Learning to Belly Dance from Videos

by Shira

I receive frequent e-mails with questions like these:

"I'm a teenager and I don't have any money. I can't afford classes. Can I learn to belly dance from the web?"

"I'd love to learn to belly dance, but I can't find a teacher in my community. Can I learn from video, books, or the web?"

Shira Performing in Restaurant

Let me say up front that I think it would be very, very difficult to learn belly dancing from video or web unless you have prior experience with another dance form. I believe you need a teacher who can look at what you are doing and correct your mistakes. How else will you know whether you are doing the move correctly?

But I also know that sometimes it's just not possible to find a local teacher:

  • Many of the belly dancing classes taught through local community programs require that the students be age 16 or older due to requirements in their liability insurance, so younger teens may have trouble finding a class for their age group.
  • Some rural communities don't have any belly dancing teachers at all.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Shira by John Rickman, San Jose, California.

So with that in mind, I'll tell you what I can about learning from video, web sites, and books. But I still urge you to try finding a local teacher, because with a teacher you'll learn to dance a lot faster and have someone to help you correct your mistakes.

If you absolutely can not find a local teacher, the second-best way to learn belly dancing is through studying with video. When you use a video, you can see how the move looks on someone else, and try copying it in a mirror to see if you can make it look the same way.

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How to Work with Video

If you want to try learning belly dance from video, I recommend that you work with three or more videos:

  1. One that teaches basic moves.
  2. One that teaches continuing education skills.
  3. One that contains performances by professional dancers.

Don't feel you need to run out and buy all three videos at once. Start with the basic moves video. Once you've spent time working with it, you'll know whether you like belly dancing enough to try additional ones.

If you want to learn belly dancing as rapidly as possible, you need to structure your practice session effectively to ensure the most value from the time you spend doing it. This means you need a warm-up, a review of what you already know, some time working on new material, and a cool-down. For details on how to do all of this, please see my article, How to Structure a Belly Dance Study/Practice Session at Home.

Videos Don't Mimic Real-Life Classroom Instruction

It may be tempting to just pop the video into your VCR or DVD player and run it straight through from beginning to end, doing each move as it is taught, moving on to the next move when the teacher on the video does. But I don't think that's the best way to really learn the material that it's teaching because the structure of the information on belly dance videos is quite different from the structure of a classroom situation.

When a teacher makes an instructional video, she first has to look at her budget and decide what length of video she can afford to produce. Let's say she decides to make a one-hour video. She then faces the challenge of packing as much useful information into one hour as she can. So for each move that she teaches, she might show it from a couple of different angles and offer a couple of different ways of explaining how to do it, but then she rapidly moves on to teach the next move. In contrast, when the same teacher stands in front of a classroom full of students, she allows time after teaching a new move for everyone to practice it, and goes around to correct those who need it.

How to Learn New Moves

Let's assume that you have warmed up, and let's assume that you have reviewed what you already know, following the techniques I recommended in the article mentioned above. Now you're ready to start learning new material.

Shira in Egyptian-Made Costume

When I teach classes, I normally teach only 4 or 5 new moves per hour. There's a limit to how much new material your brain can absorb in one session, and it's good to take things slowly enough to really learn each item before you move on to the next. Your muscles, too, need time to learn new ways of moving.

Don't rush your way through learning new material. Take time to learn all the details. For each individual move that the video teaches, take about 5 minutes (or more, if you need it) to practice that move. Rewind your tape 4 or 5 times, and each time pay attention to see whether you can pick up new information that you missed when you listened to it before.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Randolph Lynch, Belmont, California.

When you rewind the tape to listen to an explanation again, here's what to look for:

  • Each time, listen carefully to the explanation and watch what the instructor is doing. If there are multiple people demonstrating the different moves, study each of them in turn - something about the way one person is moving might help you spot something that you didn't happen to see on the instructor.
  • Pay attention to where she places her weight.
  • Watch her posture, and think about her skeletal alignment. Are the hips facing straight forward, or is the pelvis angled? Does the rib cage face the same direction the hips are facing, or is it angled?
  • Listen to her words. She might tell you something that isn't obvious from what you see.
  • Look for details that she does not describe with words, such as where she places her arms.
  • Do the move along with the video as it is taught.
  • After you have rewound the tape about 4-5 times to review how the move was explained, pause the video, put suitable music on your stereo, and repeat it over and over for the length of one 3-minute song.

Make a written list of all the new moves you learned during your session with the video. Over the next day or two, even if you don't have time to dance, pick up the list, look at it, and try to remember what each move was like. The next time you work with the video, this list will remind you of which moves to practice during your review.

Practice the New Moves

When you've finished using the video to master the new moves that you studiend in this session, turn off the television, and put your practice music on your stereo system. Start doing some free-form dancing to the music, using all the moves you know, and make an effort to incorporate the new ones you just learned.

Just focus on the music, and let your body interpret what you hear. But make it a point to incorporate the new moves into what you are doing. Try to do each new move at least 3 times. If the song ends before you fit them all in, restart it from the beginning.

Finish your study session with a cool-down, as recommended in How to Structure a Belly Dance Practice Session at Home.

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Suggested Videos

Here's a tour of videos that I like from each of the three categories above. Try to find at least one video from each. All of these videos are reviewed here on my web site. Please see Shira's Video Center for reviews of over 30 videos, including these.

Please remember that there are many, many belly dancing videos out there, and I have certainly not watched them all! If I haven't suggested a video, or if I haven't reviewed it in Shira's Video Center, ask your friends and classmates whether they are familiar with it.

Basic Moves

Different teachers explain things differently. So even though I said you need one basic moves video, don't be afraid to try working with a couple if your budget can afford it. Hearing how two different teachers explain the same move may give you new insights into how to do it. Also, you'll find that some videos include moves that others don't.

Atéa

Delilah

Mahisha

Veena & Neena
Bellydance! Magical Motion. Taught by Atea. Delilah's Bellydance Workshop, Volume 1. Taught by Delilah. This Is Your Hip 101. Taught by Mahisha. Bellydance Fitness for Beginners: Basic Moves. Taught by Veena and Neena.

The thing I like about Magical Motion is that it includes sections for practicing the moves you have just learned. Both Delilah and Mahisha teach a wide variety of moves, including some that I haven't seen on other videos. The Veena & Neena video suggested here is structured as a fitness workout.

Continuing Education Skills

Of these three videos, the one I like best is The Dancers' Toolkit, because it explains all the moves very well, then assembles them into attractive choreography. If your first instructional video focused entirely on hips and rib cage without offering suggestions for graceful arm movements, you might consider Oriental Arms. Belly Dance Basics with Michelle emphasizes proper technique, and could be a good choice for your second belly dance video purchase.

Baraka

Katia

Michelle Morrison
The Dancer's Toolkit. Taught by Baraka. Oriental Arms. Taught by Katia. Belly Dance Basics with Michelle. Taught by Michelle Morrison.

The Dancer's Toolkit is an excellent "next step" after you have completed one of the fundamentals videos recommended above. It provides an excellent warm-up, describes each move very clearly, then teaches choreography to show how to assemble those moves into a finished dance. Bàraka presents the choreography in two versions, a simple version which would be the right level to try after working with an introductory video, and a more complex version that you can try after you have been dancing a while.

Oriental Arms teaches on arm movements that are appropriate to belly dancing. Near the end, Katia teaches choreography that uses the arm movements taught earlier.

I haven't posted a review yet of Belly Dance Basics with Michelle. This video starts with a good warm-up, then has sections on strength and flexibility training, then takes you through choreography that provides an excellent structure for practicing the moves you have learned or doing a fitness workout. For information on how to buy this video, see Michelle's web site at www.farfesha.com.

Performance Videos

 

Farrashah, the Video  The Fourth Annual Awards of Bellydance. Produced by the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED).

All too many of the videos portraying belly dance performances are poorly lit with terrible sound quality. So far, I have found only a couple that have good lighting, good sound, and good dancing.

Farrashah's video contains 100 minutes of diverse solo performances, all by Farrashah. Although all feature the same dancer, she uses a large variety of music, wigs, costumes, scenery, props, and dance styles to portray the many forms that belly dancing can take. I haven't yet written a review of this one for my web site, but I do recommend it. To buy this video, contact Shamani Enterprises, Dept. ID, 862 Pangola Drive, North Fort Myers, FL 33903 U.S.A.

The Fourth Annual Awards of Bellydance was produced by the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED). It captures a live full-length show sponsored by the IAMED which features a large number of soloists.

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Are You Low On Cash? Try The Library

If you can't afford to purchase your video, you may be able to borrow one from the library or rent it from a video store. If you're a teen-ager, you probably won't have much luck finding a suitable video in your school's library, but your city library may have one. If your local library does not have a good belly dancing video, try asking the librarian if it would be possible for them to borrow one using inter-library loan.

There are certain videos that are especially common in libraries. Here are some you're likely to see, along with my recommendation on whether they're likely to be helpful:

If your library doesn't have the video you want, you might encourage them to buy it. Explain to them that belly dancing is becoming very popular, and suggest that if you're looking for this sort of thing, other people may be too. Many libraries are happy to consider buying items that people ask for, because they know the reason they exist is to provide people with access to information.

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on July 1, 2002.

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