Monday, 21 April 2014

Harem dancer: Winnie Lightner

Geek alert: The Origins of the Term "Silver Screen"

"Silver lenticular (vertically ridged) screens, which are made from a tightly woven fabric, either natural, such as silk, or a synthetic fiber, were excellent for use with low-power projector lamp heads and the monochromatic images that were a staple of early projected images. Other silver screens are made by taking normal matte sheets and adhering silver dust to them; the effect is the same.

True silver screens, however, provide narrower horizontal/vertical viewing angles compared to their more modern counterparts because of their inability to completely disperse light. In addition, a single projection source tends to over-saturate the center of the screen and leave the peripheries darker, depending on the position of the viewer and how well adjusted the lamp head is, a phenomenon known as hot-spotting. Due to these limitations and the continued innovation of screen materials, the use of silver screens in the general motion picture exhibition industry has mostly been phased out."

What all this means is that there's a wealth of movie history that's just lost and gone forever. Today's harem dancing clip is an example of that. It's from 1931's Kismet, starring Winnie Lightner. It proves an eternal truth: just because your audience spends your whole set on the phone, it doesn't mean they're not into you:

So many of Winnie's films haven't survived or have only come to us in bits. She was an absolutely massive Depression-era star in the all-singing, all-dancing vaudeville mode, and was often cast as a wise-cracking flapper (her most famous role was as Mabel in Gold Diggers of Broadway). Winnie was married four times and died in 1971.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Good Housekeeping

What a great photo! Apart from the fact that those swords -- which are meant to be the star of this show -- look less like shiny, lethal blades and more like they've been used to divvy up the world's largest bowl  of fried chicken. Tut, tut...

Image via me on Tumblr

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Can I get a witness?

A new, illustrated version of the Bible, written in idiomatic English and transposing many of the stories to present-day situations, has just been released. Written by Mark Russell and with artwork by Shannon Wheeler, God is Disappointed in You attempts to get the essence of the Old and New Testaments across to believers and non-believers alike, even though the title is likely to harsh the mellow of any first-time hearers of the Good News.

Certainly, my first impression of it makes me think I'll stick with the King James version. To whit:

If your eyes can't make that out, the cartoon is of a woman in a belly top and a skirt pointing accusingly at an enthroned king. The caption reads, "Furthermore, belly dancing is degrading, mysogynistic [sic], and devalues the intellectual contribution of women."

This snippet buys into at least three of the key stereotypes about belly dancers* that I encounter in one form or another all the time:
  1. We are not "nice" (i.e. moral beings and/or sexually continent).
  2. We are not "smart" (i.e. educated, resourceful people with functioning brains as well as bodies).
  3. We are not allowed to be "real feminists", because belly dancing and feminism are mutually exclusive, and, worse than that, we are actually anti-feminists whose mere existence serves to "devalue the intellectual contribution of women." 
Until my fingers go numb, I could sit here and type a refutation of each of these fallacies in turn, but why bother preaching to the choir?

This cartoon makes me very disappointed in GiDiY. Presumably, it illustrates a vignette from Russell's retelling of how Queen Vashti, wife of the Persian ruler Ahasuerus, refused his command to "display her beauty" before visiting dignitaries at court. Enraged by his wife's disobedience and worried that she might set a precedent for women throughout his empire, Ahasuerus removed Vashti as queen and replaced her with Esther. I am prepared to accept correction on this point, but I can't find a specific reference to "dancing" anywhere in the Book of Esther.

If GiDiY is truly a "modern interpretation" of the Bible, why doesn't the caption read, "Furthermore, snapping nude pics of me without my permission and forwarding them to your friends is degrading, mysogynistic [sic], and devalues the intellectual contribution of women"?

The answer, it seems to me anyway, is that GiDiY does not understand that, while there may be misogynists in a belly dancer's audience who treat her in a degrading way that devalues her intellect, the dancer is not responsible for how her audience reacts to her performance. Let's not get into the whole "Well, I've seen belly dancers who were little more than strippers" thing -- seriously, let's not, we all have lives to get back to -- because I could then show you umpteen YouTube clips of fantastic dancers in modest costumes where the comments beneath are as vile and woman-hating as you could wish.

It seems that while most of us are fighting against the truly appalling things men do to demean women (revenge porn, upskirt photography, online trolling and street harassment just for starters), there is still a small but vocal segment of the population who are more concerned with the things women choose to do and how those choices could jeopardise the moral health of men. (Of course, in this context what immediately springs to mind is Toby Hill's Never Hug a Belly Dancer and 99 Other Meditations for Men.)

