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Gilded Serpent presents...
Aruna's "Dancer's Body" Reviewed

DVD review by Rebecca Firestone
January 11, 2008

This is an excellent value for the money, containing exercise routines and dance demonstrations by Aruna. She's an accomplished fitness trainer, bodybuilder, and dancer who looks like a superwoman and wants you to be a superwoman, too.

The DVD came with a very sweet personalized note signed by Aruna, wishing me a strong body. And that's what this DVD is all about: strength, body sculpting, and physical integrity. A lot of the exercises are done very slowly, with the weights, which is a challenge like no other.

One of Aruna's claims to fame is being 50 and being tougher than chicks half her age. And it's true, at least with regard to the strength training - which was her profession for many years. Considering that most belly dancers want to be as youthful as possible, it's a nice change to have someone so athletic who's still improving with time.

Sometimes as a reviewer, I go through these things with a notepad, hitting the pause button every 3 seconds before my thoughts disappear. This time I decided to do a pre-warm-up for my tweaky back before daring to run through this one full tilt. It says on the back, "this is not a girly workout", and knowing Aruna, I took her at her word. I also followed up with a phone interview, which Aruna very obligingly agreed to do.

The sessions are:

  • Warm-up
  • Legs, plies, lunges
  • Pushups and back lifts
  • Core abdominal
  • Upper body dumbbell work
  • Then there's a belly dance drill section, followed by
  • a fusion belly dance performance.
I mostly focused on the exercises.

The standard warning that most exercise videos show was pretty good - it basically says: Muscle burn is OK, joint pain is not. My old yoga teacher used to say "If you feel a sharp, knifelike pain in your joints, time to back off the pose." Over the years, I have found that advice to be sound, and I was glad that Aruna included it as well.

Aruna adds:
" There's a difference between good pain and bad pain. Good pain tends to occur on both sides of the body at the same time. It comes on slow, and goes away fast. Bad pain happens on one side of the body, or in one joint, is very sharp, and doesn't go away quickly. I tell people who have bad pain to avoid those exercises or to work around it... maybe don't go as deep into a lunge, for example."

The exercises seem designed for minimal risk of injury. Even if you can't do them all, I don't think you'll hurt yourself all that much. That's a big plus if you're trying new routines for the first time by yourself, without a teacher or spotter.

Aruna's verbal instructions and her form are clear and easy to follow. Several angles are used to show each movement. The staging is clear, with easy-to-see costumes, a mirror, and an attractive backdrop. I noticed a couple of shots with what appeared to be Kwan Yin in the corner. (She also gets points for wearing my favorite color, sea green).

Many of them will be very challenging for the average dancer. Yeah, yeah, we're all special, not average... quibbling aside, I don't think many of us will be able to follow Aruna all the way through the first time. I did pretty well but even then had several points of muscular failure. I also took 2 to 3 minute breaks between the exercise chapters. Aruna includes encouraging remarks during some of the hard stuff to let you know that it's supposed to be challenging.

As my own trainer said to me one time, "Failure is our business," meaning, you WANT to work to the point of failure for certain types of training.

Aruna's form is flawless. Her athlete's body is almost too magnificent. She's tall and willowy, with the upper-body development that one normally only sees in female trapeze artists. It's a little odd to see her doing such feminine movements in her belly dancing. With a body like that, I'd be doing men's dance or martial arts.

To do this workout, you'll need a couple of sets of small hand weights, and a mat, and that's about it. I tend to run these things on my laptop, making image quality less vivid and the sound a little too low. I found that putting the laptop on a low chair allowed me to see the screen for both the floor sections and the standing sections.

Some things I would have liked to see more of are listed below, although I must admit that putting all this in would be pretty expensive to produce.

More talking.
I couldn't do the exercises and simultaneously be craning my neck to look at the screen. In yoga classes, one style of teaching is to keep up a constant stream of hypnotic babble: instructions, reminders, or whatever, so that the student knows what to focus on in each pose or movement and they've always got a little more to strive for. An experienced yoga practitioner can thus go through an entire yoga workout without ever having to look at the instructor.

Another reason to include verbal instructions is to free the viewer from having to exactly copy the demo. Sometimes the same movement can look very different on different body types. Knowing what is really important in the movement can allow each person to work it out for themselves and make adjustments.

Longer drills
... going from slow to fast for each exercise. Many of the exercises were unfamiliar, or only partly familiar. I always like to do the first 2 or 4 reps at half speed just to make sure I know what I'm doing. Many of the exercises were, I thought, worthy of more drilling time. Of course, this isn't really a "workout" tape; it's more like a training program or a recipe perhaps.

