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Names l-r: Brandi Abele, Leona Planko-Finlayson, Lisa Jordan, Venus, Jen Bye, Michika Tanimura

Gilded Serpent presents...
Behind the Scenes of
"Bellydance Workout"
by Venus

This fall I was very fortunate to be asked by Channel M to do a bellydance series for their workout series that airs weekdays at 11:00 am. Channel M is a multicultural television station for Vancouver, Canada. It was a wonderful, (but stressful!) experience. I was given a great deal of freedom in coming up with the material.  Basically, I tried to cover all the foundation movements and travelling steps, in various combinations and advancing variations stretching over 20 episodes. Each episode was twenty-three minutes long, consisting of 2-3 minute warm-ups, 2 9-minute “cardio” sections, and a 2-3 minute cooldown. The music was all original, composed by James Bowers especially for the show.

Working with composer James Bowers was an interesting collaborative experience. I gave him sample tunes that I use routinely in teaching my classes, chosen for having appropriate rhythms and tempos for teaching specific aspects of the class. We used Arabic rhythms tracks taken from an Arabic keyboard: saidi, malfouf, maksoum, chiftetelli, khaleegy, and beledi, and programmed each at the beat per minute speeds I wanted to use. We got a rhtyhmic skeleton with variations laid down for each track first, then added the melodic elements. Jamie tried to be accomodating in my desire for an authentic sound but also pointed out that true authenticity wasn't really going to be possible given time/budget/training/instrumental constraints and limitations. He also said that the music was just supposed to provide a background that didn't draw to much attention to itself but that could be looped and played repeatedly without driving people crazy.

Venus & music composer Jamie Bowers
"in the throes of artistic collaboration"

What we ended up with were 9 tracks with good Arabic rhythms (except for the reggae track that was modelled after Hakim & Olga Tanon's "Ah Ya Albi", the warmup techno track with some Hendrix and Jeff Beck guitar elements (a tribute to our mutual affection for rock n' roll--also, we were getting a pit punchy!). Jamie also did a nice approximation of a taqsim using a synthesized santoor sound.

I designed a few mix and match outfits: pants, tulip skirts, some crop tops which we alternated using either beaded bedlahs or coin belts & bras.

The producer, Shirley Cole, was excited right from my initial audition; and at the end of the first shooting day she said it was even more beautiful than she imagined it would be.

Her main goal was that the show would be visually appealing enough to draw in the average viewer. She wasn't really concerned with whether people would actually get up and follow along at home, and remarked a few times that she didn't know if people really did workout to TV shows. After we started shooting, however, Shirley excitedly remarked "People will totally be able to learn this at home. .. your instruction is so good!" Shirley wanted five dancers on camera in addition to myself, so that the shots would be filled from every angle. The dancers that joined me onscreen were Lisa Jordan, Leona Planko-Finlayson, Mika Tanimura, Brandi Abele, and Jen Bye.

Venus getting wired for sound by ?

For three weeks, we shot two episodes a day- which were basically taped live. The TV studio was tiny, but remarkably functional and it was a really interesting experience in teamwork.  The dancers were wonderful, following my mostly ad-libbed lessons with poise and excellent, clear technique. There were four cameras shooting at all times, with Shirley in the control room calling the switches on the fly. 

The television crew said that in the control room it was dead silent during filming as they strained to listen to what I was saying so they’d know where to aim the shots.

One camera was robotically operated from the control room to move side-to-side capturing wide shots. Another was a small one on a big arm. My attention was always focussed at camera #2 which was directly in front of me (the folks at home), and I really enjoyed watching Ricardo’s legs dancing underneath his camera!

We only did retakes a few times, usually due to technical issues like one camera getting in view of the others, or me messing up my opening welcomes. The first couple of days I found really stressful, with the weight of the responsibility I had to all these people to make it work.

On day three I worked smarter and started hanging content notes from the camera in front of me, so I didn’t have to remember what I was doing and could focus more in the moment.

Shirley had lovely things to say about the shows shot each day, and the entire crew was a pleasure to work with. I feel really happy about the content being high quality and authentic – we even did some cane dancing and khaleegy style! I can’t wait for you all to see it. We don’t know yet when it will air (season 1 is airing currently) but I’m guessing that it will be in the Spring of 2008. I hope, like me you will feel proud and satisfied about representing bellydance authentically and tastefully to a wide mainstream audience. I hope you experienced dancers will also find in it some useful tips on technique, teaching and combos!

Offsite link to Channel M's programming page

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