Saturday, December 20, 2014

DVD Review: Silk Waist - Belly Dance Abdominal Isolations with Shahrzad

3 out of 5 stars
Available via: World Dance New York

I pre-ordered Silk Waist shortly after seeing the video preview. In it Shahrzad specifically mentions the “rolls, pops, and flutters” that make bellydance so unique and how important they are to learn. She has that soft, languid quality which generally characterizes the Egyptian style of Raqs Sharki and I was excited at the prospect of learning about abdominal isolations specifically within that context. I’ve been struggling with learning how to flutter for years now, so any additional perspective or insight that might help make the isolation truly “click” for me is greatly appreciated, and although I can do belly rolls, I’m always looking to improve them.

Other than Ranya Renee’s amazing DVDs, I cannot bring to mind any other offerings from WDNY which focus on more traditional Middle Eastern styles. Their catalog recently has tended to skew towards Tribal Fusion (Rachel Brice, Sera Solstice, Irina Akulenko), American Cabaret (Tanna Valentine, Autumn Ward), and Contemporary Fusion (Neon, Sarah Skinner). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that trend, and perhaps it’s even a deliberate business decision in response to companies like Cheeky Girls Productions which has until recently focused almost exclusively on traditional styles, but I appreciate WDNY’s typical production quality and meticulous formatting and would like to see them utilized to also produce great DVDs on traditional styles. Unfortunately, I don’t feel this DVD really met my expectations.

The Warmup section begins quickly and without any sort of voiceover or verbal instruction on Shahrzad’s part. The pace is moderate for a warm up and mostly consists of body sways, snake arms, and slides, so it should be fairly easy for someone with basic bellydance experience under her belt to follow. At about 1 minute into the warm up she finally begins to describe what she is doing as she transitions to a series of stretches. The warmup lasts a little over 4 minutes.

The next section is Foundations. She first covers basic posture and emphasizes working to isolate the upper ab muscles from the lower ab muscles as a stepping stone towards “advanced technique like belly rolls and flutters.” Oblique Crunches are the second topic. This is a great exercise to gain more mobility and control for hip lifts, drops, and shimmies since it decreases dependence upon the legs to power these movements. The Pelvic Tilt & Slide section includes some good reminders on how to keep the move properly contained by demonstrating what not to do. Chest Lift & Drop instruction follows and Shahrzad discusses this move as muscle-driven and in the vertical plane without the assistance of back and shoulders. She advises to learn it by placing the hands on the upper abs to actually see and feel the muscles and rib cage expand and contract. Although some people like to contrast Oriental style as being primarily “skeletal” and Tribal as primarily “muscular” in movement origin, the Foundation section really demonstrates how false the former statement often is. Shahrzad’s explanations really hinge on muscular control.

The Technique section begins with learning Camels, which build on the Pelvic Tilt concept discussed in the Foundations portion. Different instructors have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a Camel, but in this case it is a lower body undulation on the vertical plane which is isolated from the upper body. The Chest Undulations follow as the corresponding upper body isolation to the Camel. Belly Rolls are touched upon next. Shahrzad introduces the movement by starting with a chest lift and then focuses on expanding and contracting first the upper, then lower abs in a downward roll. She gradually minimizes the initial chest lift for a slightly more isolated belly roll, however the aesthetics are different than how Tribal Fusion dancers like Rachel Brice or Zoe Jakes execute the movement. The result in context is much more subtle as it rarely seems to be presented as a complete isolation. Shahrzad does not cover the upward roll at all. After this, both directions of vertical hip figure eights are discussed, again building upon concepts presented in the Foundations sections. I thought it was interesting that she labelled the downward figure eight as a Taksim as I’ve only ever heard that term used by Tribal style teachers to describe this move. The upward vertical eight is unsurprisingly referred to as a Maya. Although both versions are taught as basically oblique-driven, she does lift the heels.

