We started with a basic yoga Salute to the Sun -- very basic, but well-grounded. This was followed by pelvic and rib cage isolations, and very structured body rolls (both going up and down). We followed with some final yoga stretches and relaxation in the "corpse" pose. (During the latter, there were beautiful shots of moving clouds in time-compressed video -- a lovely touch for a workout that started and ended before dawn on a cloudy and cold winter day!)

Practicing with Rachel lets us experience how she structures isolations -- and this is important if you're trying to replicate her style. Personally, I find her Tribal /Fusion/Goth/Trance style intriguing -- but not what I would do (favoring a bit more of a classic and lyrical approach). But still - practicing with her on her DVD makes it possible to incorporate little "snippets" of her movements into otherwise more traditional (read: predictable) dances. Kind of like wearing a bright red, patterned scarf with an otherwise traditional outfit - adds some interest and pizzazz!

(Rachel includes a short performance vid at the end of her practice session -- inspiring! A very similar-in-nature performance is shown on this YouTube video clip of a Rachel Brice's performance.)

Thank you, Rachel! We appreciate the hard work that went into making this DVD. You did a good job, this is very useful, and a real benefit to the dance community!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New Image Stylist -- Neat Discovery!

Dear Ones --

Have just come back (w/in last 20 minutes) of Susan B. Hillson's wonderful first-ever one-woman jewelry show (fabulous job, Susan, and I'll post up your website as soon as you have it ready!). All her friends and co-workers came, and Sabira and I joined her as well. Beautiful jewelry, and she will custom-design to order. To connect w/ Susan (until her website goes live), use shillson7 (at) gmail (dot) com.

At her show, I met a fabulous young woman -- Janocye -- who has an image consulting business. (Visit Janocye's website to get a sense of what she can do for you.) Janocye is centered in the Gaithersburg area, and can easily visit clients in the Potomac, Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Great Falls, and McLean areas.

We had a wonderful chat -- and Janocye is truly a living testimony to her own business. Having lived and worked in New York for many years before moving to the DC area, she combines the "Big Apple" sense of pizzazz and style with the more structured and conservative look that many adopt here.

Many of my new students come to me because they've had a life-change of some sort, and - as they put it - "I was ready to do something just for me!"

For those ready to do something "just for me," you might check her out at Janocye's blog -- she promises to be updating it more often.

With the seasonal round of parties upon us, and an upcoming round of inaugaral balls, now is just the right time for a new look. Combine belly dance (for a fabulous presence), a new image (with Janocye ); and then get Janocye to guide you with custom-designed jewelry from Susan for your new look / new year!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Special Invited Guest Artist - Amustela

Amustela is one of our area's favorite dancers -- always creative, always inspired, always fabulous! She has been with us in several MEDEA performances, and has always come up with something very new, different, interesting -- and captivating!

Special Invited Guest Artist - Katayoun

Katayoun is a much beloved and favorite area dancer. She is graceful, elegant, and sensual at the same time. She switches seamlessly between classic Danse Orientale (cabaret) and her native Persian styles; beautiful and delightful performer!

Special Invited Guest Artist Caleena Janay

Caleena Janay first joined us for an awesome, outstanding performanc in Viva la Diva; she is an area favorite and we are so looking forward to her dance!

Special Invited Guest Artist -- Urvashi

Urvashi is new to us this season, and we are so looking forward to having her dance -- with her snake "Bhakti" -- in the upcoming MEDEA VI!

Special Invited Guest Artist - Nadira Maher

I first saw Nadira Maher dance during an evening hafla that we had following a workshop that we hosted for Joe William, teaching the Delsarte Method. Beautiful, inspired improvisational dancing!

Returning Soloist -- Maha Najeeb

Maha Najeeb, well known throughout the NOVA dance community, rejoins the Troupe for this year's MEDEA VI performance. You can see traces of her previous performances with us by going to and clicking on prior shows such as Diamonds, or Unveiling.

