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.


“You will die if you don’t loose the weight…”

The other day, I was talking to someone whom I respect a lot, and, since he’s very keen on exercising, I’d asked for some help figuring out what sort of exercise to do to help strengthen my body for a particular type of movement. What followed was pretty much any curvy girl’s nightmare.

I started getting a lecture on why I *had* to loose weight, as if I wasn’t aware of risks already, and I hadn’t been told that much by my doctor. I also started getting a lot of “tough love”, including demands that I stopped “making excuses for myself”. Apparently it doesn’t matter that I’ve lost weight during the last couple of years, or that I’ve gone down 4 sizes, or anything; what mattered was that this friend saw his opening to express his concerns, and went in, with all the subtlety of a battering ram. Anything I brought up, including medical conditions that make some things difficult -like planning a diet, or yes, loosing the weight faster- was dismissed as being “picky” or “excuses”, and in the end, it was all burnt down to not being strong-willed enough.  Because obviously being strong-willed can cure years of real metabolic problems, it seems.

And all I could do was sit there, on the other end of the screen, in tears and disbelief. Because, touched as I was by his concern, it meant that with a single stroke he’d rendered, at least in his mind, EVERY SINGLE DROP OF SWEAT that I’d done so far in terms of exercising worthless. Every kilo I’ve shed, every size I’ve dropped, was unimportant. Every reading I’ve done on studies (proper medical studies) about why my body behaves the way it does, and what I could do 0r not to adjust it was dismissed as an “excuse” and every week experimenting trying to find my optimum was also dismissed. I felt so unempowered by someone who, while well meaning, seemed to really believe he had the moral superiority to do so by the simple issue of his having been dealt different cards when the gene pool was handing them out (the exercise, the good diet, the gathering of information on nutrition? I do those too). And you know what? It felt awful. Even more because things that I see as fundamental for my well being (like my family, my pets and yes, even my dancing) were also classified as “hobbies” during this tirade and therefore tainted with the idea that they are somehow superfluous in what should be my quest for thinness. Because I’ll obviously be better off thin than happy (yeah, that was sarcasm).

After several minutes of this, I had to remind him that I had only asked for some advice on particular exercises, and that while I understood that his tirade was well-meaning, it was also extremely unwelcome. He dropped it, in a huffing manner, and he hasn’t talked to me since. Later on, when I calmed down, I realised that of course everything is only as worthless as I consider it to be. This hadn’t been malicious, just ill-informed, but sadly it is something that quite often happens when you’re overweight, not just from well-meaning family and friends, but also well-meaning strangers. From those that approach you when doing groceries with “you shouldn’t be eating that” without even knowing why you’re buying what you’re buying -or for whom-, to the stranger that approaches you with the exact same phrase when having lunch. And yes, it’s happened to me; I was eating a chicken breast with salad without dressing, I’d love to know what they consider healthy food if that wasn’t. Or the family that says the same, regardless of the contents or portion sizes on your plates.

Your weight is seen as giving anybody carte blanche to pass judgement on you.
Regardless of their own lack of knowledge of your situation or limitations.

It is, I guess, a bit like that nurse that told hubby he should think about exercising because he was “overweight” after just measuring his height and weight, without noticing that he had a flat stomach and rather bulky shoulders and arms; she was quite embarrassed when she found out that hubby was doing martial arts 3 times a week already, and when he asked *where* she was expecting him to loose the fat, she apologised. Overweight people never get the apologies; whatever we do, it’s never enough in the eye of these well-meaning -but ultimately ill-adviced- people, and nothing will redeem us in their eyes, except being thin.

I’d love to know where this notion that we ENJOY being overweight, having crappy clothes, being easy targets for bullies or told off for whatever, really comes from. I do not, I never did. But I also do not enjoy being reminded of the situation or risks constantly, particularly in an alarmist manner… someone weighting more than me with far higher abdominal fat who eats like crap, smokes, doesn’t exercise and doesn’t get constant health monitoring is obviously at a higher cardiac risk than me, putting both of us on the same level just because we both have some extra weight is wrong, and I profoundly resent being thrown in that category just because I happen to have fat accumulated on my hips and thighs. I am tired of people assuming immediately that I hit the junk food every single day just because of my weight. Worst of it is, everybody that does this *thinks* they are helping. They are NOT.