The Movement section builds on the previous portions; however I think this section really could have been incorporated under the Technique heading. The moves covered here are really just faster, snappier versions of those covered in Foundation and Technique: pelvic locks, chest lift/drops, oblique locks, and belly pops. The Technique section featured some quiet Middle Eastern background music, but Movement is the first part of the program to feature drummer Marshall Bodiker. Typically a live percussionist is a welcome addition to a DVD: it presents great opportunity to see a dynamic interaction between musician and dancer and to learn about rhythms. Unfortunately neither of those opportunities was well explored. Marshall appears disinterested and perhaps even a bit despondent during Shahrzad’s instruction, and his expression remains the same when he actually plays for her. He rarely glances in her direction and I was surprised that he actually came in relatively on cue as he seemed so disconnected from her. To be fair though, Shahrzad does not actually introduce him to the viewers nor directly address him. She signals the start of the beat with a count down and indicates when the speed should increase to double-time. She only tends to turn and look at him when she’s ready to stop the demonstration. I’d probably be feeling a little discouraged too in his position. I understand the practical reasons why she primarily faced forward to address the viewers, but the overall lack of engagement between the two was actually distracting to me.

Combinations is the last instructional section. Four combinations are presented; with each combination consisting of two moves (I am counting the Maya & Taksim in the first combination as one type of move). Marshall accompanies this section also and the dancer/drummer disconnect continues from the previous section. She breaks down the combinations, then briefly indicates the name of the rhythm that will be paired with it. This is where I believe another great opportunity was lost. It would have been nice to have had even a sentence or two explaining why those movements were chosen to accompany said rhythm, but no rationale was given. I also would have appreciated the name of the rhythm to have been written out on screen as two of the four names were not immediately familiar to me (one of them is an Indian rhythm and I have no real exposure to those, especially in a bellydance context). This would at least make it a bit easier to do more research on my own. The combinations are done at two speeds.

Practice Flow is a follow-along section where the four combinations are strung together into a mini-drum solo choreography. Unlike in the Combinations section, she varies her angles when performing them and includes more arm variations. There are no verbal cues or options for on screen prompts as many WDNY DVDs offer, although occasionally she will mouth the name of the move she is about to do. The main indication to change combinations is the change in rhythm on the drum. This section starts abruptly and the pace is a bit fast if you aren’t prepared, however since there are only four simple combinations covered it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out. The full series of combinations are repeated four times.

There is a bonus Abs Workout section which covers four separate exercises to strengthen the core muscles and improve isolation. This part was delightfully free of intimidating traditional crunches and planks, and it’s something I can actually see myself using in the future.

A costumed drum solo Performance rounds out the DVD. The connection between dancer and drummer I’d hoped to see throughout the program finally materializes! Both parties genuinely seemed to enjoy this part of filming and it was a pleasure to watch. Sadly though, this is the only time that the flutters mentioned in the DVD introduction actually make an appearance.

Although I really enjoyed Shahrzad as an instructor, Silk Waist did not fulfill the goals it presented for itself. Belly flutters are mentioned at least twice in the DVD and in the text description on the back of the case, but there is zero instruction on them, and the information on belly rolls is somewhat incomplete. Belly pops were the only part of the "rolls, pops, and flutters" that were adequately covered. The DVD also promised to show how to incorporate stomach articulations "into the texture of the dance" to help the viewer "learn how to use abdominal isolations seamlessly within the flow" of the dance itself. As all of the combinations were done in place (traveling with the moves was not explored) and only consisted of the specific techniques previously covered, I don't feel this aspect of the program was truly addressed. In order to do so, I think the combinations presented would have had to involve some additional movements. Even basic moves like hip circles, simple turns, walks, and poses could have been used to link the abdominal isolations to other parts of the dance without going beyond the beginner level. I've already touched upon issues involving the percussion. WDNY usually delivers a lot of 'bang for the buck' in terms of content, but in this case I was a little disappointed with the volume of instruction provided.

I do think this would be a good DVD for beginners who are looking for some basic drum solo techniques, however it would need to be used in conjunction with other DVDs and/or classes that provide education on Middle Eastern rhythms. The belly roll is the most advanced move included and although it is used in one of the combinations, someone could substitute a camel or chest undulation in the practice flow section until he or she was able to perform a belly roll.

As alternatives or additions to this DVD on the topic of stomach articulations, I would recommend Abs-olutely Fabulous: Abdominal Technique with Princess Farhana and Put the Belly back in Bellydance with Hannan Sultan. The first DVD in the From A to Zoe - 4 Disc Set includes a segment where belly flutters are discussed in some depth.

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