Sabira - Tribal and classic Danse Orientale

Sabira is now the most senior student within my dance studio, and has been performing for almost seven years in the NOVA and Greater DC area. While she does Tribal style as well as classic Danse Orientale, she specializes in very slow, graceful movements -- often emphasizing her beautiful hands. Certainly worth watching!

"Rising Star" dancer Sasheen

Sasheen is another dancer in her group (of students who've just been studying for two years) who has rapidly evolved her dance ability. Sasheen's style tends towards the archetypal -- the mysterious, something other-worldly or very old within our world.

Sasheen loves both sword dancing and fire dancing -- this performance will herald a new sword dance from her; one very different from her first one in both tempo and style.

Sasheen was the first of her group to perform; she and dance friend Elizabeth (a modern dancer) put together a show in this very same place over a year ago -- we were impressed then, and anticipate a much more exciting work now!

"Rising Star" dancer Sitara

Sitara -- who has been with me for just over two years -- personifies the kind of "rising star" dancer that we see here. Through her own hard work and dedication (much more than my brilliant coaching), she has developed a lovely and personal interpretation of classic Danse Orientale in the Egyptian cabaret style.

This year, she is refining a previous work -- adding extra dimensions and polish.

Those of you who saw Sitara perform just last May will get a treat to see how her dance has evolved so rapidly within such a short time. I'm particularly thrilled with how she has gained an ability to hold audience attention, and use a variety of moods and techniques to add interest to her dance!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Raw Foods, Real People, and Cold Weather

Dear Ones --

I made a mistake last night -- ate homemade beef stroganoff w/ noodles for dinner. It tasted great, was filling on a cool autumn evening, and was SO not right for my body! Not that I felt "wrong" this morning -- just -- not so "right." There is a feeling that we get when we eat the right foods, at the right time -- we feel "lighter and brighter." And this wasn't it.

So I promised myself that today would be -- at least mostly -- a "raw foods" day.

Perhaps I'm inspired by finding the Raw Divas's website last night. That was a nice treat! A whole lot of advertising and promo-blather, but their hearts are in the right place, and if you read and click far enough / long enough, you do come across some useful (free!) information.

And before going further -- a brief pitch for my fave raw-food read; Raw Food, Real World. Co-authors and raw foods restauranteers Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis both motivate and inspire with their youthful and bouyant energy, and delightful recipes. (A word of warning: Their suggestions are rarely for those short on time, and some of the most interesting options require both a dehydrator and substantial advance preps. Barring that, the pictures and recipes are inspiring and might get some of us "over the hump" of having to devote extra time.)

As a sidebar, now that people are getting much smarter about intermet marketing "methods," it becomes progressively difficult to wade through sites that are mostly promo-pages, with a whole lot of fluff, and very little behind them. MOST of what you would desire to find can be obtained from your local library, for MUCH cheaper than the various e-books, e-zines, and other items hawked on the net.

For example, I recommend going to the library first for your raw-food reads. Take home a bunch of books, load up on the most attractive and vibrant fruits, greens, and veggies you can get from either a farmer's market or your most trusted food store, and find out what you REALLY do over the next week or so. A week or two in the "real world" of your own kitchen will let you connect ambition with reality. Then, and ONLY then, decide on what books you REALLY need for your long-term private libary, and what internet thing you REALLY must download, at the cost of pulling out your credit card.

That little diatrabe aside, back to raw foods -- something that we dancers all need, because they deliver high-quality energy, especially if done right.

I'll admit to being motivated -- at least in part -- by reading about fashion designer Donna Karan's experience Donna Karan's experience with a raw-foods diet. She both lost weight AND improved her energy level! Donna was mentored in her new approach by Jill Pettijohn, live-foods advocate and chef.

But, as the Karan article notes, not all of us can afford live-in chefs.

In the "real world" in which many of us live, we have two challenges when it comes to increasing the raw/live ratio of foods:

  1. Finding the time in the first place -- the big challenge for all of us, and I'll address it in a minute, and
  2. Now that it's cold, the LAST thing we want are a bunch of cold, raw veggies. Most of the time, we can scarcely get excited about them in the summer -- but who wants cold and raw when that's exactly what we face when we go outdoors?