Although GiDiY is emphatically not a straightlaced approach to the good book, it's this page from the Book of Esther that, to my way of thinking at least, drops a massive hint that the more things have changed, the more they've stayed the same. From the days of Vashti and Esther to our own, it's art and self-expression -- and specifically women's art and self-expression -- that's one of the things on the very long list of what makes "God", or at least the people who purport to speak for God, disappointed in you.

*And, arguably, dancers in general.

HT to

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

On the receipt of unsolicited, unwelcome feedback delivered with slightly too much schadenfreude

Last night I performed at Silk Route in a troupe with some of the other peeps from my class.

It went really well. The crowd enjoyed it. We enjoyed it. Sure, it wasn't the slickest performance of my life (there was a bar in the corner with a big mirror over it, and I got distracted by catching sight of all of us in mid-flow, lost my count and started a turn slightly too early before recovering), but a lot of fun was had by almost all. On the whole, it was not a bad inaugural performance to launch 2014.

So we came off stage, and were backstage while other dancers from our school headed out to perform, and our teacher was telling a couple of us what a great job we did -- true or not, she's obliged to say that, after all -- and we were standing there, still in full stage face and costume, when I see one of my other classmates beaming from ear-to-ear and making a beeline for me. Expecting to hear something generally positive, along the lines of, oh, I dunno: "That was fun," or, "We should do this again," or "That went pretty well," -- I readied own shit-eating grin in return. But what she actually said to me was (drum roll, please):

"You turned too early!"*

And suddenly I found smiling to be quite hard work.

*As you know -- and as you would think the woman in question would know -- you do not ever, and I do mean not ever, under any circumstances, need to point out to a dancer that they have screwed up. It is like pointing out to Lindsay Lohan that, career-wise, things don't seem to be going that swell.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Stars of the Millennium: Bozenka

I hope it's not too late to wish you all a very happy new year. A normal-yet-massively-improved service will resume once I have recovered from from my post-Christmas sugar crash.

Meanwhile, I had to let you know (in case you didn't) that the stupendous Bozenka is teaching in London on 23 February. I know! I started glowing in neon hues when I found out, and I didn't even know I could do that.

If you'll be in the vicinity, and can act quickly to secure a place, bookings can be made here:

Here's a taster of what the great woman herself can do:

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Occidental Dancer 14 DVDs in 30 Days Review System Vol. 3

For Vols 1 and 2 in this review series, click here and here. Thank you to all those who have left such encouraging feedback so far! Lord knows, the longer this series goes on, the more spurring on I need.

Full Body Workout vol 1

and Athletes Intense Stretch

Classical Stretch: The Esmonde Technique

 with Miranda Esmonde White 


Why do I own this DVD? 

One of my dance teachers was having a clear-out and gave it to me because she knows I struggle with agonisingly tight hips and shoulders. If I recall rightly, it was thrust into my hands with the instruction to “let this crazy French Canadian lady change your life!”

Who the hell is Miranda Esmonde White? 

Like Elise Gulan, she’s a former ballet dancer. So, yes, this DVD will have a lot of cross-training benefits if you’re using it to benefit your own dancing. Here’s an abridged version of her bio:
“Miranda debuted her career dancing at the famous National Ballet School of Canada under the instruction Betty Oliphant and Celia Franca...Miranda had the opportunity to dance with [dancers such as] Margot Fonteyn, Karen Kain, Rudolf Nureyev and [also] worked with top choreographers and teachers including Roland Petit, Jose Greco, and Robert Joffrey.  A ballet accident forced her to retire at a young age.”
Now, as we all know, dancer bios can often be exaggerated to the point of fiction, but I do accept that if you have breathed the same air as Petit, Joffrey, Fonteyn and Nureyev that you will want to drop names the way Dre drops beats.
However. Perhaps it’s just my inability to switch off my day job, but I cannot help noticing that this seems carefully worded. “Had the opportunity to dance with...”. Well, did she take that opportunity or not? The bio is on more solid ground when it gets to more recent events:
“...Miranda has used her understanding of movement to create a stretch and strengthening fitness program, which targets the needs of everyone from women and men of all ages to elite athletes. Today, she is well known for her work with Olympic Medallist Diver Alexandre Despatie, World Squash Champion Jonathon Power, Canadian Skating Champion Joannie Rochette and students from the notorious[!] Cirque du Soleil School, École National de Cirque.”
In the interests of science, here is a picture of Olympic diver Alexandre Despatie:


French Canadian diving Olympic champion Alexandre Despatie



Oh, excuse me. You’re still here. Shall we go on?

