Review: Alexis Southall’s License to Drill

I took this workshop a week or so ago, almost on a lark, after I found out about Shimmy in the City’s cancellation. I wanted my workshop, damnit, and I was going to have one! I’d seen Alexis dance at Tribal Café before, had been quite impressed by her precision and technique, and thought it would be a good idea to take this one.

The workshop was advertised as follows:

“This workshop focuses on conditioning and drills for Tribal Fusion Bellydance. Alexis will be sharing her favourite tried and tested methods of achieving strong and precise movement, as well as her latest discoveries. Come and learn how Alexis structures her personal practice sessions, what she practices and why. We will sweat, and you will work hard, and your dancing will be better for it! Some bellydance experience required. Please bring a yoga mat, lots of water and a notebook.
Level: improvers”

The workshop started with a very long conditioning session. Now, while I hate conditioning with the passion of a thousand blazing supernovas, I understand it is needed, and do it as much as I can, and not just in class, so anything new in this front comes handy. A lot of the conditioning exercises were not new to me, but there were a few extra twists and variations that made things more interesting. She offered a few exercises to work particular sections of your core, including one to work on the hip flexors and lower abs -an area that I find difficult at best of times- and that was different from the usual suspects. The one issue I had with the conditioning was personal. I do have problematic knees, and I need quite a bit of padding under them if I am going to put weight on them, otherwise they start aching. Alexis did request people with sensitive knees to roll the mats or add some clothes to give this padding if necessary. Problem is, some of the sequences, like the downwards dog into plank pushing into tabletop, didn’t really leave room for these adjustments to happen… you couldn’t stop to roll the mat under your knees as you were caught halfway through and the point of the sequence was to do these transitions smoothly, and if you were using the lighter versions, on your knees, then you had even longer time pressing on them. And some of the more intense conditioning, like side planks, were quite punishing, requiring you to support your weight on one hand and one foot. There were plenty of options to lighten up the load, and Alexis did give us all the possible variations, like doing low planks on knees instead of toes, or side planks on one knee instead of the foot, or forearm instead of hand, but while those variations do make the exercises lighter on the core, they can put additional weight on the joints. and sadly, if you’re carrying quite a bit of extra weight, these can be *killer*. I’m sure that if I’d had knee pads I probably wouldn’t have had much issue, but as it was, my knees were not happy at all. I also understand that whoever the workshop instructor is, unless you go through the whole lot of your possible “triggers”, they can’t know this. I should have been smarter and just take note of the conditioning exercises instead of actually trying to do them straight away, and sadly, I suffered the consequences later on.

And then we started drilling. First basic moves, then more complex ones. There was a *lot* of layering, which I think was far beyond the “improvers” level that was quoted. It was nice to see, nice to get an idea of how to work with, but if you’ve never done that sort of layering before, it can be daunting. And this goes WAY beyond the usual layering you see used more often, like a shimmy over a hip circle. This was more hardcore layering, of, say, a sidewinder over an omi, or a sharp “flag” on the chest over a soft omi, or a chest circle over sharp alternating hip lifts. There were lots of “sharp over soft” and “soft over sharp” layering for upper body/lower body. And afterwards even adding some footwork to that. The sharp jump in complexity was rather frustrating, and even more since we were adding moves like the flag and sidewinder that I’d never done before. Yes, most of these were drills to take home and practice, but for me, still an “improver”, it was quite difficult to do, as there’s not really much “explanation” that you can give to these, other than just trying them. And as this was my first time doing this, trying to grasp them in the 5-10 minutes of each drill did not give me great results, and expecting great results so quickly when the technique is new is totally unrealistic. But I expect it will be great once I put it into use during my normal practice.

About half an hour before the end of the workshop, the initial aching I’d noticed on my knees during the conditioning started mutating into sharp pain, so I had to step aside, take some painkillers and a long break. I missed doing half the drills on mayas, and the combos. The combos were not so intensely layered, thank goodness; they did look pretty, gave a better idea of how Alexis works on her style, and she did perform them at the end of the workshop for us to film (as long as it didn’t end up on YouTube, so sorry, no video).

We had a nice cool down and stretch at the end of it.

Overall impressions: Alexis has superb technique, and is lovely and engaging; her conditioning is *killer* but if you’re looking for new ways of punishingimproving your core, it is great. Just beware, if you carry quite a bit of extra weight, that your joints might not be too happy with some of the weight-bearing. The drills were a bit advanced for my skill, but I figure that was the whole point: start to push the boundaries to get those layers working. I took back home lots of ideas, and a LONG list of layering moves that I’d like to try, SLOWLY. And hopefully next time I won’t find it so difficult. I felt challenged and inspired, though, so it was useful for me overall, despite the small issues I had (and that have nothing to do with the instruction provided). My one and only real complaint is that I didn’t like her music choice, which was mostly within the hip-hop family. Yes, it did work well with the moves we were doing, but I just don’t find it engaging, and I find it very difficult to dance -even drill- to something that I don’t particularly like.