Give derivation or origins of each exercise or movement.
During her introductory speech, Aruna listed a huge array of sources, from Chinese martial arts to bodybuilding to Pilates, as well as several dance styles. I would have liked to know, for each movement she was showing, where it came from, how she had adapted or changed it, and why. And which Chinese martial arts? Which teachers? There are so many styles, all very different. For some exercises that may have very exotic or unfamiliar movement derivations, I would have liked to see a few film clips of these movements being done in their original contexts.

List specific benefits for each exercise.
Sometimes she did this, other times not quite. For example, "This exercise will strengthen the [Latin name here], which are the tiny muscles right next to your spine, that do X," or "This exercise will train your balance and coordination for back bending." That way, the viewer has some idea of what the effect is supposed to be, and then they can tell over time if it's actually working the way it was intended. It's also nice to know the physiological benefits, such as whether it slows heart rate, deepens breathing, prevents atrophy from too much desk work, helps with PMS, cures warts, prevents tooth decay, etc.

Include anatomical diagrams of the muscle groups being targeted.
Just about 5-10 seconds is all you need for an image.

The exercise session did not appear to include a cool-down. (I haven't fully gone thru the belly dance drill section yet, though.)

Explain ballet turnout more.
The plie section was a little baffling for a non-ballerina like myself. Aruna tells you to turn out, but doesn't give many specifics on HOW. There's a set of muscles close to the hip joint that are supposed to be used for turnout to save your knees and ankles. Of course, I never knew about them when I took little-girl ballet at age 6.

Provide performance goals for each movement.
Partly so the viewer knows if she's doing the movement right, and partly to aid in a phased approach. Something like "Your heels should stay on the floor as long as possible," or "You should work up to doing 3 sets of 20 repetitions of this movement, and then go to a higher weight." Or even, "Once you can do this many repetitions, you can try changing the movement by doing it one-handed... strongmen in India have been known to do this exercise with weights of up to 70 lbs."

Provide visualizations for each movement.
We've all had our favorite images that helped us do an exercise, that as soon as we used the image we went "AHA!" or our teacher did. Sometimes telling someone to "engage your psoas" is hard to do, even if we know what our psoas muscles are. But saying "push out your toes like you're trying to poke someone in the back who's just a little too far away" will often cause the right muscles to recruit better than a lot of technical jargon.

Some examples of visualizations of everyday movements that I've heard at various times:

  • Imagining that you are covered in a huge cocoon of bubble bath suds and are stroking them about a foot away from your body (arms and hands)
  • Closing a car door with your butt (hip bumps or back circles)
  • Sniffing your armpit for just a second (sounds weird but it worked)
  • Holding a tiny, adorable kitten in one hand while stroking it with the other (Uzbek hand movements)
  • Peering over a tree branch to spy a nightingale hidden in the leaves (Persian dance)
  • Carrying a shallow tray filled with water or an unimaginably fragile and beautiful object (Movement theater)

Share tips about diet.
I don't mean the latest fads. If you're training hard, you NEED to eat enough of the right foods. But what are those, and what about alternatives for, say, vegan bodybuilders?

Aruna mentioned to me that time and budgetary constraints forced her to be briefer than she wanted. She kept the price point on this one low, because there is already so much competition out there. She wanted to create something that would be valuable, new, and beneficial - something that her students already need and would use, and something tailored for the average dancer. Apparently, many belly dancers are not hard-core gym nuts or muscle heads. They don't like to go to gyms and pump iron. This DVD will challenge them without killing them.

I felt that each of the "sessions" (i.e. legs, upper body weights) was in fact worthy of a much longer session all by itself. The exercise portion of the tape took about an hour all told. What I might try is doing a workout where all the sessions get covered, but I spend extra time on one portion or another, depending what I want to work on that day, or that week.

Overall, this was more than a one-time workout, but less than a fully comprehensive, stand-alone training program. It was a glimpse or taste of what slow weight training can do, shown by a very well qualified fitness professional. I have to admit, somewhat regretfully, that I'm less enthused with the dancing on this DVD than I am with her exercise program. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just not quite as inspiring to me as the fitness part. I've seen Aruna do some great comedic and character sketches in her live troupe choreographies, but the studio demos seemed to lack liveliness, and seem intended mostly for technical demonstration.

I like Aruna personally, and have great admiration and respect for her as a fitness instructor and as an athlete. I was very happy with the purchase, which cost only $15. I can't wait to see her next exercise video, which will hopefully pick up where she left off with this one. Ask her when she'll be making a DVD about "The Dreaded Chair"!

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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