The time challenge first -- because that is often the biggest stickler in our lives, and with holidays coming up, the last thing we need to do is to make our lives more complicated.

I have found, through sad experience, that going to the farmer's market is an uplifting and inspiring event -- so inspiring that I will often come home with MUCH more than I can use in the reasonable future. What is worse, I too often have not "connected the dots." Between the joyous and exuberant sensory stimulus of all these wonderful fresh market things and the actual act of eating these lovely items, there is some necessary preparation. And left to my own devices, such preparation gets postponed indefinately ... until I wind up chucking those once-lovely veggies that have gone well past their "use-by" date.

There are three steps that I've found that help me get on track, and stay on track, with the veggie-intensive approach to living. Because they work well for me, they might also work for you!

(1) Have something of an action plan before going to the food store / farmer's market. I'm not saying that you need to be rigid -- but put things together in your mind before you shop. For example, if you've checked the weather, and know it will be cold, windy, and rainy, you know that you will want something warm. Something that will SMELL good when you come into the house. Think about how you want to nourish yourself emotionally and sensually as well as physically.

Think also about your time-plan for the week ahead. Will you be coming home tired and late, and just want to eat and relax? Then you know you need at least one crockpot meal. Will you have an evening where you'll come home, have a half hour or so, leave for an hour and a half, and then come back for dinner? Then think about something that can do a slow-bake in the back of the oven.

As you form up your major strategies, think through how you're going to use your leftovers -- what you want to make in extra quantities so that you have plenty for lunch or dinner later in the week. Now -- the "raw" part: Around these time constraints, factor in where and how you'll add in the "raw foods" (or those given a bare-minimal saute). Sometimes this will happen, sometimes not.

Add this to your knowledge of what is seasonal, what feels good to you right now, make a mental list and/or jot down a few notes. If you're thinking about shopping at a Saturday morning farmer's market, take time Thursday or Friday evening to look through your recipe books to see what inspires you. Make note of any special ingredients, and try to pick them up on the way home from work -- so that you don't expend valuable weekend time on extra shopping.

Next -- and this is a big one -- plan on taking at least twice as much time for your "food shopping adventure" as usual. When you get home, and AS YOU UNPACK (except for getting the things that need to be cold into the fridge), prep your foods before you stash them.

For example: If you buy onions and mushrooms, with the intention of folding them into three or four different dishes over the week, cut up the onions right away, and start sauteing them in olive oil or butter. While they start to brown, cut up your mushrooms, throw them in. Then store your pre-cooked onion-mushroom mixture, not the "raw" raw ingredients. (Yes, I know this post is about raw foods. We draw the line at raw onions. Raw onions do not enhance intimacy later in the day.)

If you bring home a cauliflower, pull off the leaves, and cut out the core. If you know that you want cauliflower "florets," cut a bunch of them NOW, while the thing is in front of you.

This takes time. The benefit is that you increase your likelihood of actually using and eating these wonderful foods!

Third point -- all on the "time-challenge" end of things. In some areas, you'll be better off buying things that are at least semi-pre-prepped. For example, you might buy a package of cut-up butternut squash pieces. Saving yourself fifteen minutes is worth the extra expense. You be the judge.

Now, on to the REAL challenge. It's winter. We want warm, rich foods. Not cold salads.

Step 1: We can tolerate a fair bit of raw if it is cut up small and covered in a nice, rich sauce. This is NOT a time for fat-free! (Such an idea is an insult to our system, especially in cold weather.) Remember that fats carry flavor, and fats carry fat-soluble (not water-soluble) nutrients. And we need both; the first nourishes our psyche, the latter our body.