Would I take another workshop with Alexis: probably, although it is quite likely that I will wait until I can do some decent layering myself without issue, then check the subject matter, and if I am going, take along some knee pads, or be smart enough to stay out of the conditioning exercises that will trigger pain points all together.

Things I learnt through belly dancing

I’ve been mulling over the list for a while, and I think it’s worth thinking about every now and then, to review your own journey. So it is very likely that I will come back to this theme and add to it from time to time, as I find out more about myself, and how dancing is changing me and my views.

  • Every woman is beautiful, if she gives herself permission to be so. I know there’s a common thought, regardless of your shape or size, that goes along the lines of “but who would want to see *me* dance?”. Trust me, the answer is that, as long as you are confident, that confidence radiates, and therefore most people enjoys your dancing. I’ve taken workshops and classes, and gone to haflas and professional performances at restaurants and theatres and other encounters, seen quite a few performers, both amateurs and professionals, and let me tell you, every single one I saw was beautiful. Every single one of my teachers is stunning, and projects that on stage too. From the regal to the playful to the sensual, they all exude confidence and self acceptance, and guess what? you can get that too. Practice, and perform, and learn to open up when dancing, and you will meet a whole new side to yourself that will also translate wonderfully into other areas of your life.
  • your body can do amazing things, even if you don’t think it can. Give it a chance, and practice regularly, and eventually you will find that your body can do a lot more than you thought it could… be it undulations or shimmies, you will find you’ve got a favourite move, and once you see the results of your hard work, and how NICE it looks when you do it, you will love your body for it.
  • your body loves moving, and once you get over the initial pains and aches, it will love you more for giving it something to do. This is related to the previous, and and almost self-explanatory… We didn’t evolve to sit at desks all day, so get moving! Push your body gently, and care for it, and it will reward you by doing what you want and more
  • take care of your body. You want it at its best, so treat it like it deserves, and this involves giving it the nourishment, rest and care it needs. Learn to listen to your body, and act in consequence.
  • women can be incredibly supportive and open with each other. This is almost strange to even *have* to say, but it is an accepted fact among a lot of people that women are catty and nasty with each other. This doesn’t have to be the case, and is often caused by a perceived competition -for being the prettiest, the smartest, the most successful, or whatever- that generates self doubt and lack of confidence. See the first point above… Within the belly dance community, you might find examples of cattiness, yes, but my overall experience has been of a diverse, wonderful group of women -and some men- that can become really good friends and will be incredibly supportive of each other.
  • you are never too old to dance, or to have fun. Within our Egyptian group, we have a seventy-something-year-old lady, who does have some hearing problems, and some mobility issues, but that hasn’t deter her. She started dancing about 12 years ago, at the ripe old ago of sixty-something. She still comes to the parties and dances, and still attends class. I wish I can get to that age with as much energy as her!
  • practice makes a lot of difference, try to sneak in some practice during down times (think cooking, ironing, watching TV); it doesn’t have to be a full dance, or even a full move, but practicing small things like belly rolls or floreos while talking on the phone or watching a movie will help your muscular memory loads, without requiring you to set up a dance studio at home
  • learn from as many teachers as you can. I know stepping out into the wide wild world can be intimidating, and viewing other styles of belly dancing that are not your own might even feel a bit strange, but they all have their merits, and it is quite likely that most will have something to teach you. Don’t discard what they might have to offer.
  • watch other styles of dancing, and I don’t mean things like Dancing with the Stars (although you can), but try to watch pros doing what they do best: who knows, you might be able to understand where some moves come from, or how they’ve influenced other styles, you might get inspired, gain a better understanding of stage dynamics of different styles… the possibilities are endless!
  • and finally, for now, happiness is not a size. Not even a few lost sizes or kgs. Being happy within your own skin will make you glow from within; if you want to loose the weight, and you do loose it, then good for you. But don’t make your weight dictate your life. You can start dancing NOW, you can start taking those classes NOW, you can perform in public NOW… and of course you can make new friends NOW, find that new job NOW, or find that special person NOW. Don’t make yourself wait for that weight loss that might or might not happen to do what you want to do.

Inspiration: Cabaret costume in red lace

Alena Saruskaya's red lace cabaret costume

Alena Saruskaya’s red lace cabaret costume

Some time ago I shared a gorgeous white lace costume, talking about how well suited to the dancer’s figure it looked. When I saw this one I thought the model and style looked familiar. Turns out they are both made by the same designer, a Russian lady called Alena Sadurskaya.

