Review: Rosangela Silvestre Intensive

I attended this workshop back in July, but I’ve delayed writing about it not because I had anything bad to say, but because it’s just so difficult to explain *why* it was so good, as it was quite an intense experience. And sadly, for part of it, I could only say “you had to be there”.

First things first: Rosangela Silvestre is a contemporary dancer from Brazil, who has developed a full technique for dancing that she’s rooted in the Brazilian culture. Her technique is often called “esoteric”, and in a way, you do get to hear, during the training, about things like four Elements, Chakras (energy centres in the body that correspond, roughly, to major endocrine glands and that align along the spinal column), and Orixás (Yoruban Nature deities that were adopted and further developed in Brazil). These four elements are the same as the traditional Greek four elements that were later picked up by ceremonial magicians and several flavours of Pagans. Same goes for the Chakras, you’ll find a lot about them in the New Age section of any library or bookstore.

Yes, all of this sounds rather… “interesting”. New-agey. Pagan.
Does it mean you have to believe in all of this? Absolutely not.
What does it have to do with dancing then?
Turns out, A LOT.

Rosangela has developed a full series of moves to work with each element, to begin with, that correspond with certain aspects of our dancing: earth goes with balance, air and water with expression, fire with perception, and all of them combined turn into Will. Each of these series of moves does give you a really good conditioning routine that, when followed, will work as a good dancing conditioning would, while emphasizing certain “qualities” of that particular element, so you can work on “Water” to make your movements more fluid, or Air to work on what other people call “opening” to allow your dancing to express and transmit this to your audience more, or Will to gain focus and energy and intention when dancing, and not just going through the motions.

The workshops were two days, 5 hours each day. The days were split in two. On each day we worked for around 2-3 hours on the Elements, first starting with the conditioning moves, and later on going onto combinations and, on the second day, a small choreography. Then we had a bit of “theory” where Rosangela told us about her vision, why she developed what she developed, and how it worked and what it was improving. After this break, we then worked on Orixá dances, learning stylised versions of dances she codified and developed from traditional dances done during Candomblé rituals in Brazil. Throughout all of this we worked with Rosangela’s instructions, sometimes singing (she’s got a beautiful voice) and with Sabio’s live music, which was fully improvised, and done to match our moves and the general atmosphere of what we were doing. As an aside, I did like that Sabio did the warm-ups with us, even though he wouldn’t be dancing, but I suspect that gave him a good chance to atune to how our bodies would work for the rest of the day.

The warm-up and conditioning part started SLOW. And I mean almost glacially slow; I’m used to having cardio-style warm-ups, and doing slow bends and pliés with holds allowed me to realise that my body much, MUCH prefers this type of work. I found that problem areas like my knees were far more pliable than I was used to feel, my bends were deeper and my muscles were moving a lot more at ease than what they normally do. Rosangela also made sure that we understood that not everybody has the same body shape or muscle capacity, so she worked a lot on letting us get comfortable with our bodies’ moves before pushing it a bit further, all the while also encouraging healthy movement and attitude. This is brilliant for ANY body shape, as it encourages you to find the ways that your body prefers moving, but does require some effort from your part to realise what it is that your body prefers, and make an effort to improve where things are not right. Trust me, this will also push you to re-examine a LOT of what you do daily, from how you sleep and work to how you spend your time.

The Elements work included what you could call “embodying” each of them through the series of moves. If you are esoterically inclined, you could say that you were channelling each element, but you could just as easily think that you are trying to achieve particular things, like flowing for the Water, or focusing on the grounding and balance for Earth.

There was also a lot of encouragement to “will” our bodies to avoid repeating, and instead “re-doing” moves with full awareness each time. Talking with hubby later, I found this is a common concept within some martial arts, as it encourages muscular memory with a level of consciousness, so moves don’t become predictable or drilled wrong. This “will” also extended to trying to find better ways to work with the body, and to encourage things like learning weight shifts or using inertia from one move to flow into next naturally. This was best exemplified by a combination we did on day 2. It included a backwards spin with a jump. Jumping, that thing a lot of us absolutely DREAD. And yet, the way she guided us into it, it felt like a natural progression. And even with my weak joints, and notoriously bad balance, I went through it without issue.

The second part of each day, after the break and the “theory”, was devoted to the Orixá dances. They were a good chance to learn a whole new vocabulary and mode of expression, with emphasis on one or several of the Elements. We worked on the Welcoming -a dance done to open the floor for the Orixás, so to speak- and Oxumaré dance on the first day, and a very long Yemajá sequence on the following day. Rosangela picked both for Water-based Orixás, as, most of us being belly dancers, she felt we would be able to connect better to a lot of the moves. We worked in “families” of 3 or 4, doing passes along the studio as most of the steps were travelling steps. A lot of them were rather low on the ground, and this was killer exercise for quads too, but most of all, she was interested in seeing us do our dancing strongly and projecting intention.

And over all of this, during the 10 hours, we had nearly uninterrupted, improvised live music provided by Sabio, which managed to set the tone for everything so perfectly that at some points, if it hadn’t been for the repeating nature of what we were doing, it would have been more a party than anything else.