What it promises on the box  


General observations 

(A) This particular DVD is now ten years old and was originally released as a video. This is obvious because Miranda keeps talking about how you’ll “do this video” over and over. BUT. Esmonde White’s daughter Sahra, who studied her mother's exercises as part of her Masters degree, has dragged the Esmonde Technique into the 21st century. There’s now a shiny new range of these DVDs. They’re called...wait for it... Essentrics. Honestly. But more about that later.

(B) Esmonde White is a big fan of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching, which I remember from my JWAAD training. PNF involves contracting and relaxing your muscles to get to your full range of flexibility quicker. It’s often used to rehabilitate stroke patients and can be quite hard core, but Esmonde White advocates “never going into an ouch.”

That’s actually what she says: “You don’t ever want to go into an ouch.” She is utterly adorable, though some users have found her overly chatty.

(C) Her accent is the bomb. To listen to Esmonde White tell you in her French-Canadian susurration that a particular move should really get you “in your bhumm” (in your bum) is to know what happiness means.

(D) Esmonde White reminds me a lot of my mother. They’re not particularly alike, but then I read that her daughter is almost exactly my age and it suddenly made a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

She only mentions Sahra twice, but a vivid picture is painted. First, “My daughter whined at me about not doing enough work on my arms, so I developed these exercises...that’s why kids are great, they nag at you because they love you”, and later “Ever since I started using [the sponsor’s] cosmetics, my daughter can’t stop looking at me. Which is kinda fun, because she’s always bugging me to look better, and finally I’m looking better!”*

It therefore comes as no surprise to find that Sahra is credited as the driving force behind turning Mom’s public access TV fitness show of limited appeal into a global empire populated by the likes of Lily Cole.

Also, the Whites are very conscious. One of the sponsors of this DVD is a maker of women's contraceptives, and their website is filled with yummy looking vegan recipes. I dig it.

*Yeah, there are some awkward references to the sponsor’s cosmetics range. But it’s OK ‘cause it’s so obvious and clunky that there’s no way you’ll be subliminally influenced.

(E) Both workouts are shot outdoors in Jamaica. The Full Body workout is filmed on a private beach that looks like it might be closed due to a cryptosporidium scare, and at one point Esmonde White stumbles in the sand. It may or may not be significant that this wasn’t edited out, because during the Athletes Intense (filmed poolside), a cat wanders into shot at about the 21-minute mark and starts vigorously washing itself.

Esmonde White coos, “Ooh, look at the puddy tat! Isn’t that cute?” in the high pitch that all of us who love cats instinctively adopt in their presence. The cat ignores her and stays in shot for about five minutes as Esmonde White uses a bannister as a makeshift barre. Eventually it mooches off behind a pot plant. It is the best thing that happens in any of the workout DVDs I have reviewed so far.

White Sands, the resort where this was filmed, doesn’t actually look that appealing. In fairness, this may be because it’s obviously not the height of summer (at points it looks like it might rain), but I am not sure that plonking Esmonde White in front of an air conditioning unit – as she is for the barre section in the Athletes Intense workout – helped. During the extra 15 minutes for hips and hamstrings, Esmonde White is in a garden when a crow caws ominously in the near-distance. She seems delighted.

In many ways I found this “Let’s just turn the camera on and see how it goes!” approach added to the overall down-home charm of the workouts, and the sense that even Esmonde White didn’t know what was going to happen next really did make it feel like I was in a live class. I guess this is what her TV show was like, too.

(F) The music is certainly eclectic, to the point of head-scratchingly bizarre. The Man refers to this DVD as “The Beachy Musical One” (as in, “Which DVD are you doing this morning? Is it the beachy musical one?”), and with good reason. I clocked Liszt, Rogers and Hammerstein (I could be wrong about that one), and what sounds like early Transglobal Underground. Whatever, I am pretty sure that if you had to do a road trip with Miranda Esmonde White, she would have something on her iPod that you both could enjoy. I guess that’s what “middle of the road” means.

(G) There are a few reviews online that dismiss this as an, and I quote, “old lady workout”, presumably because (1) the 25-minutes of stretching and toning exercises Miranda became famous for on her PBS TV slot don’t look anything like a FitBox session and (2) Miranda was already in her 50s when this was filmed.

To which I say unto you: Feel free to go ahead and ignore those ageist, sexist lunkheads, honey. If this stuff is good enough for Olympians and professional dancers then it's good enough for you. And when Miranda emphatically sighs, “Thank God that’s over” at the end of the leg extension section, you will be unable to do more than groan in agreement.