How can *you* help if you’re worried about friend or family member and think they would do better if they lost some weight?

  • behave like a human being: you’re not the Wrath of God(dess), you’re not an Instrument of Right Eating; tell them you’re worried, ask what you can do; don’t be a prick
  • don’t try any emotional blackmail: ultimately, the impulse is either there or it isn’t, but don’t try to give them a “think of your children” or “think of your husband” lecture; chances are, this will only create more stress
  • find the right moment: do NOT do this while they’re going through a divorce, moving house, changing jobs or fearing about loosing their jobs, or there is an illness or death in the family, or a new kid; these are extremely stressful times and diets or habit changes are extremely likely to go down the drain in these situations, and every doctor, nutritionist or Weight Watcher advisor will tell you the same
  • don’t dismiss the effort they’ve put in so far: if they’ve recently started exercising, praise, suggest new goals, or even better, find something that you can do together; if they haven’t found something they enjoy, suggest (and go for) walks, or other activities that would burn calories while being fun; a LOT of us have hideous memories from exercising at school, the only way to make exercising enjoyable for those cases is to create new and enjoyable memories; if they’ve started dieting, even if there’s hardly any weight loss apparent, you can comment on things like better looking skin, or them having more energy; telling them that they’re looking good goes a long way, and by all that you hold holy, refrain from adding “but you’d look better if you lost some more”
  • if you live with them, help with the diet; this doesn’t mean you have to diet yourself, but you’ve all heard about “out of sight, out of mind”… if you want that yummy chocolate snack, you might be better off eating it at work; also, remember to keep healthy food in the house; it’s a lot easier to have a healthy eating plan if there is healthy food available
  • don’t assume: that standard coke can or hard candy after the gym could be because they’re diabetic and having a low glucose episode; the pudding while having dinner out could very well be explained by them being on their day off, or if they’re using a WW-style point-counting, them compensating some other way; if you see this every day it’s a different matter, but don’t immediately jump to conclusions without having the full picture
  • don’t push: this goes for your beliefs, your diet-assumptions, or even your food; I can’t count the times that I’ve seen mothers *visibly offended* when their children eat less than what they consider a standard portion, or in their attempt at being “nice”, effectively sabotage their children’s diets, constantly; also remember that alcohol does have calories, so don’t push them to drink more than what they’re prepared to drink, even if this means no drinking at all
  • don’t assume that fat = unhealthy and thin = healthy; quite a few thin people don’t exercise, drink a lot, smoke, and eat badly, and quite a few of the overweight people eat sensibly and exercise
  • try to push forwards the benefits (i.e. less medication, better well-being, better rest, etc) instead of the negatives
  • avoid, at all costs, shaming, either public or private: this is the surest, straightest way for someone to say “sod this, there’s no way I can ever live to their expectations” and just throwing it all out, or to do the opposite just to be contrary
  • finally, find out whether there’s some particular trigger that increases food intake; emotional eating is incredibly common, and all you’re doing with a shaming or “intervention” session is to trigger another one of these; suggest counselling, or plainly be there for them; help your loved one find out whether things like stress are hindering their efforts, and see if you can help them plan strategies to cope.

Overall, be possitive and be there for them. Becoming active and loosing weight are extremely difficult things to do on their own, and whoever is trying to do either deserves our help and support, not a harsh battering with “facts” that might have nothing to do with them. And I am happy to say, this supportive attitude is what I’ve found within the belly dancing community: people are kind, accepting, and encouraging; which goes a *long* way towards making the activity enjoyable and making people like me want to continue. This is another reason why I dance, and why I think belly dance is such a great activity. Yes, you might burn more calories in a Zumba session, but burning calories should never, ever be the ultimate reason for any physical activity. Your own health and well-being, mental as well as physical, should be paramount, and ultimately, you are the best judge of that.


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