Overall, I was very impressed, moved, and felt that the workshop gave me a lot of food for thought, and a lot to work on; it helped me become friends with my body again, and break some mental barriers I had in place goodness knows for how long or for what reasons. Whether you are taking the Elements/Chakras/Orixás associations as “real” or as metaphors for what we do while dancing, I do believe there was a lot to learn and take home. The most important thing I got out of the workshop was a newfound trust in my body and its limits… I almost didn’t book for it, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to survive the first 5 hours without collapsing. Turns out I was wrong. Also, the style of the work made it so that my body did re-assess itself, and I found that during and afterwards, I was able to do quite a few things I hadn’t been able to do for a while. This workshop allowed me to remove mental barriers that had been put in place ages ago, and although some still remain, they are also on the way out through careful training… after all, identifying these mental barriers is half of the battle. As an example, before the workshop, my knees protested loudly at me every time I tried to do any level change, no matter how small. Afterwards, part of the “listening to my body” work made me realise that sitting too long (and badly) at the computer was causing my legs and knees to get this impression, and now I’ve changed my work routine to have frequent active breaks to remove this source of issues, and of late I’ve started doing level changes training within the ATS class… I still haven’t managed to break through the barrier of doing a full one in class, but at home I have managed to do changes from standing to tiptoes to a full crouch and up, and its only a matter of time until I can do these as part of my dancing… I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing that when I started ATS a year ago!

Would I take another workshop or intensive with Rosangela? A resounding YES, I feel I got a lot out of the work I did with her. She was also very accessible, and was a pleasure to chat with someone that was born and raised in South America as I was.
I hear she might be coming again next year, and I’ll be ready for it. In the meantime, if you want to see a bit of the kind of work done, talk a look below:

Conditioning and Dancing

Yes, it’s Friday and it should be an “inspiration” day, but there’s a post that’s been bubbling in my brain for a while, and I’d rather write it down now.

It’s about the sticky issue of conditioning. And I say “sticky” because a lot of belly dancers don’t like it. They expect classes to be “fun”, they go there to dance, and anything that even remotely smells of hard, technical work is scoffed at. Dancing is equated with learning a choreography, and other things pertaining to the dance, like a bit of history, or even talking about the music, are eschewed because people go to have fun. Arm technique? BOOOORIIING!!! controlled moves? who cares when you can just wiggle around a bit!

And while that is ok, it also creates a somewhat stagnated environment, where advancing your technique, if you really wanted to, can become difficult. Picking a favourite move, like a camel or body undulation, or even a tummy pop, I’ve heard people say that they would never be able to do them nicely because they had no control over their abs, and no strength. Yes, belly dancing will give you some core toning, but unless there’s more effort to get those muscles stronger, they won’t build up that extra strength magically. And stronger muscles help get stronger, cleaner and more controlled moves.

For us curvy ladies there’s an extra layer of stickiness, as doing conditioning work can be *difficult*, mostly because a lot of the exercises can put a lot more strain on our joints purely because of our weight, or because our thicker thighs and bigger tummies can get in the way of executing some movements, or worse, just breathing. And then we find that awful conundrum, thinking that we need to be thin to become better dancers, and for those trying to shed that awful mindset where everything going wrong with us was because of our weight, this becomes a dangerous mindset. Some might give up altogether, because after all, why bother?

The answer is not to give up, but to get stronger. Yes, it will be more painful, yes, we might need to start with less repetitions, or with the easier versions, or both. We might not be able to do even ten push-ups on the floor, but there’s nothing to say we can’t do wall push-ups instead. And some exercises like Pilates, that are no-impact, might help too. And you know what? Against what might happen the first couple of times, it does get easier. The first time my ATS teacher put us through her Level 2 conditioning, I was a bit in pain -the full “oh gods my abs are so stiff I can’t move or even laugh” came later- but deep down, I was embarrassed that I was having so much difficulty with it all (would have never admitted it, though). Planks? Please, I couldn’t even lift my thighs off the floor for the easy version! It was so bad that I wrote back to her to ask what I could expect, because I didn’t think my body would cope. She was encouraging but firm: I would not be allowed to get away with not doing stuff because it was too difficult, but she wanted me to try. I did, thinking that it wouldn’t happen: I was too fat, too old, to get my body to do some things.

Obviously, I was wrong. That was back in November last year; we’re in the middle of May, I’m still taking ATS, and while I still find some parts of the conditioning difficult, some things have improved dramatically. The physiotherapy exercises I’ve been having to do since January to deal with my tendinitis have given me a required framework to add some extra exercises, and that’s what I’ve done. I am currently doing Pilates’ Series of 5 (see video below) plus tummy crunches and a plank every other day in between my physio series; on the other days, I’ve started a series of biceps and triceps curls and have picked a few exercises from Rachel Brice’s DVD on arms, as well as wall push-ups, as the standard floor ones hurt my wrists quite badly, and I’m doing higher number of reps to make up for the easier work. This extra work has made the conditioning in class easier; I’m still finding it challenging, but I am getting there. I still hate it with a passion, but I understand that it’s got a good reason to be there. And I am not the only one that seems to think this extra work is worth it either. A lot of Tribal and Fusion classes do make a point of having conditioning thrown in, and not that long ago I read a post on Charlotte Desorgher’s blog about bringing back that conditioning for exactly the same reasons.

And the results are worth it. I’m looking at the videos from the May Fair and noticing that more often than not, my elbows are now lifted, whereas just keeping my arms up for a full song when I started was an effort. My undulations are strong enough that they can be seen even from a distance, even though they are usually the bane of quite a few curvy ladies, as the extra layer on top of the abs tends to obscure the move. I couldn’t even do an “easy” plank back in November, nowadays I can hold a proper one, not for long, granted, but still it’s improvement. And I’ve started weight lifting again, simply because owning a 2kg sword I should be able to wield it without tiring, or else I will hurt myself, one of my pets or someone around me while dancing or practicing if I can’t control it.

To me, it all boiled down to a few simple questions. What did I want more: sharper, more defined moves, or avoiding the embarrassment. Dancing with a sword, or not letting my arms ache. In short, allowing myself to work hard (and fail sometimes) to get better, or holding onto my deeply seated notions that I wouldn’t be able to do certain things because of my weight, in exchange for comfort. I know what I’ve chosen to do, but ultimately, the only person that can answer that is yourself.


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