Miranda talks for about five minutes about the principles at work and the results you can expect. This is all very interesting, but you have to fast forward through it every time you do the Full Body workout. See below.

Main menu

Gobsmackingly useless. The conversion from VHS to DVD format has been done with the least amount of effort possible. Nor are the sections of the workouts chaptered, so although each is neatly broken down into a cardio warm-up, barre work, and floor work section you don’t actually have the ability to select them individually. POOR.

£/$ -- Hidden costs 

None, unless you don't already own a chair, or are incredibly susceptible to blatant product placement presented with a faint air of embarrassment and apology.

Dance cross-training cheats

Not required. Esmonde White goes barefoot, and if you’re like me you’ll find yourself subconsciously trying to mimic her very graceful hands. You'll also find some of her arm exercises similar to Rachel Brice's...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Any moves that were impossible?

You’ll be fine, unless you’re overly ambitious and literally set your barre too high or ignore Esmonde White’s warnings about The Ouch. Otherwise I think you’d be very unlucky to injure yourself doing this. (See (G) above.)

Try before you buy:

Good luck finding a clip from this particular DVD online. It would be like finding verifiable footage of the Sasquatch. You will have to make do with selecting a clip from one of the more recent Essentrics releases:


I feel really good after doing these workouts, and have even managed to do them back-to-back. It's true -- I do feel more flexible after a couple of months of doing them regularly (two-three times a week). This is probably because the Athletes Intense assumes that you have really tight, bulky muscles rather than 'normal' ones. Highly recommended, to the point where even in spite of my frustrations with the menu formatting I would still be sure to save this if my home caught fire.


Nil. Seriously. You are never required to jump, leap, bounce, stamp or run on the spot. It’s so joint-friendly it’s ridiculous. My cat did seem a bit mesmerised by the ocean waves, however. Maybe he’s never been to the beach before, which seems likely.

You’ll feel like a ninja, I tells ya. Silent and graceful.

You should be OK for space – these workouts don’t even require you to straddle-sit.

This is where the good news ends, I’m afraid. It’s now rare and eye-wateringly expensive. Even the used copies on Amazon international start at US$60, and I found one solitary copy going on ebay for a jaw-dropping $125.60.

But don't despair: Essentrics is currently having a 25% sale, so although this particular volume isn't, for all intents and purposes, around anymore there's now a motherlode of similar options.


EDIT: Since posting this last night, I have realised that I might have skimped a little on the actual description of the workouts. I’m going to go ahead and assume that you, dear reader, are also a dancer and so won’t be relying soley on this DVD for all your physical fitness needs.

Firstly, the Full Body Conditioning is designed to do quite different things from the Athletes Intense Stretch. 

If you are new to exercise  or are recovering from an injury then I would recommend focusing on the Full Body Conditioning (about 50 minutes all up). (If you are suffering from the early warning signs of occupational overuse syndrome, this workout includes specific stretches  for the hands and forearms.) It is about the same level of intensity as an improver/ intermediate level Pilates class i.e. no intense cardio and no weight lifting. So, no, you won’t work up a sweat or get out of breath (cf the ‘old lady workout’ jibes), but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

As Esmonde White says in her introduction, this workout is not designed with the end goal of getting everyone who does it into the splits. It is designed to help individuals find their own full range of motion and improve posture. Esmonde White is very clear about stressing the importance of balancing your muscles in order to avoid injury and reduce/prevent back problems. She’s not interested in creating human pretzels.

Secondly, the Athletes Intense Stretch is not really a workout at all. This section (about 30 minutes with an extra 15 minutes at the end focused solely on hips and hamstrings, with a few minutes devoted to stretching the feet and toes) is designed for sportspeople who have done a lot to condition themselves for a particular sport without ever working on their flexibility. For that reason, there are some genuinely ugly, uncomfortable stretches that are meant to undo a lifetime of knotting and bulking as quickly as possible. 

As Esmonde White stresses, these exercises are designed to improve speed/performance and reduce the risk of injury. “As a professional athlete, you need body awareness. And flexibility equals speed. You should be able to access all of your muscles, not just the ones you use regularly. You shouldn’t be like a tight little ball.” Amen.

The Athletes Intense does share a number of moves in common with the Full Body workout, but the overall effect leaves me feeling more like I’ve had a trip to the chiropractor than a workout.

Finally, Salimpour format devotees will be gratified by Esmonde White’s words during the cool down of the Full Body workout. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially she says, “We’ve tended to ignore the glutes, and they’re such an important group of muscles. They’re the hinge of your whole body, so we really do need to pay more attention to the buhm.”