Gilded Serpent presents...

To Buy or Not to Buy -

A Guide to Mass Market Belly Dance Instructional DVDs

by Yasmin

Psssssssssssssssst .

Hey, little girl, you wanna be in the movies?

I'll make you famous. You wanna be a star?

I can't pay you anything (actually it'll cost you for music rights and a costume), but IT'LL BE GREAT EXPOSURE FOR YOU. After this everyone will know you. They'll fly you all over the world so you can teach them your stuff. You'll have your name up in lights .. So, you wanna be a STAR?

Would you spend your hard earned belly dance dollars on this little girl's instructional DVD? If you were being honest you would answer . "Well, it depends."

It depends on what? What are the criteria for a good belly dance instructional DVD? And should those criteria vary if you are a serious belly dance student or just a member of the general public? I recently came across a thread on, entitled "Worst instructional DVD I have ever seen." This disgruntled dancer felt $6.00 was too much for the Beginning Belly Dance DVD she had just purchased. She found it at a large clearance chain store and wondered if she could get a refund. Others suggested she keep it for its "giggle factor." Cow manure as fertilizer . 

Before I answer the criteria question, let me talk about public expectation of our art form. I know I'm preaching to the choir on this issue, but most of the uninitiated out there consider what we do as slightly shameful, on the edge or just "exotic," right? Before we tell people what our hobby/profession is, we gauge their possible reaction. If they are too conservative we might not tell them at all. I certainly didn't tell the other moms in my children's elementary school what my first profession was.

I was afraid they wouldn't let their kids play with mine. Maybe that was just me. My point is, at the very least, expectations are low as to the professionalism and difficulty of our dance. How hard is it to bump and grind? "Anybody can belly dance" is a refrain I hear over and over again.  It is only a short step then to "Anybody can teach belly dance." We all know dancers who have gone off to teach with less than 3 years of lessons and hardly any performance experience. Every city has them. It is sad when those teachers create large schools and teach their bad habits to hundreds of newbies. It is WORSE when a dancer of that experience level makes a DVD because she can reach many more unsuspecting victims.

But sex sells. We all know that. Hollywood certainly knows it, along with the big fitness DVD producers. They have giant production and distribution machines that need to be fed every month with product. The fitness houses look for new ideas that can follow their time tested formula; beautiful faces and bodies combined with slick production values, generic music, creative packaging and lots of hype. They don't need to pay extra for an instructor with credentials because their products have guaranteed distribution, no matter who is in front of the camera. They create their own stars, and then bind them with exclusivity clauses. Did you ever heard of Dolphina or the Belly Twins before their videos? I hadn't.

Obviously some ideas and talent (1) are better than others, but the math is usually the same. For a professional product, budget between $20,000 to $50,000. (See Zari's 1 May 2007 article: How We Got our Video Groove). As Zari points out, you can do it for less if you have connections in the business, don't pay for music rights, have crew on your payroll, don't use union crew or do things yourself.

But Zari also correctly takes into consideration the sales estimates for a local belly dance product.  Add on possible sales from Amazon and you are still under 1000 copies - unless you can negotiate mass distribution for your product.

Then you are looking at multiple replication runs for "sell-through."(2) This is where the profits appear. Even if you sell your DVD wholesale to Walmart for $3.00 per unit you almost break even with the first 5000 piece order. And you still have the other chains, Amazon, Blockbuster, Netflix and the rest of the world to sell to. The Belly Twin producers (3) were asking way over $10,000 per territory (4) a while back for their first productions.

To return to the original criteria question then - what type of product will the big chains buy and should you, as a serious dance student, buy what they sell? The chains look for cheap, professional looking products that appeal to the general public. Jillina's DVDs did very well. They were professionally produced with well-taught content for various levels.  They sold enough quantity to bring the price down.  Dolphina's DVDs were also well distributed.

Aimed at a different New Age market, customers must have purchased large numbers, judging by the many sequels now available. They too were produced by a large fitness house that I believe started out selling martial arts videos.

And of course there are the Belly Twins, also professionally produced, who became famous just because of their videos. To my knowledge, these three were the first big hits for the general public market. Other fitness companies saw their success and "copycatted" them, with uneven results. Some companies were unwilling to invest in good music, good studios or qualified talent. Most knew nothing about the art form (hence the aerobics teacher in the Bhuz thread). To make a long story short, buying the product out there now is a crap shoot.

So, what should you, the discerning customer, look for to not end up with a "stinker?"  If you are in a store, carefully examine the fine print on the back cover.

Does it list the instructor's credentials and qualifications? Are they extensive in the area that he/she is teaching? Ten years as an aerobics instructor does not make someone a qualified belly dance teacher. How long has the instructor been dancing? Do they have performance experience, even better with a live band? If a video says I Love XYZ Dancing, check to see if the instructor has more than a passing exposure to that form of dance. Winning a couple of contests is also not a good indication of a teacher's qualifications. Contests are only as good as their judges and the competition. I would prefer to see years of experience, travel to the dance's country of origin, knowledge of the language used to sing the music, or ideally, long term work experience in the country. A passing show on an organized tour is not enough.

Just because a dancer has breathed a country's air and drunk the water, does not mean he or she understands the cultural nuances behind a dance form's movements.

