4 DVD coversGilded Serpent presents...
Getting in Shape:
Three Core Training DVDs and One Special Treat
--Core Training for Bellydancers Bellydance
Yoga Conditioning with Ariellah
--Industrial Strength Dance Workout with Shakra
--Bellydance Arms & Posture with Rachel Brice

Review by Rebecca Firestone

Y'know, writing these articles is a lot more fun than going to work. I'm already late and yet here I sit, wondering how to best arrange all my notes.

The first two items, Core Training for Bellydancers and Ariellah's Bellydance and Yoga Conditioning, present various conditioning exercises that are designed to ultimately improve your bellydancing. The third, Industrial Strength Dance Workout with Shakra, is more about active movement. The last one, Rachel Brice's Bellydance Arms & Posture, offers conditioning for the upper arm and shoulder to practice "Carriage, Coiling, and Serpentine Stylization."

Core Training for Bellydancers
This is old-school core training. The Fitness Pharaoh is a DC-area personal trainer named Gerson Kuhr, who's worked with a lot of bellydancers. His core training exercises are standard floor exercises, mostly crunches, leg lifts, and twists of various sorts. The exercises are very specific, are carefully explained, and even come with an illustrated booklet.

The DVD is well-organized and informative, almost more of a textbook than a straight workout.

 In his introductory remarks, it's a little ironic listening to a huge, heavily muscled man claiming that his exercises will give you a more feminine body. The cheesy touches are kind of fun - his full-bore "pharaonic" attire, the dancing letters, and the stage set with tiny pyramids.

He's got a direct and gravelly delivery that actually inspires confidence in the workout itself. He promises that the benefits can be accomplished in only 15 minutes a day, which sounds like one of those 1-800 TV ads selling some new and revolutionary type of vacuum cleaner.

The exercises are divided into 5 core areas of the torso: four of which are various frontal abdominal groupings, and the last being the low back. Each section is preceded by a color-coded anatomical illustration and a description of the benefits from conditioning that particular muscle group. The Fitness Pharaoh presents clear performance goals and instructions for exactly how fast, how many, etc.

Some caveats about this type of core training are:

  • Too much emphasis on "core integration" and "core strength" can make your torso look too stiff.
  • There's actually more to the core than the torso.
  • This core training is only the first level. You won't become an Olympic gymnast by using this DVD.
  • I'm not sure why all the back muscles are lumped under one category.

The demos were clear, but not all that inspiring. The Fitness Pharaoh didn't look like a dancer. He looked like a bodybuilder. The three dancers who also demonstrated the exercises could have shown a lot more torso flexibility and articulation. I wish he had used someone like Ariellah or Suzanna del Vecchio as a model to demonstrate the exercises. The dancers in the DVD didn't have anything like his musculature or the body definition of someone like Rachel Brice, either.

The performances seemed like generic cabaret, lackluster and rather bland. It would have been interesting to have dancers from several different styles demonstrate how the core training had helped their particular dance.

To get the most out of this one: It's all on the floor. Watch the exercise instruction portion first. Pause and take notes, until you have a complete list of all the exercises and pointers. Then go through one of the workouts. After that, you won't need the DVD anymore, just run through the exercises from your notes until you know them by heart. Then, go to a good fitness trainer or Pilates instructor for a few private sessions, if you can afford it.

Zil Rating: 3, for beginners

Bellydance and Yoga Conditioning with Ariellah
Is there really anything that special to the yoga/bellydance mystique? It's not the fact of mixing the two, but how you mix them that's important. My yoga experience consists of over 10 years of personal practice, mostly in group classes at dedicated yoga studios. I expected that anyone teaching yoga would have the same depth as a full-time yoga instructor, and with the dancers, that's not always the case.

However, Ariellah's DVD is a lot more comprehensive than Rachel's first DVD (not the one reviewed here). There's a lot more material, including 75 minutes of drilling, two yoga warm ups to choose from, and 40 minutes of choreography, combinations, and performances. (Don't try to work through the entire thing from beginning to end in a single session the first time you play this.)

Beyond all the pyrotechnics, the very best part of this DVD is Ariellah's posture. She has the core integration without either the stiffness of a weightlifter or the distortions of some of the other Tribal Fusion dancers. She has a swimmer's body, smooth, sleek, and toned. Maybe her elegant posture is from those 6 - no wait, it's 12 - years of ballet training with the Royal Academy of London?

I liked Ariellah's approach to "core". She talks about more than just the trunk, and gives good instructions for the drilling section, along with flawless demos of the drills that are long enough to be very useful. The drills included torso, hips, snake arms, ribcage, shoulders, head, and taqsim. There were no hand floreos or other hand isolations, and no stepping or footwork.

The yoga sections are not all that deep. She does an abridged version of some commonly used sun salutation flows and positions, concentrating entirely on the physical aspect. I went all the way through the longer warm up, about 15 minutes, and still wasn't that warm at the end. There was little emphasis on breath, which to me is an absolute fundamental for effective yoga practice.

If you don't have any yoga experience, you should go and get some. I would try something like an Ashtanga flow class, to learn variations on the sun salutation. Taking some Pilates will also help. You will need some good feedback and hands-on correction in order to get the most out of the exercises and drills.

Yoga trains you to be aware of each part of your body. This leads to much greater control for isolations and other movements. For me, it was being in a stretch or flow and learning to "breathe into" a particular area. It's a different level of mind/body integration. That's why it was disappointing that Ariellah didn't include more of this.

Ariellah had some nice musical choices for the yoga. I heard ouds and flutes instead of industrial noise. She's got full musical credits at the end.

I'd been holding off on finishing up this review until I tried the combinations, and I was too exhausted by the drills to pay enough attention.

Combinations - if you want the Tribal Fusion goodies: sculpted arms, ooey-gooey torsos, ultra-slow serpentine undulations, and razor-sharp hip work, you can find lots of it here. In the combinations, Ariellah overlays the isolation drills on top of each other, and weaves them into complex, multi-layered movements. As choreography, I'd find it too busy and somewhat squirrelly. But, if you can get these movements into your body, you can use them in your own dance any way that you want.

Ariellah methodically breaks down every single movement in each combination, carefully explaining every mechanical detail until I thought my head would explode. Then, in the "Choreography" section, she does an entire routine consisting of all the combinations strung together, to two different pieces of music with somewhat different moods and tempos.

When you play the "Choreography" practice section, it loops so that you can do the combination over and over and over without having to fiddle with the remote or your computer. That's very handy!

One teensy complaint about the combination practice section. The first piece of music is instrumental only, but the second piece of music included a haunting and poignant 9-11 scenario - someone's last phone call while the plane is going down. I would have liked it if Ariellah could have indicated somehow, in her expression or body language, that she was cognizant of some sort of meaning in those lyrics. Yeah, yeah, I know, it's only a drill. But still, it was a little odd to watch her work through the routine to this imagery with a dreamy expression of far-away sweetness in her eyes that never seemed to change.

The performance sections were well-filmed, and provided good studio demos of what she's training. Ariellah has the range of motion and flexibility to do really sharp pops and really smooth undulations. Her strength has not cost her her flexibility. She's a much better example of how to apply core training to bellydance than the performances on the Fitness Pharaoh. A fellow dancer, to whom I showed the performance section, remarked that it was nice to see the Rachel Brice styling on another body type.

To get the most out of this DVD: Put the mirror in front, slightly off to the side. You don't need a ton of floor space, but get a yoga mat if you're doing the warm ups first. I'd just do my own yoga warm up and then go straight to the drills. There are two drill sections that are complete workouts, one intermediate and one advanced, so just pick one. Use the Pause button to drill one exercise a little more but try not to wear yourself out too early. Then try one of the combinations. I think if you try to run through the entire DVD in one workout session, you'll run out of juice, mentally if not physically. This DVD really requires full concentration and attention.

Zil Rating: 4 zills, yes 4! Intermediate/Advanced.

Industrial Strength Dance Workout with Shakra
Afro-Industrial Goth Boot Camp! That's what this is, and it's good clean fun. It's led by three members of Shakra, and they come on like super heroes. The target audience might be teenage girls and young adults. As a teen I would have loved this. I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven.

There are three of them, teaching as a team. They wear boots. I don't know if you need the boots. But their moves will work well in boots, and look good in boots. Nitpick: black boots on a dark floor made it harder to see some of the footwork.

The word "bellydance" does not appear anywhere in the title, and it's only one of several influences that Shakra mentions, along with African, Bhangra, Modern, and Hip-Hop. My own experience in these genres is mostly African (Senegalese) dance classes, so I was interested to see their interpretation of some African dance style.

You will need a lot of floor space for this one. As much as you can get.

For Goths, this could be a good companion piece to Tempest's Bellydance for Beautiful Freaks, which is more about image and imagination. This one is about boot stompin' cardio with cool moves that are fun and sometimes challenging to do.

It's missing a staged performance section. It would be nice to see Shakra perform a short set, maybe even at a live show, as part of their workout DVD. This would show where you could ultimately take it. They had some previews as background during their introduction.

This is a surprisingly versatile workout, including a lot of footwork and valuable tips on safety and body awareness. In the introductory section, they have excellent breakdowns of movement and posture, not overly simplistic but very applicable and immediate. They offer very useful visualizations for many of their movements.

The workout sections are high-energy, with more jumping around that is usual on a "bellydance" DVD. After all the slinking in place that's on some of the Tribal Fusion DVDs, this newfound freedom is a nice change and will get your heart rate up, too.

It's not quite as strenuous as the boot camps and kick boxing classes at my old gym, though. The hip-hop aspect seemed a little watered-down to me - I don't think they would have passed the audition for "Stomp" - although since they weren't pretending to be world-class hip-hop artists, who cares? Sometimes the workout was a little too stop-and-go, interspersing short cardio drills with pauses for explanations.

This may have been because it's targeted at younger people who might not have much fitness experience, and so Shakra took a more supportive approach that allowed more rest points. They offered frequent verbal encouragement, both to one another and to the viewer. The "team" feel, the group dynamic, was very appealing.

They call their dance style "Transfusion Dance" and aside from having a reasonably balanced dance vocabulary and style, they also had the concept of "Gears" which is basically to take each movement and do it first half time, then full time, then double time, and finally overdrive. This allows the viewer to learn the movement and get comfortable with it first, and then to see how the movement changes at higher speeds (it gets smaller).

It's also interesting that as a fusion offering, they kept more of the differentiators between the styles in a way that showed their understanding of the forces at work behind each movement. For example, they used more than one basic posture or stance. One was feet close together, reasonably upright and facing front, a bellydance "home" position. The other was a wider, bent-over, flat-back stance, which I remember from my African dance classes.

In my Senegalese dance classes, I remember the instructors constantly shouting "Bend over! Get DOWN!!" every single class, because their basic "home" position is a wider stance, slightly bent over, with a flat back, and slightly bent knees. If you try that in a bellydance class, you'll get corrected.

Which position is better really depends on what movement you're doing next, for maximum muscle recruitment. It's good to understand which ones go with which movements instead of insisting that there's really only one true way.

(On a totally unrelated note, my roommate brought back an old Fred Astaire movie last night; I noticed that he and the two female leads ALL used a dropped crouch position during their dance numbers.)

Shakra had really good exercises. The ones I best remember are the shoulder pull, the shoulder roll with stilled hands, and some stepping jumps. Many of these movements, particularly the stepping patterns, were presented as general memes that could be applied to many world styles of dance.

It would be nice to add higher jumps and more explosive power. They had some of that, but I wanted to see them get really WILD.

Rhythmically they could have been a little more "on"... they seemed to lag just a little, like an Egyptian cabaret dancer. In fusion dance it's just as important to know whether to be early or late as it is to know the rhythm is a Mandiani or a Maqsoum. Hip-hop is a very ON TIME rhythmic sense, and you have to really hit the downbeats with strength and explosive power. This is distinct from the leisurely flow of Egyptian Raks Sharki, or the driving whirlwind feeling of West African dance. Shakra is influenced by all these styles - but even if you're mixing African with Hip-Hop and Middle Eastern moves, whatever sense of timing you use is going to flavor the entire dance, so choose carefully.

It was interesting to have a mechanical breakdown for the African moves. I've had so many breakdowns for bellydance, and yoga, and Pilates, but the Senegalese classes were all sink-or-swim. "Follow the bouncing butt" except it was more like "Follow the blindingly fast feet". Shakra's movement breakdowns seemed physically sound and easy to pick up. Shakra's African styling was pretty strong, except that they seemed to do many of the African-style combinations from an upright position, which made them more difficult to do. But Shakra says in the intro: "Please feel free to modify these movements any way that feels good, any way that you want."

I would have liked to see film clips of the "root" arts that inspired them. Seeing not just one, but perhaps several, master dancers who might have been their direct influences, would help in understanding Shakra's adaptations.

Zil Rating: 3.75 zills, all levels

Bellydance Arms & Posture with Rachel Brice
This late arrival (in my hands, I mean) is more specialized and less daunting than Ariellah's conditioning marathon. I got through the entire thing in about an hour. It's filmed in a studio with a mirror, so you can see several angles at once - very useful.

But just because it's shorter does not mean it's less worthy in any way. Rachel and Ariellah have worked together as founding members of The Indigo. The bio page on Ariellah's web site seems to imply that Ariellah learned quite a bit of her bellydance style directly from Rachel, but what has Rachel gotten from Ariellah, I wonder?

Rachel Brice is the queen of serpentine stylization, and I like this DVD a lot better than her other one, which consisted of introductory-level Tribal Fusion technique, a more generic yoga workout, and an oddly filmed performance section. In this one, Rachel has successfully adapted and fused yoga and dance to create a set of conditioning exercises that are truly optimized for achieving her signature styling.

The yoga warm-up was a combination of basic "half-A" sun salutations with balletic arm movements integrated with breath. It sounds a little hokey, but it wasn't. It showed an elegant integration of the arm paths in a way that led very naturally into the other sections.

There was a series of seated drills for shoulder isolation that seemed to me to be the essential part of getting the Rachel Brice arm style. (I had expected this on her earlier DVD, but alas.) Just do these every day until your arms fall off. The way it's filmed shows every single muscle in her incredibly well-toned back.

Rachel offers good vocal promptings throughout, seeming to anticipate what kind of mistakes people were mostly likely to make ("remember to keep your throat relaxed"), and encouraging when some of the drills intentionally went on for one to two minutes. Her teaching style is very confidence-inspiring.

Then she goes on to show examples of arm placement in dance, including drawing up, pressing down, arm undulations, and some side to side undulations. It's very methodical and carefully thought out, and seemed like the result of a lot of teaching experience.

While going through the exercises and the drills, I noticed that many of Rachel's movements as demonstrated seemed to be outside of my range of motion. At first I blew this off because it was my first time trying it out, but now I think it's a real issue.

A mature classical style works on the universal lines of force that are present within everyone's body, such that even people with limited ranges of motion or other challenges can still do the techniques "correctly". I remember in yoga classes, the instructor would sometimes get a stiff or musclebound person and would have to adapt the postures for that particular student's abilities. But, that posture was still correct in terms of yoga alignment - and yoga benefit.

By stating clear performance goals with visualizations such as "keep your hand always in front of your sternum" or "palms gently face each other as if you are holding a giant beach ball", people with injuries or limited ranges can still be successful, and can still work it out for themselves somehow. The essence of the movement should not begin at an extreme point, in other words. It should begin at point zero and the students can gradually grow along a continuum until they, too, can fold up like a pretzel.

The performance section is nothing short of supernatural. OK, maybe it's only demi-god level, but that's still worth the $17.99 or whatever Amazon wants for it. She's wearing this outfit of shiny disks that, well, you have to see it. The flashes of presence that I used to see in her are here, in this performance, all the time. Maybe it's because this one was live? It wasn't as well-lit as Ariellah's studio performances, but the super-charged immediacy of the live event made up for it. Rachel performs to pre-recorded music, but it's Turkish Roman music rather than industrial noise.

Rachel has great musicality and is not afraid to dance to live music from a wide array of bands and musicians, anything from specialty regional music to jazz fusion to industrial. But, just because she understands a Turkish Roman 9/8 inside and out, does not mean that she dances using Turkish Roman styling or movements. She does her own thing, the serpentine thing, all the time, adapting the tempo but not the attitude.

I liked her performance personality. It's more expressive and less deadpan than it used to be. I would almost watch this one purely for her stage charisma. I mean, it's nice to be able to fold up your arms overhead like one of those folding geometric mobiles at a science museum, but it's not as "core" - hah, core training! - as having a strong presence.

Under the Bonus section there's a hilarious interview/chat between Rachel and Miles Copeland, the promoter of the Bellydance Superstars who helped to propel Rachel to international bellydance fame. She's sitting at a backstage dressing table, snapping orders at him: "Tell them how long it takes me to do my makeup!" and he's responding to the camera with authoritative facts on these vital details. We learn that it takes her 1.5 hours to get ready, and that she wears 2.5 lbs of jewelry on each arm. Then she turns to the camera and adds, "If you wear a lot of heavy jewelry, you should use WEIGHTS for the arm drills!"

Then she says, "I'm really from Planet India. Not India, the real place. Planet India."

Zil Rating: 3.75 zills

So What About Yoga and Pilates, Then?

Rachel Brice at the Serpent Rouge Show at Broadway Studios, North Beach, San Francisco, May 2007.

To really learn the conditioning exercises, newbies should get some personalized, hands-on correction from a fully qualified instructor in each of these disciplines. This person should have a really good eye. The "eye" is a talent that can't be fully taught; I've had some of my best Pilates classes from people who were still in the middle of their teacher training.

If you skip the in-person classes, you can develop bad habits and never know it.

In both Yoga and Pilates there are numerous styles or schools. I think the style is less important than the instructor's depth, but you should feel good about the entire approach as well as the person training you. If you go into it with fear or reservations, you'll hold back unconsciously and limit your development.

Is Tribal Fusion a Mature Genre?
The performances on Rachel's and Ariellah's DVD were not choreographic works. There was no real notion of choreographic development - it started when the music started, and went on till the music stopped. All the performances used the same set of movements in the same way, in similar costuming to different and inter-changeable pieces of music.

I don't think the Tribal Fusion style is really a complete "system" by itself. It's a pidgin dialect. But then, some people actually say the same thing about cabaret bellydance. I don't know if they're right or not. One writer on MED-list says, "Most Cabaret styles are also a fusion of movements from different areas with one area as the primary/foundation." So I guess that if Tribal Fusion would just pick a primary root art, at least on a piece-by-piece basis, I'd be happier with it somehow. If it doesn't continue to evolve, it's a fad. But regardless of whether I like it as a style, their exercises are terrific.

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

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