I’d just like, if possible, to send it to all those costume peddlers that can only seem to suggest galabayas for plus sizes, as a poster, with a sign that reads “THIS IS HOW YOU DESIGN A CABARET COSTUME FOR PLUS SIZES”

Go visit her Facebook page and start drooling

Inspiration: Karolina Pawlowska

Yes, Fridays is usually “inspiration” day, but I sort of copped out with the Rachel Brice video last Friday, and my Fusion teacher posted this to our group. I *loved* it. She’s precise, engaging, and those Arabic shimmies are just killer. And in the second part? Her expressions are also great, she looks like she’s having a ball, and you can’t help but be drawn in.

Proof possitive that big girls can be amazing at Fusion too.

Mermaid skirt in crushed velvet

I’ve been wanting to do one of these since I saw my ATS teacher wearing one for a fusion performance. It was black, thick stretch velvet, totally luscious looking, trailing behind her, and made her look elegant and slinky. It was love at first sight, and I knew I would have to make something like that for myself. In fact, that skirt did give birth to the costume bunny that prompted my explanation on how they act.

There are several patterns in the market, although you could easily make your own. Possible ways of doing this:

  1. Start with the dress pattern you should have made some time ago, measure where you want your waist to sit, chop off above that, then at the bottom, either add semi circles of fabric in between each main piece, or add these as quarter circles to each of the 5 or 6 pieces; this will give you nicer flare but will use a lot more fabric. if you want extra flare, add a quarter or semi-circle connected at the back, on the centre seam just below your buttocks.
  2. Start with the same pattern as above, and where you want the flare to start (around the knees or so) add a two or three semi-circles of fabric, cut as you would do for a circle skirt
  3. Start with the previous example, but start the flare earlier at the front, to have an irregular shape, sort of like an inverted cala lily.
  4. get an existing skirt of yours that you like the fit of, and extract the pattern
  5. use a straight skirt pattern but add flaring on the sides and centre back seam

In every case, you’ll also need a straight piece, about 16cm high and as long as your “waist” circumference (that is, whatever the place where your skirt will sit) plus 1-2 cm for seams allowances.

Whichever pattern will work better for you depends a LOT on your body shape. I’ve gone with option 4, extracting a pattern from a skirt I liked, except that this wasn’t *my* skirt so I needed to adjust to size. I did find a totally luscious wine colour stretch crushed velvet that would be perfect for matching both a Hanan top and belt I’ve got, and some black cherry brocade I’ve got stashed for a fusion belt and bra. The only problem was that there were only 1.8 metres available of the fabric. If you are making your first one, you might want to start with a cheaper fabric, although I strongly suggest you use a type of stretch knit.

Mermaid Skirt Layout

Mermaid Skirt Layout

In the end, I had to adjust the flaring of each of the pieces to be able to fit all 8 pieces onto the length of fabric I had. I also had to be very careful when cutting, as velvet can be notoriously tricky, so I had to make sure the pile run in the correct direction for every piece. This issue with the pile means that velvet can be rather wasteful, as you can’t rearrange fabric to put pieces upside down. I did have to break this rule for the two upper back pieces I used, although those were cut on the bias to allow for better shaping around the bottom. Check out a rough layout on the left and notice that all the pieces are laid in the same direction to deal with the piling, just be aware that it is *not* a pattern, and you won’t be able to obtain one from it. However, it should give you a rough idea of how the pieces should look once laid out on the fabric. Remember you can also cut the pieces a bit smaller as the stretch should counteract this. Just don’t skimp: you’re supposed to be comfortable and fabulous, not look like a sausage.

After that, it was just a question of cutting, pinning, checking fit (turns out that my upsizing of the pattern had resulted in about 20 cms too much fabric around the hips) and sewing. An overlocker is the best for knits and certainly for stretch crushed velvet, although I had to take out my standard machine to add the top. Be aware that the waistband will add stability and keep the shape better, particularly if you do what I did and cut the waistband along the length, where there was, at least on my fabric, far less of a stretch. You can do a rolled hem along the bottom using the overlocker too, this will make it easier for you.

The final skirt does look rather stunning, although I think it needs a bit of a trim along the back still. I have enough fabric in teal to make another, hopefully this time with the full flare, which should match the teal bra I made, and the upcoming matching belt. You can see it below in all its glory, although I will not have a photo of me wearing it until I finish off the matching belt and bra. And on the side, you can see the Hanan belt that will also be in use with this, and of course, you can check out how I did a body stocking to match too.

Wine Mermaid Skirt

Wine Mermaid Skirt

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