Is the style of belly dance listed? Does the instructor have knowledge of physical training? Also, are their teachers listed and the people who influenced their style? If they are not listed, that might be an indication that the student parted on bad terms with their teacher. The absence of information tells you as much as the information itself and sometimes more. If they have no credentials, they will avoid the subject and hope no one notices.

To judge a DVD's production values, again look on the back cover for a picture taken during the shoot. If there are none, that tells you something. Large productions always hire a photographer for publicity stills. If there is only a freeze frame image captured from the footage that is not a good sign either. If there is an image, is the background distracting? Does the dancer stand out? Can you see his/her knees, ankles and feet in the costume? Is a trailer available on YouTube? Nowadays that is a must for every studio. What about the audio? Can you hear the instructor clearly? What is their voice like; do they speak slowly, are there many vocal glitches (uh.), do you like the way they present the material? And the lighting, can you see the movements clearly? The fine print near the bar code usually lists the DVD authoring house and the graphic art company that designed the sleeve. Also nearby you should find the copyright date and name, the Dolby sound logo, the region code and the television format - PAL or NTSC. If these things do not appear, this is a clue that the video may have been produced on a home computer. Professional distributors always list these things.

But what if you are purchasing a DVD over the internet? You can't see the actual product. Nevertheless, on sites like Amazon there is more room for information. You can also refer to the instructor's website. And then there are those helpful five-star comments. Customer feedback is a two-edged sword.

Most producers ask or hire others to write glowing reviews. You will often see the same people reviewing a producer's entire line of product. Those are suspect. Look for the one-off comments. They will give a better overview, along with anything less than 5 stars.

OK, perhaps I am a difficult customer. I have helped run a video distribution company for over 25 years (5). But shouldn't we ALL be discerning customers? When we buy garbage, we only encourage more trash to be produced. Collecting bombs for video night is fun sometimes, but you won't become a better dancer by watching and learning other people's bad habits.  Be careful what you buy, they may stink up more than your video shelf.


1 - the industry term for actors or whoever is in front of the camera.
2 - Replication is when a DVD is mass produced in a factory. A "glass master" is made from an original of the program. This is then used to stamp large numbers of discs from molten polycarbonate.  Minimum quantities apply to make the process economical. Duplication is for quantities under 1000, where copies are burned one by one, similar to a home computer.
3 - The Producers are the ones who pay for the production and who own the rights to it. They receive the income from sales. The talent is lucky if they get royalties - which are normally based on a percentage of net income rather than gross. Most of the time, they get paid a flat fee and that's the end of it.
4 - The world is broken into "territories" for international distribution licensing agreements. These can be along country boundaries or language usage. My husband and I started by buying rights for "French-speaking territories" because the French language dub we produced needed to be amortized.
5 - is one of our mainstream product sites.

Don't forget to check out author's bio

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

Ready for more?

5- 4 -07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals Part 1- Booking a Party by Yasmin
8- 29-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals Part 2- The Cross Cultural Factor
10-15-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals Part 3- Separating the Girls from the Women
12-5-07 The Devil's Details, Show Ethics for Professionals
Part 4 - What NOT To Do

7-16-07 Music Copyright Law for Belly Dancers (or for any Performing Artist by Yasmin
From Hollywood blockbuster movies down to clips on YouTube the law is the same and it applies to anyone who uses someone else’s music for their own purposes.

3-25-08 A Career Path Less Traveled: Dancing in Movies and TV in the'60s, An Interview with Tanya Lemani by John Clow
In "Get Smart" I enjoyed working with Karen Steele and Don Adams. They took some of my lines out and Don saw that I was upset. Don insisted that they give some of them back to me.

3-22-08 Hafla at the Hoover featuring Morocco February 10, 2008, Hoover Theatre in San Jose, CA Video and photos by Lynette
Debbie Smith on scene reporter, event produced by The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of MECDA

3-17-08 From Cabaret to DJ Bellydance in New York: An Overview, 1988 - 2007 by Nina Costanza (Amar)
But the primary forums for dancers, the major New York nightclubs, have closed their doors. Cabaret is gone; it is the era of the DJ. And the new dancer has to have another job.

3-15-08 The Magic Sounds Studio of Cairo, 3 Albums reviewed and Compared by Amina Goodyear
CDs- Oriental Fantasy #12- Talisman, Nesma:Del Nilo al Guadalquivir (From the Nile to the Guadalquivir),Nesma, Memories of Cairo.
In a world where Egyptian dancers dance in the "less is more" tradition, the world of musicians seemed to be - more is better and lots more is best.

3-11-08 Serpentessa – Do not try this at home…. DVD review of "Belly Dance with Snakes: Embody Your Inner Serpent" Review by Surreyya
There are things in this video I can get behind and things I can’t. A blessing and a curse of this video is that there is so much information that it is difficult to navigate through it all.

3-3-08 Academics and Belly Dance, Two Books Review by Rebecca Firestone
Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young & Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power by Anthony Shay

2-18-08 Have Belly Will Travel by Tanya Lemani book review by Birute
The process of getting booked on these shows and her relationships with other artists, both famous and unknown, who help her on her way is the most interesting part of the book.

2-07-08 Aruna's "Dancer's Body" Reviewed DVD review by Rebecca Firestone
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.

ad 4 Dhy & Karen

 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines