Review of Secrets of the Stage Volume One

Secrets of the Stage Volume One: A Performance Course for Belly Dancers came out a while ago -- 2007 to be exact -- and around that time Michelle did a giveaway and I wound up with a copy. I remember watching it back then, but for some reason I wasn't in the right place yet to appreciate the video. I'm not sure why. Maybe I didn't have the patience to sit and watch dancers enough... or maybe I wasn't thinking intensely enough about how to make bellydance my own. Whatever the reason, my current state, physically a bit slowed down but with an unusual amount of time on my hands, led me to turn to it again. I'm not looking to perform in the near future, so I'm really writing this from the perspective of a learning dancer who simply wants to improve, and to think more deeply about the dance I love.

Zari guides her audience

The video consists of several sections:

Calmness and Simplicity
You and Your Music
Focus and Energy Projection

The four "theoretical" sections feature one or more brief introductions by Michelle Joyce which are then followed by full-length dance clips of dancers: Adriana, Nanna Candelaria, Sandra, Shoshanna, Zari, Zaheea, and Michelle herself. As you watch each clip, the dancer "narrates," reflecting on the dance you're watching or her dancing in general.

There are some truly memorable moments. For example, in the "Calmness and Simplicity" section, Adriana describes performing a glass dance in which the glasses cracked when she stepped on them. In the video, you cannot see her bat an eyelid out of time, but to hear her tell it, the crack was so loud that the front rows of the audience heard it.

In Adriana's clip, the narration tells you the backstory behind a dance. In other cases, the dancer speaking teaches you how to see what is in front of your eyes. Zari performs a haunting dance to "Ana Bin Tezarek," and part of what makes it so haunting, you learn, is the way she changes focus between her body, the audience, and so on. I think I would have noticed that Zari dances with varied expression and that she uses her eyes wonderfully, but I wouldn't have known that it's not just about looking up or down, but about guiding the audience's interest in a certain conscious way. This doesn't just tell me how to learn from Zari, but is also a kind of training in how to watch other dancers, what to look for, how to learn the craft.

Michelle demonstrates how dynamic sitting in a chair can be

One of the things I loved about this video was discovering a number of dancers I really, really enjoy watching. While all were lovely, I'm left wanting hours more of Zari, Sandra, and Nanna, all very different from each other, but all embodying qualities I adore about the dance. Another quality I loved was the focus on simplicity in the first section. There are a ton of bellydance instructionals out there that will teach you how to accomplish complicated drills and combinations, but how many, even five years later, reinforce the idea that simplicity in dance can also be beautiful and delicious to watch?

Finally, the exercises. There is a guided relaxation, a chair exercise in which you only dance with your upper body, an improv exercise in which you dance to the same short clip of music four times without repeating your movements, and a brief focus exercise in which you place your focus with intention. I did all of these (minus the guided relaxation) on a different day, when I was warmed up from another workout. And frankly, I thought they were kind of genius.

The chair exercise really forces you to exploit the movement potential of your upper body -- chest, hands and arms, head, facial expressions. The improv exercise features seven different musical clips, and not only did it prompt me to be creative and to move across the floor more than I usually would, but it also made me listen to how different the clips were from each other musically, how each one "asked" me to perform different kinds of movements. The focus exercise was brief -- I need to practice it with my own music -- but I found it took my attention from my own body and its movements to points outside my body. This changed the feeling of dancing completely, and really allowed my body to react to the music on its own, without as much interference from me -- if that makes any sense!

Even though I watched Secrets of the Stage Volume One all the way through twice and did the exercises, I feel I've barely begun to scratch the surface. There is so much information in here, too much to absorb all at once, and the real test will be to practice the exercises with my own music. Still, I found the video marvelously liberating -- this is really a program about dancing rather than about performing a series of movements in a certain way, and as such, it is deeply pleasurable both to watch and to work with.

Secrets of the Stage Volume One is also available at Cheeky Girls Productions.

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