So invest in good salad dressings, cut your veggies up small, and take both with you to the office, along with some easily-added protein -- a can of fish, or a little left-over salmon, or some of those pre-cooked chicken pieces. Add guacamole or raw pine nuts for a little extra richness and flavor, and you have a totally acceptable year-round meal. Perhaps a little soup, maybe a few crackers or nuts, and you're ok. Allow your raw-veggie salad to come to room temperature before eating; that will also help on a cold day.

Space your foods out during mid-day; a lot of our cravings come from system-crash when we push too long without nutrients.

Second, make it easy for yourself -- spout some nuts (yes, get raw nuts, such as almonds, and let them sit in water overnight -- then drain, and store in the fridge). Use these as a snack. Year-round, they give you not only the "raw," but the "live" food experience. Add sprouts to your salads / sandwiches; another easy way to get "live."

Sometimes we just need cooked foods -- some foods might be too dense to be enjoyed raw; brussels sprouts come to mind. Also the heavier winter squashes, and the denser and darker greens.

Sometimes, a little saute is all that is needed. Sometimes, we must do more.

Right now, I'm learning how much I need to cook foods in order to bring out their flavor, and make them enjoyable as well as nutritious.

I'll share my findings, and please -- feel free to post a (useful) comment -- especially, link us in to good books and recipes!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great exercise to help with knee strength

Dear Ones --

This Sunday's (Oct. 19th, 2008) Parade magazine had a Special Report about Women's Health by Claudia Wallis. She opens with:

"When I ripped a ligament in my knee on a ski-slope last winter, I had no idea that I was joining a limping sisterhood. A torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) ranks among the most common sports-related knee injuries. But women are five to sevn times as likely as men to sustain this kind of athletic damage."

Ms. Wallis continues with an interview with Dr. Laura Tosi, director of the bone-health program at Children's Natioanl Medical Cneter in Washington, DC. Dr. Tosi, and studies that Ms. Wallis has read, point out that "girls tend to run, jump, and turn with straighter legs and less bending at the knees and hips than boys." This, and other factors, make us more susceptible to knee and other joint injuries.

Ms. Wallis is not alone in her experience of knee problems -- I have them myself, and so do some of my students. (The older we get, the more likely we are to have this as a problem area.)

In fact, one of my favorite dance teachers, Anahid Sofian in New York City, started learning belly dance on the recommendation of her physical therapist. In doing modern dance, she had overworked her knees, and was in pain. She sought help from her doctors, who then prescribed physical therapy. Her therapist recommended belly dance as a therapeutic exercise. She tried it, became entranced by the art form, and from there went on to become one of the world's leading choreographers and teachers in this area.

Fortunately for us, we can ALL use belly dance as a therapeutic exercise. The key ingredient that makes this work? We dance in a "bent-knee" posture. ALL of our movements involve keeping our knees just slightly bent. This means that:
1) We strengthen our thighs AND our abs (we need strong abs to make this work),
2) We lengthen our lower back, getting our pelvis to align straight with the floor -- this helps a LOT to release lower back tension!, and
3) We strengthen the muscles around our knees.

Belly dance is an ancient, beautiful, and sensual women's art form. It is very likely the oldest dance form on this planet, although other "native/folk" dances (e.g., Polynesian, African) could have started around the same time. Because belly dance is such an old art form, it is very aligned with how our bodies are naturally designed to move. (In contrast, more recent dance forms, such as ballet, are much more "artificial," and can actually produce joint damage.)

Our bodies were naturally designed to have - and work best when - we are in a posture where our pelvis is aligned with the floor, our knees are slightly bent (this helps with pelvic alignment), and our spine and neck are "lengthened" so that the top of our heads reaches towards the sky. This is the posture that we practise and use in belly dance.

This pelvic-aligned, bent-knee, spine-lengthened posture helps us be more naturally graceful and beautiful. (Not to mention, it gives the immediate impression of losing ten pounds!) With this as a framework, we create elegant and sensual movements -- all while being non-impact!

For those that would like to add a fun way to strengthen their bodies, and feel and look much better, belly dance would be a great exercise alternative!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Darlings -- reinstating our blog. Test run!